The Ecclesiastical History of the English People

Last Sunday we celebrated the ascension of Jesus Christ. As part of the Ascension service, we sang, A Hymn of Glory Let Us Sing, which was written by The Venerable Bede, sometime around 700 A.D.

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A Hymn of Glory Let Us Sing by The Venerable Bede (673 – 735 A.D)

The Venerable Bede (673 – 735 A.D) was a revered Christian monk who devoted his entire life to the ministry of God. Considered the Father of English History, Bede is credited with writing approximately 40 books during his lifetime, the topics of which range from poetry to history, and from Biblical translation to scriptural explanations.

Bede wrote was is considered today his most important book, The Ecclesiastical History of the English People, 731 years after Jesus’ ascension to Heaven. This historical record is regarded as the best overview ever written of the period between Julius Caesar in 55-54 B.C. to the arrival of Saint Augustine to Rome in 597 A.D.

Who knew?

The Ecclesiastical History is comprised of five volumes and records a detailed account of this era. The chapters within each volume recount a specific occurrence in history and are presented in chronological order. From a historical standpoint, they are all quite interesting, as though you are reading the exact happenings that transpired from a personal perspective — almost like a journal or a dairy, rather than from the pages of a textbook. Professor Richard Gameson, Department of History, Durham University, provides some insightful information on this very book from the location where it lives today: Durham Cathedral, Europe.

The Ecclesiastical History is the first written work to utilize the dating system, A.D. and B.C. That historical tidbit alone is fascinating enough for me, but then I started reading through the translated copy of the book and my jaw hit the floor, so to speak.

For example, Chapter VII in Volume I gives a precise account of a man named Alban (he was later entitled Saint Alban) who died on behalf of another for the sake of his faith in God. Unfortunately, the plight of martyrs is a historical – and sometimes current – fact we have grown accustomed to hearing about, but it is the presence of other, supernatural occurrences in this narrative that really got my attention. The story is too good to try to rewrite in my own words, so please forgive the lengthiness of my copy/paste.

This Alban, being yet a pagan, at the time when the cruelties of wicked princes were raging against Christians, gave entertainment in his house to a certain clergyman, flying from the persecutors. This man he observed to be engaged in continual prayer and watching day and night; when on a sudden the Divine grace shining on him, he began to imitate the example of faith and piety which was set before him, and being gradually instructed by his wholesome admonitions, he cast off the darkness of idolatry, and became a Christian in all sincerity of heart. The aforesaid clergyman having been some days entertained by him, it came to the ears of the wicked prince, that this holy confessor of Christ, whose time of martyrdom had not yet come, was concealed at Alban’s house. Whereupon he sent some soldiers to make a strict search after him. When they came to the martyr’s house, St. Alban immediately presented himself to the soldiers, instead of his guest and master, in the habit or long coat which he wore, and was led bound before the judge.

It happened that the judge, at the time when Alban was carried before him, was standing at the altar, and offering sacrifice to devils. When he saw Alban, being much enraged that he should thus, of his own accord, put himself into the hands of the soldiers, and incur such danger in behalf of his guest, he commanded him to be dragged up to the images of the devils, before which he stood, saying, “Because you have chosen to conceal a rebellious and sacrilegious person, rather than to deliver him up to the soldiers, that his contempt of the gods might meet with the penalty due to such blasphemy, you shall undergo all the punishment that was due to him, if, you abandon the worship of our religion.” But St. Alban, who had voluntarily declared himself a Christian to the persecutors of the faith, was not at all daunted at the prince’s threats, but putting on the armour of spiritual warfare, publicly declared that he would not obey the command. Then said the judge, “Of what family or race are you?” ­ “What does it concern you,” answered Alban, “of what stock I am? If you desire to hear the truth of my religion be it known to you, that I am now a Christian, and bound by Christian duties.” ­ “I ask your name,” said the judge; “tell me it immediately.” ­ “I am called Alban by my parents,” replied he; “and I worship and adore the true and living God, who created all things.” Then the judge, inflamed with anger, said, “If you will enjoy the happiness of eternal life, do not delay to offer sacrifice to the great gods.” Alban rejoined, “These sacrifices, which by you are offered to devils, neither can avail the subjects, nor answer the wishes or desires of those that offer up their supplications to them. On the contrary, whosoever shall offer sacrifice to these images shall receive the everlasting pains of hell for his reward.”

The judge, hearing these words, and being much incensed, ordered this holy confessor of God to be scourged by the executioners, believing he might by stripes shake that constancy of heart, on which he could not prevail by words. He, being most cruelly tortured, bore the same patiently, or rather joyfully, for our Lord’s sake. When the judge perceived that he was not to be overcome by tortures, or withdrawn from the exercise of the Christian religion, he ordered him to be put to death. Being led to execution, he came to a river, which, with a most rapid course, ran between the wall of the town and the arena where he was to be executed. He there saw a multitude of persons of both sexes, and of several ages and conditions, who were doubtlessly assembled by Divine instinct, to attend the blessed confessor and martyr, and had so taken up the bridge on the river, that he could scarce pass over that evening. In short, almost all had gone out, so that the judge remained in the city without attendance. St Alban, therefore, urged by an ardent and devout wish to arrive quickly at martyrdom, drew near to the stream, and on lifting up his eyes to heaven, the channel was immediately dried up, and he perceived that the water had departed and made way for him to pass. Among the rest, the executioner, who was to have put him to death, observed this, and moved by Divine inspiration hastened to meet him at the place of execution, and casting down the sword which he had carried ready drawn, fell at his feet, praying that he might rather suffer with the martyr, whom was ordered to execute or, if possible, instead of him.

While he thus from a persecutor was become a companion in the faith, and the other executioners hesitated to take up the sword which was lying on the ground, the reverend confessor, accompanied by the multitude, ascended a hill, about 500 paces from the place, adorned, or, rather clothed with all kinds of flowers, having its sides neither perpendicular, nor even craggy, but sloping down into a most beautiful plain, worthy from its lovely appearance to be the scene of a martyr’s sufferings. On the top of this hill, St. Alban prayed that God would give him water, and immediately a living spring broke out before his feet, the course being confined, so that all men perceived that the river also had been dried up in consequence of the martyr’s presence. Nor was it likely that the martyr, who had left no water remaining in the river, should want some on the top of the hill, unless he thought it suitable to the occasion. The river having performed the holy service, returned to its natural course, leaving a testimony of its obedience. Here, therefore, the head of most courageous martyr was struck off, and here he received the crown of life, which God has promised to those who love Him. But he who gave the wicked stroke, was not permitted to rejoice over the deceased; for his eyes dropped upon the ground together with the blessed martyr’s head.

Fordham University, Medieval Sourcebook: Bede (673­735): Ecclesiastical History of the English Nation. Retrieved at: http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/basis/bede-book1.asp

Now, this story isn’t in the Bible, so I can’t be sure that it is 100% true, but it was written by a devout man of God some 1700 years ago who spent his entire life in service to the Lord. Also, I have no doubt of the awesomeness of God and what He is capable of doing in the name of faith and justice, even if it means moving bodies of water – remember the Red Sea? – or popping a man’s eyeballs right out of their sockets. And really, there are more horrific stories in the Bible that we can place our faith on as fact, such as the prophecy that King Ahab would be killed and his blood would be licked up by dogs in the very place where his wife, Queen Jezebel, had a man murdered. And in case you didn’t know, Queen Jezebel didn’t get away with the evil she caused either. She was thrown through a window and before her body could be gathered and buried, dogs had eaten every last bit of her, except for her skull, feet and hands. So, I’m comfortable with accepting this story as truth, because even if it isn’t, I know God is certainly capable of every miracle written in it and more, should He chose to perform them through the Holy Spirit.

This account in history is a fantastic example – we may not need any other illustrations outside of the Bible, but when we do come across them, they sure are neat to learn about! – of how our Lord watches over all, and is in charge of everything. If you are His child and call out to Him, He will answer. In this particular case, it seems that Jesus not only felt it prudent to let Alban know that He had heard him, but that while He was at it, He’d make an example out of the executioner.

Although I didn’t copy the last paragraphs of the story in this post for you, it ends by stating that the very judge who ordered Alban’s execution (and so many others for their faith) wound up renouncing his sin and became a witness for Christ.

Then the judge, astonished at the novelty of so many heavenly miracles, ordered the persecution to cease immediately, beginning to honour the death of the saints, by which he before thought they might have been diverted from the Christian faith.

Up until this week I had never heard of The Venerable Bede or of The Ecclesiastical History of the English People. No doubt his work is not studied in American classrooms because of the distinctly Christian interpretation of this historical era. A real shame.

It is believed that Venerable Bede died on the Day of Ascension, May 26, 735 AD. On his deathbed, he prayed the following prayer, which is known to this day as The Prayer of the Day on Ascension.

Lord Jesus, King of Glory, on this day you ascended far above the heavens and at God’s right hand you rule the nations. Leave us not alone, we pray, but grant us the Spirit of truth that at your command and by your power we may be your witnesses in all the world; for you live and reign with the Father and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen!

Bede’s tomb in Durham Cathedral. © Durham Cathedral and Jarrold Publishing

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