Written in 731 in Northumbria, Bede’s history is the most important primary source for the early history of the lands that were eventually to become England.
One of the unusual features of Bede’s work is that he makes some attempt to say where he obtained his material. Not so much the Father of History as the Father of the Footnote. In his Preface he lists the authorities he has consulted, and in many places in the text itself he says things like, “This was testified to by Aldwulf, king of the East Angles, who lived into our own day” where he is quoting a specific source, or, “I have thought fit to include this traditional story” where he is relying on hearsay or folklore. However, he doesn’t always cite his references, and this can generate some interesting puzzles.
Where, for example, did Bede get his information about the Brittonic churchmen (from the lands in the west of Britain that would later become Wales) who refused to accept Archbishop Augustine of Canterbury as their boss in 603 AD and later paid a horrible price? Bede’s account is in Book II Chapter 2.
“There came seven bishops of the Britons, and many most learned men. They repaired first to a holy man, asking whether they should follow Augustine. He answered, "If he is a man of God, follow him." - "How shall we know that?" said they. He replied, "Our Lord saith, Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me, for I am meek and lowly in heart. If therefore, Augustine is meek and lowly of heart, it to be believed that he has taken upon him the yoke of Christ; and offers the same to you to take upon you. But if he is stern and haughty, it appears that he is not of God, nor are we to regard his words." They insisted again, "And how shall we discern even this?" - "Do you contrive," said the anchorite, "that he may first arrive with his company at the place where the synod is to be held; and if at your approach he shall rise up to you, hear him submissively, being assured that he is the servant of Christ; but if he shall despise you, and not rise up to you, whereas you are more in number, let him also be despised by you."
They did as he directed; and it happened that when they came, Augustine remained sitting on a chair. They became angry, and charging him with pride, endeavoured to contradict all he said. He said to them, "You act in many particulars contrary to our custom, or rather the custom of the universal church, and yet, if you will comply with me in these three points, viz. to keep Easter at the due time; to administer baptism according to the custom of the holy Roman Apostolic Church; and jointly with us to preach the word of God to the English nation, we will readily tolerate all the other things you do, though contrary to our customs." They answered they would do none of those things, nor receive him as their archbishop; for they alleged among themselves, that "if he would not now rise up to us, how much more will he condemn us, as of no worth, if we shall begin to be under his subjection?" To whom the man of God, Augustine, is said, in a threatening manner, to have foretold, that in case they would not join in unity with their brethren, they should be warred upon by their enemies; and, if they would not preach the way of life to the English nation, they should at their hands undergo the vengeance of death. All which, through the dispensation of the Divine judgment, fell out exactly as he had predicted.
For afterwards the warlike king of the English, Ethelfrid, made a very great slaughter of the faithless Britons, at the City of Legions. Many monks came to pray at the battle, having one Brocmail appointed to defend them. King Ethelfrid, said, "If then they cry to their God against us, in truth, though they do not bear arms, yet they fight against us, because they oppose us by their prayers." He, therefore, commanded them to be attacked first, and then destroyed the rest of the impious army, not without considerable loss of his own forces. About twelve hundred of those that came to pray are said to have been killed, and only fifty to have escaped by flight. Brocmail turning his back with his men, at the first approach of the enemy, left those whom he ought to have defended. Thus was fulfilled the prediction of the holy Bishop Augustine, though he himself had been long before taken up into the heavenly kingdom; that those perfidious men should feel the vengeance of temporal death also, because they had despised the offer of eternal salvation.”
The site of the battle is usually placed at Chester (discussed earlier). Ethelfrid is the king of Bernicia, the northern half of Northumbria, and the battle happened about 110-120 years before Bede was writing.
Bede’s dislike of the Brittonic churchmen is evident from the text. I may as well say up front that I think his attitude is unduly harsh. Stiff-necked isolationism, however inconvenient for Augustine, is hardly grounds for massacre. Though as the destruction visited on Northumbria by the Brittonic king Catwallaun had occurred only a century before Bede’s time and Bede may well have known people who had experienced it, his hostility is perhaps understandable.
The main points for the question at hand are these:
• Bede knows that the Brittonic churchmen had consulted a hermit for advice before their second meeting with Augustine.
• Bede claims to know what the British churchmen said “among themselves” at the meeting.
• Bede knows the name of the Brittonic warrior assigned to protect the monks at the battle of Chester, even though he apparently ran away and was not captured.
Bede says that he had extensively consulted records from the church founded by Augustine in Kent, so we may reasonably assume that this was his source for events at the conference. But how would Augustine have known what the Brittonic churchmen were doing before they came to his meeting? Did they tell him about the hermit’s advice?
And how would Augustine know what the Brittonic churchmen were saying among themselves? Bear in mind that Augustine was an Italian missionary preaching in the English kingdom of Kent, and while he would certainly have known his native language and Latin and may well have learned English for ease of conducting his mission, it is not obvious why he would have known Brittonic. The Brittonic bishops would have been able to talk to Augustine and his entourage in Latin, the international lingua franca of the Christian church, but would have been able to retreat behind their language barrier to exclude outsiders if they chose. Did they choose not to do so? Did Augustine have a bilingual eavesdropper?
As Aethelferth (Ethelfrid) was King of Northumbria, his words and actions at the important battle of Chester would very likely have been preserved in Northumbria, either in written form or (perhaps more likely) in the form of oral tales or sagas. So it’s no surprise that Bede knows the details from the Northumbrian side of the battle. But why would a Northumbrian soldier remember the name of the Brittonic warrior who failed to protect the monks? It doesn’t seem an obviously important detail to preserve.
I wonder if Bede had access to a Brittonic tradition about the clash between their bishops and Archbishop Augustine, and about the Battle of Chester from the Brittonic side, which he then combined with his material from Kent and Northumbria to produce this account? If Bede really thought the Brittonic monks deserved wholesale slaughter it’s perhaps unlikely that he was on speaking terms with any Briton, but he may have had a written record. Another possibility is that such a tradition might have been transmitted via Irish priests, who were active and widely admired in Northumbria in Bede’s time. Bede regards the Irish favourably in all matters except their calculation of Easter, and might have collected information from a visiting Irishman for use in his book.
It may also be possible that some of the “countless faithful witnesses” from Northumbria who gave Bede information had access to Brittonic traditions. At least two members of the Northumbrian royal family had lived in Brittonic kingdoms at around the time of the Battle of Chester, and information may well have come back with them and/or their companions.