An example of the survival of British Celtic religious practice in Saxon Christian tradition and later folklore.
Before retiring to the village by the shore where I now live, with its views of Arran and Ireland, I spent four and a half years in the post-industrial wasteland of Jarrow on Tyneside. There, I taught young visitors to the Bede Monastery Museum (now calledbedes world) and the Church of St Paul about the life and times of the Venerable Bede. As with any site and or with any person of such antiquity, there are many questions about them for which we have no sure answers. However, I also discovered that there are questions that many folk had never even asked about Bede, perhaps because the anomalies that gave rise to them were not considered the stuff of serious or scholarly enquiry. But, as a Celt and a Druid, they seemed to me to be of the greatest importance.
Much of the life and times of Bede and his contemporaries is well researched and documented. The monastery where he spent his life was, after all, a centre of learning famous throughout Europe and their stock in trade was books - a great source for today’s scholars. However, the questions that arose in my mind were not those that could be answered by reference to the authority of scholars of Saxon Christianity, any more than they could be answered by archaeologists.
These questions were to do with belief and ideas and how it was that certain beliefs and ideas came to be associated with Bede after his death. Now, Bede is considered by many of those who came after him to be not only a good Christian but also a wise man. In conventional terms that might simply mean they considered him to be knowledgeable. However, being wise is of a different order to knowing many things. We cannot doubt that Bede was learnéd. His many books are testimony to that. However, he transcended mere knowledgeability and came to be revered for more than just his theological, historical, and scientific work. Indeed, his wisdom has earned him a place amongst heroes of a very different nature in the Trioedd Ynys Prydein.
Tri dyn a gauas Doethineb Adaf:
[Three Men who received the Wisdom of Adam: Cato the Old, and Bede, and Sibli the Wise. They were, all three, as wise as Adam himself.] 1
And this is the first of those anomalies that set me thinking. Bede was a Saxon Christian monk who was proud of his English heritage. The Trioedd Ynys Prydein is a collection that is more inclined to British heroic lore. It is true that this particular Triad is of a more general Christian aspect, but that still leaves the question as to why Bede, who had harsh words for his British brethren in respect of their reluctance to convert the pagan Saxon, is included by a Welsh redactor and considered to have had the wisdom of Adam himself. A late interpolation? Perhaps. However, Bede appears elsewhere in even more unlikely company.
I am unaware of any genuine prophecies made by Bede (other than scientific prophecies concerning the phases of the moon, the date of Easter and the times of the tides). However, by the end of the sixteenth century there were certainly collections of prophecies from a number of sources circulating, some attributed to Bede. In 1603 these were printed in Edinburgh under the title: The Whole prophecie of Scotland, England, and some part of France and Denmark, prophesied bee meruellous Merling, Beid, Bertlington, Thomas Rymour, Walhaue, Eltraine, Banester, and Sibbilla, all according in one. Containing many strange and maruelous things. Printed by Robert Waldegraue, Printer to the King’s most Excellent Maiestie. Anno 1603. A number of other poems and prophecies also circulated, generally linking the names of Bede, Merlin, and Thomas the Rhymer.2 Illustrious if incongruous company for the pious English monk.
Of course, there may well be a deeper link to those three names in particular which survived into the sixteenth century to see them brought together in this way. Certainly, the prophecies of Merlin and of Thomas the Rhymer have a long and well-established history to them and may well contain surviving elements of genuine prophetic utterance. But Bede?
I found these two aspects of Bede highly unusual but it was not until I considered a third that I began to see the glimmer of a possible underlying pattern. This third anomaly is Bede’s Chair, an object I saw and talked about most working days of my time in Jarrow. This ancient construct, which stands by the altar in the Saxon chancel of St Paul’s Church, is not really Bede’s chair. To begin with, it is simply not old enough. Nothing wooden survived the burning of the monastery in 794 by Norse sea raiders. It is far more likely to have been the chair of the Master of the monastery rebuilt in 1072 by the monk Aldwin. We know that because of modern dating techniques. To pilgrims who visited St Paul’s, Jarrow in former centuries, however, it was simply a very ancient chair, its survival sufficient to testify to its ‘saintly’ connection. And the most famous ‘saint’ connected with the Church? Bede.
However, it is not the ignorance of those who attribute the chair to Bede that aroused my curiosity. What got me thinking were the decidedly pagan beliefs that attach to the chair. There were those who believed a splinter of wood from the chair could be boiled in water (perhaps from the well on the monastic site just a few yards to the south of the church) with the resultant liquid containing healing properties. Faith does heal and this need not necessarily be pagan. Christian relics are endowed with many properties. However, there is an even more startling attribute bestowed upon the chair and that is its supposed ability to endow a newly married woman who sits upon it with certain fertility. The chair of a Christian monk?
It was this last that convinced me there was some underlying pattern, which linked the strange attributes that had gathered about the figure of Bede. The others could perhaps belong to Christian mythology and later English folklore. This last did not, especially with a figure strongly related to the Roman Church and passionately supportive of the principle of celibacy. And if this last association was pagan, might not the rest be?
Certainly, taken together: wisdom, prophetic ability, healing, and fertility, these are easily recognizable as pagan. However, pagan is a catch-all. Archaeological investigation of the monastic site revealed pagan Saxon burials, which pre-dated the monastery. There is contemporary local folklore that a Roman temple stood on or near the site (although the only Roman masonry so far discovered is that from a bridge). And prior to the Roman occupation? The area was part of the border territory between the Brigantes and the Votadini. And during the period of the Claudian invasion, it must have seen a great influx of peoples from the south, escaping the invasion, bringing with them their own tribal gods and goddesses. Curiously enough, there is a hazy triangular area between the Brigantes and the Votadini, bounded by the localities associated with three people - Merlin, Thomas the Rhymer, and Bede.
It is with the Celtic peoples of Britain that we find what we are looking for. That is, something that would explain why Bede has so many pagan attributes. We can reject the Saxons and the Romans because of the evidence to be found in the names of two rivers.
The first of these is seven and a half miles to the west of Bede’s home. Running through Consett, Rowlands Gill, Whickham, and Blaydon - names redolent of the mining and steel industries that fed the Tyneside shipyards - it is now flanked by country parks and woodland walks which can only hint at the great forests that lent it its name - the Derwent. This name is particularly ancient and derives from the same root that gives us the Celtic and later Gaelic words for ‘Oak’. A number of Derwents have been found to be associated with oak groves and thus centres for Druidic ritual (as opposed to the rites of the common people overseen by Druids).
A great deal of nonsense has been talked and written about the Druids, ever since Caeser put stylus to wax. There is not the time or space here to enter into any deep discussion. That they existed and were influential is without question. That they were the intellectual elite of pre-Roman Celtic society both here and in other countries is also without question. Whether they had a sacred grove to the west of what is now Gateshead is entirely open to question but the evidence is strong.
And that possibility is made a little stronger by the association of one river with another - a river whose name is more significant than Derwent and entirely sacred in character. That river is the Don.
Don, of course, was the Mother Goddess of the British - in two senses. She was the Great Mother, Earth, Nature, the fecund force that gives us all our being. However, she was also the mother of a pantheon of gods, one of whom was Lleu Llaw, a sun god. I mention him as Nikolai Tolstoy makes a convincing argument of the relationship between Merlin and Lugh. Moreover, Merlin, as we have already seen, is connected with Bede in prophetic folklore.
And the significance of Don to Bede? From the age of twelve, he lived his life on the north bank of the River Don at its confluence with the Tyne, on a piece of ground where the monastery at Jarrow was built.
Knowing that it was the policy of the Roman Church to build on pre-Christian religious sites merely reinforces the argument I am offering. Especially in the case of Jarrow. For here, at great cost and effort, stone buildings were being duplicated that existed on a site just seven miles to the south - on the north bank of the River Wear.
Benedict Biscop, the founder of the monastery of St Peter and St Paul, built at Wearmouth and Jarrow because he was granted land at those sites by Ecgfrid, the king of Northumbria. The grant of land at Wearmouth (the first to be given) was generous and the buildings could easily have been extended on that site if it was just the number of monks that was increasing (and they certainly were). Indeed, there seemed no reason to have built extensively at Jarrow at all. A small presence would have sufficed to oversee the extensive farming land. Therefore, there must have been a very good reason for wanting to have a split site community.
Some of this can be answered by the physical surroundings. At Jarrow, for example, the buildings were on the bank of a river close to a road (probably a major route) and would have provided a safe haven for travellers so close to a crossing of the River Tyne - although a better site closer to the Tyne was available. However, that function could have been provided by a small guest house. Duplicating all the other buildings suggests another motive.
It may well have been that the site at Jarrow was still being used in pagan rites. It was sacred to the Celts who named the river for their Mother. It had associations with Roman paganism. We know there were Saxon pagan burials there so it is entirely possible that pagan ways were still flourishing and it was deemed essential by Ecgfrid to stamp them out. Of course, from what I have outlined above, we know that he failed. After all, one of Christendom’s most famous and much loved monks is as well known today for his Celtic pagan associations as for his theological treatises or his work to define the English nation.
And the chair? Is it not possible that the veneration of a piece of furniture is yet another survival? That what we have is Bede’s name attaching to a much older folk memory. That there was a chair in Celtic times. A Chair of Prophesy that stood beside the Well of Healing. That there, on the banks of the River Don, was a place sacred to the Celts the influence of which has survived, despite the best efforts of the Saxon Roman Church to adapt and suppress the history and ways of earlier pagan peoples.
Some of this is fanciful and would certainly not satisfy those who require rigorous academic research. But there is certainly enough here (and much more besides that I have not had room to include) for me to continue to investigate further the possibility that a small part of present day Jarrow was once a Celtic centre of worship for the Mother Goddess and the site of a Bardic Chair, and that ancient memories of this persisted and attached themselves (incongruously and with delicious irony) to a later denizen. I simply tell my tale for your delight and to offer food for your thoughts, which, after all, deserve as much good nourishment as your bodies.
1 Bromwich, R. Trioedd
Ynys Prydein, University of Wales Press, Cardiff.
© Graeme K Talboys
This article first appeared in Dalriada (An Fheille Bride 1998)