The Politics of Bede

Aaron Kinskey, graduating History major and Fall 2015 intern, provides this exploration of one of the earliest books in the St. Ignatius College Library, Bede’s History of the Church of England.

I have been working with the Jesuit Libraries Provenance Project this semester pulling books, photographing provenance marks, and editing digital images as we complete tracking down the original books in the c.1878 library catalogue of St. Ignatius College. I have also researched pre-1700 holdings in the catalog, a task which has been incredibly rewarding as a medievalist. One of these books, a 1565 copy of Bede’s History of the Church of Englande, offers many insights as a work translated and edited by a Roman Catholic Englishman, Thomas Stapleton, during the Reformation.

Makeshift titlepage for Loyola's copy of the 1565 Bede

Makeshift titlepage for Loyola’s copy of the 1565 Bede

Stapleton’s translation of Bede’s History of the Church of Englande stands out as one of the few works in St. Ignatius’ pre-1700 collection which were originally written in the Middle Ages. Of the few that are, they were written at the beginning of that period, like Boethius’ De Disciplino Scholarium, completed in the early sixth century, or the end of that period, like Ambrogio Calepino’s En tibi opt. lector Dictionarium linguae Latinae, completed in the fifteenth century. Primarily, the St. Ignatius collection is comprised of classical works by authors such as Plutarch, the Greek historian and biographer, and Cicero, the Roman orator or sixteenth-century authors such as Franciscus Titelmans, a Franciscan dialectician, and Martin Luther, the Protestant reformer. As the St. Ignatius collection includes many medieval works published after 1700, this could mean that during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, printers and publishers were not as interested in medieval works, and were focused on classical learning, as the traditional Renaissance narrative goes. It could also suggest that the Jesuits were not willing to go to great lengths to acquire rare medieval texts, or simply preferred rare classical and Renaissance texts. Additionally, Bede is the only English author represented in the pre-1700 segment, but he is also possibly the most highly esteemed medieval Englishman by the Catholic Church.

Bede’s Ecclesiastical History was a work used to legitimize Catholic and Protestant arguments about the roots of the English Church. Ultimately Catholics were better able to utilize Bede’s devotion to Rome to support their arguments during the Reformation. The text was first printed c.1475-1482 in Strasbourg (Frantzen, 236). A new Latin text was published in Protestant Basel in 1563 and in response, Catholics at Louvain reprinted the work soon after. Two years later, Stapleton went much further and translated the work so that it was more accessible to the English-speaking public, and had it published in Antwerp (Heal, 121). Stapleton’s translation was the first modern English translation of Bede’s work, demonstrating how important this text was in the religious debates of early Reformation England. His work was a response to the ideas of John Bale and John Foxe who had used Bede to claim the church was a pure English church, not a Roman one (Frantzen, 236-237).

Thomas Stapleton’s 1565 edition offers insight into how English Christian history could be utilized by Catholics and Protestants to demonstrate their faith’s superiority. Thomas Stapleton believed that the Elizabethan Protestants were in error in believing there was a pure British, or English Church. They argued that there was a preexisting British Church which had been corrupted by Roman customs. He attempted to prove that Roman Catholicism was the original faith in England, and did so not only by providing a list of errors in the book, but by providing a gloss next to key passages in the text. Stapleton states in his introduction, “I have gathered out of the whole History a number of diversities between the pretended religion of the Protestants and the primitive faith of the English church.” This demonstrates that he was using this text to reject Protestant claims to historicity. This introduction is addressed to Queen Elizabeth I herself, attempting to convince her that Catholicism is the true and orthodox faith of England.

One of the sections of Bede’s History which had been used by Protestants to lay claim to a pre-existing British Church was that of the Synod of Whitby of 664. This synod came about when there was a disagreement among the Northumbrian nobility over the proper dating of Easter. The Ionan custom, which was used by the Bishop of Lindisfarne, Colmán, and his monks, had been adopted by King Oswiu of Bernicia and celebrated Easter at the time of Passover. The Roman custom, celebrated by Oswiu’s wife Eanflaed and Alchfrith, Oswiu’s son and sub-king of Deira, however was gaining popularity. This difference caused much confusion and tension among the nobility because they were celebrating Lent and Easter at different times, and Alchfrith even drove the Ionan monks out of Ripon to replace them with Wilfrid and Roman Benedictines. Thus, the Synod of Whitby was called “to keep one rule in serving the same [God], nor to vary here in celebrating the heavenly sacraments” (III. 25, p. 102-3).

Sixteenth-century Protestants such as the Presbyterian George Buchanan identified the Ionans as the anti-Roman, anti-establishment Christians who were defending their traditions against the Roman Church. He viewed the defeat of the Ionan tradition as “the legacy that the Church of Columba bequeathed to the Church which was to be built at the Reformation upon the ruins of Rome, and which has been completed in the Church of Scotland” (Wormald, 207). Buchanan thus saw the Reformation, and especially the Presbyterian Scottish Kirk, as the continuation of early British Christianity. Stapleton however, was mostly directing his criticism at Anglicans like John Foxe and John Bale, whom he mentions in the introduction. In a 1570 edition of Foxe’s Acts and Monuments, Foxe emphasizes King Oswiu’s decision to choose the Roman custom as symbolic of the royal power over the Church rather than identify the Ionan Christianity as the true British faith. Although this was written after Stapleton’s 1565 edition, he may have been aware of the Protestant viewpoint on this issue.

Stapleton’s gloss on the Ionan party claim

Stapleton’s gloss does not directly address Foxe’s stance, but does however focus on the role of the king in relationship to the Roman Catholic Church. In this section of Bede’s text, Colman and the Ionan party claim that they received their customs from St. John the Evangelist, and therefore practice the original custom. In response, Wilfrid draws upon the Petrine supremacy and states “if your father Columba…were holye and mightye in miracles, yet can he by any meanes be preferred to the moste blessed prince of the Apostles…?” contrasting St. Peter, the founder of the Catholic Church, with St. Columba, the founder of the monastery at Iona (III. 25, p. 106). Following this, King Oswiu demands to know if Peter was actually named the rock of the Church by Jesus, to which the Ionan party concedes. Oswiu logically concludes that the Petrine tradition must be supreme. Next to this passage Stapleton’s gloss states “note the conclusion of the kinge,” to emphasize how this chain of logic convinced the Bernician king that the Roman tradition was the correct one (III. 25, p. 106). There is some suggestion in Bede’s text that King Oswiu is ignorant of Catholic doctrine and history because he has to ask Bishop Colmán if Peter was truly the rock of the Church. Bede may have depicted Oswiu this way to show how a fresh mind, uncorrupted by knowledge, could choose the correct tradition by using simple logic. Stapleton, by drawing attention to the king’s decision, may have been drawing on this notion or just simply showing that one of the earliest English kings of the most powerful kingdom in Britain at the time chose the Roman tradition of Easter dating, and thus connecting Englishness with Roman Catholicism.

Stapleton’s strongest yet simplest observation about the decision to choose the Roman dating is when he writes “this manner is observed nowe uniformely in al Christendome,” reminding the reader that it is the Roman tradition which even the Church of England follows (III. 25, p. 105). While Easter dating is not at the core of Stapleton’s concerns, he is showing that the Church of England is indebted to the Roman Catholic Church and a Catholic king. Easter is arguably the most important feast of the Christian faith, and its dating is crucial to the rhythms of a Christian life. Stapleton is following his agenda of finding the roots of English Christianity in the early Catholic past. The Synod of Whitby has largely been exploited by editors and translators as well as Bede himself to legitimize one tradition over the other. This seemingly trivial Easter dating controversy bore much fruit in competing Catholic and Protestant claims for superiority during the Reformation.

Bede Bookplate

The Jesuits at St. Ignatius College likely had a copy of this work for two main reasons: to own a copy of the first modern English translation of this work and because they knew and wanted to communicate that England was originally a Catholic nation. As the United States was primarily English-speaking, to have an English language copy of the text was also logical. Stapleton was a Jesuit novice for part of his life and an accomplished theologian at the University of Louvain, a center of Catholic learning. Stapleton is representative of a group of English Catholics who lived in exile on the Continent to write and teach after refusing to swear the Oath of Supremacy (François, 367). He was a great writer who translated an important book for the Catholic historical corpus that could be found on a library shelf in Chicago’s Jesuit college.

Want to learn more?  You might check out the following: Allen Frantzen, “The Englishness of Bede, from then to now,” in The Cambridge Companion to Bede, ed. Scott DeGregorio (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 229-242; Felicity Heal, “Appropriating History: Catholic and Protestant Polemics and the National Past,” Huntington Library Quarterly 68, no. 1-2 (March 2005), 109-132; Patrick Wormald,”The Venerable Bede and the ‘Church of the English’ ,” in The Times of Bede: Studies in Early English Christian Society and its Historian (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2006), 207-228; and Wim François, “Augustinis sanior interpres Apostoli. Thomas Stapleton and the Louvain Augustinian School’s Reception of Paul,” in A Companion to Paul in the Reformation, ed. R. Ward Holder (Leiden: Brill, 2009), 363-388.


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