Celts to the Creche: Benedict Biscop of Monkwearmouth and Jarrow

Benedict Biscop stained glass window in St. Peter’s Church, Monkwearmouth. photo from the church’s website

Celts to the Creche: Day 34

Benedict Biscop of Monkwearmouth and Jarrow

628-January 12, 690

Benedict Biscop was the founding Abbot of the Monkwearmouth-Jarrow Monasteries in Northeast England in the late 7th century where Bede (see day 23 of Celts to the Creche) was brought as a seven year old child. Biscop did much to bring education, beauty, and faith to the people of Northumbria. We know about Biscop mainly from Bede’s writings on the Lives of the Holy Abbots of Monkwearmouth and Jarrow. 

His Name and Early Life: His name is abit unusual, his original name was likely Biscop and it is thought that the Benedict part was derived from the name he took when he became a monk. Eddius Stephanus (Stephen of Ripon) called him by his secular name, Biscop Baducing.

Biscop was born in 628 to a noble Anglo-Saxon family in Northeast England. Bede tells us that as a lad Biscop was a like a man in a child’s body with the mind of an adult. In young adulthood, Biscop had an official position in the royal household of King Oswy and while serving in this position, Biscop was given land to support himself.

Biscop becomes a pilgrim: Yet, there was something deeply spiritual stirring in this young man’s soul and in 652 or 653 he left his family, his royal position,  and wealth to go on a pilgrimage to Rome. He desperately wanted to worship at the shrine of the Holy Apostles of which he seemed to have some spiritual connection.

Church of the Twelve Holy Apostles built over the original 6th c. shrine that was destroyed by an earthquake in 1348. Photo from Wikipedia

 Heading south on his way to Rome, this 25 year old stopped by Canterbury where he met 19 year old Wilfrid (who would later become a Bishop). Wilfrid had spent much of his life on Lindisfarne and he too was visiting the King of Kent, Erconbert. Those two hit if off and they decided to travel together to Rome. When the two pilgrims got as far as Lyon, France the Archbishop encouraged Wilfrid to stay there awhile.

San Gregorio in Rome built on the monastic lands of St. Andrew on the Caelian Hill. This hill was part of Pope Gregory’s family’s lands.Photo from Wikipedia

With Wilfrid staying in Lyon, Biscop pressed on towards Rome by himself arriving in 654 finding lodging at the St. Andrew on the Caelian Hill monastery where Pope Gregory had been Abbot.

Biscop at Lerins Monastery. From artwork at Jarrow Hall

Over the next 11 years Bede says that Biscop visited 17 monasteries in France (Gaul) and Italy where he studied their ways of worship and polity. He stayed at the famous Lérins monastery on a Mediterranean  island for two years from 665-667 where he was tonsured and took the vow of the monk.  It must have been the Roman crown of thorns tonsure instead of the Celtic  Druid-like tonsure.

Roman Tonsure on the left and Celtic Tonsure on the right.

In 667, Biscop made another pilgrimage to Rome and he was commissioned by Pope Valerian to accompany the newly installed Archbishop of Canterbury, Theodore of Tarsus as his interpreter and guide. Along their journey to Canterbury, they visited with Agilbert who was the Bishop of Paris and formerly Bishop of Wessex and coincidentally was at the Synod of Whitby in 664.

The end of Bishop Agilbert’s sarcophagus. Jouarre Abbey. I saw this in 2009.

Agilbert was the  brother of Abbess Theodechilde of Jouarre (see day 36 of Celts to the Creche).  While in France, Biscop took the opportunity to visit the Merovingian abbeys of Jouarre, Faremoutier, and Chelles that had significant connections to East Anglia. Former Queen Hereswith (see day 3 0f Celts to the Creche), sister of St. Hilda of Whitby (see day 2 of Celts to the Creche) was at either Faremoutiers or Chelles or both.


Biscop finally made it to Canterbury with the new Archbishop Theodore and he became a sort of interim caretaker of St. Peter’s and St. Paul’s Monastery, later called St. Augustine’s Monastery until the African monk Hadrian could come take over as Abbot.

Ruins of St. Augustine’s Monastery in Canterbury. Photo from English Heritage.

After a two year sojourn in Canterbury, Biscop made his fourth pilgrimage to Rome specifically to collect manuscripts (books) and then continued onto Vienne to satisfy his desire for even more books. These must have been for his own personal use, perhaps using funds from his royal connections since he was not even contemplating starting a monastery at this point in his life.

The Spirit changes Biscop’s plans: It’s funny how the Spirit often works to change our plans! Biscop went back to England once again to become part of the court of his friend, the King of the West Saxons, Cenwalh, but the king died unexpectedly. So, Bishop headed back to his Northumbrian home where King Ecgfrith gave him land to begin a monastery that became the first of the twin monasteries, Monkwearmouth.

Bede makes a point in one of his Homilies on the Gospels 1.13 that this monastery was established on royal lands and not on property taken from “lesser persons.” Ian Wood states that perhaps the Wearmouth lands had once been the site of the double monastery led by Hilda, who was known to have had a small monastery for a short time on the north bank of the Wear.

Stained Glass of Benedict Biscop at Norwich Cathedral, UK

Biscop builds his monasteries: In 673 or 674, Biscop laid the foundation for St. Peter’s Monastery in Monkwearmouth on the River Wear that he likely based upon what he had seen and experienced in Merovingian France. He asked his friend Abbot Torthelm of France to send him stonemasons to build his new monastery as the Irish and Anglo-Saxons mainly built of wood. He wanted something more substantial like he had seen on his travels in France and Italy.

7 inch window of Jarrow Church with original pieces of stained glass discovered by archaeologist Dr. Rosemary Cramp in 1973-4 on the site of Jarrow Abbey.

Biscop also had glaziers from Europe who came and installed glass and stained glass in his monastic churches. He wanted to ensure that all who entered his churches would be surrounded with the sense of the magnificence  and beauty of God. Biscop also desired that all who entered his churches, whether or not they could read would be able to get a grasp of the stories of the Bible. To accomplish this he brought sacred pictures from France and Italy that filled the sanctuary wall-to-wall. Sacred vessels and vestments were also purchased and brought to the churches.

With the great success of the Monkwearmouth monastery, King Ecgfrith decided to establish another monastery, Jarrow that was founded in 681 or 682. These became twin monasteries about 8 miles apart.

Biscop was anxious for the monks in his new monasteries of Monkwearmouth and Jarrow to learn the correct way to chant the Psalms in Gregorian plainsong.  To make this happen, Biscop brought over John the Arch-Cantor from the famous St. Peter’s Church in Rome, who was also the Abbot of St. Martin’s monastery.

Each of the twin monasteries not only had extensive libraries that were filled with Biscop’s  many books he had collected on his four pilgrimages to Rome. These books of various topics included patristic texts, commentaries, theology, music, musical scripts, monastic practice, and numerous sacramentaries which contained the various prayers for the preparation and sharing of the sacraments. He also had purchased secular works that were also available in the libraries.

With all his extensive travels to procure these items for his monasteries, he appointed an Abbot under him in each monastery with Eosterwine at Wearmouth and Ceolfrith at Jarrow.

Interestingly, the oldest existing copy of the Rule of St. Benedict was made at Monkwearmouth-Jarrow from a copy brought by Biscop from Europe. The new Abbot of Jarrow, Ceolfrith enlarged Biscop’s original library with buying jaunts to Italy and France, so Bede had quite an extensive  library  in the north of England from which to study  and teach from  and perhaps copy.

The huge Codex Amiatinus produced at Wearmouth or Jarrow and is now housed in Florence, Italy.(image courtesy of Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana)

The massive  2,060 page Codex Amiatinus was one of three complete Bibles (each in a single volume called a pandect) produced at Monkwearmouth-Jarrow while Ceolfrith was Abbot. It now resides in Florence, Italy, but it will be brought back to England for the first time in 1300 years for an exhibition beginning on October 19, 2018 at The British Library.

St. Cuthbert’s Gospel of St. John found inside his sarcophagus. Photo from The British Library

Also, the small red leather St. Cuthbert’s Gospel was likely produced at Monkwearmouth or Jarrow. It is also housed at The British Library.

Bede comes to Monkwearmouth and Jarrow: The 7 year old child Bede showed up in 680 to Biscop’s new monastery at Monkwearmouth likely brought by his parents. By this time, Biscop was no longer a young, agile monk, but was in his early 50’s.

Biscop welcomes the child Bede to Monkwearmouth-Jarrow. Photo from artwork at Jarrow Hall.

It is likely that soon after Bede came to Monkwearmouth that he was transferred to the newly founded twin monastery of St. Paul’s Jarrow where Ceolfrith became the Abbot. Bede says that the plague killed everyone in Jarrow except Ceolfrith and a young boy, which was likely Bede himself. Bede was 17 years old when Biscop died at age 62 after  three years of a paralyzing illness.


St. Paul’s Church, Jarrow  on the monastic lands where Bede lived most of his life. It is amazing to be inside this church where Bede worshipped along with his Abbot Ceolfrith. It is most likely that Benedict Biscop worshipped there occasionally also. I visited there in 2007,  2014, 2017.

Biscop’s last words: Biscop was a Benedictine monk with a kind, obedient personality who loved his books, sacred surroundings, and scholarly endeavors. According to Bede, Biscop’s last words were: “all I have found best in the life of the seventeen monasteries I visited during my long and frequent pilgrimages, I stored up in my mind and have handed them on to you, to be steadfastly adhered to for your own good.” His last words also admonished the monks to accept St. Benedict’s advice that anyone following in his footsteps as Abbot should not be chosen by the status of his birth or relationship to the founding Abbot, but be chosen from among the community itself. The person should also be virtuous and wise in doctrine.

Benedict Biscop in St. Gregory the Great Orthodox Church. Picture from Wikipedia

Jarrow Hall: Jarrow Hall (formerly known as Bede’s World) is located on the monastic lands of Jarrow that includes the St. Paul’s Jarrow Church. It is a must visit for those who are interested in Biscop and Bede.

The life of Benedict Biscop at Jarrow Hall. Photo taken on my 3rd visit there in October 2017.


Feast Day January 12

The Spirit often works in surprising ways! I imagine that many of us have experienced this at sometime in our  life. We are going in one direction in life and a door is closed or we find ourselves on an unexplained new path in life. Then, after the dramatic change in our life, we look back and see God’s hand in it and we simply say, “thank you.”

St. Paul  along with his companions Silas and Timothy also experienced this when they were heading to Asia and the Spirit closed the door. They next tried to go into Bythinia and that door was closed also. They tried once again and ended up in the seaport of Troas where Paul during the night had a vision of a man of Macedonia standing and begging him, “Come over to Macedonia and help us” (Acts 16:9). After Paul had seen the vision, they left at once for Macedonia, concluding that God had called us to preach the gospel to them.

Jeremiah the prophet spoke these words from God in the letter that he sent from Jerusalem to the surviving elders among the exiles and also to the priests, the prophets and all the other people after Nebuchadnezzar had carried them into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon:  “for I have plans to help you and not to harm you, to give you a hope and a future.”

Changed plans, closed doors, painful heartbreaks often lead us to new places beyond what we can dream or imagine.


Some Resources:

The Anonymous History of Abbot Ceolfrith  in The Age of Bede. trans. by J.F. Webb and edited by D.H. Farmer.London: Penguin Books, 1983 revision.

Bede. Medieval Sourcebook: Lives of the Holy Abbots of Monkwearmouth and Jarrow.

Blair, Peter Hunter. The World of Bede. London, Cambridge University Press, 1990.

The British Library. Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms Exhibition to Open in 2018. November 17, 2017.

Brown, Michelle P. How Christianity Came to Britain and Ireland.Oxford, UK: Lion Books, 2006.

____________. Manuscripts From The Anglo-Saxon Age. Toronto: University of Toronto, 2007.

Bruce-Mitford, R.L.S. The Art of the Codex Amiatinus. Jarrow Lecture, 1967.

Colgrave, Bertram, ed. and trans. The Life of Bishop Wilfrid by Eddius Stephanus. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1927

Cramp, Rosemary. Wearmouth and Jarrow Monastic Sites, Book I . English Heritage, 2005.

Deanesly, Margaret. The Pre-Conquest Church in England. London: 1961.

Eddius Stephanus (Stephen of Ripon). The Life of Bishop Wilfrid in The Age of Bede.trans. by J.F. Webb and edited by D.H. Farmer. London: Penguin Books, 1983 revision.

Fletcher, Eric. Benedict Biscop. Jarrow Lecture, 1981.

Foot, Sarah. Monastic Life in Anglo-Saxon England, c600-900. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2006.

Higham, Nicholas J and Martin J. Ryan. The Anglo-Saxon World. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2013.

Jarrow Hall. (formerly Bede’s World).

Lapidge, Michael. “Benedict Biscop” in The Blackwell Encyclopaedia of Anglo-Saxon England, edited by Lapidge, John Blaire, Simon Keynes, and Donald Scragg. Oxford, UK: Blackwell Publishers, 2001.

Leyser, Henrietta. Beda: A Journey Through the Seven Kingdoms in the Age of Bede. London: Head of Zeus, 2015.

Mayr-Harting, Henry. The Coming of Christianity to Anglo-Saxon England. University Park, PA: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1991.

St. Paul’s Monastery, Jarrow. English Heritage.

St. Peter’s Church, Wearmouth. (website)

Wallace-Hadrill, J. M. Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People: A Historical Commentary. Oxford, UK: Clarendon Press, 1988.

Wood, Ian. “The foundation of Bede’s Wearmouth-Jarrow” in The Cambridge Companion to Bede, ed. by Scott deGregorio. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2010.

Wormald, Patrick. “Bede and Benedict Biscop” in Famulus Christi, Gerald Bonner, ed. London: 1976.


About Rev. Brenda Warren

I am an ordained Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) pastor. I am married with two grown sons, a soon-to-be daughter-in-love and two Maine Coons. My interests include illuminated manuscripts, Celtic and Anglo-Saxon saints, pilgrimage, Franciscan and Celtic spirituality, Shakers, Anglo-Saxon and Merovingian abbesses and their double monasteries, comfy cute shoes, Native American spirituality, and genealogy. I am a "Dancing Monk" with the online Abbey of the Arts (known as the Disorder of Dancing Monks!). Join me as we pilgrimage with the Celtic/Anglo-Saxon saints in my 40 Day Celtic Advent Devotional entitled, "Celts to the Creche" at www.saintsbridge.org.
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