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Notes on the Early History of Scotland
Bede's Ecclesiastical History - Part 3

Interpolations in Bede's Ecclesiastical History and Other Ancient Annals
Affecting the early history of Scotland and Ireland


The nineteenth chapter of Book III. is entitled "How Fursey built a monastery among the East Angles," &c. In the chapter itself we are informed that "Whilst Sigebert still governed the kingdom (of the East Angles) there came out of Ireland a holy man called Fursey......On comming into the province of the East Saxons . . . . he applied himself to build a monastery. . . . This man was of noble Scottish blood....After preaching the Word of God many years in Scotland (Scotia),.... he departed from his native island and came through the Britons into the province of the English (Anglorum)."

This of course might easily be held to imply that Scotland and Ireland were synonymous names for the latter country. But the word Anglorum, which appears in the chapter, is not the only evidence which condemns it. If this chapter were really to be held as Bedeís own composition, it would have been surprising to find that he was able to give so much information about an Irish saint who is not even mentioned in the early annals of his own country. John Clyn, a Franciscan friar of the convent of Kilkenny in Ireland, who lived about the middle of the fourteenth century, and compiled a history of Ireland from the creation to his own time, takes no notice of this saint, although he mentions several other saints. As Clyn quotes Bedeís work, it is evident that there was nothing in the genuine records of Bede connecting Fursey with Ireland, or the learned friar of Kilkenny would have appropriated some part of this wonderful biography to embellish his annais. Let us see how Fursey is dealt with by the later English annals than Bedeís History.

It is necessary to remark in the first place that neither the Saxon Chronicle nor Ethelwerd say anything about Fursey, or Sigebert, king of the East Angles, although they mention that the faith of Christ was preached to the East Angles at this time by Felix. Malmesbury takes notice of Sigebert, as well as Felix, but never mentions Fursey. The other English annalists notice Fursey as given below.

Florence of Worcester says, under the year 636: "At that time a most holy man named Fursey came from Ireland to East Anglia, and being received with honour by the aforesaid king (Sigebert), . . . built a noble monastery."

Huntingdon has: "At this time the kingdom of the East Angles was governed by Sigebert established a school, . . . in which he was assisted by bishop Felix. A holy man from ireland, named Fursey, was nobly entertained by him."

These are two untrustworthy works, as has already been shown. Let us see what Wendover says. The agreement between him and Bede, Florence, and Huntingdon, will be seen to be slight, whtle the disagreement between him and them is great. He says:-

"In the year 647, St Fursey flourished in Ireland (Hibernia). Giving himself to travel for Christís sake he arrived in France, where he was entertained by king Clovis, and founded the monastery of Lagny. Not long afterwards he was followed by his brothers Foillan and Ultan, who became eminent in France.....In the year 649, king Oswi was in the habit of exhorting Sigebert, king of the East Saxons, to receive the faith of Christ, for he frequently came into the province of the Northumbrians. At length, with the consent of his friends, he was baptised by bishop Finan. . ... He begged king Oswi to give him some teachers who might convert his nation to the faith. . . . Oswi sent into the province of the Middle Angles, and brought thence Cedda, and giving him a presbyter as a companion, he sent them to the East Saxons to preach to them the word of faith. . . . . Cedda returned home to confer with bishop Finan, who made him bishop over the aforesaid nation. Accepting the episcopal office, he returned to the province of the East Saxons."

At the year 636, he mentions Sigebert, king of the East Angles, and at 630 Felix, bishop of the East Angles.

Were there two Sigeberts at that time? Or was there even one? The Ecclesiastical History and all the later English annalists mention both, but it is remarkable to find the earliest annals, the Saxon Chronicle, and Ethelwerd omitting all notice of either. That does not concern us at present, however.

It will he seen that the Ecclesiastical History, Floreuce, and Huntingdpn agree in stating that Fursey came out of Ireland and went into East Anglia; but as these three works generally have all the interpolated passages which have come under our notice, no faith can ha placed on them when they differ from the more trustworthy historians. Wendover, who is the only other writer who mentions Fursey, merely states that he left Hibernia and went to France. Although in Wendover's time (the thirteenth century) the name Hibernia has become thoroughtly detached from the northern isle, yet it is quite probable that a St. Fursey flourished there in the seventh century, and that he went to France, and was followed there by his brothers. One of the works used by Bede in writing his Ecclesiastical History is given us "the Legend of St. Fursey."  We may believe that after Wendover's time, the life of an Icelandic saint had been tampered with to connect him with the later Hibernia, and that a good deal of this ficticious biography was copies into Bede's work when it was first published. It is noteworthy that a Dicull is connected with this saint in the Ecclesiastical History (Book III., chapter nineteen); and who, perhaps, may be identified with a "monk of the Scottish nation, whose name was Dicul" (Book IV., chapter thirteen). These passages are not countenanced by Wendover; but the editor of Bohnís translation pertinently asks: "Was he also Dicuil, author of a geographical work still extant?" If this refers to Dicuil, already mentioned above, who is said to have written his work, De Mensura Orbis Terrae, in 825, then he has been transferred from the ninth to the seventh century by the interpolators. This was of little consequence to them. But if it were possible that Dicuil and Fursey were acquainted, Fursey is probably the clergyman who told Dicuil about Iceland.


The twenty-sixth chapter of Book IV. of the Ecclesiastical History, which is the next that claims notice, is a somewhat puzzling one; not in regard to the question at issue, however. On this point its testimony is clear, coupled with the notices of later writers. The puzzle is to find out what country was devastated, Scotland or Ireland. The chapter begins thus:

"Egfrid, king of the Northumbrians, sending Beort, his general, with an army (nothing is said about a fleet) into Ireland, miserably wasted that harmless nation, which had always been most friendly to the English...... Next year, that same king, rashly leading his army to ravage the province of the Picts, much against the advice of his friends, and particularly of Cuthbert of blessed memory was drawn into the straits of inaccessible mountains and slain, he having the year before refused to listen to Egbert, advising him not to attack the Scots, who did him no harm ......The Picts recovered their own lands, which had been held by the English and the Scots that were in Britain, and some of the Britons their liberty."

All this is, as usual, copied into Huntingdonís work, including the advice of Egbert, but with this significant exception, the word Scots or Scotorum given in the Ecclesiastical History, appears in Huntingdon as Irish or Hibernians, without any explanation whatever. Wendover also copies the account as given in the Ecclesiastical History, but he takes no notice of Father Egbert or the Scots in connection with it. Florence does the same, in an abbreviated form. Malmesbury does likewise, though there is some inconsistency in regard to his notice of the event, which will be treated of when we come to deal with his work separately. In Roger of Hovedenís annals the same passage is dealt with in much the same manner as the last three writers deal with it; but the notice of the event occurs in the introduction to Hoveden, where an interpolation could easily have been placed. He never mentions Hibernia or Ireland again till the year 927.

The puzzling thing about this event is that the Saxon Chronicle connects the Scots with it as in Bede, but says nothing about the Irish or Ireland. There is no indication in the earliest manuscript of the Saxon Chronicle that Ireland was ever called Scotia, or that it was peopled by Scots: and most of the later Writers had a copy of this manuscript before them when writing their histories. Surely if the passage about Beortís expedition had been written by themselves, some explanation would have been given with it regarding this change of the name of the people against whom he was sent.

Bede, in his Life of St Cuthbert, omits all reference to this engagement with the Scots, but the one with the Picts is treated of at some length. Ireland or Hiberina is never mentioned in this work, though the "insulis Scotorum," and the "regionibus Scotorum" are mentioned in the chapter which describes Egfridís defeat and death. But how it came to pass that Father Egbert advised Egfrid not to invade Ireland, let the reader determine, when, according to chapter twenty-seven of Book III., of the Ecclesiastical History, he being in Ireland, in the year 664, made a vow that he would never return into the island of Britain, a vow which he carried out, according to the third chapter of Book IV., where we are told that he continued in a strange country till the end of his life. One might have thought that Egbert was a mistake for Cuthbert in the Ecclesiastical History, were it not repeated in Huntingdonís work.


In the twenty-fifth chapter of Book IV. it is recorded that there lived in the monastery of Coludi (Coldinghain) "a man of Scottish race called Adamnan. . . . the priest went away, and upon some sudden occasion passed over into Ireland, whence he derived his origin, and returned no more to him,...when he had heard that his priest had gone to Ireland and had died there," &c. if this Scotsman is not the Adamnan with whom we shall have to deal shortly, and the editor of Bohnís translation says he is not, then it is sufficient to state that this Adamnan is apparently unknown to every other ancient writer.


A long account, extending to several pages, is given in Book V., chapter twelve, of the visions beheld by a man among the Northumbrians, who rose from the dead. It is found, almost literally the same, in Roger of Wondoverís work, with the exception of the second last paragraph which mentions Ireland. In Wendover's account, these words are also awantmg, "which is almost enclosed by the winding of the river Tweed." In the Ecclesiastical History they appear after the monastery of Mailros is mentioned, and are intended to indicate its situation. It has already been hinted, in speaking of Bedeís birth-place, that the monastery of Mailros of ancient times was apparently situated near the Firth of Forth. This will be referred to again, when the omission of these words by Wendover will be commented on. Is it not possible that this chapter of the Ecclesiastical History has been copied from Wendover, and the passages referred to added to his narrative?


Chapter fifteen, Book V., of the Ecclesiastical History contanis these words:

"A great part of the Scots in Ireland . . . conformed to the proper time of keeping Easter. Adamnan, priest and abbat of the monks that were in the isle of Hii, was sent ambassador by his nation to Alfrid, king of the English.....Returning home he endeavoured to bring his own people that were in the isle of Hii, or that were subject to that monastery, into the way of truth . . . but in this he could not prevail. He then sailed over into Ireland, to preach to those people . . . he reduced many of them, and almost all that were not under the dommion of those of Hii, to the Catholic unity, and taught them to keep the legal time of Easter. Returning to his island, after having celebrated the canonical Easter in Ireland . . he departed this life . . . This same person wrote a book about the holy places."

Neither the Saxon Chronicle, nor Ethelwerd, nor Florence of Worcester, nor even Henry of Huntingdon, nor William of Malmesbury make any mention whatever of Adamnan. Roger of Wendover, a writer of the thirteenth century, is the only one of our annalists who takes notice of him, and it is interesting to compare his notice with that given in the Ecclesiastical History. It is as follows:ó

"in the year 701, flourished the good and learned Adamnan, presbyter and abbat of the monks in the isle of Hii. Being sent on an embassy to king Aldfrid, he was speedily led to approve of the mode of the ecclesiastical institutions, and of the observance of Easter, which he then witnessed; and on his return home, he sought, though without success, to bring his people in the isle of Hii into the true way; after which he sailed into Ireland, and persuaded them almost universally to observe the proper time of keeping Easter. The same man of God also wrote an account of the places of our Lordís nativity, passion, and ascension, and gave a wonderful description of the holy land."

The chapter in the Ecclesiastical History has an appearance of being an elaborated edition of this passage. It will be observed that nothing is said about Scots in Ireland in Wendovers notice, nor is the district over which Aldfrid was king mentioned. This was a difficulty got over the monkish scribe who copied it into the Ecclesiastical History by calling him king of the English: but if he had consulted Bedeís genuine work he would have found that he was only king of the Northumbrians (see chapter eighteen, Book V.) In both works Adamnanís book on the holy places is noticed, in neither is his Life of St Colnmba referred to, for a very good reason, as occasion will afterwards be taken to show. Had Adamnan ever written such a work, a writer so well acquainted with the history of Scotland as Roger of Wendover, would have heard of it. Bede is made to say in the seventeenth chapter that he had epitomised Adamnanís work on the holyplaces. Certainly a tract on this subject is found along with Bedeís works in several manuscripts: but it is significant to see that in Beodeís index to his own writings this one is omitted. Besides, in the edition of the epitome there is no reference to Adamnan's ever having wrItten such a work; and in the preface to Bohnís edition of the translation of the Ecclesiastical History a treatise of Arculf called De Loeis Sanctis is said to have been used by Bede in the composition of his history. It is not in favour of the genuineness of Wendoverís notice of Adamnan even, to find that the supreme ruler of a monastery was unable to make the monks subject to him conform to rites which he had himself embraced, while he was able to induce those who were not under his rule to do so.

There are several notices of Adamnan in Irish Annals, and although they are not much worth, they serve still further to show on how unsubstantial a foundation this interpolation has been built. In Reevesí edition of Adamnanís Life of St Columba they are thus referred to: "Connected with the journey to Ireland in 697 (this does not agree with Wendoverís date) the annals record a transaction which they despatch with enigmatical brevity: Dedit legem innocentium populis, in which words they allude to a social reformation which was brought about by Adamnan, and which, having obtained the highest sanction of the people, became assciciated with the name of the propounder." The acts, it is said, are preserved at Brussels, and the name of Bruide mac Derili, king of the region of the Picts, appears in them. But a note informs us that "the introduction of his name into the acts is suspicious." Reeves adds: It was possibly on the same occasion that the question of Easter was publicly discussed and the usage advocated by Adamnan adopted Ecclesiastical considerations, however, if entertained at this meeting; were not of sufficient importance in the eyes of the Irish to merit an entry in a journal." Another authority, referred to by Reeves in support of Adamnanís Irish visit, is a tract, called the vision of Adamnan. A note says of it: " It speaks of tithes, which were unknown in Ireland until long after Adamnanís time." This shows that it is a fabricated or interpolated work. The Life of St Gerald of Mayo is another authority noticed by Reeves. He says it is full of anachronisms, and after quoting a few sentences from it he adds: "Now, though this statement is open, in the. first place, to the grave objection that St Gerald was later than Adamnan, instead of prior to him, and, in the second, that a monastery founded twenty years previously as an asylum for adherents to the old Easter was not a likely place to entertain the professed advocate of innovation; still the story seen is to be wrought upon an ancient tradition that Adamnan traversed Ireland on ecclesiastical duty, and spent some years therein." The last authority referred to is thus spoken of: "The narrative of Adamnanís proceedings, from his first visit to the court of King Aldfrid down to his last stay in Ireland, as given in MacFirbisís manuscript Annals, is so amusingly characteristic of native simplicity, that it is entitled, notwithstanding its looseness, to find a place among more explicit records." In giving it publicity, a pretended quotation from Bede, which occurs in it, is characterised in a note as a "palpable forgery."

Those authorities can scarcely be held as affording any grounds for believing that Adamnan ever set foot in ireland; and when we turn to Clynís Annals, [Irish Archaeological Society's Edition] a work of the fourteenth century, and find no notice whatever taken of Adamnan, not to speak of the great reformation he is said to have effected in Ireland, it is impossible to resist the conclusion that the accounts of Adamnanís visits to Ireland are fables.

It is but just to say that the Annals of Tigernach record visits of Adamnan to Hbernia at the years 687, 689, 692, and 697; and the Annals of Ulster at 686, 691, and 696. If these are genuine entries, however, they are more likely to relate to a portion of Scotland or Iceland, and not to Ireland. Regarding the authenticity of Tigernachís Annals, a note at page 312 of Reevesí edition of Adamnanís Life of St Columba says: "In the whole range of Irish literary desiderata no work is more imperatively demanded than a faithful exhibition of Tigernachís text. In OíConnor it is so corrupt, so interpolated, so blundered, that it is extremely unsafe to trust the text, while it is certain mischief to follow the translation." Later on it will be shown that both these Annals were evidently interpolated to bolster up the Easter observance reformation in the isle of Hii by Father Egbert.


Among the most conspicuous of the numerous references to Ireland given in the Ecclesiastical History, all of which have been examined, are those connected with the life of Father Egbert, who is said to have converted the monks of Hii to the proper observance of Easter. Several chapters in different parts of the work contain notices of incidents in the life of this priest, but it will be seen that they were unknown to many of the later historians. The one which treats of his earlier life is entitled: "Egbert, a holy man of the English nation, led a monastic life in Ireland." It begins as follows (Book III., chapter twenty-seven):-

"In the year 664 there happened an eclipse of the sun.... In the same year a sudden pestilence also depopulated the southern coasts of Britain, and afterwards extending into the province of the Northumbrians. . . . To which plague Tuda fell a victim...... This postilence did no less harm in the island of Ireland. Many of the nobility, and of the lower ranks of the English nation, were there at that time, who in the days of the bishops Finan and Colman, forsaking their native island retired thither. The Scots willingly received them all..... Among these were Ethelhun and Egbert...... of the English nobility, the former of whom was brother to Ethelwin . . . who also afterwards went over into Ireland to study. . . Those two being in the monastery, which, in the language of the Scots, is called Rathmelsigi, . . fell both desperately sick of the same distemper. . . , Of these Egbert..... prayed fervently to God that he might not die yet. . . . He also made a vow that he would, for the sake of God, live in a strange place, so as never to return into the island of Britain, where he was born. . . . Egbert, shaking off his distemper, recovered. . . . He at length, in the year 729, being ninety years of age, departed to the heavenly kingdom. . . . Thus he was a great benefactor, both to his own nation and to those of the Picts and Scots, among whom he lived a stranger."

Book IV., chapter three: "Father Egbert, above spoken of, who long led a monastic life with the same Chad, when both were youths, in Ireland....But when he afterwards returned into his own country, the other continued in a strange country for our Lordís sake, till the end of his life."

Book V., chapter nine: "Egbert . . lived a stranger in Ireland to obtain hereafter a residence in heaven, proposed to himself" to go to Germany and preach the Word of God. Though warned by a vision not to go there, but "rather to go and instruct the monasteries of Columba," he persisted in the attempt, and was shipwrecked. However, all that belonged to Egbert and his companions was saved. Then he, saying, like the prophet, 'This tempest has happened on my account,í laid aside the undertaking and stayed at home. However, Wictbert, one of his companions,....for he had lived many years a stranger in Ireland," &c.

In the following chapter it is stated that: "Two other priests of the English nation, who had long lived strangers in Ireland,...went into the province of the Ancient Saxons..... The one was called Black Hewald, and the other White Hewald."

Chapter twenty-two:

Those monks, also of the Scottish nation, who lived in the isle of Hii, with the other monasteries that were subject to them, were brought to the canonical observance of Easter.....For in the year 716, when Osred was slain, . . . the holy father and priest Egbert, . . . coining among them.....The monks of Hii, by the instruction of Egbert, adopted the Catholic rites, under Abbat Dunchad, about eighty years after they had sent Aidan to preach to the English nation.....Egbert remained thirteen years in the aforesaid island....In the year 720, in which the Easter of our Lord was celebrated on the 24th of April, he performed the solemnity of the mass, in mentory of the same resurrection of our Lord, and dying that same day, thus finished, or rather never ceases to celebrate, with our Lord, and apostles, and other citizens of heaven, that greatest festival, which he had begun with the brethren, whom he had converted to the unity of grace. But it was a wonderful dispensation of Divine providence that the venerable man not only passed out of this world to the Father, in Easter, but also when Easter was celebrated on that day, on which it had never been wont to be kept in those parts.....he also congratulated his being so long continued in the flesh till he saw his followers admit, and celebrate with him, that as Easter day which they had ever before avoided. Thus, the most reverend father being assured of their standing corrected, rejoiced to see the day of the Lord, and he saw it and was glad."

If these latter sentences have any meaning, they mean that the monks of Hii were not converted to the Catholic rites regarding the observance of Easter till the year of Egbertís death, that is 729. Let us now see what the other English annals say about this Egbert and his companions. The Saxon Chronicle, under the year 716, has: "And that pious man, Egbert, converted the monks in the isle of Hii to the right faith, so that they observed Easter duly, and the ecclesiastical tonsure." Under 729: "This year the star, called a comet, appeared, and Saint Egbert died in Ii." This is all. No mention is made of Ireland in connection with him, nor of Wictbert, nor of the Hewalds.

Ethelwerd says under the year 729 "A comet appeared, and the holy bishop, Egbert., died." This is all he records about Egbert.

Florence of Worcester's Chronicle, under the year 692, has: "Egbert . . was an Englishman by birth, but having led a pilgrimís life in Ireland," &c. Under 716: "Egbert . . . indnced the monks of Hii to adopt the Catholic usages with respect to Easter and the ecclesiastical tousure." Under 729: "Egbert....departed to the Lord on Easter day of this year." This is all that is found about Egbert in this work. Wictbert is not mentioned. The Hewalds are, but nothing is said of their sojourn in Ireland.

William of Malmesbury never mentions either Egbert or Wictbert, or the Hewalds.

Henry of Huntingdon, under the year 715, has: "Egbert, a venerable man, brought over the monks of Hii to the Catholic observance of Easter and the Catholic tonsure. Having lived with them fourteen years, and being fully satisfied with the reformation of the brotherhood, during the paschal solemnities on the feast of Easter, he rejoiced that he had seen the day of the Lord, He saw it and was glad.í" This is all. Nothing is said about Ireland, or of his death, or of  Wictbert or the Hewalds.

Roger of Wendover, like Malmesbury, takes no notice whatever of this Egbert, or of Wictbert. The Hewalds are mentioned by him, but nothing is said of their having been in Ireland.

Regarding the pestilense in Ireland, Hnntiugdon is the only writer who coincides with the Ecclesiastical history on this point. All the other annals mention it, but confine it to Britain. It may be remarked that the word English often occurs in these chapters of the Ecclesiastical History. And it is worth noticing that an Egbert, who became archbishop of York after Bedeís death, is mentioned by all the later annalists. The result of this analysis of the chapters of the Ecclesiastical History relating to Egbert, shows that they are only slightly endorsed by works which have been interpolated, for even the oldest manuscript of the Saxon Chronicle is not free from this fault. It is said there are many interpolations in this manuscript, and the entries regarding Egbert in it have an appearance of being of that character. The omission by Malmesbury and Wendover, who both profess to have used Bedeís work, of all reference to Egbert and the conversion of the monks of Hii, is of itself sufficient to prove that the passages just quoted from the Ecclesiastical History are fabrications.

It is necessary to say that the annals of Tigernach, and the annals of Ulster, both refer to the conversion of the monks of Hii under the year 716; but "it is remarkable that Tigernach and the annals of Ulster agree in employing at this place a form (of the name of the island) not used by them elsewhere," as Dr Reeves states, in a note at page 259 of his edition of Adamnanís Life of St Columba. Here they call the island Eo, but in every other place where they mention it, which is done frequently, they call it either Iae or Ta. This single instance of Eo occurring in the two annals under the same year, suggests the likelihood of its being an interpolated entry.

We have thus, in the foregoing pages, endeavoured to show that all the notices of Ireland which appear in Bedeís work, are fabricated; and the reader can judge with what success. If it has been demonstrated that none of them were originally written by him, then it is evident that they have been introduced into this history for the purpose of supporting the Irish origin of the Scots. With these passages erased from the Ecclesiastical History, it would be foolish to believe that there were any Scots in Ireland, or that it was called Scotia, in Bedeís time.

Before closing this examination of Bedeís Ecclesiastical History, it may be as well to say here that the letter to the king of the Picts, which appears in Book V., chapter twenty-one, is not mentioned by the Saxon Chronicle, nor Ethelwerd, nor Florence, nor Malrnesbury, nor Wendover.

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