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18 September 2014
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Birth of England: The Wessex Kings

By Michael Wood
Bede, Angles and angels

Detail of painted angels on an Anglo-Saxon manuscript
Angels on an Anglo-Saxon manuscript ©
The idea of one English nation is found in other writers of Ethelred's time, most notably the Anglo-Saxon Chronicler, who gives us a graphic account of England's decline in the 'Anglo-Saxon Chronicle'.

But the notion of an English nation goes back much further, to the Venerable Bede. Bede was born around 672, near Sunderland. He lived as a monk at the monastery of Jarrow in Northumbria and probably never journeyed further south than York in his entire life.

'It was Bede who first articulated the idea of the English people.'

He may not have been well travelled, but Bede was fantastically well read. In his mind at least, he travelled far - he even knew about the Muslim Advent in the Mediterranean.

It was Bede who first articulated the idea of the English people. In 732, he wrote his 'History of the English Church and People', in which he treated the inhabitants of lowland Britain, whether Saxons, Jutes or Angles, as one English nation.

He traces the name back to a tale from the 590s. The story goes that Pope Gregory the Great saw some fair-haired and fair-skinned slaves in a slave market in Italy, and was told that they were Angles. 'Not Angles but angels,' he replied.

It was a lovely pun, and somehow created an idea, which one senses in Bede, that the English were a chosen race.

Since then, the English have always been the English because Bede said so.

Published: 2004-11-12

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