Project Canterbury

The Little Lives of the Saints

Told by Percy Dearmer

Illustrated by Charles Robinson.

London: Wells Gardner, Darton & Co., 1904.

St. Benedict Biscop, Abbot, 690.

January 12th.

BENEDICTUS Biscop Baducing was born of noble parents in Northumbria about the year 638, during the reign of St. Oswald the King. When he grew up into manhood he became a minister of the next king, Oswy, who gave him lands whereby he might live in wealth and honour. But at the age of twenty-live he gave up his lands and his position, and set off with another young thane, St. Wilfrid, on a journey to the tombs of the Apostles at Rome.

He came back to England full of all he had seen in that wonderful old city, which was in those days the capital of the world. England was but a half-barbarous country; but Rome was full of shrewd statesmen, learned students, clever artists, and (what struck Benedict even more) great monastic houses. So it was no wonder that, when the observant young thane came back to his native land, he had made up his mind that the best thing he could do for the Church of England was to bring over to it the art and learning of Rome.

The thought, too, of the devoted foreign monks haunted him; and, after he had been home for two years, he started off for Rome again. In the island of Lerins, near Gaul, he became a monk, and there he stayed for two years, learning the way of his new life, till the Pope told him that the time had come to work in England, and sent him home again to escort St. Theodore, the great Archbishop of Canterbury.

At Canterbury Biscop became Abbot of St. Peter's, and for two years he settled down to teach the Saxon boys all that he had learnt in his travels. But he found it hard to leach with the few books that were to be found in those primitive times, and so he determined to make a third journey to Rome. He went over the seas, collecting a store of splendid books; some he bought in Rome, some were given to him by friends there who admired his energy and pluck, and some were bought for him by agents whom he set to work in France to hunt for the precious volumes.

Meanwhile, King Oswy had died, and his son, Ecgfrid, ruled over Northumbria in his stead. When Benedict came to England with his rich cargo of books, he found that his friend the King of Wessex had also died; he therefore changed his plans, and journeyed with his treasures northward to his old home in the moors.

And now he felt that he must win over to his great scheme his new master, Ecgfrid, King of Northumbria. So to Ecgfrid he went, and told him all that he had found since he left his native land for his long travels. He described the fine monasteries which he had seen on the continent, their good works, their steady discipline, their learning and their art, which were so far ahead of that of poor little England. His enthusiasm was so great that he made the young king enthusiastic too, and Ecgfrid gave him out of the royal estates a large tract of land at the mouth of the river Wear.

Thus were the ideals of Biscop made possible at last. He set about at once to build the abbey of St. Peter, Wearmouth, and he determined that it should be--not a rude cluster of wooden buildings--but a monastery after his own heart, properly managed under the old Benedictine rule, with a church built of stone, and a big library.

But alas! No Englishman knew how build in stone, and once more our abbot had to set off on a sea voyage to get masons for the work. He found them in France, and soon came back triumphantly, with a company of skilled stone-masons, and with glass-workers as well. No one had even made glass before in this country, so we can imagine the wonder of the people when they saw the strange-looking furnaces at work, and the little crystal panes that came out of the tire. Still more amazed were they when the white stonewalls had risen up, and they were able to go into the new church and see the bright light that streamed in through the windows. They thought that the glass was a sort of mysterious lamp, and that it never grew dark in the church, even when it was quite dark outside. It was from these workmen that our English forefathers learnt the art of making glass.

So quickly had Biscop's men worked that in a year the church was ready for service, and the first Mass was said with the rich vessels and the vestments which he had brought over with him from France.

Yet Benedict was not satisfied. There were a great many more things he wanted to put into his monastery; so he crossed the sea a fifth time and made his way to Rome. He brought back with him this time more than he had ever brought before--an enormous number of books, some relics of the saints, a letter from the Pope which, with King Ecgfrid's consent, made Wearmouth free from all interference, and he brought the venerable precentor of St. Peter's himself, who taught the English monks how to sing in the Roman manner. Most important of all, Benedict carried away from Rome and set up in the abbey church a wonderful collection of paintings, such as had never been seen before. They were stretched on boards and fastened round the walls, so that those who could not read, as well as those who could, might see the living face of our Lord, and meditate upon the story of the Gospel. The Venerable Bede, who was a little chorister under our saint, tells us how he saw the pictures from the gospel history on the south wall, and those of the ever Virgin Mary and the Apostles, while on the north were scenes from the Apocalypse with the Last Judgment.

Thus was the Abbey of St. Peter, Wearmouth, finished, a monastery after Benedict's own heart. But still his work was not over; for so many men came to be monks at Wearmouth that after one short year eighteen brothers were sent out from it to live at Jarrow, a place ten miles away at the mouth of the Tyne, which King Ecgfrid now gave them.

The brave old abbot was determined that this new monastery of St. Paul at Jarrow, should not be less splendid than the mother house. He built it in the same style, and set an abbot over it. Then for the sixth and last time he set out on the long and perilous journey to Rome, leaving his nephew, a young monk, strong and handsome, gentle and holy, in charge of Wearmouth.

How proud he must have been as he started on his journey home, carrying with him a new stock of books and ornaments, and a collection of paintings quite as wonderful as those he had brought before. But alas! when he reached Northumbria he found that King Ecgfrid had been slain in battle, that nearly all the monks of Jarrow had died from pestilence, and that his young nephew, who had ruled Wearmouth so well in his absence, was dead also. At Jarrow all who could sing the services were taken off: only the abbot and one small scholar survived. This little boy it was who grew up to be the great historian, Bede; he and the abbot had to take the whole monastic services themselves as best they could.

But Benedict Biscop was not the man to lose courage, even under all these terrible calamities. The monks had already chosen a successor to his nephew, a holy man named Sigfried; and the two saints set about to collect new monks, till very soon both the abbeys were restored to their former prosperity.

And now Benedict's own life was drawing to its close. A creeping paralysis attacked him, and he who had spent so much of his life travelling about the earth, was forced to lie helpless in his bed for three years, unable even to creep out as far as the chapel to join in the services. In all this terrible trial he was just as cheerful and good as in his bright active days. His beloved monks used to gather round his bed to say the services with him, and to listen to his exhortations. He would beg them to keep faithfully the rules of their order, and to take great care to preserve all the books and treasures he had collected, and, when he was gone, to choose the best monk to succeed him and not to seek for one of high birth. When he could not sleep, the brethren would take it in turns all night to read the Bible to him; and when they were all in church, he would say the service by himself in his cell.

All this time Sigfried, too, was growing worse and worse, till at last both the abbots knew that their death was near, and asked to see each other before the end. They brought Sigfried to Benedict's bed, and laid him there by his side. The two old men were too weak to embrace each other, and the monks had to place their hands together. Then they told the brothers who it was they wished to second them, and died almost at the same moment, as Benedict was repeating the eighty-third Psalm.

We often hear of men who collect precious books and pictures for their own homes, but St. Benedict Biscop was different to these. All the treasures he collected were not for himself, but for his fellow-countrymen. The books were in libraries where all who could read might study them; the pictures told their story to those who could not read. Our forefathers were rough and ignorant enough in those days; it was Benedict who taught them to love beautiful things; he set pictures before their eyes, he put costly books within their reach, he taught them to make glass, he set up a school of singing, and he made them feel that Christianity meant education and progress, as well as love and faith.

The two abbeys which he had founded side by side continued for long to do their good work for England. When the body of their founder lay quiet in St. Peter's Church, the monks of Wearmouth went on with their teaching and their prayers, labouring in loving harmony with their neighbours at Jarrow. Learned or simple, each brother took his share, too, of the farm work by which they lived; and each threshed and winnowed the corn, milked the goats and cows, took his turn in the garden, kitchen or bakehouse, at the plough or the forge.

All that simple wholesome life of the early Saxon monks has long passed away, and black collieries now cover the ground where the monks of Wearmouth once laboured. It has not been all progress since then. Sixteen hundred feet below the surface, in the dark tunnels of the mines, poor little children were toiling for fourteen hours every day when Queen Victoria came to the throne; were wearing their little lives out in misery under the very spot where Benedict Biscop and his brethren had once gathered the children together so kindly, and taught them with so much care. It has not been all progress, but those horrible things came to an end fifty years ago, and now, let us hope, the gentle spirit of St. Benedict can look down kindly upon the spot where once he laboured so well.

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