Did Bede Get it Wrong?

I am currently trying to write a chapter set in East Anglia in the year 635 and this has set me musing on what happened next. The big picture is that East Anglia was under repeated attack from the Mercians led by Penda until his death in 655. During this period, at least two kings of East Anglia were killed in battle against Penda and a third died, possibly fighting with him. They were all brothers, sons of Eni. This was not, it would seem, a very safe time to be anywhere near the East Anglian court.

However, for a about a decade, this was the home of Hereswith, daughter of Hereric of Deira and sister to the sainted Hilda of Whitby. She was married to Ethelric of East Anglia some time between her baptism in Northumbria in 627 and the death in battle (against Penda and Cadwallon) of Edwin of Northumbria in 633. Ethelric, in turn, was killed in battle against Penda, possibly in 636, although there is another view that the battle did not take place until the early 640s.

During what must have been a fairly brief marriage, Hereswith and Ethelric produced a son, Ealdwulf. Unlike his father and uncles, Ealdwulf had an astonishingly long reign, from 664 to 713.

This brings me to Bede. In 647, he tells us, Hilda travelled to East Anglia to join her sister Hereswith, but Hereswith was not there. ‘For her sister Hereswith … was already living [in the Monastery of Cale] as a professed nun…’ (Bede, A History of the English Church and People, trans. Leo Sherley-Price, Penguin Classics,  1955, iv.23, p.246).

Cale is normally understood to be the Monastery of Chelles, not far from Paris, which was founded by Balthild, the Anglo-Saxon widow of Clovis II. However, she did not found it until after Clovis died in 657/8.

So was Bede a decade out in his dates? Most unlikely; or did Hereswith go somewhere else? Or is Cale not Chelles?

In 647, Ealdwulf may well have reached about the age when his mother considered it reasonable to leave him. He could well have been in his mid-teens. But where were Hereswith and her son between Ethelric’s death and Hereswith’s departure overseas to a monastery? Ethelric was succeeded as King of the East Angles by his brother Anna who was, if Bede is to be believed, something approaching a saintly king. But surely, however saintly he may have been, Ealdwulf would have been seen as a threat to Jurmin, Anna’s son, not to mention to Anna’s two surviving brothers, each of whom became king in turn after him.

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5 Responses to Did Bede Get it Wrong?

  1. carla says:

    Could there have been something at Chelles/Cale before Balthild founded her famous monastery? I have a vague recollection that Clothilde is supposed to have built a church or chapel or something there. There were connections between the royal families of East Anglia and Merovingian France, because Bede says that Sigebert of East Anglia lived in exile in Gaul during Raedwald’s reign. I wonder if Hereswith might have had a friend or relation in the Merovingian royal family who could offer her some sort of pious retirement associated with a royal chapel – maybe a sort of small private nunnery consisting of one or two ‘retired’ wealthy ladies and their household – before Balthild founded her famous monastery on the same site. Bede says Herewith was living as a nun at Cale. Presumably Hild and her ‘handful of companions’ on their one hide of land on the north bank of the Wear would have counted as nuns in Bede’s eyes. Could Hereswith have been doing something similar at Cale/Chelles before Balthild came along?

  2. Sally says:

    Thank you Carla. Yes, on the whole I think that suggestion is more likely than the idea that Bede got the wrong monastery and she actually spent some time at Faremoutiers, which also had an East Anglian connection, with two daughters of King Anna becoming Abbess.
    I have also been reflecting further on the instability in East Anglia in the 640s. The Irish monk Fursey left in 644 (for Burgundy or Neustria) on the grounds that it was unsafe, and his monastery was, in fact, sacked by Penda a few years later, when Anna was forced into exile.

  3. I don’t recall anything in Bede declaring that Hereswith was baptised with Hild in 627. I have her going to East Anglia and marrying before that–so her marriage wasn’t that brief. (But, eh, that’s just my interpretation.)

    As for the rest, I’m with Carla on this. Mmy bet is that Hereswith was shunted off to Frankia so she didn’t get in the way/have much influence over her son’s political upbringing and/or interfere with the rule of the sons of Eni. She would have gone to kin, and as a nun, so that she was removed–on her own volition or not–from the marriage/influence market. That meant, I’m guessing, a small, ‘informal’ household of women.

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