Ancient skull of Bede, the ‘Father of English History’, rediscovered
A long-lost cast of the skull of Bede – the ‘Father of English History’ – has been rediscovered within the anatomical collections of the University of Cambridge.
Bede (also known as The Venerable Bede) lived from 672–735 and was one of the most influential scholars in medieval Europe. His most famous work, completed in AD 731, is the ‘Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum’ or ‘The Ecclesiastical History of the English People’. It is the key source for understanding early British history and the establishment of Christianity in England, and it was the very first work of history to use the AD system of dating which is still in use today.
Story and Bailey’s article uncovers the tale of Alfred Westou, a thieving monk who, in the early eleventh century, is said to have stolen the bones of Bede from his original grave in the monastery of Jarrow and secreted them into the tomb of St Cuthbert at Durham for safe keeping. The bones were discovered there in 1104 when St Cuthbert’s tomb was moved from the old Anglo-Saxon cathedral into the magnificent new Norman building, where it remains today.
In the article, it is argued that the skull recovered in Durham by James Raine in 1831 was almost certainly that which was discovered in Cuthbert’s tomb in 1104, and thus that it was the skull that Westou had excavated, and which he believed was that of Bede himself. Raine was perplexed by the shape of the skull found in Bede’s tomb, and had a plaster cast made before reinterring the bones. Three copies of Raine’s cast were made in 1831.Raine gave one cast to Dr John Thurnam, a pioneering psychiatrist and Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries of London, who had developed a specialist interest in ethnography and archaeology alongside his medical work.
All the casts were since believed to be lost, but Professor Jo Story recently discovered Thurnam’s cast in the collections of the Duckworth Laboratory in the Leverhulme Centre for Human Evolutionary Studies (LCHES) at the University of Cambridge. The cast of the skull of Bede sits there alongside remains of the earliest hominids, which are the focus of the pioneering research at LCHES.
Professor Story said: “The story of ‘The skull of Bede’ is one that takes us to the heart of 19th-century ideas about race and the peopling of the British Isles in antiquity. It traces the thread of evidence that links the cast in the Cambridge cupboard back to the excavation of Bede’s tomb in Durham Cathedral in 1831, and from there back to the destruction of the medieval shrines of saints in Reformation England, to the devotion to the memory of Bede throughout the middle ages, to the creation of Durham Cathedral in early twelfth-century Norman England.”
Professor Bailey said: “Thirty years ago, when working on the cult of Bede, I discovered Dr Raine’s handwritten note which showed that he had ordered three casts of the skull he had found in Bede’s tomb. I tracked the subsequent fate of one of them through to the Newcastle Society of Antiquaries but it had disappeared by 1900. Every other trail I tried to follow then went cold on me. Imagine my surprise therefore when Professor Story e-mailed me with a photograph of the Cambridge cast! Of course, that means that there may still be one more out there somewhere.”
A copy of the Cambridge cast has been made for the museum of Early Medieval Northumbria at Bede’s World in Jarrow, and is the centrepiece of the new exhibition which opens on Tuesday 8 September.
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