Heroes of the Faith

Humble poet helped sacred song to flower

Purity of heart and a humble spirituality characterise Caedmon, the earliest known English poet, whose “holy thoughts” have played an important part in sustaining the Christian faith, writes Jim Connelly.

By Jim Connelly

November 13 2019My interest in Caedmon began when I visited Whitby Abbey in Northumberland. The Abbey was built by Hilda in the mid-seventh century. Hilda was a remarkable woman who made an abiding impact on the English Church. She presided over the Synod of Whitby in 664, which sent the Church (against her own personal preference) down the Roman road rather than the old English or Celtic road, to its good or ill ever since.

Amongst the lay brothers who worked the land of the monastery in Hilda’s time was an unlearned herdsman named Caedmon. We know about him from Bede’s The Ecclesiastical History of the English People, completed probably in 732, within living memory of the time of Hilda and Caedmon. Bede gives us a delightful picture of Caedmon:

Until well advanced in years he had lived in the secular habit, and had never learned any songs; and often at a feast, when it was decided that all the guests should sing one after another to provide entertainment, he used to get up in the middle of the meal when he saw the harp approaching him, and would go out and return to his own home.

Bede doubtless draws out the musical and poetic innocence of Caedmon in order to make more striking the marvel that followed:

On one occasion when he did this, he left the house where the feast was and went out to the stalls of the draught animals, as it was his turn to guard them that night. In due time he had settled down to sleep there, when in a dream someone stood beside him who greeted him and called him by his name. “Caedmon,” he said to him, “sing something to me.” He replied, “I don’t know how to sing; this was why I left the feast and came out here, because I could not sing.” Again the one who spoke to him said, “Yet you must sing me something.” “What should I sing?” he asked. He said, “Sing of the beginning of Creation.” Hearing this reply, Caedmon at once began to sing in praise of God the Creator verses which he had never heard before... 

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The Revd Dr Jim Connelly is a former school teacher and headmaster, and now retired Gippsland Anglican priest. He found the seventh-century poet, Caedmon, brought together his love of history, the English language and Anglican spirituality. Jim publishes quite prolifically in the fields of children's literature and social comment.