Early  English Christian Hymns

By Father Panagiotes Carras

The greatest single source of inspiration for the vernacular poetry written in England from the seventh century to the Norman Conquest was found in the faith of the Church. Besides the influence of Scripture and Liturgy, the effect of the lives of the Saints and the Commentaries of the Fathers was significant.  From such sources grew a vital poetry that called men to conversion and to the hope of entering the Kingdom of Heaven.

It is in the invaluable pages of "A History of the English Church and People" of the Venerable Bede that we find most of what we know of the early history of the Church of the British Isles.  The Christian faith had been brought to the British Isles by Saint Joseph of Arimathea and developed similarly to the Churches that were spread throughout the Roman Empire.  The Roman persecutions produced many Martyrs and Confessors in the British Isles and the faithful remained hidden until the reign of Saint Constantine.  "When this storm of persecution came to an end, faithful Christians, who during the time of danger had taken refuge in the woods, deserted places. and hidden caves, came into the open, and rebuilt the ruined churches.  Shrines of the Martyrs were founded and completed and openly displayed everywhere as tokens of victory.  The festivals of the Church were observed, and its rites performed reverently and sincerely.  The Christian churches in Britain continued to enjoy this peace until the time of the Arian heresy.  This poisonous error after corrupting the whole world, at length crossed the sea and infected even this remote island; and once the doorway had been opened, every sort of pestilential heresy at once poured into this island, whose people are ready to listen to anything novel, and never hold firmly to anything" (Bede, "A History of the Church and People, I, 8).

The comments of the Venerable Bede and the fact that the Bishops of London, York, and Lincoln were present at the Council of Arles in 314, and that the British Church was represented at the Council of Rimini in 359, attest to the vitality of the Church of Britain.  The Faith extended beyond the limits of Roman Britain where it struggled to survive.  The remote places which are mentioned by Bede most likely include the lands of the Scots and the Irish.  There is a tradition which holds that Saint Regulus, a Greek monk, brought relics of Saint Andrew, the Apostle, to Scotland,., During the reign of Theodosius the Younger, the Pope of Rome  Celestine, sent Palladius to be the first bishop of the Scots.  By the beginning of the fifth century the Faith was firmly established in Scotland.  The well known missionary work of Saint Patrick, the Apostle to the Irish, consisted not only of converting the pagans but also of organizing Christian communities which had existed for some time.

Monasticism in Britain was in many ways similar to the monasticism of the Desert Fathers.  From 412 to 415 Saint Patrick was a monk in the Monastery of Lerins where he discovered the monastic tradition which was flourishing in Southern Gaul at this time.  The Monastery of Lerins was founded by Saint Honoratus who travelled throughout Syria, Palestine and Egypt and had learned much about the ascetic practices of the Desert Fathers.  A few years later Saint John Cassian, who had spent many years among the Desert Fathers and had been ordained deacon by Saint John Chrysostom, established his monastic centres which greatly influenced monasticism on the Continent and in Britain.  We read in the "Life of Saint Columbanus" (550 - 615) that this Irish saint had a special devotion to Saint John Cassian.  Asceticism in Britain was remarkably similar to ascetic life as found throughout the ancient Church.

The withdrawal of the Roman legions and the subsequent Germanic invasions of 441 weakened the strength of the Church and changed the pattern of its development.  The gradual de-Romanization of the British isles caused the ecclesiastical structure to become more dependent upon the surrounding monastic communities.  In the Greco-Roman world the episcopate was centered in cities and the importance of a diocese was directly related to the political significance of the city.  Without the Roman presence the British Isles were controlled locally by the small tribal kingdoms of the Celts, Irish, Picts and Brits.  Under these conditions the episcopate came to depend upon the stability of monastic centres.  The bishop resided in the monastery and the abbot assumed the spiritual direction of the diocese.  These communities, which numbered hundreds and even thousands of men and women, assumed the evangelization of the surrounding tribes.  A similar ecclesiastical structure existed in the same period in the remote Christian countries of the Caucasus, Armenia and Georgia.

It was the landing of Saint Augustine of Canterbury and his clergy in Kent in 597 and the personal interest of the Pope of Rome, Saint Gregory the Great, that gave a great impetus for the growth of the Faith among the Anglo-Saxon invaders. The way had been somewhat prepared for Saint Augustine's conversion of Ethelbert of Kent through the influence of his Frankish Queen Berhta, a granddaughter of Clotaire the Great.  Queen Berhta had brought with her from the Continent her Christian faith.  She retained her personal chaplain Liuthard and used the ancient Church of Saint Martin at Canterbury as her private chapel.  Canterbury now became the spiritual centre of the thousands that were baptized through the efforts of Saint Augustine of Canterbury.

During this period the Church of Britain maintained its contacts with the Church of the Continent and the other Churches. There is a tradition which claims that Saint David of Wales, at the end of the sixth century, travelled to Jerusalem and was ordained bishop by the Patriarch of Jerusalem.  In preparation for the Sixth Ecumenical Council which took place in Constantinople from November 680 to September 681, Pope Agatho summoned the leaders of the western Churches to a synod in Rome in March 680.  Archbishop Theodore of Canterbury was not able to attend, but held a council of the English Church at Hatfield and Bishop Wilfrid who was already in Rome, represented the English Church.  The Venerable Bede tells us about a book on the Holy Land, which was written by Saint Adamnan (c. 703), based on the information he had received from Arculf, a bishop from Gaul.

The influence exerted from Canterbury was paralleled in the North by Irish monastics who carried on the work begun in Scotland under Saint Columba (521 - 597).  Early in the second half of the sixth century Saint Columba left Ireland and established a monastery on the island of Iona.  This monastery became the centre of Saint Columba's missionary work among the northern tribes. In 627 Edwin, King of Northumbria was converted.  Later Saint Aidan became the determining influence in the establishment of the faith in northern England.  This Celtic endeavour combined with the work of Saint Augustine of Canterbury gave the Church a firm foundation in the British Isles. Unfortunately there were certain points of difference between Celtic and Roman practices that cau.sed friction.
It was not until the Synod of Whitby in 664 that firm decisions were reached on these points of difference.  As a result of these decisions a d through the influence of Saint Theodore of Canterbury the English Church became more Roman in Liturgy and Latin became entrenched as the language of the Church.  During the seventh and eighth centuries Latin spread throughout England and established itself as the language of the Church.  The masses, however, did not have a good knowledge of Latin and desired liturgical expression in the language which was familiar to them.  This gave rise to a flowering of religious poetry in the vernacular.  Some of ' this verse is preserved in four Old English manuscripts to be dated in the tenth or early eleventh century.  The hymns, however, have their origins much earlier.  We can safely assume that the Church in the British Isles, from an early date, developed its own hymns.

The Churches that were spread throughout the ancient world, following the example of the Psalms of the Prophet-King David, gave birth to many ecclesiastical hymns and there is no reason why we should believe that the Church in the British Isles was any different.  There were many contacts among the local Churches of the ancient world.  They did not live in total isolation from one another and the life of a local Church often influenced the life of another Church.  British Christians knew that they were different but also knew -that local differences were overcome by the Grace of Holy Pentecost which made the Church Catholic.  The arrival in Britain of Saint Theodore of Canterbury illustrates this very well.  Saint Theodore was a Greek from Syria who at seventy assumed the spiritual guidance of the Church of Britain.  Once in the British Isles he travelled extensively in his attempt to strengthen the faith of his people.  He was accompanied at all times by a translator since he could not speak any of the languages of the people.

Although Latin was the language of the Liturgy and Scripture the people were instructed in their own language.  The Venerable Bede alludes quite often to the various languages spoken in Britain:
"There are five languages in Britain, just as the Divine Law is written in five books, all devoted to seeking out and setting forth one and the same kind of wisdom, namely the knowledge of sublime truth and of true sublimity.  These are the English, British (Welsh), Irish, Pictish, as well as the Latin languages; through the study of the Scriptures, Latin is in general use among them all" (History of the English Church, I, 1).·

According to the Venerable Bede all languages are entitled to be used, even in the highest domain, the pursuit of truth and the glory of God. His number-parallelism with the Pentateuch merely illustrates the point.  As far as is known, this was the general attitude of everyone in the ancient Church of Britain.

The Psalter was the single most studied book in the early Irish Church and probably in the other Celtic Churches also.  It was customary to learn it by heart, as is shown by the Anglo-Saxon bishop Wilfrid (634 - 709) who, on discovering that  he had committed  the 'wrong'  Psalter to memory during his early training at Lindisfarne, put himself to relearning it in the Roman version.  In the life of Saint Columba we are told that during the singing of the psalms the Saint's voice rose above all others.  In the Rules of Columbanus, psalter-singing is the central part of the celebration of the office.  The psalms are divided into threes, of which the first two are sung straight through, and the third antiphonally.  It is interesting to note that antiphonal singing had developed in the early Syriac Church and spread out from there during the fourth century.

Besides the singing of Psalms there was abundant use of the singing of Hymns and Canticles. Hymns were used extensively outside the Liturgy. Hymnody originally developed on a wide scale in the Syriac Church. It spread quickly to all the Churches throughout the world mainly due to the hymns of Saint Ephraim the Syrian      (306 - 373).  Although our sources for the study of early Christian poetry in Britain comes from a much later time, they point to a much earlier period. From the seventh century and    on, we have an abundance of references to the composition of hymns both i.n Latin and in the vernacular.  T'riese hymns were used for private prayers as well as in community worship.  Saint Columbanus called for the singing   of  a   hymn on Sunday and Easter, whereas his contemporary Saint Columba made a larger place for hymn-singing and was actually a composer of hymns. In the Antiphonary of Bangor there are hymns that can be safely dated to belong at least to the sixth century.  These hymns covered a wide range of themes dealing with Holy Scripture and the Lives of Saints.

If we look carefully at Anglo-Saxon Church poetry, we will be able to come to some idea of the nature of early Christian poetry in the British isles.  The Venerable Bede passed down to us the following account of an event which took place around 680, during the lifetime of Saint Hilda of Whitby, who was a disciple of Saint Aidan of Lindisfarne.

"In the monastery of Streanaeshalch lived a brother singularly gifted by God's Grace.  So skillful was he in composing religious and devotional songs that, when any passage of Scripture was explained to him by interpreters, he could quickly turn it into delightful and moving poetry in his own English tongue.  These verses of his have stirred the hearts of many folk to despise the world and aspire to heavenly things.  Others after him tried to compose religious poems in English, but none could compare with him; for he did not acquire the art of poetry from men or through any human teacher but received it as a free gift from God.  For this reason he could never compose an frivolous or profane verses; but only such as had a religious them fell fittingly from his devout lips.  He had followed a secular occupation until well advanced in years without ever learning anything about poetry.  Indeed it sometimes happened at a feast that all the guests in turn would be invited to sing and entertain the company; the when he saw the harp coming his way, he would get up from table and home.

On one such occasion he had left the house in which the entertainment was being held and went out to the stable, where it was his duty that night to look after the beasts.  There when the time cam he settled down to sleep.  Suddenly in a dream he saw a man standing beside him who called him by name 'Caedmon,' he said, 'sing me a song'.  'I don't know how to sing,' he replied. 'It is because I cannot sing that I left the feast and came here.' The man who addressed him then said: 'But you shall sing to me.'  'What should I sing about?'  he replied.  'Sing about the Creation of all things,' the other answered And Caedmon immediately began to sing verses in praise of God the Creator that he had never heard before, and their theme ran thus:

'Praise we the Fashioner now of Heaven's fabric, The majesty of His night and His mind's wisdom, Work of the world-warden, worker of all wonders, How He the Lord of Glory everlasting, Wrought first for the race of men Heaven as a rooftree, Then made He Middle Earth to be their mansion.'

This is the general sense, but not the actual words that Caedmon sang in his dream; for verses, however masterly, cannot be translated literally from one language into another without losing much of their beauty and dignity.  When Caedmon awoke, he remembered everything that he had sung in his dream, and soon added more verses in the same style to a song truly worthy of' God.

Early in the morning he went to his superior the reeve, and told him about this gift that he had received.  The reeve took him before the abbess, who ordered him to give an account of his dream and repeat the verses in the presence of many learned men, so that a decision might be reached by common consent as to their quality and origin.  All of them agreed that Caedmon's gift had been given him by our Lord.  And they explained to him a passage of scriptural history or doctrine and asked him to render it into verse if he could.  He promised to do No this, and returned the next morning with excellent verses as they had ordered him.  The abbess was delighted that God had given such grace WI to the man, and advised him to abandon secular life and adopt the monastic state.  And when she had admitted him into the Community as a brother, she ordered him to be instructed in the events of sacred history.  So Caedmon stored up in his memory all that he learned, and like one of the clean animals chewing the cud, turned it into such melodious verse that his delightful renderings turned his instructors into auditors.  He sang of the creation of the world, the origin of the human race, and the whole story of Genesis.  He sang of Israel's exodus from Egypt, the entry into the Promised Land, and many other events of scriptural history.  He sang of the Lord's, Incarnation, Passion, Resurrection, and Ascension into heaven, the coming of the Holy Spirit, and the teaching of the Apostles.  He also made many poems on the terrors of the Last Judgment, the horrible pains of Hell, and the joys of the Kingdom of Heaven.  In addition to these, he composed several others of the blessings and judgments of God, by which he sought to turn his hearers from delight in wickedness and to inspire them to love and do good.  For Caedmon was a deeply religious man, who humbly submitted to regular discipline and hotly rebuked all who tried to follow another course.  And so he crowned his life with a happy end.

For, when the time of his death drew near, he felt the onset of physical weakness for fourteen days, but not seriously enough to prevent his walking or talking the whole time.  Close by there was a house to which all who were sick or likely to die were taken.  Towards nightfall on the day when he was to depart this life, Caedmon asked his attendant to prepare a resting-place for him in this house.  The attendant was surprised at this request from a man who did not appear likely to die yet; nevertheless, he did as he was asked.  So Caedmon went to the house, and conversed and jested cheerfully with those who were already there; and when it was past midnight, he asked: . Is the Eucharist in the house?' 'Why do you want the Eucharist?' they inquired; 'you are not likely to die yet, when you are talking so
cheerfully to us and seem to be in perfect health.'  Nevertheless,' he said, 'bring me the Eucharist.' And taking it in his hands, Caedmon asked whether they were all charitably disposed towards him, and whether they had any complaint or ill feeling against him.  They replied that they were all most kindly disposed towards him, and free from all bitterness.  Then in turn they asked him to clear his heart of bitterness towards them.  At once he answered: 'Dear sons, my heart is at peace with all the servants of God.' Then, when he had fortified himself with the heavenly Viaticum, he prepared to enter the other life, and asked how long it would be before the brothers were roused to sing God's praises in the Night Office.  'Not long,' they replied.  'Good, then let us wait until then,' he answered; and signing himself with the holy Cross, he laid his head on the pillow and passed away quietly in his sleep.  So, having served God with a simple and pure mind, and with tranquil devotion, he left the world and departed to His presence by a tranquil death.  His tongue, which had sung so many inspiring verses in praise of his Maker, uttered its last words in His praise as he signed himself with the Cross and commended his soul into His hands.  For, as I have already said, Caedmon seems to have had a premonition of his death" (History of the English Church, IV, 24).

Hymns in the language of the people became an excellent means through which to teach the Faith and to bring the pa-an tribes to Christ.  These hymns would replace pagan songs and at the same time, through constant repetition, familiarize the uneducated with the major doctrines and historical events of the Christian Faith.  Hymns of course were not the only method of instruction.  The missionaries who would travel on foot from village to village would upon arrival at the village set up a Cross and offer instruction.  It is interesting to see Saint Kosmas Aitolos using the same method in Greece in the eighteenth century.  The Cross was significant because through it Christ the Victor overcame death and Satan.  We are given the opportunity to partake i this victory by being crucified with Christ.  The practice of planting  a Cross, the new Tree of Life, became so popular that even until tokla many large stone Celtic Crosses can be found scattered throughout th British Isles.

The use of the sacred image of the Holy Cross of our Saviour in vernacular hymns proved to be a powerful means to teach the Faith.  The following two poems are used to illustrate this point.


"After Augustine came to England there was a noble king called Oswald in the land of the Northumbrians, who believed greatly in God.  He went in his youth from his friends and kindred to Scotland by sea, and there was forthwith baptized, together with his companions who had travelled with him.  About that time Edwin his uncle, king of the Northumbrians, who believed in Christ, was slain by the British king named Cadwalla, and (also) two of his successors within two years; and this Cadwalla slew and shamefully ill-treated the Northumbrian people after their lord's fall, until Oswald the blessed extinguished his wickedness.  Oswald came to him and fought boldly against him with a little army, but his faith strengthened him, and Christ helped him to the slaughter of his enemies.  Then Oswald raised a cross quickly to the honour of God before he came to battle, and cried to his companions, 'Let us fall down before the cross, and pray the Almighty that He will save us against the proud enemy who desires to kill us.  God Himself knoweth well that we fight justly against this cruel king, to deliver our people.' Then they all fell down in prayer with Oswald, and afterward on the next morning went to the fight, and there won the victory, even as the almighty Ruler granted them for Oswald's faith, and subdued their enemies, the proud Cadwalla, with his great host, who thought that no army could withstand him.  The same cross which Oswald had there erected, afterward stood there for worship.  And many infirm men were healed, and also cattle through the same cross, as Deda hath related to us.
A certain man fell on ice and broke his arm, and lay in bed very severely afflicted, until some one fetched to him, from the aforesaid cross, some part of the moss with which it was overgrown, and the sick (man) was forthwith healed in sleep in the same night, through Oswald's merits.  The place is called Heavenfield in English, near the long wall which the Romans built, where Oswald overcame the cruel king.  And afterward there was reared a very famous church to the honour of God who liveth for ever." (Aelfric, Lives of Saints)
The wooden Cross which Saint Oswald had set up with his own hands at Heavenfield to commemorate his victory became sacred.  The drinking of water in which splinters from this Cross had been soaked, cured both men and beasts.  A monk of Hexham, called Bothelm, healed his fractured arm by laying upon it some moss taken from this Cross (Bede, III 3).  In the seventh century "Life of Saint Columba" written by Saint Adamnan we have many instances of the use of the sign of the Cross.  It was made over the pail before milking, over tools before using them, over a spoon and over a lantern.  It was considered effectual to banish evil spirits. to restrain a river monster, to stop a wild boar, to unlock a door, to endow a pebble with healing virtue, or bread, or water, or salt.  There are also numerous allusions to its use in all the later lives of Saints.  In these instances we notice a great similarity with lives of the Saints such as Saint Theodore of Sykeon in Asia Minor (c.600).  The following poem is probably the best illustration of all early English literature of the didactic expression of the Holy Cross and the victory over Satan."

(Dream of the Rood)

Lo! I will tell the dearest of dreams That I dreamed in the midnight when mortal men Were sunk in slumber.  Me-seemed I saw a wonderous Tree towering in air, most shining of crosses compassed with light.  Brightly that beacon was gilded with gold; jewels adorned it fair at the foot, five on the shoulder-beam, blazing in splendour. Through all creation the angels of God beheld it shining-- no cross of shame!   Holy spirits gazed on its gleaming, men upon earth and all this great creation.
Wonderous that Tree, that Token of triumph, And I a transgressor soiled with my sins!  I gazed on the Rood arrayed in glory, shining in beauty and gilded with gold, The Cross of the Saviour beset with gems.  But through the gold-work outgleamed a token of the ancient evil of sinful men where the Rood on its right side once sweat blood.  Saddened and rueful, smitten with terror at the wonderous vision, I saw the Cross swiftly varying vesture and hue, now wet and stained with the Blood outwelling, now fairly jewelled with gold and gems.
Then, as I lay there, long I gazed in rue and sadness on my Saviour's Tree, till I heard in dream how the Cross addressed me,  of all woods worthiest, speaking these words: "Long years ago (well yet I remember) they hewed me down on the edge of the holt, severed my trunk; strong foemen took me, for a spectacle wrought me, a gallows for rogues. High on their shoulders they bore me to hilltop,  fastened me firmly, an army of foes!
Then I saw the King of all mankind In brave mood hasting to mount upon me.  Refuse I dared not, nor bow nor break, though I felt earth's confines shudder in fear; all foes I might felt, yet still I stood fast."
Then the young Warrior, God, the All-Wielder, put off His raiment, steadfast and strong; with lordly mood in the sight of many He mounted the Cross to redeem mankind. When the Hero clasped me, I trembled in terror,  but I dared not bow me nor bend to earth;  I must needs stand fast.  Upraised as the Rood I held the High King, the Lord of heaven.  I dared not bow!  With black nails driven those sinners pierced me; the prints are clear, The open wounds.  I dared injure none.  They mocked us both.  I was wet with blood from the Hero's side when He sent forth His spirit.
Many a bale I bore on that hill-side seeing the Lord in agony outstretched.  Black darkness covered with clouds God's body, that radiant splendour.  Shadow went forth wan under heaven; all creation wept bewailing the King's death.  Christ was on the Cross.
Then many came quickly, faring from far, hurrying to the Prince.  I beheld it all.  Sorely smitten with sorrow, in meekness I bowed to the hands of men.  From His heavy and bitter pain they lifted Almighty God.  Those warriors left me Standing bespattered with blood; I was wounded with spears.  Limb-weary they laid Him down; they stood at His head, looked on the Lord of Heaven as He lay there at rest from His bitter ordeal all forspent.  In sight of His slayers they made Him a sepulchre carved from the shining stone; Therein laid the Lord of triumph.  At evening tide sadly they sang their dirges and wearily turned away from their lordly Prince; there He lay all still and alone.
There at our station a long time we stood sorrowfully weeping after the wailing of men had died away.  The corpse grew cold, the fair life-dwelling.  Down to earth men hacked and felled us, a grievous fate!  They dug a pit and buried us deep.  But there God's friends and followers found me and graced me with treasure of silver and gold.
Now may you learn, 0 man beloved, the bitter sorrows that I have borne, the work of caitiffs.  But the time is come that men upon earth and through all creation show me honour and bow to this sign. On me a while God's Son once suffered; now I tower under heaven in glory attired with healing for all that hold me in awe.  Of old I was once the most woeful of tortures, most hateful to all men, till I opened for them the true Way of life.  Lo! the Lord of Glory, the Warden of heaven, above all wood has glorified me as Almighty God has honoured His Mother, even Mary herself, Over all womankind in the eyes of men.
Now I give you bidding, 0 man beloved, reveal this Vision to the sons of men, and clearly tell of the Tree of Glory whereon God suffered for man's many sins and the evil that Adam once wrought of old.
Death He suffered, but our Saviour rose by virtue of His great might as a help to men.  He ascended to heaven.  But hither again He shall come unto earth to seek mankind, the Lord Himself on the Day of Doom, Almighty God with His angel hosts. And then will He judge, Who has power of judgment,  each man according as here on earth in this fleeting life he shall win reward.
Nor there may any be free from fear hearing the words which the Wielder shall utter.  He shall ask before many: Where is the man who would taste bitter death as He did on the Tree?  And all shall be fearful and few shall know what to say unto Christ.  But none at His Coming shall need to fear if he bears in his breast this best of symbols; and every soul from the ways of earth through the Cross shall come to heavenly glory, who would dwell with God."
Then with ardent spirit and earnest zeal, companionless, lonely, I prayed to the Cross.  My soul was fain of death.  I had endured many an hour of longing.  It is my life's hope That I may turn to this Token of triumph, I above all men, and revere it well.
This is my heart's desire, and all my hope waits on the Cross.  In this world now I have few powerful friends; they have fared hence way from these earthly gauds seeking the King of Glory, dwelling now with the High Father in heaven above, abiding in rapture. Each day I dream of the hour when the Cross of my Lord, whereof here on earth I once had vision, from this fleeting life may fetch me and bring me where is great gladness and heavenly bliss, where the people of God are planted and stablished for ever in joy everlasting.  There may it lodge me where I may abide in glory knowing bliss with the saints.
May the Lord befriend me Who on earth of old once suffered on the Cross for the sins of men. He redeemed us, endowed us with life and a heavenly home. Therein was hope renewed with blessing and bliss for those who endured the burning.  In that great deed God's Son was triumphant, possessing power and strength! Almighty, Sole-Ruling He came to the kingdom of God bringing a host of souls to angelic bliss, to join the saints who abode in the splendour of glory,  when the Lord, Almighty God, came again to His throne."  (Cynewulf, circa 780)

Much of the life of the early Church in the British Isles is lost to us but from the scant literary and archaeological evidence that remains we can ascertain the vitality of the Faith.  It is with great sadness that today we observe that practically all of the descendants of this Church have turned their back on these years when Christ was truly in their midst.  We can only pray that our Saviour will rise up a remnant from among this nation that will unite itself with the Church which God established among their ancestors.