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Benedict Biscop

(c. 628—689) abbot of Wearmouth and scholar


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(628–89),

founder and first abbot of Wearmouth, scholar, and patron of the arts. He was born of a noble Northumbrian family, and, as Biscop Baducing (his family name), was in the service of the Northumbrian king Oswiu until 653. He then decided to become a monk, but went first with Wilfrid to Rome to visit the tombs of the apostles. He returned to Northumbria and soon took Aldfrith, son of Oswiu, back to Rome on his second visit. Biscop became a monk at Saint-Honorat, Lérins, on his way back, taking the name of Benedict. His third visit to Rome coincided with the presence of Wighard, archbishop-elect of Canterbury, who died in Rome before consecration. Biscop returned to England with Theodore of Canterbury in 669, becoming abbot of St Augustine's, Canterbury, for a short time.

Soon he wanted to make his own foundation: with the help of King Egfrith, who gave him seventy hides of land, he founded Wearmouth in 674. Within a year he had imported Frankish stonemasons who built a Romanesque church there; soon afterwards he brought in glassmakers and other craftsmen, who not only made what was necessary, but also taught local men. Books bought at Rome and Vienne were added to the endowment. He drew up a rule for his community, based on that of Benedict and the customs of seventeen monasteries he had visited.

Soon after he visited Rome for the fifth time (679). He returned with an ‘innumerable collection of books of all kinds’, with relics, calendars, and service books, but above all with John, the archcantor of St Peter's, Rome, and abbot of St Martin's basilican monastery there, who taught the monks by word and writing the Roman liturgy and uncial script; Pope Agatho used his visit to assure himself also of the orthodoxy of the English Church. Other treasures brought by Benedict included a series of pictures (possibly on boards) of Gospel scenes, of Our Lady and the Apostles, and of incidents in the Apocalypse, to be set up in the church; and a privilege which ensured to Wearmouth the special protection of the Holy See.

In 682 Benedict founded the monastery of Jarrow with the help of Egfrith, who provided an estate of forty hides; Benedict provided twenty-two monks under Ceolfrith. It was dedicated to St Paul and was intended to be a sister monastery to St Peter's, Wearmouth. In 685 Biscop made his last visit to Rome, returning with even more books and sacred images with some fine silk cloaks of exceptional workmanship, exchanged with the king for three hides of land. By this time Biscop had delegated the abbacy of Wearmouth first to Eosterwine and then to Sigfrid: Ceolfrith was abbot of Jarrow. But he retained a founder's interest in both. He and Sigfrid were stricken with paralysis at about the same time. Biscop's final address to his community included exhortations to keep to his eclectic rule, to keep his library together in good repair, and to elect an abbot for his manner of life and his teaching, according to the Rule of St Benedict, rather than for his membership of a particular family; in particular, he would prefer his monastery to become a wilderness than that his own brother should succeed him as abbot. In the event Ceolfrith was his successor. Biscop's library made possible the achievements of Bede; in script and iconography he brought England into contact with the best contemporary work on the Continent. Proof of a very early public cult of Biscop comes from a sermon of Bede on him (Homily 17) for his feast, but the cult became more widespread only after the translation of his relics to Thorney under Ethelwold c.980. Glastonbury also, with less reason, claimed to possess his relics. His feast is kept on 12 January, but in different places and through various historical errors, such as confusing him with Benedict of Nursia, other days have also been assigned to him.

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Subjects: Christianity.


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