(c. 642—716) abbot of Wearmouth and Jarrow

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Wearmouth and Jarrow


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(d. 716),

abbot of Wearmouth and Jarrow. A noble Northumbrian by birth, Ceolfrith became a monk at Gilling (North Yorkshire), but a few years later moved to Ripon, founded by Wilfrid. Here he was ordained priest at the early age of twenty-seven. After visits to Canterbury and to Icanho, made famous by Botulf, he became ‘most learned in ecclesiastical and monastic practices’, but his practical ability caused him to be appointed baker (presumably caterer) of his monastery at Ripon. Here the Rule of St Benedict was followed: to increase its influence at Wearmouth, perhaps, Benedict Biscop asked Ceolfrith to join him there. Soon Ceolfrith became prior and in 676 superior of the community while Biscop was in Rome. At this point the opposition of certain monks of noble birth caused his temporary return to Ripon, but his future lay with Wearmouth. In 682 the monastery of Jarrow was founded from Wearmouth with Ceolfrith as its first abbot. Although a plague soon killed most of the monks who could sing or read (only Ceolfrith and the boy Bede were left), Jarrow soon recovered and prospered considerably.

On the death of Biscop in 689 Ceolfrith became abbot of both Wearmouth and Jarrow, still regarded as one community. During his energetic but kindly rule the number of monks increased to 600, the library was doubled, the endowments and treasure increased, the papal privileges of protection renewed. He wrote (or caused Bede to write) an important letter on Easter dates to Nectan, king of the Picts. He also commissioned from his own scriptoria three Pandects (i.e. complete bibles in single volumes), written in uncial script. One was for Jarrow, one for Wearmouth, and the third a present for the pope. The last survives as the Codex Amiatinus, an enormous volume in the Biblioteca Laurenziana at Florence. It is the oldest surviving complete Latin Bible in one volume, is the work of at least seven English scribes, and represents, on the whole, a sound text of the Vulgate; it has important affinities with Cassiodorus' monastery and plan of studies. Its authenticity was brilliantly demonstrated in the 19th century when ultra-violet light revealed the partially altered inscription at the beginning of volume which corresponds exactly with Bede's record of its dedicatory verses. When Ceolfrith resigned from the abbacy in 716, he took this book with him. In his farewell address he exhorted his monks to keep to the rule, he asked and granted forgiveness for all frailties, and urged them to persevere in unity, charity, and peace. He then confirmed the election of Hwaetbert as his successor and left for Gaul by sea on his way to Rome. But on 25 September he died at Langres in Burgundy and was buried there. His relics were soon translated to Wearmouth where they were enshrined until the Viking invasions. Glastonbury monks claimed to have obtained them in the 10th century. Feast (at Wearmouth, Glastonbury, and in Burgundy): 25 September.

Contemporary Lives by an anonymous monk of Jarrow and by Bede in Baedae Opera Historica (ed. C. Plummer, 1956) with Eng. trs. in J. F. Webb and D. H. Farmer, The Age of Bede (1983) and in E.H.D., i. 697–708;R. L. S. Bruce-Mitford, The Art of the Codex Amiatinus ( Jarrow Lecture, 1969);E. A. Lowe, English Uncial (1960). See also J. McClure, ‘Bede and the Life of Ceolfrid’, Peritia, iii (1984), 71–84. A few leaves of one of Ceolfrith's other bibles survive in the British Museum.


Subjects: Christianity.

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