St. Benedict Biscop

(628? – 690)

St. Benedict Biscop Baducing was a powerful link in the chain of monks introduced among the Angles and Saxons by Abbot St. Augustine, the first to head England’s primatial see of Canterbury.

Benedict (also known as “Benet”) was as truly an Anglo-Saxon as St. Augustine of Canterbury was a Roman. He was of noble birth, from the court of King Oswiu of Northumbria. But being an unusually devout young man, at 25 he broke with worldly ambitions, going to Rome, not once but twice, to devote himself to the study of the bible and sacred writings. Thereafter he went to the ancient monastery at Lerins, off the south of France, took the habit of a monk, and made a strict novitiate of two years.

Before going back to England, he returned yet another time to his beloved Rome; Pope Vitalian now asked him to accompany to Canterbury the newly elected archbishop Theodore (a Greek by birth). With them went another prominent monk, St. Adrian of Canterbury (by birth an African!). Archbishop Theodore, on arriving in England, named Benedict to head temporarily the local monastery of SS. Peter and Paul. In 671, after two years in Canterbury, Benet went to Rome again. Ever the student of sacred and monastic matters, he brought back to England with him a large collection of relics, holy pictures, and the beginnings of a choice monastic library.

On his return, King Egfrid of Northumberland gave Benedict seventy “hides” of land at the mouth of the River Wear on which to build a monastery. (A “hide” was 60-120 acres.) There he laid the foundations of Wearmouth Abbey, not too far from the present Durham. Up to that time most buildings in England were of wood and had thatched roofs. Even the churches were not of stone. But Abbot Benet wanted only the best, so he imported French masons, who built his monastery and its church out of stone; and French glaziers, who put in glass windows. (At that time there were no glassmakers in England.) The king was delighted with Wearmouth, so he gave land in 685 for another monastery, just six miles from the first one. Jarrow Abbey was on the Tyne River. In true Roman style Wearmouth was dedicated to St. Peter; Jarrow to St. Paul. Both were governed by St. Benedict Biscop himself. As abbot he was at pains to adorn both abbey churches with pictures of bible events and of the saints, in the style he had seen during his many visits to the continent. Thus he set a new standard of glory for the houses of God in England.

Furthermore, on his final voyage to Rome, Abbot Benet persuaded John, the abbot of St. Martin’s, Rome, who was also the music director at St. Peter’s in the Eternal City, to return with him. Abbot John taught the monks of Wearmouth and Jarrow the Gregorian chant and the Roman ceremonial for singing the divine office. Again, the two monasteries set an example for others in England, and brought the churchly traditions of Rome to this far-away and hitherto primitive country. Due to the Benedictine influence, the Church of England still retains today its love of choral liturgical music. St. Benet’s zeal to build up his monastic libraries also bore fruit. That of Jarrow was especially rich. Its literary treasures enabled one of its greatest monks to make an invaluable theological contribution to the universal church. That monk was St. Bede the Venerable, who is honored as one of the doctors of the Church.

St. Benet Biscop was disabled during the last three years of his life, but he passed them in great patience and devotion. He died in the happy realization that he had given to his monks the best in Benedictine monastic facilities and traditions. Benedict’s feastday, February 13, is observed by all the Benedictines of the English congregation and likewise in the dioceses of Liverpool and Hexham.

–Father Robert F. McNamara

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