Delighted to welcome Mike Biles, author of A Bit About Britain’s History as a guest writer until the end of the year. This week Mike shares the story of England’s first known poet.
Give us a song, Caedmon
This is the story of England’s first known poet.
Caedmon’s Cross, Whitby, North Yorkshire
Once upon a time, many many years ago, there was a good herdsman who lived on a cliff top called Streaneshalch. The herdsman’s name was Caedmon; he was no spring chicken and was actually quite shy. Nearby on the cliff top was a great Abbey, ruled by a kind and gentle Abbess called Hild, where they sometimes held sumptuous feasts. Now in those days it was customary at feasts, as the wine flowed and everyone ate jelly and ice cream, for each guest to entertain the happy throng with a song. Yes. But Caedmon had a terrible voice and couldn’t play the harp for toffee. So when he could see his turn approaching he would slink outside and go home, or hide in a barn.
One evening, after just such an occasion, he was lying on some straw feeling pretty sorry for himself. He very much wanted to join in with everyone else. Then he had a dream. A man bathed in a heavenly light stood beside him and said, “Caedmon, sing me a song.” “I don’t know how to sing,” replied Caedmon miserably. “That’s why I’m here while everyone else is having fun and eating jelly.” “You shall sing to me”, commanded the man, firmly but gently. “Sing about the creation of all things.”
And Caedmon, who in addition to having a rotten voice had previously shown about as much imagination as a sledgehammer, found himself making up words and singing like a nightingale. The tune escapes me, but the words went something like this:
“Praise we the Fashioner now of Heaven’s fabric,
The majesty of His might 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.”
Caedmon’s Cross, Whitby, North Yorkshire
Caedmon woke up and dashed off to tell the kindly Abbess what had happened. Hild summoned some other wise people so that Caedmon could sing to them. He repeated the song from his dream and they all agreed this was a Gift From God. Indeed, they asked him to put a particular piece of writing to verse, if he could, and were delighted with the result when he returned with it the following morning. Hild had him inducted into the monastic life, so that he could learn all the stories of the scriptures. And Caedmon spent the remainder of his days turning dry text into melodious verse, and singing of the works of God and stories from the scriptures. He had a premonition of his own death and passed away peacefully in 680AD. As his songs spread, so did the Christian message. Clever, eh?
And that, more or less, is Caedmon’s story. I lied about the jelly and ice cream and the tale itself of course might be complete fiction. But Caedmon is famous for being the first known English poet and is sometimes called ‘the Father of English song’; and you thought it would be someone like George Harrison or David Bowie, didn’t you?
On 21st September 1898 a huge crowd gathered in St Mary’s churchyard on Streaneshalch in Whitby to see a cross in honour of Caedmon unveiled by the then Poet Laureate, Alfred Austin. The cross was the brainchild of Canon H D Rawnsley, one of the founders of the National Trust. It cost £350 – an enormous sum of money in those days – and is an echo of an Anglo-Saxon cross, made from Northumbrian sandstone. It stands 20 feet high and is richly carved with Christian iconography, including rather fetching representations of Hild and Caedmon. The cross stands at the top of the 199 steps overlooking Whitby, and in the shadow of the ruined medieval Abbey Church.
It is said that, at dawn on old Christmas Day (6th January), the distant sound of a choir singing in an ancient Northumbrian dialect can be heard echoing faintly around the ruins of the Abbey.
© Images Mike Biles 2019
A Bit about Britain’s History: From a long time ago to quite recently.
About the book
Could this short, elegant, volume be the only book on British history you’ll ever need?
A Bit About Britain’s History is for anyone who wants a serious, yet light, introduction to Britain’s amazing story. If you don’t know the basics, or would like a reminder, this book is for you. It is also perfect for those that didn’t enjoy history at school, but who have suddenly realised they’d like to understand it a bit better now.
What did the Romans achieve? How did Christianity arrive? Who are the English and why did they fight the French so often? What is Henry VIII’s greatest legacy? When did democracy start and people get the vote? Why on earth did Britain get involved in WW1?
Organised clearly and chronologically, A Bit About Britain’s History covers every period from a long time ago until quite recently. It begins by briefly mentioning that the place was once inhabited by extremely large lizards, and ends up with a post-war 20th century consumer society. Brief articles explain the essential aspects of Britain’s past, including how the ancestors of its current inhabitants arrived, how they fought each other, formed nations, fell out over religion, acquired a large empire, became gradually more democratic, helped win a couple of world wars and were left wondering what to do next. At the end of the book are detailed timelines for each period, which provide useful reference and make fascinating reading in their own right.
A Bit About Britain’s History might be the only book on British history you’ll ever need; or it might be your stepping stone to more in-depth academic reading
One of the recent reviews for the book
I first came across the author when I stumbled upon his excellent web site ‘A Bit About Britain’ and so it was a natural progression to then purchase this wonderfully readable book. This is no ordinary, factual and humourless journey through our history that most of us remember from the classroom, but an enthralling account of the events from Roman Britain to the present day, that have shaped our unique identity.
There is a humour and lightheartedness to be found amongst these pages without detracting from the genuine historical content that is essential in any publication of this kind. The author injects a quirky insight into events that we all thought we knew about but then realise that actually we didn’t at all. The number of times I have said to myself ‘gosh, I never knew that’ says much about the attention to detail and exhaustive research that has made it so readable. I particularly enjoyed the first half of the book, containing stories of so many richly diverse characters with fantastical names, and bizarre lives, and whilst stories of this early period in our history are based upon legend and a few known facts, the authors inimitable style brings life to an otherwise rather dark period in our past.
This is a book that I have thoroughly enjoyed reading and I would recommend it to anyone who possesses even the slightest curiosity about how Britain came to be.
I can’t wait for his account of Brexit!
Read the reviews and buy the book in print and kindle: Amazon UK
And on Amazon US: Amazon US
Follow Mike on : Goodreads
About Mike Biles
Mike has lived in Britain all his life and generally loves the place, warts and all. He first learned history on his dad’s knee and went on to study medieval and modern British and European history at university. He was planning on teaching it, but then drifted into a career running his own business. Despite having worked with some of the UK’s most prestigious firms, he is often at his happiest with his nose in a history book, or exploring a historic site where the past is close. Several years ago, Mike began a blog – now an increasingly authoritative website – ‘A Bit About Britain’. He had to write a bit about Britain’s history for the website, and it seemed only sensible to put the material into his first book, ‘A Bit About Britain’s History’.
Connect to Mike Biles and explore his wonderful archives
Website home page – http://bitaboutbritain.com/
Blog page – http://bitaboutbritain.com/blog-2/
Facebook page – https://www.facebook.com/bitaboutbritain/
Twitter – https://twitter.com/bitaboutbritain
Pinterest – https://www.pinterest.co.uk/bit1032/
My thanks to Mike for the fable about Caedmon who earned his place in British history..
Join Mike again next week for another glimpse into the history, people and places in Britain.