Bede and “Herutford”

Bede and “Herutford”

A Synod of the English Church

The Venerable Bede wrote in the Ecclesiastical History of England (731) that a synod of the church in England took place “on the 24th day of September, at the place which is called Herutford … in the year of our Lord 673”.[i]  Looks like a perfectly clear statement, doesn’t it?  If only it was that easy.

Bede writing the Ecclesiastical History of England (Stiftsbibliothek Kloster Engelberg)

Was the year actually 673?  Authors have varying interpretations of the date when Bede’s year began[ii], so some come to the conclusion that the synod took place in 672, while others say that Bede’s 673 is correct.

The second controversy concerns which location Bede’s “Herutford” refers to.  There are two options, with some authors in favour of the one and others in favour of the other:  Hertford, Herts, or Hartford near Huntingdon.

Wherever it was held, we would expect some evidence of a settlement. For Hertford, the earliest evidence of a settlement as such is only from the 10th century.  However, at Foxholes Farm, southwest of Hertford, archaeologists have found traces of some buildings and pottery from the 7th century.  The property overlooks the River Lea and the ford, which gave Hertford its name.[iii] So, if “Herutford” was in the area of today’s Hertford, this property might be where the synod took place.

It has also been pointed out[iv] that a location near the River Lea might have been a good choice.  The Lea was the frontier between two kingdoms and their areas of influence, Mercia and Essex, as well as between two dioceses, Lincoln and London.  Such a frontier location would have made an ideal spot to hold a synod which aimed to establish unity in the church in England.

The synod was called by Theodore, bishop of Canterbury.[v]  There had been a period of upheaval in the English church, and the archbishopric of Canterbury had been vacant for five years.  On 26 March 668, Pope Vitalian made Theodore of Tarsus Archbishop of Canterbury.  Theodore had a great reputation as a scholar, but was already 66 years old.  When he travelled to England, he was accompanied by Hadrian, an abbot and a counsellor to the pope.  Hadrian was in his thirties, born between 630 and 637 and of North African background.  There were some unforeseen delays on their journey to England.  Eventually, Theodore arrived on 27 May 669, a full year after setting out from Rome, and Hadrian arrived the following year.

Theodore of Tarsus

As soon as Hadrian had joined Theodore, they undertook a tour of the archdiocese. With the vacancy of the archbishopric quite a few bishoprics had fallen vacant, too.  Theodore set about filling them. He quickly seems to have gained the trust and respect of the English clergy.  According to Bede he was ”the first archbishop whom all the English Church consented to obey”. [vi]

Hadrian was given the monastery of St Peter and St Paul at Canterbury (later St Augustine’s Abbey).  Here he and Theodore set up a school, where, as Bede puts it poetically, “rivers of wholesome knowledge daily flowed from them to water the hearts of their hearers”.[vii]  The subjects taught included scripture, metre, astronomy, and computes.  The school was very well respected and its students were well versed in Greek and Latin.[viii]  One of the students was Aldhelm, later bishop of Sherborne.  Some of the teaching at the school is available to us today in a large corpus of biblical commentaries and above all a famous Latin–Old English glossary, the ‘Leiden Glossary’ (so called because its only extant copy is held by the University of Leiden).

According to Bede, Theodore introduced church music to all of England, as previously it had apparently only been known in Kent.[ix]  Music seems to have been an issue close to Theodore’s heart, as the qualification for one of the bishops he ordained, Putta, bishop of Rochester, was that he was “specially skilful in Church music”.[x]  Wilfrid, bishop of Northumbria, was also very keen on church music and brought “to Ripon in the late 660s a Kentish singing master trained in the Roman tradition”.[xi]

Although the synod was supposed to be for the whole of the English church, only four of seven bishops attended:  Bisi, bishop of East Anglia, the above-mentioned Putta, bishop of Rochester, Leuthere, bishop of Winchester, and Wynfrid, bishop of the Mercians.  Wilfrid, bishop of Northumbria, was represented by legates. The bishops were supported by many teachers of the church.

The aim of the synod was the unity of the Church of England. Ten articles were decided: The date of Easter was determined. Rules for bishops were laid down, such as that they may not intrude into other dioceses or trouble monasteries or take away their possessions. Bishops were to be responsible for checking on the migration of their clergy.  A bishop’s status was to depend on the date of his consecration.  Monks were only allowed to leave their monastery with their abbot’s licence.  Rules for marriage and divorce among lay people were agreed upon.  It was decided to hold a synod every year on 1 August “at the place called Clofeshoch”.  Where this place was has not yet been identified.

One article called for the consecration of more bishops as the number of converts grew, but there seems to have been some controversy and action on this was postponed.

Except in the case of East Anglia.  Bishop Bisi was already elderly and “hindered by grievous infirmity from administering his episcopal functions”.[xii]  At the synod, he was released from his duties and two bishops consecrated in his place, Aecci and Badwin, thus splitting the bishopric in two.  Aecci became bishop of Dunwich and Badwin bishop of North Elmham in Norfolk.

In the following years, Theodore came back to the issue of increasing the number of bishops and created more dioceses.  One of them was the bishopric of Leicester, with its first bishop Cuthwine, which was created by subdividing the see of Lichfield in 679.[xiii]

In 680 (or 679), Theodore called another synod “in the plain of Haethfelth”.[xiv]  Again, not only is the actual year debated but also the actual location.  “Haethfelth” could have been Hatfield in Hertfordshire or Hatfield Chase in Yorkshire.  Hatfield, Herts, is just down the road from Hertford.  Who knows, maybe Theodore took a special liking to that part of Hertfordshire and both synods took place in that county?!

After 22 years as archbishop of Canterbury, Theodore died at the age of eighty-eight on 19 September 690.  He was buried in in the church of the monastery of St Peter and St Paul in Canterbury.  On his tomb was an epitaph in nineteen elegiac distichs, which might have been written by his former student Aldhelm.  The tomb has been lost, but a few verses have survived in Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of England.[xv]  Hadrian survived Theodore by 19 years and died in 709.  He was also buried in his monastery.


[i] Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of England, Book IV, Chapter V. George Bell and Sons, London, 1907, pp.115-117  Available online at URL:,_Beda_Venerabilis,_Ecclesiastical_History_Of_England,_EN.pdf

[ii] Wynn, J.B., ‘The Beginning of the Year in Bede and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle’, Medium Ævum, vol. 25, no. 2 (1956), pp. 71-78

[iii] Partridge, C., ‘Hertford and Ware: archaeological perspectives from birth to middle age’, in: A County of Small Towns:  The development of Hertfordshire’s urban landscape to 1800, ed. T. Slater & N. Goose.  Hertfordshire Publications, 2010 (first published 2008), pp. 141-142

[iv] Williamson, T., The Origins of Hertfordshire.  University of Hertfordshire Press, 2010, p. 100

[v] Stenton, F.M., Anglo-Saxon England. Oxford University Press, 2001 (first published 1943), pp. 131-134; Lapidge, M., ‘Theodore of Tarsus [St Theodore of Tarsus] (602–690)’, Oxford DNB (online 23 Sept. 2004) [last accessed online 15 Aug. 2019]; Lapidge, M., ‘Hadrian (630×37–709)’, Oxford DNB (online 23 Sept. 2004) [last accessed online 16 Aug. 2019]

[vi] Both quotes: Bede, Book IV, Chapter 2, pp.111-112

[vii] Ibid.

[viii] Lapidge, M., ‘The school of Theodore and Hadrian’, Anglo-Saxon England, vol. 15 (1986), pp. 45-72

[ix] Bede, Book IV, Chapter 2, pp. 111-112

[x] Ibid.

[xi] Thacker, A., ‘Wilfrid [St Wilfrid] (c. 634–709/10)’, Oxford DNB (online 23 Sept. 2004) [last accessed online 15 Aug. 2019]

[xii] Bede, Book IV, Chapter 5, p.117

[xiii] Stenton, p.134

[xiv] Bede, Book IV, Chapter 17, pp.127-128

[xv] Bede, Book V, Chapter 8, p.153

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