It is unfortunate that the greatest of Anglo-Saxon historians, writing at a time when these traditions were still alive, regarded them as irrelevant to his purpose.  Bede was in touch with men who could have told him much about the origins of the English kingdoms.   His pupil, Egbert, archbishop of York, was a member of the Northumbrian royal family.  Coelwulf, king of the Northumbrians, to whom Bede sent a draft of the Historia Ecclesiastica for revision, was particularly interested in the deeds and sayings of the illustrious Englishmen of the past.  In view of Bede’s relations with the Northumbrian court, it is highly dangerous to reject anything that he offers as a statement of historical fact.  But he had a scholar’s dislike of the indefinite, and traditions of events to which no date or circumstance could be assigned fell outside his conception of history. . .

This does not mean that Bede’s analysis of the English people should be disregarded.  It satisfied a king of the Northumbrians in an age when kings were accustomed to listen to heroic verse covering all the nations of the Germanic world.  It was the work of a cautious scholar who had known eminent persons and was in communication with friends in many different parts of England.  Its precision in regard to the obscure race of the Jutes, who had not given their name to any English kingdom, proves the care with which it was written.  But it is not a mere piece of scholarly reconstruction.  Titles of kings and bishops, recorded before the date of Bede’s work, show that different English peoples actually regarded themselves as Angles or Saxons.  It was not as a result of any deliberate theory that two adjacent peoples came to be known, respectively, as East Saxons and East Angles.  Names like these stood for a real, if faded, memory of origins.  In representing the gens Anglorum as a composite people drawn from three distinct Germanic nations, Bede was reflecting the common opinion of his time, and the vitality of tradition makes it very unlikely that this opinion was fundamentally mistaken.

From: Anglo-Saxon England by F. M. Stenton; second edition; The Oxford History of England series (Oxford: At the Clarendon Press, 1947), pp. 8, 10-11.  The first edition of this work was published in 1943.


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