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Ceolfrith [St Ceolfrith, Ceolfrid]locked

  • S. J. Coates

Ceolfrith [St Ceolfrith, Ceolfrid] (642–716), abbot of Wearmouth and Jarrow, was born into an aristocratic family, his father being a member of the royal comitatus (band of companions) of Oswiu, king of Northumbria.

Early career as a monk

In 660 Ceolfrith chose to become a monk and entered the minster of Gilling which had been ruled by his brother, Cynefrid. At the time of Ceolfrith's entry to the house, however, it was under the abbacy of their common kinsman, Tondbehrt, Cynefrid having withdrawn to Ireland. After an outbreak of plague in 664, the year of the Synod of Whitby where Bishop Wilfrid had zealously led the Northumbrian church to adhere to Roman orthodoxy concerning the calculation of Easter, Ceolfrith and Tondbehrt were invited to move to Wilfrid's foundation at Ripon. Here, at the age of twenty-seven, Ceolfrith was ordained to the priesthood by Wilfrid. Drawn more fully by the pull of Roman learning, he journeyed to Kent and then spent time in East Anglia at the minster of ‘Icanho’, Suffolk, which had been founded by St Botwulf. He returned to Ripon, where he held the office of baker while instructing the brethren in the observance of the monastic rule.

When in 674 Benedict Biscop founded a religious house at Wearmouth on land given to him by King Ecgfrith, he invited Ceolfrith to join him in its establishment and to serve as prior. The anonymous author of the life of Ceolfrith (written c.716, the earliest of the extant sources dealing with Ceolfrith's life) states that Benedict Biscop had to obtain Wilfrid's approval for Ceolfrith's transfer, a detail not recounted by Bede. Ceolfrith maintained close contact with Wilfrid and, having grown weary of his post as prior and suffered persecution from those who resented his regime, returned to Ripon. His relationship with Wilfrid must have further strengthened Ceolfrith's devotion to Rome, which was to form a central part of his ecclesiastical career.

If Wilfrid remained one formative influence on Ceolfrith's life, another was Benedict Biscop. He persuaded Ceolfrith to return to Wearmouth, anxious that it might be effectively governed during his frequent trips to Rome. During the period 678–80, Ceolfrith accompanied Benedict on one such trip, leaving behind Benedict's kinsman, Eosterwine, to rule Wearmouth and returning with John the Arch-Chanter, who instructed the brethren in Roman liturgical chant.

Abbot of Wearmouth and Jarrow

A gift of more estates from King Ecgfrith enabled Benedict Biscop to found a sister house to Wearmouth at Jarrow in 681 or 682. Ceolfrith was assigned this task and the church there was dedicated to St Paul on 23 April 685. A stone preserved at Jarrow commemorates the dedication, naming Ceolfrith as the founder of the church. There is disagreement between the sources as to the size and status of Jarrow at its foundation. The life of Ceolfrith records that he took twenty-two brothers with him, of whom ten were tonsured while the remainder awaited tonsure. Bede, however, stated that seventeen monks accompanied Ceolfrith. The anonymous biographer paints a picture of Jarrow united with Wearmouth in 'brotherly accord' while Bede suggests that the two might be compared to the body and head, perhaps implying Wearmouth's superiority. Jarrow maintained the older house's discipline of regular observance. Ceolfrith attended the church at all canonical hours, diligently instructing the brethren. The anonymous biographer states that a plague almost destroyed the community in 685 or 686, leaving only Ceolfrith and a young boy (parvulus) behind. The latter has commonly been thought to have been Bede although it is more probable that the great scholar was received at Wearmouth and remained affiliated with the older site. Ceolfrith rebuilt his community, restoring the much-disrupted liturgy so that the psalms and antiphons were sung in their customary order. His authority was such that he was consulted by St Peter's, Wearmouth, to elect a replacement for Eosterwine while Benedict Biscop was again absent in Rome. The deacon Sigfrid was chosen but was to die soon afterwards. Accordingly, Ceolfrith was then summoned by Benedict to be the sole abbot of both houses and was appointed on 12 May 688; Benedict died in the following year on 12 January.

Ceolfrith was praised for his diligence in strictly ruling the two communities while painstakingly relieving poverty through the bestowal of alms. He sent envoys to Rome and obtained a letter of privileges from Pope Sergius I (r. 687–701), securing for the monks of Wearmouth and Jarrow the right to nominate their own abbot after the death of the founder and ensuring the community freedom from episcopal control (although confirmation of the monks' choice by the benediction of the bishop was still required). This privilege, drawing upon an earlier privilege obtained from Pope Agatho by Benedict Biscop, also enforced adherence to the Benedictine rule through its insistence that an abbot should be chosen for his spiritual qualities, not for his family connections. Ceolfrith laid the letter of privileges before a synod for its public confirmation by King Aldfrith and those bishops who were present.

Like Benedict Biscop, Ceolfrith was concerned to acquire ecclesiastical vessels, and, most notably, books for Wearmouth–Jarrow. His contribution to the libraries of the two houses is one of his most significant achievements. The life of Ceolfrith singles out three copies of the Bible (pandects) commissioned by him: one for each of the two houses and a third destined for St Peter's in Rome. Bede links these pandects (which were copies of the more recent translation of the Bible, the Vulgate) with a copy of the older translation, the vetus Latina, which Ceolfrith had brought back from Rome. It is possible that the text of the old translation used was that known as the codex grandior described in the Institutiones of Cassiodorus. One of the three pandects, the Codex Amiatinus, is the oldest surviving complete text of the Latin Bible. It places the books of the Bible in the order of the old translation as listed by Cassiodorus, yet uses the Vulgate translation of Jerome and was conceived as a papally organized text, further drawing Wearmouth–Jarrow into the orbit of Rome. The three pandects together would have required the skins of 1550 calves to provide the vellum, indicating the scale of Wearmouth–Jarrow's endowment and resources. The size of that endowment was increased when Ceolfrith gave a cosmography to King Aldfrith of Northumbria and received 8 hides of land in return.

Wearmouth–Jarrow's status as a scriptorium grew appreciably under Ceolfrith. Aside from the Codex Amiatinus, the Stonyhurst gospel of St John is thought to have been written during his abbacy. Fragments of one of the other pandects, of Gregory the Great's Moralia in Job, and of Bede's De temporum ratione are also associated with the scriptorium. Ceolfrith clearly had a keen sense of the importance of the written word in fostering and preserving monastic tradition. The manuscripts were written in a consistent capitular uncial script characteristic of that developed on the continent in the seventh and eighth centuries and derived from an ostentatiously Roman style developed in sixth-century Italy. Ceolfrith's devotion to Rome is further borne out by the Roman manner in which Wearmouth and Jarrow were built. The newly squared stones of the surviving east church at Jarrow may be the work of the Frankish masons whom Biscop had brought over, or of their trainees.

Ceolfrith's other notable achievement lay in establishing contact with Nechtan, king of the Picts. At Nechtan's request, Ceolfrith was said by Bede to have written a letter to the king in 710 concerning the disputed questions about Easter and the tonsure. It is possible that the letter may have been written by Bede himself but nevertheless it resulted in the adoption of Roman customs by the Picts. Ceolfrith then sent masons to build Nechtan a stone church.

Journey to Rome and death

In 716, believing that age had diminished his powers, Ceolfrith decided to leave the community at Wearmouth–Jarrow and to head for Rome, bearing with him the Codex Amiatinus. While waiting to depart, he heard of the election of his successor, Hwætberht, and confirmed it. He crossed to Francia and travelled south with letters of recommendation from King Chilperic II. On his arrival at Langres he was met by the governor, Gangulf, but died there on 25 September, at the age of seventy-four. He was buried on the next day in the church of the holy triplets, the Tergemini. Some of his eighty devastated companions returned to carry news of his death to Wearmouth–Jarrow; a second party pressed on to Rome to deliver the Codex Amiatinus; and a third group stayed behind with the body. In the tenth century Glastonbury claimed, probably spuriously, to have Ceolfrith's remains.

The anonymous life of Ceolfrith was composed after his death and is the fullest portrait of him. It has been argued that the author of the work may have been Bede, but the evidence is not fully conclusive. Bede's own Historia abbatum is a history of the community rather than of Ceolfrith alone and does not narrate his personal history before the death of Benedict Biscop. Ceolfrith heads the list of priest–abbots in the Durham Liber vitae, a list, perhaps begun in the eighth century, of royal persons and clergy to be prayed for at an unnamed church. The inclusion of Chilperic II, the only Frank to appear in the list of kings, may be a result of Ceolfrith's influence.


  • ‘Historia abbatum auctore anonymo’, Venerabilis Baedae opera historica, ed. C. Plummer, 1 (1896), 388–404 [Vita Ceolfridi]
  • ‘Historia abbatum auctore Baeda’, Venerabilis Baedae opera historica, ed. C. Plummer, 1 (1896), 364–87
  • Bede, Hist. eccl., 4.18; 5.21, 24
  • I. Wood, The most holy abbot Ceolfrid (1995)
  • J. McClure, ‘Bede and the Life of Ceolfrid’, Peritia, 3 (1984), 71–84
  • M. B. Parkes, The scriptorium of Wearmouth–Jarrow (1982)
  • William of Malmesbury, Gesta regum Anglorum / The history of the English kings, ed. and trans. R. A. B. Mynors, R. M. Thomson, and M. Winterbottom, 2 vols., OMT (1998–9), vol. 1, pp. 50, 54, 58
  • F. E. Warren, ed., The Leofric missal (1883), 31
  • The Bosworth psalter, ed. F. Gasquet and E. Bishop (1908), 18, 21, 106
  • The early history of Glastonbury: an edition, translation, and study of William of Malmesbury's De antiquitate Glastonie ecclesie, ed. J. Scott (1981)
  • [A. H. Thompson], ed., Liber vitae ecclesiae Dunelmensis, SurtS, 136 (1923), 1, 6
  • J. Higgitt, ‘The dedication inscription at Jarrow and its context’, Antiquaries Journal, 59 (1979), 343–74
  • S. Coates, ‘Ceolfrid: history, hagiography and memory in seventh- and eighth-century Wearmouth–Jarrow’, Journal of Medieval History, 25 (1999), 69–86


  • Biblioteca Laurenziana, Florence, Codex Amiatinus
  • Stonyhurst College, Lancashire, Gospel of Saint John
Bede, ed. and trans. B. Colgrave & R. A. B. Mynors, OMT (1969); repr. (1991)
Oxford Medieval Texts
Surtees Society