Holy Island Coat of Arms Little-known Saints of the North
© Reverend Canon Kate Tristram
27. CAEDMON:
 
Caedmon is the earliest known English Christian poet. He started life as a cowherd in the lands of St. Hild's monastery at Whitby, while she was Abbess there.
 
At that stage he was illiterate, but probably Christian, but, when the labourers entertained each other with songs after supper, he was embarrassed because he felt unable to join in. One night he took refuge in the cowshed and there, in a dream or a vision, a man or an angel stood by him and asked him to sing. 'I can't', said Caedmon. 'You must and you shall', said the heavenly visitant. 'Sing about the creation of all things.' And Caedmon found that he could, and did.
 
Next day, when the story was told to the Abbess, she asked him as a test to compose on a theme she chose. Then she admitted him to the monastery as a lay brother. He was not asked to learn to read Latin. The Bible stories were told to him and he turned them into English songs, to be used to help the newly-converted English in their faith.
 
He lived the rest of his life devoutly in the monastery, and had a premonition of the time of his death. Then, though apparently in perfect health, he asked to be taken to the house where the dying were cared for, and to receive communion. He cheerfully said good-bye to the brothers, calmly fell asleep, and so died.
 
His poetry has not survived, except for a few lines from the original song in the cowshed, quoted by Bede in Latin.
 
26. HEREFRITH:
 
Herefrith was a monk of Lindisfarne in the seventh century, a younger contemporary of St. Cuthbert. He was very useful to Bede in giving him information when Bede was writing his Life of Cuthbert. It seems that Herefrith had first been a monk at Melrose, another monastery founded by Aidan, where Cuthbert also had been in his earlier days. So Herefrith was able to describe to Bede the death of Cuthbert's great friend, Boisil, the prior of Melrose. Boisil died of the plague, like so many others at the time. But he spent his last few days with Cuthbert reading through St. John's Gospel together.
 
At some point Herefrith moved to Lindisfarne. He seems to have a gift for getting to know people, and he got to know the Abbess of Whitby, Aelflaed, who had succeeded St. Hild. It was a very small world then! She also was a friend of Cuthbert and she described to Herefrith two miraculous cures in her own community by means of a girdle sent to her by Cuthbert. Herefrith gave the information to Bede.
 
But, most important, Herefrith was one of the small group of monks who were with Cuthbert on the Inner Farne when he died. He gave the very detailed account of Cuthbert's last hours which appears in Bede.
 
At some point Herefrith became Abbot of Lindisfarne, and then probably a hermit. We know little more about his life. But through him we get some insight into the way Bede worked, as he gathered the information for his best-known 'historical' works.
 
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