Kings and Kingship in the Writings of Bede

07 Feb 2018

This article argues that the Anglo-Saxon intellectual Bede (d. 735) saw kingship as a ‘secular’ office. Previous historiography has tended to rely upon the evidence of Bede’s historical works, which, for reasons of genre and audience, do not accurately represent his attitudes to rulership; here, his exegesis and theology are foregrounded. Bede’s theological writings describe both Christ and Satan as kings, suggesting a morally neutral view of kingship. Biblical texts which would have allowed him to comment upon the behaviour of contemporary kings received purely spiritual interpretations in Bede’s works, which display little interest in general in the ideology of ministerial kingship. The Anglo-Saxon did believe good Christians could be kings and use their power for the benefit of the Church, but this was primarily because of the very ‘secularity’ of kingship, an institution which veered between the elect and reprobate and of which the devout should take advantage when they could. But Bede did not expect these Christian kings to spread the faith at the point of a sword or to transform the power of rulership into a force for ecclesiastical reform. Influenced by Augustinian ideas, contemporary events and the attitudes to earthly monarchy emerging from early medieval Rome, Bede maintained a basic conviction that worldly power belonged to a secular sphere. While Robert Markus influentially suggested that the transition between Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages saw the ‘de-secularisation’ of Europe, the evidence of Bede suggests the continuation of Christian secularism into the eighth century.