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Who was Caedmon? What are his connections to Whitby?

Caedmon is the first English poet whose name was known, but what were his connections to Whitby?

Caedmon was a Northumbrian who cared for the animals at the double monastery of Streonæshalch which we know today as Whitby Abbey. During St. Hilda’s abbacy, Caedmon was said to have learned to compose poetry one night whilst having a dream. He later became a zealous monk and an accomplished, inspirational Christian poet.

Cædmon (Image licensed for reuse under this Public domain)

Caedmon and St Hilda of Whitby

Caedmon and St Hilda are forever joined in history for their contributions to religion and the English language. Caedmon may not have prospered in such a way under another ruling abbess. It was St Hilda that encouraged Caedmon’s talent and ensured his fame.

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The sole source of information about Cædmon’s life and work is from Bede’s Historia ecclesiastica. Bede records that Caedmon was a farmhand, working the grange of the Abbey to tend the animals. One evening, while the monks were feasting and singing. Caedmon took to bed early to sleep with the animals, because embarrassingly he didn’t know any songs and could not take part. The impression clearly given by St. Bede is that he lacked the knowledge of how to compose the lyrics to songs and that he was an illiterate man.

Whitby Abbey connections to Caedmon

While sleeping he dreamt that a figure approached him and asked him to sing principium creaturarum, “the beginning of created things.”  Caedmon first refused to sing but subsequently produced a poem praising God, the Creator of heaven and earth.

By the time he woke the next day, he had fixed in his mind a song in praise of God and creation. He told his foreman about his dream and was taken immediately to see St Hilda. Delighted, Hilda requested to hear Caedmon repeat the verse and satisfied that this illiterate had produced a miracle, asked him to write another. This time for a poem based on “a passage of sacred history or doctrine”.

Instinctively, Hilda knew that the words had been divinely inspired, when Caedmon returned the next day with the second song, she confirmed her intuition. Convinced of the divinity channeling through Caedmon she invited him to take vows to become a monk and made provisions for his education in doctrine and sacred history. According to Bede, Cædmon was responsible for a large number of splendid vernacular poetic texts on a variety of Christian topics.

Caedmon’s Hymn…

Now the words of the Father of Glory must honour the guardian of heaven, the might of the architect, and the minds of his purpose,
the work of the Father of Glory – as He is the
beginning of wonders (and He)
established, the eternal Lord,
He first created for the children of Earth
Heaven as a roof, the holy creator
Then the middle-earth, the guardian of mankind,
the eternal Lord, afterwards appointed,
for men among the Lands, the Lord Almighty.

The poem is one of the earliest attested examples of Old English and is, with the runic Ruthwell Cross and Franks Casket inscriptions, one of three candidates for the earliest attested example of Old English poetry.

Caedmon’s death

Cædmon Cross in Whitby

After his death, the Abbey church became a place of pilgrimage. In 1898 a great cross, a beautifully carved statue was erected in his memory in St Mary’s Churchyard. Caedmon College, the local school, takes his name in honour of his work. It is his poem that is credited with helping to spread Christianity around all the British Isles. 

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