Honorius presenting a church to Santa Agnese - santa Agnese fuori le mure, Roma

Bede and Willibrord


Bede, Willibrord and the Letters of Pope Honorius I on the genesis of the archbishopric of York



In his Historia Ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum, completed in 731, Bede incorporated the texts of fourteen papal letters: eight were from Gregory the Great (590–604); three from Boniface V (619–25); two from Honorius I (625–38); one from Vitalian I (658–72). The two letters from Pope Honorius are the subject of this article.

Previously known only through the pages of Bede’s History, copies of both these letters have been identified within an early eighth-century manuscript that has no other connection with Bede’s text. This manuscript was made at Echternach, in modern day Luxembourg, for Willibrord (658–739), the Northumbrian missionary archbishop of Frisia.

Willibrord in front of his church in Echternach
Willibrord in front of his church in Echternach

This copy of the letters of Pope Honorius I has not been studied before now and analysis of it has far reaching implications for our understanding of a number of important issues, namely: the division of the English Church into two provinces each headed by a metropolitan bishop, as envisaged by Gregory the Great in his letters to Augustine of Canterbury; the circumstances surrounding establishment of the archbishopric of York in 735 and Bede’s involvement in that process; the circulation and transmission of Bede’s primary sources; networks of communication and the use of ‘old records’ to solve contemporary problems in early eighth-century Europe; the proliferation of archbishoprics in England and in Francia in the later seventh and eighth centuries.

The article is very interesting. Apart from the fact that it sheds light on the politicking of popes, archbishops, missionaries and other dignitaries in the first half of the 8th century, it is also a veritable tour-de-force of a paleographical detective story, showing just how diligent studies of manuscripts may yield new and important information on not only the manuscripts but also the political and administrative contexts in which they were produced. Which only goes to show how important it is to maintain a group of people well versed in paleography in an age and time where university administrators are only interested in postmodernity and modern media.

Definitely worth a read – and free access

Joanna E Story is professor of Early Medieval History at Leicester and currently principal investigator for the research project Impact of Diasporas in the Making of Britain: Evidence, Memories, Inventions


Bede, Willibrord and the Letters of Pope Honorius I on the genesis of the archbishopric of York
By Joanna E. Story
Oxford University Press (OUP)
English Historical Review, Vol 127, no. 527. Oxford University Press.

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