3rd May 664. What’s in a Date?

Today was the day in 664 which the Venerable Bede incorrectly ascribed to the solar eclipse, of that year, when as he would have known, and the available evidence confirmed it as happening on May 1st.

In a letter [In translation from the Latin]: ‘In the same year of our Lord 664 an eclipse of the sun occurred about ten o’clock in the morning on the third of May and a sudden plague…later spread into the province of the Northumbrians.'(1)

It refers to a total eclipse of the sun, which had a path of totality across northern England and Ireland, which would have included the Celtic, Ionian monasteries on the North-East coast such as Hartlepool (Hart’s Pool), Whitby, Lindisfarne.

This was followed by an outbreak of plague so one can imagine that King Oswy of Northumbria would have thought he had brought down God’s wrath on his resurgent Columban Church and the monasteries.

Could the portents be saying the Roman way was the true way, especially as his wife followed the Roman dating of Easter, so they celebrated at different times. He decided to call a Synod at Whitby to decide matters.

However, the Easter Tables of the Roman Calendar were incorrect by stating the date of the new moon as May 3rd, and Bede knew that any eclipse would have preceded that.

Thus the eclipse was confirmed as being at the 9th hour on 1st of May, as reported in the Annals of Ulster and other Irish Annals. This has been proved beyond dispute.

So why did Bede go along with the discrepancy by pandering to the erroneous Roman Calendar and why did Bede believe he needed to bring it into line with Dionysias’ 19 year cycle, and why didn’t he correct them?

Bede knew that the date of the eclipse was crucial in its implications for the acceptance of the Easter dating tables developed by Dionysias Exiguous to be endorsed by the Celtic Church at Whitby in 664.(2)

The answer could be that it was a sensitive issue, for his Celtic Church, only a few decades after the event. Another consideration was the fact that Bishop [St] Wilfred was a friend of Bede and still alive when he was writing, and he and Bishop Biscop, had brought back from Rome their Easter dates, so Wilfred would have been keen to promote these.

So the question arises was Bede persuaded to be economical with the truth?

It was Archbishop Ussher (1581-1656), who was the first to point out the disparity of the two dates, which favoured Dionysias, and which were to form the reckoning, from the 8th century of  western ecclesiastical calculations, and set to go unchallenged until 1582.

The Roman calendar tables were in any case 4 years adrift despite any other considerations, as they were based on Dionysias’ computus of 532, which had attempted to allocate a date to the birth of Jesus.

But he had made a fatal mistake regarding a key date, throwing him out by 4 years. So beware of twisting facts to suit one’s purpose.

(1a) The eclipse date, of May 1st 664, has been calculated since with precision. Much research has been done by Daniel McCarthy and Aidan Breen, whose computations also allow for the deceleration of the earth’s spin over millennia.

(1b) The 664 eclipse was the first to be have been definitely recorded in English and the link between the Synod of Whitby (before birth of Bede c 672).

(2) When Rome changed its calendar in 46 ACE to a solar based system which was only somewhat lunar, the Irish were unaware of the change, and of the Council of Nicea which established Easter dating. Only when Columbanus (543-615), the Irish monk scholar travelled to Europe with a different date, did the variation become apparent.

Ref: Ecclesiastical History of the English People: Bede’s letter to Egbert.

Ref: thefreecanterburywriter.com.


Ref: goldenageofhtenorthumbrians.com/hist.

Ref: jstor.org/discover.




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About colindunkerley

My name is Colin Dunkerley who having spent two years in the Royal Army Pay Corps ploughed many a barren industrial furrow until drawn to the 'chalk-face' as a teacher, now retired. I have spent the last 15 years researching all aspects of life in Britain since Roman times.

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