Benedict Biscop (c 628-689) was a rich Northumbrian nobleman who began his career at the court of King Oswiu of Northumberland, before deciding, in the words of the Venerable Bede, “to forswear riches that decay in order to serve under the true King and earn an everlasting kingdom”.
In the process he made six visits to Rome, and travelled extensively in Gaul. This enabled him to introduce the practices of Roman and Frankish Christianity into Northumberland, which had originally been converted by Celtic missionaries.
Biscop Baducing, as he was originally called, first set off to the Holy See in 653. At Canterbury he encountered that dedicated Romaniser St Wilfrid, with whom he travelled as far as Rheims.
The rich and pious young man was well received in Rome, as rich and pious young men generally are. He lodged at the monastery of St Andrew on the Caelian Hill, where St Gregory the Great had been abbot.
On his return Biscop passed several years at the Northumbrian court, before visiting Rome again in 666. On the way back he stayed at the abbey of Lérins, on the island of St Honorat, off what is now Cannes.
The monastery had adopted rules inspired by both the Italian St Benedict and the Irish St Columbanus. Biscop, entranced, took his religious vows, taking the name Benedict.
He might have stayed at Lérins. But his third visit to Rome, in 667, coincided with the death there of Wigheard, Archbishop of Canterbury; and Pope Vitalian persuaded him to accompany Wigheard’s successor, Theodore of Tarsus, back to England. Between 669 and 671 Benedict Biscop took charge of the monastery of St Peter and St Paul in Canterbury.
In 671 he was in Rome again, buying books. Back in his native Northumberland, he founded in 674 the minster of St Peter’s at Wearmouth, importing Frankish stone masons and glass makers from Gaul. The Rule that Abbot Biscop drew up was basically St Benedict’s, modified by his own experiences of Frankish monasteries.
In 679 he made his fifth visit to Rome, to acquire books, relics and pictures for his foundation. He also brought back the arch-cantor of St Peter’s to instruct the monks at Wearmouth in chanting.
Thanks to the generosity of King Ecgfrith of Northumbria, Biscop was able in 681 to found a sister monastery, at Jarrow. Parts of both houses still survive. The Venerable Bede (673-735) was received as a seven-year-old at Wearmouth, before dedicating himself to scholarship and writing at Jarrow.
Benedict Biscop undertook his last journey to Rome in 685, returning with fine vestments as well as silk cloaks which he exchanged for land at the mouth of the Wear.
Latterly he was afflicted with creeping paralysis which he bore with exemplary cheerfulness.