When going through Whitby you will notice that a few places hold names of famous residents of the past, and Caedmon is one of them. Given that Whitby has named their college after him it seems that Caedmon is a very important ancestor. But who actually was Caedmon?
In short, Caedmon is the writer of ‘Caedmon’s Hymn’ – the earliest English poem that can be attributed to an author, but Caedmon’s history is as interesting as it is mysterious. You see, there aren’t many historical accounts of Caedmon – the most detailed is that of Bede, an 8th century historian who wrote in detail about Caedmon in his book ‘Historia Ecclesiastica‘.
According to Bede, Caedmon was a lay brother who took care of the animals at Whitby Abbey, whilst it was under the abbess of St. Hilda. One evening when the monks were eating, playing music and singing to their tunes Caedmon left early out of embarrassment, he knew no songs and lacked the ability to compose.
As Caedmon cared for the animals at Whitby Abbey (Whitby was known as Streonaeshalch, the Viking name, at the time) he also slept with them and that night, after leaving the monks to sing their merry songs, Caedmon had a dream. A quidam came to Caedmon and asked for him to sing ‘Principium Creaturanum‘, at first Caedmon refused but the quidam demanded, and after a while Caedmon produced a short hymn that praised God.
Waking up the next morning, Caedmon remembered his dream and began adding additional lines to the poem, something he would have deemed impossible the night before. Realising that what had happened to him must be the work of God, Caedmon rushed to his foreman to tell him the story and was immediately taken to see the Abbess (St. Hilda). St Hilda asked Caedmon to repeat his dream and asked some questions, when satisfied with the answers St Hilda gave Caedmon a new commission, he was asked to write another poem based on ‘A passage of sacred history or doctrine’ as a means of testing Caedmon’s apparent gift.
Caedmon returned the next day with the poem in hand, and was instantly ordered to take monastic vows. He was taught sacred history and doctrine, which Caedmon would later turn into beautiful verses.
Unfortunately Caedmon’s only surviving poem is nine lined hymn ‘Caedmon’s Hymn’ which goes as follows;
Praise now to the keeper of the kingdom of heaven,
the power of the creator, the profound mind
of the glorious Father, who fashioned the beginning
Of every wonder, the eternal Lord.
For the children of men he made first
heaven as a roof, the holy Creator.
Then the Lord of mankind, the everlasting Shepherd,
ordained in the midst as a dwelling place,
Almighty Lord, the earth for men.
Although Caedmon wasn’t a St (despite popular belief) he did die like a saint. He asked to be taken to the hospice of the Abbey so he could die there surrounded by friends. After receiving the Holy Eucharist , he died.