Symeon of Durham

From documents that feature the handwriting of Symeon of Durham, it is possible to deduce that he was a native of Normandy or an adjacent province of northern France; that he probably came to Durham with Bishop William of Saint-Calais, when the latter returned after a period of exile on the Continent, in 1091; that he was in charge of the scriptorium at Durham; that he died in about 1130.[*] The two major works traditionally attributed to Symeon are:


Libellus de Exordio atque Procursu istius, hoc est Dunhelmensis, Ecclesie (Tract on the Origins and Progress of this the Church of Durham), which is also known as Historia Ecclesiae Dunelmensis (History of the Church of Durham). The work begins with the foundation of the monastery on Lindisfarne in 635, and concludes with the death, in 1096, of Bishop William of Saint-Calais (under whose auspices the present Durham Cathedral had, on 11th August 1093, begun to be built). Internal evidence indicates that the Libellus was composed between 1104 and, at the latest, 1115.[*] The author is not named in the two earliest, i.e. early-12th century, copies. In a late-12th century copy (Cambridge University Library MS Ff i 27), however, rubrics at the beginning and end of the work ascribe it to Symeon, and this would seem to be correct, since one of the early manuscripts (Durham University Library MS Cosin V ii 6) has editorial corrections in what has been identified as Symeon’s hand.


The so-called Historia Regum (History of the Kings), which exists in a single late-12th century manuscript (Cambridge, Corpus Christi College MS 139). The work is introduced by a rubric:

Here begins the history of Symeon, of holy and pleasant memory, monk and precentor of the Church of St Cuthbert, of Durham, concerning the Kings of the Angles and Danes, and their numerous wars, pillages and burnings; from after the death of the Venerable Bede, priest, to within a little of the death of King Henry the First, son of William the Bastard, who conquered England; that is, during a period of 429 years and 4 months.

Bede died in 735, the Historia Regum ends in 1129 and Henry I died in 1135, but adding “429 years and 4 months” to the date of Bede’s death (he died in May) produces September 1164, which clearly presents something of a conundrum. Peter Hunter Blair has suggested that the copying-out of the work as it now exists was completed in September 1164, and this is indeed consistent with dating indicators appearing in other works included in the same manuscript.[*] Furthermore, the “history” that follows the rubric is not a history at all, but a historical miscellany, beginning well before Bede’s death with a piece concerning 7th century Kent: “the Martyrdom of Saints Æthelberht and Æthelred, youths of the royal lineage”.  Next comes an elaborated Bernician/Northumbrian king list down to Bede’s time. This is followed by a piece mainly taken from Bede’s Historia Abbatum (History of the Abbots, of Wearmouth and Jarrow). After that, there is the first of two, overlapping, chronicles.

Chronicle One covers the period 732–957.[*] It falls into three distinct sections. The first, 732–802, is taken from a lost Northumbrian source. The second, 849–887, is mainly taken from Asser. On stylistic grounds, all the items so far comprising the Historia Regum are thought to have been composed by Byrhtferth (d.c.1020), a monk and teacher at Ramsey Abbey (north of Huntingdon).[*] The third section, 888–957, is a set of brief annals compiled after 1042.[*]

Chronicle One is separated from Chronicle Two by extracts from the Gesta Regum Anglorum of William of Malmesbury.

Chronicle Two covers the period 848–1129. The section 848–1118 is, for the most part, derived from the Chronicon ex Chronicis of Florence of Worcester, but the section 1119–1129 is, almost entirely, an original composition.

The Historia Regum concludes with a rubric:

Here ends the history of Symeon, of pleasant and holy memory, monk and precentor of the Church of St Cuthbert, of Durham, embracing a period of 429 years and four months.

It is possible that the annals 1119–1129, and some items of northern interest inserted into the Florence of Worcester section, are indeed the work of Symeon of Durham. Perhaps the Historia Regum is a collection of materials gathered by Symeon with the intention of producing a coherent history, but death prevented him from putting his plan into action.

Historia Regum translation by Joseph Stevenson

Passages written in red to distinguish them from the rest of the text.
There is an allusion (I, 10) to the translation, in 1104, of St Cuthbert’s remains to the new cathedral at Durham. One of two early-12th century copies of the Libellus (in London, British Library, Cotton Faustina A V) has a sentence (III, 22) which states that Turgot was holding the office of prior at “the present day”, i.e. at the time of writing. Though the sentence has been erased in the other early-12th century copy (in Durham University Library MS Cosin V ii 6), enough survives to demonstrate that it was originally present. Turgot became prior in 1087. He was elected bishop of St Andrews in 1107, though he wasn’t consecrated until 1109, and he could possibly have retained his office at Durham until his death in 1115.
In fact, the first annal, dated 732,
should be dated 731.
In his paper ‘The Scribes of the Durham Cantor’s Book (Durham, Dean and Chapter Library, MS B.IV.24) and the Durham Martyrology Scribe’ (in Anglo-Norman Durham, 1093-1193, 1994), Michael Gullick discussed the work of the ‘Durham Martyrology scribe’ (as Gullick called him), noting:
His hand has been found in more than a dozen manuscripts and he also wrote seven charters. His earliest datable work is 1093 and he was still alive in 1128… He appears to have worked first for William of St Calais, perhaps even in Normandy before coming to England, but not necessarily based all the time in Durham. He was soon also working for the Durham community and it could only have been as a member of the community that he came to supervise the work of other scribes. The material that the scribe added to earlier manuscripts reveals that he must have been a figure of considerable importance. No other contemporary Durham scribe can be compared to the Martyrology scribe in the range and extent of his work… it ought to be possible to name him. There is one obvious candidate: the historian Symeon of Durham.
The identification of the ‘Durham Martyrology scribe’ as Symeon of Durham is now well established.
In 1963, Peter Hunter Blair had noticed that this material was written in a distinctive “bombastic” style. In 1982, Michael Lapidge identified the author as Byrhtferth of Ramsey.
There are two lengthy passages, s.a. 740 and s.a. 781, concerning bishops of Hexham, written in a simpler style, which are later – not before 1113 – interpolations.
The final entry, i.e. s.a. 957, refers to the reign of Edward the Confessor (who became king in 1042).
Peter Hunter Blair ‘Some Observations on the Historia Regum Attributed to Symeon of Durham’, in Celt and Saxon: Studies in the Early British Border (1963).
Cambridge, Corpus Christi College MS 139 can be viewed online.
Peter Hunter Blair ‘Some Observations on the Historia Regum Attributed to Symeon of Durham’, in Celt and Saxon: Studies in the Early British Border (1963).
Michael Lapidge ‘Byrhtferth of Ramsey and the early sections of the Historia Regum attributed to Symeon of Durham’, in Anglo-Saxon England Vol. 10 (1982).