‘Holy River’

One of the many statements about the River Swale that can be read in numerous published works, in print and online, is that it was once known as England’s River Jordan or The Holy River. Where the claim is explained, it is said that it was known as such since the time of the early Christian Anglo-Saxons, based on a report that around 627 to 633 the first bishop of York, Paulinus, baptised crowds of new believers at different locations along its length, and on one occasion he miraculously baptised more than 10,000 people in its waters in a single day.

That Paulinus baptised a lot of people in the Swale, specifically by Catterick, is almost certainly true because it was recorded by the trusted chronicler Bede in The Ecclesiastical History of the English People, which he wrote less than 100 years after Paulinus left the north and returned to his original English base in KentBut Bede didn’t mention baptisms by Paulinus at any place on the Swale other than Catterick. He didn’t mention a miracle of 10,000 people baptised in a day. He didn’t give any indication of numbers at all. He didn’t say that the Swale was acclaimed as England’s River Jordan or the Holy River. However, he did write about Paulinus baptising in several other northern rivers, one might say confirming that there was nothing special about the Swale.

An essay currently in production will explain how the embellishments to Bede’s account of Paulinus and the River Swale were constructed much later, through the re-attribution of reports of other historical events mixed with pure invention, and how Bede’s account and these additions were progressively mangled by successive writers, who were motivated by various issues such as church politics, Yorkshire pride, and even by clumsy and misguided attempts to sort out the mess. The creation of the myth of the holy river is a story of multiple acts of mischief, plagiarism and sloppy work by generations of historians and antiquarians, committed repeatedly over many centuries, and compounded by the desires of publishers to have a good story.

Look out for the essay at some future date.

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