Cædmon, who was born around the year 670, was an obscure shepherd at Whitby Abbey, Northumbria, until he composed his famous hymn to God the Creator. The famous story of its composition was recorded in Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People (written in 731).
One night in a dream, someone appeared to Cædmon and asked him to sing ‘about the beginning of created things’ whereupon Cædmon, who was ignorant of poetry and song, sang out a hymn of praise. When he awoke the next morning he could remember everything and told his master, who took him to the abbess of Whitby for whom Cædmon recited his song with further additions. Later on, the poem was written down and was translated from Old English by Bede into Latin.
The story of Cædmon’s hymn shows the importance attached to lyric verse and song in Anglo Saxon Christianity, and also that unless it was written down, much of the hymnody of this period has been lost because it was oral.
The melody to which Cædmon’s hymn would have been sung has not survived, but the text was set to music by the composer Peter Bird (b. 1951) for four-part choir and obbligato bell.