Chapter Four: The Christian Tradition
The coming of Christianity overshadows the political achievements
of the age. In most of lowland Britain, Latin had become
the language of administration and education, especially
since Celtic writing was virtually unknown. Latin was also
the language of the Church in Rome. The old Celtic gods
gave way to the new ones such as Mithras, introduced by
the Roman mercenaries; these in turn were replaced when
missionaries from Gaul introduced Christianity to the islands.
By 3l4, an organized Christian Church seems to have been
established in most of Britain, for in that year British
bishops were summoned to the Council of Arles. By the end
of the fourth century, a diocesan structure had been set
up, many districts having come under the pastoral care of
a bishop. In the meantime, however, missionaries of the
Gospel had been active in the south and east of the land
that later became known as Scotland (it was not until the
late tenth Century that the name Scotia ceased to be applied
to Ireland and become transferred to southwestern Scotland).
The first of these was Ninian who probably built his first
church (Candida Casa: White House) at Whithorn in Galloway,
ministering from there as a traveling bishop and being buried
there after his death in 397 A.D. For many centuries his
tomb remained a place of pilgrimage, including visits from
kings and queens of Scotland.
It was during the time of the Saxon invasions, in that
relatively unscathed western peninsular that later took
the name Wales, that the first monasteries were established
(the words Wales and Welsh were used by the Germanic invaders
to refer to Romanized Britons). They spread rapidly to Ireland
from where missionaries returned to those parts of Britain
that were not under the Roman Bishops' jurisdiction, mainly
the Northwest (in present day Scotland).
The island of Iona is just off the western coast of Argyll.
It is been called the "Isle of Dreams" or "Isle
of Druids." Columba (Columcille "Dove of the Church")
with his small band of Irish monks landed here in 563 A.D.
to spread the faith. The missionary saint inaugurated Aidan
as king of the new territory of Dalriata (previously settled
by men from Columba's own Ulster, in northern Ireland).
Iona was quickly to become the ecclesiastical head of the
Celtic Church in the whole of Britain as well as a major
political center. The honor later went to Lindisfarne, for
after the monastic settlement at Iona gave sanctuary to
the exiled Oswald early in the seventh century, the king
invited the monks to come to his restored kingdom of Northumbria.
It was thus that Aidan, with his twelve disciples, came
to Lindisfarne, destined with Iona to become one of the
great cultural centers of the early Christian world.
In this period, the 5th and 6th Centuries, many Celtic
saints were adopted by the rapidly-expanding Church. At
the Synod of Whitby in 664, however, the Celtic Church,
by majority opinion of the British bishops accepted the
rule of St. Peter, introduced by Augustine, rather than
of St. Columba. It was thus forced to abandon its own ideas
about the consecration of its Bishops, tonsure of its monks,
dates for the celebration of Easter and other differences
with Rome. Whitby settled matters once and for all as far
as the future direction of the Church in England was concerned.
From this date on, we can no longer speak of a Celtic Church
as distinct from that of Rome. St Augustine had been sent
in 597 to convert the pagan English, by Pope Gregory, anxious
to spread the Gospel, but also to enhance papal prestige
by reclaiming former territories of Rome. Augustine received
a favorable reception in the kingdom of Ethelbert, who had
married Bertha, daughter of the Merovingian King and a practicing
Christian. Augustine's success in effecting a large number
of converts led to his consecration as bishop by the end
of the year.
Pope Gregory had a detailed plan for the administration
of the Church in England. There were to be two archbishops:
London and York (each to have l2 bishops). As the city of
London was not under the control of Ethelbert, however,
a new see was chosen at Canterbury, in Kent. It was there
that Augustine, now promoted to archbishop, laid down the
beginnings of the ecclesiastical organization of the Church
in Britain. It was Gregory's guiding hand, however, that
influenced all Augustine's decisions; both Pope and Bishop
seemed to know little of the Celtic Church, and made no
accommodations with it.
The establishment of the Church at York was not possible
until 625; the immense task of converting and then organizing
the converted was mostly beyond the limited powers of Augustine,
apparently well-trained in monastic rule, but little trained
in law and administration. Edwin of Northumbria's wife chose
Paulinus as Bishop, and the see of York was established.
Later attacks from the Pagan king Penda of Mercia, however,
meant that only a limited kind of Christian worship took
place in the North until around the middle of the 8th Century.
In 668, when a vacancy arose at Canterbury, the monk Theodore
of Tarsus was appointed as archbishop. His background as
a Greek scholar meant that he had to take new vows and be
ordained in custom with the Church in the West. He then
worked diligently to set up the basis of diocesan organization
throughout England, ably assisted by another Greek scholar
Hadrian (who was familiar with the Western Church) and carrying
out decisions made at Whitby. When Theodore arrived at Canterbury,
there was one bishop south of the River Humber and two in
the North: Cedda, a Celtic bishop: and Wilfred of Ripon,
who had argued so successfully for the adoption of the Roman
Church at Whitby. Theodore consecrated new bishops at Dulwich,
Winchester, and Rochester; and set up the sees of Worcester,
Hereford, Oxford and Leicester. At first, Wilfred of Ripon
reigned supreme in Northumbria as the exponent of ecclesiastical
authority, but when he quarreled with King Ecgfrith, he
was sent into exile. Theodore seized his opportunity to
break up the North into smaller and more controllable dioceses.
Over the next twenty years bishoprics were established at
York, Hexham, Ripon, and Lindsey. Theodore also re-established
the system of ecclesiastical synods that disregarded any
One of Theodore's great accomplishments was to create the
machinery through which the wealth of the Celtic Church
was transferred to the Anglo-Saxon Church. This wealth was
particularly responsible for the late 7th Century flowering
of culture in Northumbria, which benefited from both Celtic
and Roman influences.
In that northern outpost of the Catholic Church, a tradition
of scholarship began that was to have a profound influence
on the literature of Western Europe. It constituted a remarkable
outbreak with equally remarkable consequences.
At this time, the English Church had an enormous influence
on the Continent, where rulers such as Charles Martel and
Pepin lll were pursuing aggressive policies against the
Germanic tribes. Missionaries from the highly advanced English
Church were extensively recruited. Wilfred of Ripon found
a new calling after his expulsion from Northumbria, and
he and others such as Willibrod carried out their conversions
with approval from Rome. The greatest of the missionaries
was Boniface, who established many German sees from his
new archbishopric at Mainz. From York came Alcuin, one of
the period's greatest scholars. All in all, we can say that
the Anglo-Saxon Church provided an important impetus for
the civilizing of much of the Continent. In particular,
it provided the agent for the fusing of Celtic and Roman
ideas, and its work in Europe produced events that had repercussions
of profound importance.
The scholastic tradition went hand in hand with the religious
conversion of the English. It began with a Northumbrian
nobleman, Benedict Biscop, who founded two monasteries Wearmouth
(674) and Jarrow (68l) that were to play important parts
in this culturalexplosion. Biscop made six journeys to Rome,
acquiring many valuable manuscripts and beginning what can
be termed a golden age in Northumbria. Its greatest scholar
was Bede. A theologian as well as an historian, Bede (672-735)
spent his life in his monastery at Jarrow. His intense hostility
made him a partisan witness when he wrote of the British
people, for many of them had retained a form of Roman Christianity
which was anathema to him. He called members of the Celtic
Church "barbarians," and "a rustic, perfidious
race," and is thus regarded by many modern historians
(but especially Welsh writers) as a "fancy monger."
At the same time, however, we are indebted to the historian
for his account of the events that were rapidly changing
the political face of Anglo-Saxon England
Chapter >> An English Political Unity
This History of England was written by Peter Williams Ph.D.
Peter is the author of some fantastic history books which
we will soon be recommending on the site. Peter also has
a website which is well worth a visit - CelticInfo.com