The Celtic Church in England
In Britain, in Scotland, in Ireland and in Brittany the saints of the Celtic Church evangelized their own people. But in seventh-century England Bishop Aidan and his fellow Scots from Iona became the apostles of the Anglo-Saxons: a different race, speaking a different language.
Bede, in his delightful Ecclesiastical History of England, written at the beginning of the eighth century, tells the story so sympathetically that it is often hard to realize that he is himself one of the Anglo-Saxon conquerors and a loyal member of the Roman Church which, even while he wrote at the beginning of the eighth century, still struggled to oust deep-rooted Celtic religious customs in Northumbria, in the Midlands, and among the West and East Saxons. St. Augustine and his followers arrived in England nearly forty years before the Scots from Iona. Yet Kent and Sussex (the latter nearly a hundred years after 597) were all they succeeded in winning for Christ. St. Aidan, not St. Augustine, was the Apostles of England.
But if the Roman Church failed in the English mission field, she excelled in organization, and it became her task, in the second half of the seventh century, to call together the first national synods and to divide into dioceses (for the most part governed by Celtic-trained bishops who acknowledged the leadership of the Archbishop of Canterbury) a country converted by Celtic-trained saints.
Because Peter and Paul had lived and died in Rome, Celtic Christians esteemed that city and her bishops to be second only to the Church at Jerusalem; yet in none of their writings do they mention proudly that their Church derived from Rome. From the first the Celtic Church was far more closely linked with the Church in Gaul and in the East. It is not surprising, then, that in England, from 597 onwards, many clashes took place between Celtic-trained and Roman-trained clergy. The first occurred only six years after St. Augustine landed in Kent. On the advice of Pope Gregory the Great he travelled to Bangor on Dee to meet seven bishops of the British Church whose peculiar customs he had already studied. Unfortunately he seems to have judged that so long a journey in the cause of unity was sufficient tribute to the British bishops for, when they approached him, he remained seated. Now the British clergy had been slain by the hundred while praying for the defeat of the Anglo-Saxons who drove their people ever farthest west. They saw St. Augustine as an Anglo-Saxon champion, and in his failure to rise and greet them as equals they foresaw the subjection of their ancient Church to a barbarous people they detested. They therefore refused either to change their Easter, tonsure and baptismal service to conform with Rome, or to join with the Archbishop of Canterbury in preaching to the English.
Two years later St. Augustine’s successor, Laurentius, wrote to the Scots of Ireland complaining that their Bishop Dagan refused so much as to eat under the same roof as the Roman missionaries, and to the British priests also he wrote an admonishing letter on their attitude “suitable to his rank”, the results of which, as Bede remarks sadly, “the present times still declare”.
With Christian Britons and Scots alike the Romans could make no headway, and they received so little encouragement from the pagan Saxons of Kent that in 616 two of Laurentius’ companions fled to France and he himself was sorely tempted to follow them. Even after over forty years of Roman evangelism, Kentish princesses were still being educated in the Celtic foundation of Faramoutiers, there being apparently no good school for them on their own side of the Channel, and Kent was only just beginning to keep Lent and to smash the last of the idols. Yet St. Augustine, himself a monk, had founded at Canterbury the first of the Benedictine monasteries destined after the Normans conquest, to play so fruitful apart in English life. At first he worshipped in the little church of St. Martin, still there today. It had been built, before his arrival, for Bertha, the Kentish king’s Christian wife from France.
Christianity was first restored to York in 625, through the marriage of the Kentish Princess Ethelburga to Edwin, who had wrested from his brother-in-law the northern half of the country, so that he ruled all Northumbria and Northern Britain. Edwin was not only a man of action but a deep thinker who was only converted to the new religion after much deliberation; but the wholesale baptism of his people that followed as a matter of course affected the country hardly at all during the next eight years, as they seem to have been given little or no instruction. When the rebel British king, Cadwalla, overthrew Edwin, slaying him in battle, Bede owns that the Anglo-Saxons reverted at once to their idols. They were sheep without a shepherd as, after the disaster, Ethelburga retuned to Kent, taking with her Roman chaplain Paulinus. For what seemed to Bede one unspeakable year, a British king ruled the Anglo-Saxons of Northumbria.
During Edwin’s reign his nephew, the rightful heir, Oswald, had been sent to Iona. There he was educated by the monks, and he, his brother Oswy, and their rightful nobles, were instructed in the faith and baptized. Hearing of the plight of his country, Oswald left the little island of Iona and “advanced with an army, small indeed in number, but strengthened with the faith of Christ”. At a place afterwards called Heavenfield he planted hastily made cross and knelt with his soldiers while he prayed aloud for victory. Next day’s battle decided the future of Northumbria.
“That same Oswald, as soon as he ascended the throne [in 635], being desirous that all his nation should receive the Christian faith . . . . sent to the elders of the Scots . . . desiring that they would sent his a bishop, by whose instruction and ministry the English nation, which he governed, might be taught the advantages and receive the sacraments of the Christian faith. Nor were they slow in granting him his request, but sent him Bishop Aidan, a man of singular meekness, piety and moderation. . . . On the arrival of the bishop the king appointed him his Episcopal see [that is, gave him land on which to build a monastery] in the isle of Lindisfarne, as he desired. . . . The king also humbly and willingly in all cases giving ear to his admonitions, industriously applied himself to build and extend the Church of Christ in his kingdom. Wherein, when the bishop, who was not skilful in the English tongue, preached the gospel, it was most delightful to see the king himself interpreting the word of God to his commanders and ministers, for he had perfectly learned the language of the Scots during his long banishment. From that time many of the Scots came daily into Britain and with great devotion preached the word to those provinces of the English over which Oswald reigned. . . . Churches were built in several places; the people joyfully flocked together to hear the word; money and lands were given of the king’s bounty to build monasteries; the English, great and small, were, by their Scotic masters, instructed in the rules and observance of regular discipline; for most of them that came to preach were monks.”
Oswald ruled from his castle at Bamborough, while at Lindisfarne, now called Holy Island, his Bishop Aidan began the seventeen years of his ministry that were to bring Northumbria so marvellously close to heaven. His achievement is among the loveliest of the Celtic miracles and deserves to be read in full in a good translation of Bede’s History. In the true Celtic tradition Aidan chose twelve English boys, whom he educated at Lindisfarne to be his twelve Apostles of England. Among them were the brothers Cedd and Chad, the future bishops of the East and Middle Angles; and Eata, abbot first of Melrose, then of Ripon, and lastly, when the Roman party had ousted the Scots, of Lindisfarne.
The cradle of Christianity in Northumbria was almost as poor as Christ’s birthplace in Bethlehem. “There were very few houses besides the church . . . ; the monks had also no money, but cattle; for if they received any money from rich persons they immediately gave it to the poor. . . There was no need to provide for the entertainment of the great men of the world; for such never resorted to the church, except to pray and hear the word of God. The king himself, when opportunity offered, came only with five or six servants, and having performed his devotions in the church, departed. . . .
“For the whole care of those teachers was to serve God, not the world – to feed the soul, and not the belly. . . . For this reason a monk was joyfully received by all persons, as God’s servants; and if they chanced to meet him upon the way, they ran to him, and bowing, were glad to be signed with his hand, or blessed with his mouth . . . and on Sundays they flocked eagerly to church or the monasteries . . . to hear the word of God. . . Priests and clergy went into a village on no other accounts than to preach, baptize, visit the sick, and in words, to take care of souls.”
Now and then Bede attempts to curb his admiration for Northumbria to promote Celtic Christianity. St. Hilda was born in 614 and was a close relative of Edwin’s. At the age of thirty she embraced Christianity with such fervour that she was on her way to the convent of Chelles near Paris when Aidan heard of her decision and arranged to meet her. Though we know, through Adamnan, of “monasteries of maidens” in Scotland during the sixth century, and doubtless during the seventh also, there were as yet none in Northumbria. Aidan proposed that St. Hilda should found one at Hartlepool; for he “loved her and diligently instructed her because of her innate wisdom and inclination in the service of God”.
Hartlepool was the first of Northumbria’s numerous double monasteries. Ruled by Anglo-Saxon princesses, they followed the pattern of St. Brigid’s Kildare. The stone pillows at Hartlepool still witness to the austere life led by the nuns; but so efficient an organizer and outstanding a teacher did St. Hilda become that during her lifetime, Whitby, her next foundation, produced five of England’s fourteen bishops; and it was there, in 664, that the Roman and Celtic parties chose to meet to discuss the question of Easter. To the breadth and depth of St. Hilda’s Celtic education we owe her discovery of the genius of Caedmon, one of her stable-boys who, without her help, would never have produced the first of England’s marvellous wealth of religious poetry.
King Oswald’s sister, St. Ebba, was another Anglo-Saxon princess who, in her double monastery at Coldingham, practised Celtic Christianity so successfully that the place was even patronized by Wilfred, most disapproving of pro-Roman priests. She and her niece, St. Elfleda (who succeeded St. Hilda at Whitby), were friends of the great St. Cuthbert. Like these three women, St. Cuthbert, too, played his part in the transformation of Northumbria as a direct result of St. Aidan’s mission.
The high-born St. Fursey and his brothers, however, were among the earliest of the many Scots from Ireland who, after years of study when Irish monasteries were in full flower, exiled themselves voluntarily for the love of God and thus, though independently, helped Iona to spread Celtic culture over England. Two years before St. Aidan left Iona, St. Fursey had asked the king of the East Saxons for permission to build a monastery. He had probably learnt English from the numerous Anglo-Saxon students, who at that time took advantage of the free board, lodging and books so generously offered them in Irish monasteries, for the king gladly gave him land on which to settle at Burghcastle in Suffolk. From this base he rapidly achieved the conversion of the East Saxons, for not only was he so eloquent a preacher that he had to seek refuge from the crowds, but he “persuaded men to the practice of virtue by his example”. St. Fursey was a mystic, and shared experiences common to Christian visionaries down the ages: Bede tells of the occasional high temperature of the saint’s body while wrapt in trance ; and of the visible burn he bore on his jaw and shoulder through his encounter, while in the spirit, with the terrible flames of falsehood, covetousness, discord and iniquity, said, by the angel who guided him to the gate of hell, to be destroying God’s world.
So keen in awareness of the power of sin drove St. Fursey more and more to a life of prayer. For a time he joined the growing number of seventh-century hermits, leaving his monastery in charge of one of his brothers. Aware, even in his retreat, that the internal wars among the East Saxons had begun to destroy his work, he sailed over into France, where Clovis helped him to build another monastery at Lagny on the Marne. There he died, so widely revered that Bede has much to say of his incorruptible body. But for the next twenty years the East Saxons had pagan rulers and the people all but forgot the Christian virtues taught them by St. Fursey.
The first mission to the West Saxons was abortive also, and for the same reason. In 635 Pope Honorius sent a bishop with his blessing to the West Saxons, possibly as an antidote to St. Aidan’s experiment at Lindisfarne. For only the Southern Irish had paid the slightest attention to his letter, written the year before, denouncing the Irish computation of Easter. But through the downfall of the Christian king the Roman venture proved short-lived. Nor did the British Church make any effort to reclaim the territory. In 640, however, the West Saxons were finally drawn into the Christian fold through the Bishop Agilbert, who was neither British, Scotic, Roman, nor English, but a Frank trained in Celtic ways in the most learned of Irish monasteries. He arrived “of his own accord”, and the new king, himself converted while banished among St. Fursey’s East Saxons, was so impressed by his learning and industry that he installed him at Dorchester as bishop of his people. Unfortunately Agilbert seems to have been a poor linguist, and after ten years of his “barbarous tongue” the king sought respite from his sermons by secretly dividing his kingdom into two dioceses and giving Winchester to Wini, an English bishop. Mortally affronted, Agilbert returned to his native France where he joined the pro-Roman party, was made bishop of Paris and later exercised a considerable influence on Wilfrid, the most dominating representative of Roman Christianity till the coming, in 668, of the great Archbishop of Canterbury, Theodore.
The conversion of the Mercians, or Middle English, was delayed till 650 by the aggressive activities of their king Penda, who was the last of the grand pagan warriors. He slew the charming Oswald and continued to menace Christian Northumbria till Oswy, Oswald’s brother, killed him in battle in 655. During the last years of Penda’s life, however, his son was befriended and finally converted by Oswy’s son Alfrid. After his baptism by St. Aidan’s successor, the ardent and hot-tempered Bishop Finan of Lindisfarne, he returned to Mercia, accompanied by Alfrid’s sister, his Christian bride, and four missionaries of the Celtic Church with whom to attack the pagan stronghold. One of these was St. Aidan’s English disciple, Cedd, and another a Scot called Diuma, who became, after Penda’s death, bishop of the Middle Angles, with his monastery at their capital Repton in Derbyshire. Not the Penda obstructed the missionaries, except by his constant wars. On the contrary he studied the new creed of love and strongly criticized any Christians among his people who filed to live up to their faith. Late founded, the Church of the Middle Angles suffered no setbacks, and Diuma was succeeded first by another Scot and then by Cedd’s younger brother, Chad.
The Northumbrian royal family, men and women alike, never missed a chance to extend Christianity through their friendships and marriages with the rulers of other English kingdoms. In 635 members of the pagan East Saxon royal family that had ousted St. Fursey’s Christian king visited Oswy, and were in consequence baptized, like Penda’s son, by Bishop Finan. Cedd, who had already had missionary experience with the Mercians, was chosen to lead the new mission to East Anglia, where once again “a numerous church was gathered to our Lord”. Hearing of the success of the mission, Bishop Finan sent for Cedd and consecrated him with the help of the three other bishops. It is interesting that, unlike St. Martin and St. Ninian ,who consecrated bishops unaided, the Scots of Iona conformed to the rule first laid down at the Council of Arles in 314, in considering three to be the minimum number.
One of Cedd’s brothers, Celin, was chaplain to Oswald’s son, king of Southern Northumbria. Cedd often visited them on his way to Lindisfarne to consult Bishop Finan on the problems that beset a missionary working as far from the mother house, as were his bases at Tilbury and London. Doubtless he told both Finan and his brother of the stubbornly immoral earl he had excommunicated, and of how the East Saxon king (who found the earl good company) continued to visit the man in defiance of his bishop’s order, till one day they happened to meet outside. “The king, beholding him, immediately dismounted from his horse, trembling, and fell down at Cedd’s feet, begging pardon for his offence; for the bishop, who was likewise on horseback, had also dismounted. Being much incensed, he touched the king with the staff he held in his hand”, and prophesied (quite correctly) his death in the wicked man’s house. To Christian kings in England then staff of a Celtic-trained monk was as sacred an emblem as it had ever been to those earlier Celtic converts of the Celtic Church.
But if Cedd could terrify, he could also charm kings. Celin’s king had not known him long before he was begging Cedd to build a monastery in his land in which, he said, after praying in it while he lived, he might be buried when he died; “for he believed that he should receive much benefit by the prayers of those who were to serve God in that place”. Afther the manner of the Celtic Church, the site of Lastingham in Yorkshire was duly consecrated by Cedd in 660 after a Lenten fast of forty days on the spot to cleanse it from crimes. The Roman system of dioceses still meant little to the Celtic Church in England, and Cedd elected an abbot of this new daughter house of Lindisfarne, but himself remained its bishop, though he continued his active life among the East Saxons. During a visit to Lastingham he died of the plague so often mentioned by Bede as “snatching” innocent Christians, and, sad to tell, of the thirty East Anglian disciples who, on hearing the news, left their monastery and came north “desiring to live near the body of their father”, all were likewise snatched by the plague but one small boy. Unlike Agilbert, Cedd was an excellent linguist, and though he was pro-Celtic and a friend of St. Hilda’s he acted as “a most careful interpreter for both parties at the Synod of Whitby”.
Cedd’s young brother, Chad, became equally familiar with the Celtic and Roman schools of thought, living as he did through the second half of the century when the wise Greek Theodore was Archbishop of Canterbury. After his upbringing at Lindisfarne he joined his English friend, Egbert, in that scholar’s paradise, Ireland, for the completion of his studies. Unlike Egbert, who remained in exile and eventually became abbot of his late brother’s monastery of Lastingham. It wa the year after the Synod of Whitby, and Northumbria was stil divided between Oswald’s brother, the pro-Celtic Oswy, and Oswy’s pro-Roman son, Alfrid. The latter’s friend, Wilfrid, had spoken so strongly for the Roman cause at the Synod of Whitby (despite his education at Lindisfarne and Whitby) that Alfrid sent tim to be “canonically” consecrated at Paris, by Agilbert and eleven other bishops, intending to make him bishop of York. But Wilfrid spent over three years with his French friends, and this gave Oswy his chance to retaliate. He despatched Chad from Lastingham to Canterbury as his candidate for the bishopric of York. Because the archbishop had died and Theodore had not yet arrived to be installed in his place, Chad had to go on to Winchester, where Agilbert’s successor, Wini, bishop of the West Saxons, consecrated him with the help (surprisingly) of two British bishops from Wales.
The first English bishop of York was wont “to travel about, not on horseback, but after the manner of the apostles, on foot, to preach the gospel on towns, the open country, cottages, villages and castles; for he was one of Aidan’s disciples and tried to instruct his people by the same actions and behaviour”.
Chad had no interest whatever in his position as such, and when Wilfrid returned and claimed York with the authority of Theodore, he gladly retired to Lastingham. But the new archbishop needed the help of the Celtic Church far too much to ignore one of its ablest men. He sought Chad out and had difficulty in persuading him that, for the good of Christ’s Church as a whole, he should be reconsecrated after the Roman manner. He then made him bishop of the Middle Angles, with his monastic see at Lichfield. “Theodore commanded him to ride whenever he had a long journey to undertake, and finding him very unwilling . . . . he himself . . . lifted him on to the horse, for he thought him a holy man.”
It was this perception of Theodore’s – his grasp from the first of the importance and immense achievement of Celtic-trained missionaries – that made him, as his name implies, a veritable gift of God to the Church in England. But, alas, he arrived in 668, four years after the Synod of Whitby had contrived to banish the Scots. Had Theodore led the pro-Roman party, instead of Wilfrid, he would hav found some way to avert this tragedy and thus to prevent a rift which ensued between Celtic and Teuton. It led, in 685, to the burning of Irish churches by an over-zealous Northumbrian king – only the first of a long line of outrages that could never have occurred had Scots from Iona continued to teach and preach in England.
As it was, the third bishop of Lindisfarne, Colman, was faced at the Synod of Whitby, a young priest to whom nothing mattered but the advancement of the Roman cause. Bishop Colman had with him his king, Oswy, brother of Oswald, and his Scotic clerks from Ireland, all of them educated at Iona; also of his party were St. Hilda, abbess of Whitby, and the interpreter Cedd, bishop of the East Saxons, both of them pupils of St. Aidan. Wilfrid’s chief supporters were his young King Alfrid and his friend Agilbert, bishop of Paris. The object of the synod was excellent: to find the truest tradition of Easter, that the same might be followed by all. The Celtic party were so sure of their tradition that they were quite undaunted by Wilfrid’s taunts about “Picts and Britons, who foolishly, in these two remote islands of the world . . . oppose all the rest of the universe”. “It is strange,” said Colman, “that you will call our labours foolish, wherein we follow the example of an great an apostle, who was thought worthy to lay his head on our Lord’s bosom, when all the world knows him to have lived most wisely.” Later, when taxed with stupidity and ignorance in the matter, he rejoined: “Did Anatolius, a holy man, and much commended in Church history, act contrary to the law and the Gospel, when he wrote that Easter was to be celebrated from the fourteenth to the twentieth? Is it to be believed that our most revered Father Columba and his successors, men beloved by God, who kept Easter after the same manner, thought or acted contrary to the Divine writings? Whereas there were many among them, whose santicty is testified by heavenly signs and the working of miracles, whose life, customs and discipline I never cease to follow, not questioning their being saints in heaven.”
During the debate Wilfrid wounded his pro-Celtic listeners sorely by questioning whether Celtic saints had indeed ever reached heaven: but on the whole he concentrated in explaining and describing the methods of computation then followed by the rest of the Catholic Church, finally clinching his argument by comparing “that Columba of yours” with hte great St. Peter. Bishop Colman had at last to admit that it was neither to St. John nor to St. Columba that Christ gave the keys of heaven, but to St. Peter, the rock on whom rested all the might and majesty of the Roman Church. The unhappy King Oswy had no choice but to obey St. Peter’s commands, “lest, when I come to the gates of the kingdom of heaven, there should be none to open them, he being my enemy who is proved to have the keys”.
But as for Colman, Wilfrid’s friend and biographer, eddius, records his final words on Easter. “We dare not change it, for our father’s sake, nor do we wish to do so. Our fathers and their predecessors, plainly inspired by the Holy Spirit, as was Columba, followed the friend of our Lord, John. . . . And we, his disciple Polycarp, and others celebrate it thus on his authority.”
Bitterly humiliated by Wilfrid’s cruel attack on what they heldsacred, Bishop Colman and his Scotic monks went back to Iona and on to Ireland, retreating once more into the isolation from which they had so bravely emerged thirty years before for the salvation of England. It is hard to measure the extent of this tragedy, the effects of which can still be discerned today. It put an end once and for all to that cultural union between Teuton and Celt which, after Oswy’s victory over Penda, was growing steadily into a Far Western Christendom likely to develop into an irressitable spiritual force, so well did the two races complement each other.
As it was, the spirit brought by the Scotic monks took an unconscionable time to die in English hearts. King Oswy “greatly loved Bishop Colman for the wisdom that was in him” and he gladly granted his request that Eata, one of St. Aidan’s twelve apostles, should succeed him at Lindisfarne, where, after so great an upheaval, nothing but the date of Easter was changed for fifty years to come.
Like St. Augustine, and with far less excuse, Wilfrid thrust from him invaluable allies for the battle of the kingdom of heaven on earth. It cannot be doubted that Theodore with his clear Greek mind would have won the Celts at the Synod of Whitby to a view of the Churches of St. John and Peter as of equal value and in reality one and the same. For, at his own Council of Hertford held only nine years later, and attended by all the pro-Celtic and pro-Roman bishops of England, he drew up ten rules, most of which were designed gently to mould the Celtic Church into the conventional Roman shape, though he made no attempt to enforce the Benedictine rule in Celtic monasteries, to change their liturgy, ot to do away with thehereditary system they had inherited from Celts who thought of monasteries as spiritual tribes. Yet the Celtic party seldom heeded Theodore’s reasonable command that bishops should function only in their own dioceses. Occasionally when they disobeyed, the archbishop exercised his authority; but far more often, as with St. Cuthbert, who frequently consecrated the churches of friends living far outside his diocese, Theodore exercised a patience which won him the allegiance, if not the obedience, of even the stubbornist Celtic-trained monks. Only their loyalty to tradition prevented them from realizing what Theodore had realized from the first: that because the differences between the two Churches were not doctrinal but merely structural, they were important only in so far as they led to friction.
Without the indefatigable Wilfrid, who quarrelled with king after king and caused a “breeze of trial” whenever he set foot in a Celtic monastery, the old customs might have died sooner. For the arts are a bond, and the Roman Church praised God in stone and in music so that all who saw and heard marvelled. The little church at Lindisfarne was made of oak and reeds; but the much travelled Wilfrid built Hexham, with the help of Italian masons, of stone and on such a scale that it was one of the wonders of the western world. Celtic monasteries longed so much to study the beautiful Gregorian chants brought from Rome that Theodore released the musical English Bishop Putta from his diocese that he might “go wherever he was desired, to teach church music”. When, ten years later, Benedict Biscop, founder of Bede’s monastery of Wearmouth, brought back from Rome John, a professional singer from St. Peter’s itself. “That said John not only taught the brothers of that monastery; but such as had skill in singing resorted from almost all the monasteries of the same province to hear him; and many invited him to teach in other places”.
The English St. Cuthbert formed another strong bond between the two churches. Born in 635 when the magic of St. Aidan’s gospel began to quicken men heart’s in Northumbria, he was brought up a Christian. In the Melrose hills he shepherded sheep till he was seventeen when “he suddenly swa a stream of light from the sky breaking in upon the darkness of the long night. In the midst of this, the choir of the heavenly host descended to the earth and taking with them, without delay, a soul of exceeding brightness returned to their heavenly home”. Hearing next morning that the soul was that of St. Aidan, St. Cuthbert forsook his sheep and went to the Celtic monastery of Melrose where the abbot was Eata, one of Aidan’s twelve apostles, and his tutor was Boisil, a man famed for his learning and his virtues. When, later, Oswy sent Eata south to found the monastery of Ripon, the abbot took St. Cuthbert with him as prior, seeing that his pleasant, manners delighted the guests.
Here St. Cuthbert had his first encounter with the Roman party. It was an unpleasant one and led eventually to the young King Alfrid driving out the Celtic party and giving the monastery of Ripon to Wilfrid. There being as yet no Theodore to curb Wilfrid’s insatiable ambition, Ripon proved but one step towards his goal of the monstrous diocese of all Northumbria. When Theodore wisely divided Northumbria between four bishops, three of whom were Celtic-trained men beloved by the people, Wilfrid could and did protest again and again to Rome. But till Theodore’s coming, if monks of the Celtic Church were ousted from their strongholds, they had no recourse but to retreat. This must have struck St. Cuthbert a second time when he attended the Synod of Whitby. He did so after an interlude at Melrose where he grew so ill that he recovered only through the prayers of the brethren and in time to read the Gospel of St. John with his Soul-Friend Biosil, while he died of the plague. Through suffering grows wisdom. St. Cuthbert must have been tempted to join the thirty English who accompanied Colman into his exile. Instead, he wisely followed Eata, Colman’s choice as his successor at Lindisfarne. This time the Church had need of St. Cuthbert’s patience, as “very often during debates in the chapter of the brethren concerning the rule, when he was assailed by the bitter insults of his opponents he would rise up suddenly and with calm mind and countenance would go out, dissolving the chapter but none the less on the following day, as if he had suffered no repulse . . . he gradually converted them to the things that he desired”. It was no easy task to act as a bridge between old Celtic traditions and the foreign ways of the Roman party. But not only had St. Cuthbert the unity of the two churches at heart but he “was of a happy disposition and very friendly”.
In his Life of St. Cuthbert, Bede tells stories that illustrate these qualities perfectly. Combined with a holiness that caused him, “when he offered up to God the sacrifice of the saving victim, to commend his prayer to God not with a loud voice, but with tears drawn from the bottom of his heart”, that made St. Cuthbert one of Northumbria’s greatest missionaries. Whether he worked at Melrose, Ripon or Lindisfarne he would leave his monastery on foot or on horseback for as long as a month at a time that even the most remote and barbarous villages might hear the word of God. And many were the bodies and souls he healed.
It wastherefore with dismay that the people learnt that their beloved saint had departed from Lindisfarne to live alone with God on the tiny island of Farne, already made holy by St. Aidan.
St. Cuthbert was only forty-two; but because his terrible illness had left him very frail, he looked much older. He was worn out too by his arduous work inside and outside his monastery. But the hermit’s life so favoured by Celtic saints was not merely a beautiful dream; it meant much wrestling with evil spirits and a good deal of manual labour. During his nine years on Farne, St. Cuthbert strove to be self-supporting. He built his own shelter and sowedand reaped his small patches of barley and vegetables. He seldom achieved the solitude he craved, so often did his friends two out to see him; while such creatures as ravens and otters also competed for his company. But despite these interruptions, towards the end of nine years the world beyond had grown so vivid to St. Cuthbert that he ceased to welcome the Lindisfarne monks on the shore. They saw no more of him than an emaciated hand stretched out to bless.
Meanwhile, on the mainland, Oswy’s younger son Ecgfrith had succeeded to all Northumbria. With his help Wilfrid built churches at York and Ripon to rival that of Hexham. Time and again he brought from Rome rare books and paintings, and treasures of glass, gold and silver with which to enrich them. All this was admirable: but that magnificence and luxury should surround the person of Wilfrid himself, disquieted a people used to the simplicity of the Celtic Church. Theodore himself showed which type of priest he himself preferred when he decided at the Synod of Twyford, presided over by King Ecgfrith in 684, to recall St. Cuthbert from Farne and consecrate him bishop of Lindisfarne. “And when he could by no means be dragged from his place by the many messengers and letters that were sent to him, at length this same king himself . . . as well as many other religious and powerful men, sailed to the island; they all knelt down and adjured him in the name of the Lord, with tears and prayers, until at last they drew him, also shedding many tears, from his sweet retirement and led him to the synod.”
When Theodore consecrated him, St. Cuthbert was a sick man. It is therefore amazing to read of all he accomplished in his wide diocese in the one year before he was allowed a last winter on Farne. During that year Ecgfrith invaded Ireland and “miserably afflicted and burnt God’s churches”. Then, “greatly against the advice of his friends, and particularly of Cuthbert”, the king marched north, crossing the Forth and the Tay. At Nectansmere he and almost all his army lost their lives in battle against the Picts. The Britonsin the south naturally took this opportunity to revolt and Northumbria staggered between the two blows. The new King Alfrid was a half-brother of Ecgfrith’s but, being half Irish, he was pro-Celtic in his religious views. A foster son of Adamnan of Iona, he had for long been “in exile among the Scots, for the study of letters”. He made a brave leader; but Northumbria never regained the political supremecy she had enjoyed during the whole of St. Cuthbert’s life.
He died in 687, just three years before the death of Theodore. “Before this the bishops [of Canterbury] had been Roman, but from this time on they were English.” All through the Golden Age of the eighth century the English Church continued, especially in Northumbria, to conserve many Celtic features. Even such outstanding figures as Aldhelm, Willibrord, Boniface and (in the ninth century) Alcuin, owed much of their learning to Irish monks, who were still teaching at Malmesbury and Glastonbury long after the Norse invasion.
In 793 Lindisfarne. Most exposed of all the monasteries, was destroyed by Norsemen. From then on, for over a hundred years, the English were perpetually at war with invading armies of pirates, so ferociously efficient that monastery after monastery flamed to heaven in their wake. Even Alfred the Great could do no more than divide the country with them; for, as the Anglo–Saxon Chronicle relates, by the year 897 so many men and cattle had died in the struggle that it was a wonder “the army had not utterly broken down the English nation”. Without the support of saints such as St. David, St. Petroc, St. Oswald, St. Aidan and St. Cuthbert, Alfred and the remnants of his Christian nation could never have survived in sich good heart as to convert to the creative discipline of Christianity, Norsemen so lawless and so fearless that they very nearly wrecked Western Christendom. Nor did the English people forget what these early saints had done for them. The Martyrloge, printed by Wynkyn do Worde in 1526, containes the names of hundreds of Celtic saints not yet banished from memory through the ferocity of the Reformation.
Ecclesiastical History of England. Bede. Ed. J.A. Giles.
Life of St. Cuthbert. Bede. Ed. Bertram Colgrave.
Celtic Church after the Synod of Whitby. Meissner.
Liturgy and Ritual of the Celtic Church. Warren.
Importance of Women in Anglo–Saxon Times. G.F. Browne.
Anglo–Saxon Chronicle. Ed. J.A. Giles.
Life of Wilfrid. Eddius Stephanus. Ed. Bernard Colgrave.