The coming of Christianity

The coming of Christianity

The Christian gospel reached Britain well before the last century of the Roman occupation; but, with the exception of two Roman coins bearing Christian symbols, archaeologists so far have found nothing to suggest that there could have been Christian communities as early as this in the area we now call Lancashire. On the other hand there are several reasons for believing that soon after the departure of the Romans, Christian missionaries began to convert the native Romano-Britons, and, later, the Anglian settlers who crossed the Pennines from Deira. First, there is a persistent legend that St. Patrick (c 389-461) was once wrecked off the shore of Morecombe Bay. Legend can be most misleading, but today on a cliff-head at Heysham stil stands in ruins of St. Patrick’s Chapel, built by the Angles probably before the year 800 A.D. Hard by St. Patrick’s Chapel the Angles built a second church dedicated to St. Peter, a striking proof that the early Christians held this site particularly sacred. Secondly, about 1200 A.D., one of the monks of Furness Abbey recorded that, in the middle of the sixth century, Bishop Kentigern of Glasgow had led a Christian crusade from Cumberland to Wales mostly along the seashore, a journey which must have taken him into dozens of west Lancashire settlements. Thirdly, in the second half of the seventh century, Bishop Wilfred of Ripon wrote not only of ‘those holy places in divers regions which the British clergy had deserted’ in the face of the Anglian invasion, but also of the lands and buildings in the Ribble valley and in Cartmel, which the kings of Northumbria had presented to the Church. Fourthly, the presence of the British word ‘ecles’, a church, in such place-names as Eccles and Eccleston, suggest the existence of Christian communities before, or at least in the early stages of, the Anglian settlement. Moreover, there is the evidence of the dedication to Anglian saints of at least five pre-Conquest churches (at Winwick, Poulton-le-Fylde, Lytham, Preston and Halton in the Lune valley), and the existence of Anglian crosses at Whalley, Lancaster, Bolton and other places, all of which strengthens the impression that there was a lively Christian Church working in Lancashire at least as early as the seventh and eighth centuries.

Irish Christians, the followers of St. Columba and St. Aidan, were the pioneer missionaries of this Church, but after the Synod of Whitby in 663 A.D., Celtic and Roman Christians joined forces. York became the administrative centre of the Northumbrian church, but when AEthelstan seized the land between the Ribble and the Mersey, he transferred his conquest into the Mercian diocese of Lichfield. There it remained until the creation of Chester diocese in 1541, but the church in northern Lancashire continued to be administered from York.

The Norse settlers who swarmed into Lancashire about 900 A.D., left behind them evidence of their Christian activity. As the Angles did before them, they too marked their sacred places with stone crosses. A Norse cross can usually be recognized by its chain-pattern decorations, its carved snakes and dragons, and its wheel-head, or circle of stone running between the arms of the cross. Good examples of Norse stone crosses, now weather-worn and broken, can be seen at Winwick, Lancaster, Halton and Urswick; and at Heysham and Bolton-le-Sands still remain crudely-decorated stone Norse tombs known as hogbacks. These date from about the year 1000.

Christianity did not entirely drive out the old pagan beliefs. On the cross at Halton one side of the cross-shaft carries a sculptured representation of the Ascension of Christ, but the opposite side unmistakably depicts the pagan story of Stigurd the Volsung. Small stone crosses were used for marking important graves, but a preaching cross primed a customary place of worship until labour and material were available to build a church on the site. The investigators who compiled ‘Domeday Book’ in 1086 mentioned fifteen churches in Lancashire, and referred indirectly to two others. In the north they recorded churches at Tatham and Tunstall and implied that there were churches at Cartmel and at (Kirk) Lancaster. In Amounderness they stated there were three churches, probably Kirkham, Poulton and St. Michael-on-Wyre. South of the Ribble they named churches at Blackburn, at Walton, St. Mary’s at Whalley, St. Mary’s at Manchester, St. Michael’s at Ashton-under-Lyne, St. Oswald’s at Winwick, St. Elfin’s at Warrington, and the ‘church of the manor’ of Newton wapentake, which was probably Wigan church. They also spoke of priests holding land both at Childwall and in Leyland wapentake. But since the investigators did not set to record churches, their list is incomplete. It does not include the churches at Preston, Lytham, Melling, Halton, Bolton-le-Sands and Heysham, which certainly were then in existence, nor those at such places as Ormskirk, Garstang, Sefton, Eccles and Prescot, which were probably pre-Conquest in origin.