The Anglo-Saxons in Yorkshire

Even before the last Roman legionaries were recalled from Yorkshire in the early fifth century there had been many raids by warlike Teutonic tribes from across the North Sea, from Friesland, Jutland and Saxony. In the last decades of the Empire the Romans had recruited local Britons into their legions, and when the legions were recalled some semblance of a peasant militia was left. York itself—renamed with the Celtic-sounding Caer-Ebrauc—–remained for a time as a refuge for the local people, but little is known of the fate of Yorkshire during the fifth and sixth centuries. In A.D. 560 an Anglian king, Aella, established himself as ruler of Deira, a principality the name of which originally appeared to refer to Holderness, but later was applied to an area covering most of present-day Yorkshire. According to the Venerable Bede, a reference to the Angles and Aella forms the basis of Gregory the Deacon’s famous pun when he saw some fair-haired, blue-eyed lads from Yorkshire in the slave market in Rome. ‘Not Angles, but angels’ he called them. ‘Who is their King?’ ‘Aella’ was the reply. ‘Alleluia shall be sung in this country.’ Christianity was brought to the Anglians of Deira not long afterwards by Romano-Celtic missionaries, of whom St Aidan from Lindisfarne was one of the pioneers. One of Aidan’s pupils, St Chad, became Bishop of Mercia in A.D. 669, with his seat at Lichfield, and shortly afterwards he sent his brother, St Cedd, to become Abbot of Lastingbam, near Pickering. In the early seventh century the kingdom of Northumbria, to which Deira had been joined, was ruled by Edwin, son of Aella.

Edwin was himself a heathen, but be married Ethelburga, the daughter of Ethelbert and Bertha, the Christian rulers of Kent. Edwin agreed to allow Paulinus, a Christian priest, to live in his court, and the combined efforts of the young queen and her priest eventually ensured the conversion of Edwin. It was not an easy task, however, for although Edwin was tolerant and well disposed to the new faith, he had to consider the views of his council of elders—the Witan—and of the adherents of his old heathen faith. When he married, the Pope sent gifts and a letter advising him to listen to the teaching of Paulinus, but he still hesitated. He regarded his escape from assassination, which came as he received news of the birth of his first daughter, as a good omen, and consented to the baby’s christening. He promised Paulinus that if he won a victory over the West Saxons and became virtual ruler of all England outside Kent, he would become a Christian. In A.D. 627, having temporarily achieved his ambition, Edwin called together his Witan and persuaded many of them to be baptised with him, including the high priest of the old faith, Coifi. Coifi declared that no-one could have served the old gods more faithfully than he had done, but they seemed to have done very little for him. So Coifi at once threw off the old faith, and rode off to the heathen temple at Goodmanham, near Market Weighton. In the presence of an amazed crowd, he cast his lance into the sacred wooden building, and called on the bystanders to join him in destroying it; which they did with great enthusiasm. Christianity had come to be the faith of Yorkshiremen, and on Easter Day 627 Edwin himself was baptised in a little wooden church which had been hastily put up in his capital city of York—the first York Minster.

Christianity, however, had not won Yorkshire permanently, nor was the form of Christianity—Celtic or Roman—finally decided by Edwin’s conversion. Another challenge came from the influential British leader, Cadwalla, who ruled in North Wales, but who had influence far beyond that area. He formed an alliance with Penda of Mercia, and together they challenged Edwin’s supremacy in Northum­bria. In A.D. 632, at Hatfield Chase (Haethfeldland), between Thorne and Doncaster, Edwin was defeated and slain, his army annihilated and his capital, Eoforwic (York), occupied by Cadwalla. A dispute over the succession to the Northumbrian throne followed. The northern half of the kingdom, Bernicia, which stretched from the Tyne to Edinburgh (Edwin’s town), was seized by Eanfrith who travelled to York in A.D. 634 to attempt to strike a bargain with Cadwalla, who promptly had his visitor beheaded. This left Oswald, a member of the Bernician ruling family, as the only pretender to the throne of Northumbria with a credible claim, but in order to secure his position Oswald had to get rid of Cadwalla. This he succeeded in doing at the battle of Hexham in A.D. 634.

On the news of the death of Edwin, Paulinus travelled to Rochester, in Kent, with Edwin’s Queen, leaving behind in Yorkshire his friend, James the Deacon, to carry on his missionary work. A century later Bede records the courage of James in keeping Christianity alive at a time of great crisis, when the faith had only just established itself in Yorkshire. The Venerable Bede may, however, have got his facts wrong when he attributes the place name Akebar, near Leyburn, as being derived from Jakobi burgus (James’ mound) and marking the place where James preached. The probable derivation is Oak Hill. Nevertheless, Bede’s account of James’ work is true in essentials.

Christianity became the official religion of Northumbria under Oswald, who reigned until A.D. 641, and who was canonised as St Oswald in recognition of his services to the faith. His services to York, however, are open to some question, as he removed his capital to Bamburgh Castle in Bernicia. York became a local capital of the province of Deira, but the division of Northumbria into two provinces and the rivalries between Bamburgh and York contributed to the weakening of the kingdom. In A.D. 651 the sub-ruler of Deira, the devious Oidiwald, formed an alliance with the aged Penda of Mercia in an attempt to overthrow Oswald’s successor and to win the throne of Northumbria from Oswald’s brother, Oswy. The armies met at Wentbridge and Oswy decisively defeated the rebels. The struggle between Bernicia and Deira continued, however, during the eighth century and was still a source of weakness when the Danes invaded in the next century.

Although Deira was politically disrupted by these disputes they seemed not to have affected the life of the Church. Yorkshire during the Anglo-Saxon period became a centre of scholarship and education, fostered by the Church. This was particularly true of York itself, but also of abbeys elsewhere. In A.D. 732 York became recognised as the ecclesiastical centre of the Northern Province of the Church.

The impetus for this religious activity came originally from Oswald. He had called in missionaries to help him to convert his kingdom to Christianity. These he obtained from the monks of Lindisfarne and Iona, where influences from Celtic Christianity were strong. There were many differences of custom and government between the Christians of the north of England and those of the south, who owed allegiance to the Pope in Rome. Yorkshire, where the two sets of missionaries clashed, was also the place where their disputes were settled: at the Synod (Church meeting) of Whitby, A.D. 663. Here the Roman party won the day. The story goes that the Roman representatives claimed to represent St Peter (said to be the first Bishop of Rome), who had the keys of Heaven (hence St Peter’s keys), while no-one ventured to make any such claim on behalf of the northern Bishop, St Columba. King Oswy decided in favour of Rome, in the hope that when his turn came St Peter would show favour to him. So the king himself said, but certainly the remark was a joking one. The real point of the decision is that by it the English Church agreed to give up minor points which might separate it from the rest of the Christian world; and, like the rest of Western Christianity, to accept the Pope as its head. He retained this position in relation to the Church of England for nearly nine hundred years, until King Henry Viii’s Act of Supremacy in 1534 put an end to it.

For 200 years the story of the Christian faith in England centres very largely in Yorkshire. Churches and monasteries were built, parts of which still remain, for example, at Lastingham and Whitby. With Christianity came learning; and then missionary work. The English, lately heathens, set about the conversion of the heathens in Germany, Holland and Denmark. Many of the earliest Christian missionaries to the continent were Northumbrians. The influence of the great scholar Bede of Jarrow (673-735) reached York, where later another great scholar, Alcuin, A.D. 735-804, made a centre of learning unrivalled anywhere in Northern Europe, and second only to Rome itself. As he said, York was Altera Roma—the other Rome. However, the glory of York and Yorkshire in relation to religion and learning was short-lived.