The Council of Whitby


There are two great events which link the seaside town of Whitby, on the Yorkshire coast, with Anglo-Saxon days. The first of these require some explanation.

In the chapter dealing with the life of St. Augustine, it was pointed out the bitter differences of opinion existed in the Sixth and Seventh Centuries between the Church of Rome and that of Britain and Ireland, mainly in regard to the date of the celebration of Easter, a matter of calculation which we should now consider hardly of sufficient importance to inspire such ill feeling as it then aroused. The trouble was, however, that the British and Irish Christians had preserved their doctrines intact from those days when the Romans introduced the faith into our country, and now they had become traditional and national;  whereas the teachings to which they objected had been imposed on the Anglo-Saxon converts by recent Continental missionaries, and represented a development which had taken place since the British Isles were last in touch with Rome.

Gildas and Bede tells us that one of the sins of the British, for which they had been punished by the Anglo-Saxon victories, was that they had contemptuously refused to attempt to convert the English to Christianity; yet now these missionaries from Rome had effected that conversion,? This was not quite true, the Celtic Church was taken up by the English where ever it went and had spread around much of England since Aidan`s day, (Irish Celts) whereas the new Church of Rome was becoming more authoritarian and people were less willing to be converted, so this Synod was manufactured by them, with Bishop Wilfred as their main instigator on this, himself a former pupil of Abbess Hild, but he turned against the Celtic Church after visiting Rome and adapted to their new way, the Celtic/British Church would seem to be more gentle with its approach to Christianity and importantly it showed people the way by its own conduct which by itself people were willing to be a part of this, so back to the story, the British/Celtic Welsh were the ones who held back on missionary work with the English, they had suffered in some instances quite badly, so had no wish to do this missionary work, a feeling which is still there today towards the English, also in their opinion of the British, the new Church of Rome had taught the converts a lot of new-fangled ideas about Easter and so which no patriotic Briton, firm in the ancient tradition, could tolerate either on religious or national grounds, we must understand it was Rome who had broken away from which the British had kept alive, who were now treated as heritics.

In speaking of St. Augustine, he had failed to induce the Christians of unconquered Wales and the West of Britain to conform to the usage of Rome which he was teaching, or to take any part in missionary work amongst the invaders; but there were many Irish Christians (whom Bede, by the way, classes as Britons) who did not feel the same soreness in regard to these foreign settlers in Britain, and whose religious ardour impelled them towards missionary enterprises. A band of Irishmen, for example, led by Columba, landed on the coast of Iona, off the west coast of Dal Raita (now Scotland), in 563 A.D., and preached the faith to the Picts dwelling on the mainland, teaching them the customs of the original British Church, and in 635 A.D., when Oswald, the English King of Northumbria, was trying to convert his people, these monks of Iona sent one of their number St. Aidan, to undertake the work, as related previously.

It is possible that Christianity had survived to a certain extent even in the parts of Britain already in the hands of the invaders, fir it seems that considerable numbers of Britons were living, as a subordinate class, in the conquered areas, and at any rate it is noticeable that the efforts of the missionaries bore fruit in a remarkably short-time; but always there was this difficulty, that the teachings of the British and Irish did not conform to those of the Continental missionaries, and, in the matter of Easter, one set of proselytes would be gorging themselves at the feast at the time when another set was in them midst of its Lenten fasting.

St. Aidan, with his Irish monks had established himself in 635 A.D., on Holy Island, or Lindisfarne, as it was called, off the Northumberland coast; and in the year 664 A.D., his mantle had fallen upon a certain Colman, who was also an Irishman, observing the old British calendar and usages, and Oswy, King of Northumbria and all his people were of that persuasion. But Oswy`s wife had been brought up in Kent, and therefore observed the customs of the Roman church as taught there by St. Augustine and his successors; and it seems that she at last persuaded her husband to look into the whole matter.

A great synod or council was convened, and was held in 664 A.D., at Whitby, then called Streaneshalch or Streonoshalh, which perhaps means “Lighthouse Bay” Here there was a famous religious house at that time presided over by the Abbess Hilda/Hild, a lady of royal blood; and in its church King Edwin of Northumbria lay buried. Unfortunately, nothing of the building now remains, and although the ruins of the mediaeval Abbey which stand gaunt and beautiful upon the cliffs, mark the site, and are in themselves worthy of a visit, there is nothing but the unchanged line of the cliffs and inland hills, and the eternal sound of the sea and the wind, to recall now the setting of this famous conference.

The protagonists on the British side were the Irishman Colman, who could hardly speak a word of English in spite of being bishop of an English realm, and Cedd, who was bishop of the East Saxons (Essex), but had been consecrated in Northumbria; and it may be added that the Abbess Hilda`s/Hild sympathies were all on this side. Opposed to them, there were, amongst others, the Englishman Wilfred, Abbot of Ripon, who could not speak Colman`s tongue, and Agilberet, bishop of the West Saxons, who was a Frank, and knew very little English. In this Polyglot assembly, Cedd acted as interpreter.

Colman led off by explaining at some length that the Easter he observed was that ordained by St. John the Evangelist in the earliest days, and was hallowed by long usage; and Wilfred of Ripon then put the case for the other side, pointing out that the dating of the feast recognized by the throughout France, Italy, Egypt, and other lands in Europe, Asia, and Africa. “Only the Picts and the Britons,” he scornfully declared, “in these two remote islands of the world,  and only in parts even of them, foolishly oppose all the rest of the universe.” (Observe that he speaks of the Irish Christians as Britons).

To this Colman replied, with some heat, that Wilfred had no right to use the word “foolish” in reference to a custom accepted by St. John; and Wilfred replied that he did not mean to charge St. John with folly, but only to say that a better calculation of the ecclesiastical calendar had now been recognized by the Roman Church, which was founded by St. Peter and was under the patronage of that apostle.

The argument had become somewhat violent when the King interposed with a question. He asked Colman whether he admitted that Christ had given St. Peter the Keys of Heaven, and Colman replied that that certainly was so.

“Well, then,” said the King, “since he is the door-keeper of Heaven, I will not oppose him, lest when I come to the gates of heavenly Kingdom there should be none to open them, he who ha the keys being my enemy.”

This silly point settled the matter, and Colman went off in disgust to Lindisfarne, and thence retired to Iona. Cedd, on the other hand, accepted the Roman practice, and presumably, the Abbess Hilda/Hild did likewise; and that was the end of the British church in the Anglo-Saxon realms, though their authority was maintained in Scotland for centuries to come.

When King Oswy was gathered to his fathers he was buried here at Whitby, but his tomb is now lost. In the year 680 A.D., the Abbess Hilda/Hild also died, and was buried here, after a life of such sweetness that all men, it is said, called her “Mother.” But the second event of outstanding historic importance in the early history of Whitby, to which is the reference of the discovery of the poetical genius of a certain lowly lay-brother named Caedmon, the first great poet to write in the English language, who was in charge of the horses belonging to the abbey. It is possible that he himself was of British, and not English, blood; for his name sounds Celtic, and the fact that his work was menial points rather to the same conclusion.

One night when he was asleep in thestable he dreamed that a man came to him, and, greeting him, said, “Ceadmon, sing some song to me,” and indeed he replied that he could not sing, and, indeed, was so shy in that regard that whenever the monks were entertaining one another with songs, he always slipped away from the company. “Nevertheless, you shall sing,” said the stranger. “What shall I sing?” asked Caedmon, and the other replied “Sing the beginning of created beings.”

Thereupon Caedmon poured forth a wonderful song, of which much remained in his memory when he awoke. He went therefore to the Abbess Hilda/Hild, and, forgetting his shyness, chanted the verses to her, and to all the learned men who were with her; and so impressed were they that they made him go back and compose more. This he did, and came again to them, singing the creation of the world, and all the early history of mankind, the life of our Lord, and the future of the soul in heaven or hell.

When he had finished his great song, the Abbess threw her arms about him, and he was persuaded to adopt the monastic life, thereafter living and in the end dying here on the cliffs of Whitby. The metrical paraphrase of the Bible which he composed was handed down in manuscript, and was first printed in 1655. It is the earliest poem in the English language composed in England; and when we remember that it was written at a time when the conquest of the country was hardly yet complete, we shall realize how far removed from savagery were our early Anglo-Saxon forefathers.

Visitors to Whitby today will see there a cross erected in modern times to the memory of Caedmon; and his memory deserves, indeed, to be kept green, for whether he was a Briton or an Englishman, we may place him at the head of the  list of our national poets.