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  • Writer's pictureJill Ball


Celtic Christianity spread first from Ireland to Scotland, then on to Northern England.

Christianity also arrived in Southern England from Rome.

Saint Columba sailed from Ireland to Iona in Scotland in AD 561 and Saint Aidan left Iona for Northumberland in AD 635. In 597 AD Saint Augustine was sent from Rome to Kent, which is south of London.

It was inevitable that the two traditions would clash.

We are going to briefly look at the spread and demise of the early Celtic Christian tradition,

as well as two saints from these times.

buildings on a hill in Lindisfarne
Lindisfarne or Holy Island

Saint Aidan

Oswald had spent part of his childhood in exile in Iona. When he became king of Northumberland in AD 634, he asked the community of Iona to send missionaries to Northern England.

They sent Corman, but he believed that the English were 'ungovernable people of an obstinate and barbarous temperament'. With this attitude it is unsurprising that the English refused to listen to him, and so he returned home.

The community in Iona then held a conference to decide what to do next to help the English. Aidan, one of the Irish monks, said to Corman,

'Brother, it seems to me that you were too severe on your ignorant hearers. You should have followed the practice of the Apostles, and begun by giving them the milk of simpler teaching, and gradually nourished them with the word of God until they were capable of greater perfection and able to follow the loftier precepts of Christ.'

The monks decided to send Aidan, who was clearly a better choice. Bede writes about Aidan in his Ecclesiastical History of the English People, written in AD 731 :

He never sought or cared for any worldly possessions, and loved to give away to the poor who chanced to meet him whatever he received from kings or wealthy folk.
Whether in town or country, he always travelled on foot unless compelled by necessity to ride; and whatever people he met on his walks, whether high or low, he stopped and spoke to them. If they we heathen, he urged them to be baptized; and if they were Christians, he strengthened their faith, and inspired them by word and deed to live a good life and be generous to others...
If wealthy people did wrong, he never kept silent out of fear or respect, but corrected them outspokenly. Nor would he offer money to influential people, although he offered them food whenever he entertained them as host.

Missionary journeys of Patrick, Columba, Aidan and Augustine
Some of the Early Missionary Journeys in Britain

Aidan founded a monastery on Lindisfarne, or Holy Island, which became his base as well as his home.

He talked to everyone he met about Christ. He walked with the people and treated high-born and lowly alike. He lived a simple, spiritual life, giving away his possessions and used gifts of money to ransom slaves. Because he lived the gospel, people were drawn to him.

His example still shines through the centuries.

Saint Hilda

modern statue of Saint Hild

Hilda's father was King Edwin's nephew. Because her father was murdered when Hilda was an infant, she grew up in Edwin's court in Northumberland.

The King Edwin arranged to marry Aethelburgh of Kent, with the condition that she was allowed to continue as a practicing Christian.

In 597 AD Pope Gregory had send Saint Augustine to Kent, Southern England with the Roman rite. The royal family in Kent had become Christians.

Aethelburgh's chaplain, Paulinus, accompanied her and after some debate, the king and his whole household were baptised, including Hilda, who was thirteen years old.

This was about 627 AD.

Hilda, or Hild, lived as a Saxon noblewoman for half of her life. We don't know the details, but she probably married and had children. She was also educated, energetic and a good administrator.

Saxon noble women often deputised for their husbands.

Aethelflaed, the Lady of Mercia, successfully ruled a kingdom after her husband's death.

At 33, Hilda decided to became a nun. Although she was baptised in the Roman tradition, she preferred the Celtic one, with Aidan as her mentor. She became the Abbess at Hartlepool, and in 657 AD she founded the Abbey at Whitby.

Hilda was respected as the community's mother. People would visit for her advice, including kings. She encouraged others in their gifting, including Caedmon and five bishops who were trained at Whitby Abbey. Hilda was used to managing a large Anglo-Saxon house and estate. She was well placed to lead a religious community.

The differences between the two Christian traditions were affecting the court. For several years the King had celebrated Easter on a different date to the Queen . To resolve this, King Oswiu called the Council of Whitby, which was hosted by Saint Hilda.

This was a pivotal event for the Church in Britain, and with the powerful arguing of Wilfrid the council came down in favour of Rome. Hilda accepted the ruling, although she found it hard. (Wilfrid called her one of his adversaries.)

After being ill for six years Hilda died in 680 AD, aged 66.

How different was the early British Church?

Monasteries of the early Celtic tradition were unlike the more familiar later ones. The monks and nuns had strict observance of fasting, poverty, prayer and penance, but the inspiration was from the Desert Fathers (and Mothers). Although there were many hermits, the religious houses were not separate from the communities. In fact they formed a Christian community in themselves which was both hospitable and outward looking.

The monasteries were often built on sea or land routes, and one man, usually with twelve disciples would plant another house to deliberately spread Christianity. Even today modern denominations practice church planting, which resembles this model of evangelism.

Whitby Abbey was a double house, with enclosed nuns who spent hours in prayer and the monks were open, serving the community and working on the fields. . During excavations, four individual cells for women have been found from the Anglo-Saxon period. They have a living quarter, bedroom, toilet and a drainage system. Most of these cells, or huts, would have housed individuals or two people.

Many of the monks were married, with children, and there were lay brothers. Some were involved in copying manuscripts, preaching and evangelism but many were involved in farming and domestic chores. The community ate together, held property in common and worshiped together, three or six times a day.

The community in Whitby submitted to the Abbess, as women could hold a respected position of authority in the church. However it wasn't a hierarchical system and as we can see from the conference in Iona, corporate decisions were also made.

Surely the Council of Whitby was more about who had authority in the British church than about the date of Easter or haircuts. I believe that much was lost with the decision to submit to the Bishop of Rome. The church became less English, less British, less indigenous.

Music and Local Language

At Whitby Abbey services were in Latin, but there was also a tradition of singing worship in English. We can be sure of this as we have the earliest surviving hymn written in Early English. It was written by Caedmon, who was an uneducated, middle-aged man connected with the community in Whitby.

Now we must honour the guardian of heaven

the might of the architect, and his purpose,

the work of the father of glory

as he, the eternal Lord, established the beginning of wonders;

he first created for the children of men

heaven as a roof, the holy creator.

Then the guardian of mankind,

the eternal Lord, afterwards

appointed the middle earth,

the lands for me, the Lord almighty.

After the Abbess, Hilda had heard of his talent, she encouraged him to learn more of the Scriptures and to compose more music.

The community probably sang unaccompanied, as well as with a harp. In Ireland there was a Druidic tradition of bards, who accompanied their music with harps. Harps were used in Christian worship in Wales, Scotland and England.

Worship in your own heart language, with traditional instruments, is much more powerful than imported music in a foreign tongue. For the Word of God to be the good seed that produces a harvest, it needs to be understood. Listening to a sermon or a service in a foreign language that you do not regularly speak is hard work.

The glosses, or notes in the margin, that we see in the Anglo-Saxon and Irish manuscripts are there for a reason: to help the priests explain the Gospel to the ordinary people. You can see the glosses in the Lindisfarne Gospels, which were made in the early eighth century by the monks on Holy Island.

Early Celtic calligraphy with intertwined creatures
Beginning of the Gospel of Mark

Vikings and Normans

Over the next two and a half centuries, the British Isles were subject to many attacks from Vikings, who particularly liked stealing the gold from the churches and burning the monasteries. They captured many slaves, especially from Ireland and Scotland who they took back to Scandinavia and to Iceland.

Some of the stories of the Vikings were true.

However, they also moved to Northern England as settlers and traders.

The Saxons were finally defeated in 1066 AD at the battle of Hastings, when England was invaded by William the Conqueror, who was a particularly nasty Norman king. The Normans were a group of Vikings who had settled in Northern France and accepted a form of Christianity.

For the rest of the late Medieval period, the church would be seen as one arm of the state, part of the establishment, where we had prince bishops and an increasingly wealthy Church .

I wonder if this church would have been recognisable to the first disciples of Jesus, but I think that the churches of Aidan and Hilda would have been.

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