Last Updated on 10th November 2021 by Mike@bitaboutbritain
Britain, like the rest of Western Europe, has a long Christian heritage. The Church came to wield enormous political and socio-economic power, and religion is such a part of Britain’s continuing story, so it is important to understand a bit about how Christianity arrived.
Christianity was born into a Roman world – and would in the end outlive it. The Roman Empire was polytheistic, often chaotically so; in Roman Britain, Graeco-Roman deities tolerantly rubbed shoulders with local spirits, and imports such as the Persian god Mithras. However, the Romans periodically, but not persistently, persecuted Christians. Christianity was revolutionary and challenged the established order; its god ruled on earth as well as in heaven, thus disputing the divinity and authority of emperors; there was suspicion of secret rituals, of subversion, and concern – or anger – that Rome’s traditions were being denied, thereby incurring the wrath of the gods.
No one knows exactly when traders or soldiers first brought Christianity to Britain’s shores, but it could have been as early as the 1st or 2nd centuries. There was definitely a Christian community in Britain by the early 3rd century. St Alban, allegedly Britain’s first Christian martyr, was possibly executed by the Romans in the early 3rd century – maybe the 4th – with a church subsequently being built over his grave. The Edict of Milan, issued under Emperor Constantine in 313 AD, gave Christians freedom of worship and it is known that British bishops attended the Synod (assembly) of Arles in 314 AD. By the end of the 4th century, Christianity was the official religion of the Roman state. There is significant archaeological evidence of Christianity in later Roman Britain, but the extent of the religion is not known and it probably did not long endure the incursions of the unbelieving Anglo-Saxons. However, in the unconquered western parts of the island, such as Wales and Cornwall, Christianity not only survived the end of Roman rule but also, it is believed, thrived.
The 5th and 6th centuries are sometimes referred to in Wales, as ‘the age of the saints’ – though the term could be applied more widely across Britain in the 7th century too. Perhaps the best-known figures initially are St Patrick, St David and St Columba. Patrick was a native Briton who lived in the late 4th-early 5th centuries, was captured by pirates and taken to Ireland, where he is reputed to have converted the inhabitants to Christianity. David, another native, had a saintly mother, St Non, and established a monastery and seat of learning at St Davids in the 6th century. Columba was an Irish monk who founded the monastery on Iona in 563 AD and is credited with converting the Scots and Northern Picts. From Iona, Christianity was taken to Northumbria. The founder of the monastery at Lindisfarne in 635 AD, Aidan, was a monk from Iona. Welsh tradition also features many lesser-known evangelising saints, such as Petroc, Dyfrig (Dubricus), Illtud, Teilo, Padarn and Deiniol, all journeying the seaways between Brittany, Cornwall, Wales and Ireland, spreading the Word. It was an uplifting time to be a Christian – but hard facts are in short supply. The legendary St Ninian, for example, is said to have landed in the Isle of Whithorn in south-east Scotland to preach to the southern Picts in 397 AD – almost two centuries before Columba established Iona and when Roman rule still prevailed further south. Frankly, we are unlikely to ever know for certain who did what, when, or where.
In any event, these Christian survivors in Britain were Celts, or Romano-British, who evolved their own customs, isolated from the other, arguably more mainstream, branches of Christianity that had developed around the ancient civilisations of the Mediterranean, in Greece, Egypt – and Rome. It was the Roman brand of Christianity that was reintroduced into the southern end of the land that became England, and which ultimately prevailed across the British Isles for the best part of 900 years until the Reformation of the 16th century. The legendary story of how this came about goes that Pope Gregory spotted some fair-haired youngsters in Rome’s slave market and asked who they were. “Angles”, came the reply. “They are not Angles, but angels”, joked the Pope, and dispatched one of his best men, Augustine, to bring the pagan Anglo-Saxons into the Christian fold. St Augustine landed on the Isle of Thanet, in the Kingdom of Kent, in 597 AD. The King of Kent, Ethelberht, was a pagan, but his wife, Bertha, was daughter of a Frankish king and a Christian – and that must have helped Augustine no end. Even so, Ethelberht insisted on meeting the Christian missionaries in the open, just in case they decided to try their dodgy magic on him. As it happened, Augustine was given permission to preach, managed to convert the king within a year and went on to become the first Archbishop of Canterbury.
Augustine was less successful in establishing authority over native Christians, as the Pope had instructed. Unlike the Roman Catholic Church, the Celtic Church was not an organised, unified, entity – it was more of a monastic tradition; they did things differently from their more recently arrived brethren. The monks even had different hairstyles – the Roman tonsure was the relatively familiar shaved round patch on the top of the head, whereas the Celtic tonsure ran from ear to ear at the front, leaving the hair long at the back. Rather more fundamentally, however, the two sects disagreed over how to calculate the moveable date of Easter, the most significant event and festival in the Christian calendar. It might not have helped Augustine’s cause with the Britons that he was probably perceived to be sponsored by an Anglo-Saxon. For some time, representatives of both Roman and Celtic parties worked across the land to replace the worship of Thor, Woden, and others, with Christ; it took time and was not without setbacks. Keen students of this period will encounter a bewildering array of enthusiastic saints and clerics popping in and out of the story. To mention but a few: Paulinus (Roman party), the first Bishop of York; Cedd (Celtic party), missionary to the Kingdom of Mercia and converter of the East Saxons; Mungo (or Kentigern), founder of Glasgow; Cuthbert (Celtic), prior of Melrose and then Lindisfarne, who was largely responsible for the spread of Christianity in the North of England.
The debate about Easter came to a head at the Synod of Whitby in 663 AD (664 in some accounts). The King of Northumbria, Osuiu (or Oswy) was a committed Christian of the Celtic tradition. His wife Eanfled, however, had been brought up in Kent and followed the Roman way. This meant that they sometimes celebrated Easter twice (imagine all that chocolate!). Clearly, something had to be done. And Whitby was the place to do it, because here was Northumbria’s principle church and minster, founded in 657AD by a remarkable lady, Hild, of the Celt party. So the two sides, the Celtic and Roman, came together to sort things out. Bishop Colman of Lindisfarne spoke for the Celts. The Roman case was then put by Wilfred, Abbot of Ripon (later St Wilfred), who concluded by saying that the Roman church received its authority from St Peter, holder of the keys to the kingdom of heaven. The Celts had no answer to that and Osuiu found the argument pretty convincing, observing that if he did not obey the commands of the guardian of the gates of heaven, he might have some difficulty getting in when his time came. Ultimately, the Synod of Whitby determined which brand of Christianity ruled, not just when Easter would fall. And so it came to pass that the Roman Church gained ascendancy over all others in the land, an authority that lasted until Henry VIII wanted a divorce in the 1530s.
In reality, it would take many more years after Whitby before the supremacy of Rome – and indeed, Christianity itself – was accepted throughout Britain. The key figure in laying the foundations for this was Theodore of Tarsus (in modern Turkey), appointed Archbishop of Canterbury by the Pope in 668, who set about organising a centralised church, with clear lines of authority that crossed the boundaries of Britain’s various kingdoms. Then, just when things appeared to be going so well, in the late 8th century, along came the Vikings.