Last Updated on
The Yorkshire coastal town of Whitby is celebrated for its fish and chips, the semi-precious gemstone, jet, its associations with the explorer Captain Cook, Dracula – and its abbey. It is less well-known as the place where the timing of Easter was decided. “When is Easter this year?” I hear you say; I’m very glad that you asked.
The skeletal ruins of the 12th century Whitby Abbey church are the only significant, visible, remains of the great Benedictine monastery that once dominated the town. Even so, sitting on top of the ancient headland overlooking the old fishing harbour, they still impress and are every bit as large as a respectably sized cathedral. Every year, thousands climb the 199 steps of East Cliff to visit them, take in the views and, hopefully, pop into the unusual parish church of St Mary on the way. The abbey ruins inevitably conceal an even older past – which also reveals the answer to the question about Easter.
The headland was settled in the Iron Age and people lived on it in Roman times. Possibly, the Romans placed a signal station there, similar to the one down the coast at Scarborough, on part of the peninsula that has long since been washed into the sea. By the time the Anglo-Saxons conquered most of what is now England in the 5th and 6th centuries, the headland was known as Streaneshalch (‘the bay of the beacon’) and by the 7th century it was part of the Anglian Kingdom of Northumbria ruled from 642-670 by Osuiu, or Oswy (and a variety of other spellings too).
Britain in those days was by no means Christian and worship of the older gods was widespread and deeply rooted. The Anglo-Saxons themselves worshipped imported gods such as Tiw, Woden, Thunor and Frig (Tiwesdaeg, Wodensdaeg, Thunresdaeg, Frigedaeg). The Christianity that had sprung up in late Roman Britain was carried on in the 5th and 6th centuries in Celtic communities in western parts of the island, and Ireland. The religion eventually spread, via Strathclyde in what is now southern Scotland, into Northumbria and the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms to the south. St Ninian is alleged to have founded a community at Whithorn in c397AD, St Columba set up a monastery on Iona in 563AD and a monastery was established on the island of Lindisfarne sometime around 634AD. Coming the other way, from the south, another brand of Christianity had been busy since 597AD, when St Augustine landed in Kent – on an official Papal Mission from Rome to convert the heathen Angles (English).
Now, there were great differences in ritual and organisation between the Roman and Celtic versions of Christianity. 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. I am sure you will agree that these variations in religious practice were Very Important Indeed and almost bound to end in tears if not sorted out. Rather more fundamentally, however, the two sects disagreed over how to calculate the date of Easter, the most significant event and festival in the Christian calendar. The term, ‘Easter’ is derived from Eostre (or Ostara), a Germanic goddess of fertility, new life, or dawn. According to tradition, Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection took place during the Jewish festival of Passover, so this originally helped determine the date of Easter. However, the date of Passover changes slightly each year because the Jewish calendar follows the cycles of the moon. Not only that, but early Christians could not settle on the best method of calculating a common date for Easter anyway. At the Council of Nicea (in modern Turkey) in 325AD, it was agreed that Easter should be the first Sunday after the first full moon after the spring equinox. However, calendars are not precise measures and, of course, it also depends which calendar you use. In any event, Easter is one of those moveable feasts and the date was (and still is) determined by what seems to me to be a complicated process based on cycles of lunar and solar years, which I don’t begin to understand and which I personally find marginally less interesting than a block of concrete. All we really need to know is that the Celtic Christians used one formula and the Roman Catholics another.
The King of Northumbria, Osuiu (or Oswy etc) 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, convened a synod at Whitby in 663 (664 in some accounts) to debate the issues. Bishop Colman of Lindisfarne spoke for the Celts. The Roman case was then put by the Abbot of Ripon, Wilfred (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, an authority that lasted some 900 years until the English Reformation in the 16th century.
Incidentally, because some eastern Orthodox churches still use the old Julian calendar, which was gradually replaced by the Gregorian calendar in western countries from 1582 (1752 in Britain), the dates for Easter still differ around the world. There are those who would like a fixed date, but after two thousand years there’s obviously no hurry to agree one.
Back to Whitby Abbey; I find it mindboggling that you can wander about a place where such influential events took place, even if no trace of them can be seen. Who knows how things would have turned out if the Celts had won, or, shock-horror, if both parties had agreed to tolerate each other’s little ways – though having different dates for Easter is obviously ludicrous. Sadly, the community established by Abbess Hild is long gone. It is believed that Streaneshalch was sacked by Danish raiders sometime in the 9th century. Whitby is a Danish name – the suffix by means ‘settlement’ or ‘farmstead’ – and it is assumed the pirates turned into settlers who developed the fishing port at the mouth of the River Esk, below the headland.
It is said that the ‘new’ abbey at Whitby was founded by a wandering Norman soldier, Reinfrid, who came across the desolated ruins of Hild’s monastery and was so moved that he became a monk and, later, established a priory amidst the debris of the earlier buildings. By the late 11th century, this had morphed into a full-blown Benedictine monastery – though only a few traces remain of these buildings. The magnificent Gothic abbey church you see now was constructed between the 12th and 15th centuries, and was – appropriately – dedicated to St Peter and St Hild.
When the Abbey was dissolved in 1539, the property was acquired by the Cholmley family, who proceeded to demolish most of the buildings. In the 17th century, the old abbot’s house was refurbished into a family home. Sir Hugh Cholmley was initially on the side of Parliament during the Civil War, but switched to the Royalist cause and defended Scarborough Castle in a 22-week siege in 1645. Whitby Abbey House was ransacked by Parliamentary forces, but later restored. By the late 18th century, though, the Cholmleys appear to have lost interest in their Whitby estate. It was inherited by a cousin, Sir George Strickland, in 1857 and his son, Charles, repaired and extended Abbey House. Now, part of it forms a visitor centre and the largely Victorian wing is a youth hostel. Outside the visitor centre is a replica of a famous statue, the Borghese gladiator, which it is believed Sir Hugh installed there in the17th century but which was lost. The replacement was created from a model in the Royal Collection.
Inevitably, the evocative ruins are haunted. The ghost is known as the White Lady, or Lady Hilda (presumably, Hild?) and she appears, in a shroud, at the higher windows on the north side of the abbey church.
One further point of interest in this all too brief summary of Whitby Abbey’s rich history: on 16th December 1914, it was shelled by battle cruisers of the Imperial German Navy. Clearly, Whitby had a strategic importance known only to the commander of the German ships. I wonder if he knew about the Synod of Whitby that had been held there by other Germanic people twelve and a half centuries earlier?