Celtic Christianity in Northumberland
Aiden and the Venerable Bede
Excerpt from Chapter 5 ‘Dark Ages to the Vikings’
The Monastery of Iona, on a bleak island off the West Coast of Scotland, was founded by Columba, it was here on this rugged wind swept island that Oswald had found sanctuary, and when he acceded to the monastic throne, summoned monks to act as missionaries.
The original preacher sent to Northumbria was not up to the job and returned to Iona, in conversation he was asked by one young monk, “Was it their stubbornness or your severity?” the speaker was brother Aiden; “did you forget God’s word to give them the milk first and then the meat?” He was immediately chosen to lead another mission, and set up his Bishop’s See at Lindisfarne in the North Sea off the coast of Northumbria, later called Holy Island, it was soon pouring out preachers to spread the good news to the heathens.
King Oswald was become interpreter between the missionaries and his thegns the freemen by which all men were valued in Law, while Aiden himself would wander barefoot through Yorkshire and Northumbria preaching to freemen, nobles or serfs alike. This mix of Christianity and Monarchy in Oswald would coalesce with the warrior lord to leave its trace through until Alfred the Great brings it to its apex.
His piety being remembered above his fighting ability, Oswald feasting one time with Bishop Aiden, the thegn who had been given the task of feeding the needy came before him and said he had no more alms to give the poor, whereupon the great King told the thegn to distribute equally the food and silver among those still waiting. Aidan seized Oswald and blessing him cried “May this hand, never grow old.”
However Penda was still a major force, and although he was likened to the Roman Emperors of old, Oswald was still to meet him in battle. The heathen Penda holding Mercia, had in the mean time gained East Anglia, and this was to be the venue for the show of power between the two at the battle of Maserfield in 642, this is taken to be near Oswestry on the Welsh-English border, why the battle for the middle of the Island comes to be fought so far west is unexplained by any sources, but Oswald suffered the same fate as Eadwine before him and was slain on the field. Heathenism was back and Penda held the larger part of England in sway, Wessex although not under Penda’s Overlordship threw off the Christian faith. Even Deira still nominally part of Northumbria seems to have followed Penda’s path.
Bernicia now suffering civil war still clung to Christianity, Penda after he had Cenwalh driven from parts of Wessex 645, ventured into Bernicia and took his fight with Northumbria to the gates of Bamburgh Castle, the magnificent fortress on the Northumbrian coast, where in desperation to conquer the rocky outcrop, pulled down the cottages around and using their timber for kindling tried to burn his way in, however a change of wind blew the flames and smoke back over the forces besieging the tower. Aiden could see the smoke from his cell on the islet of Farne, but Bamburgh held and the cross was still held high in Bernicia. From the strife within Bernicia came Oswiu, Aethelfrith’s third son and he held his ground against Penda.
Penda does not seem to have been on a mission for heathenism rather to be free from Overlordship, or to make himself Overlord, although when Cenwalh retakes Wessex he doesn’t contest any further, the fact of fighting Christianity seems to be a by product of Penda’s ambition to rule, indeed towards the end of his reign he allowed the Christian missionaries to preach in Mercia, Penda’s own son was baptised so he certainly seems to have tolerated its presence.
Oswiu wanted to reunite the Kingdom of Northumbria, this meant retaking the land lost to Penda, they met on the field of Winwaed (not identified) in 655 but thought to be just to the northeast of present day Leeds, Oswiu tried to buy Penda off, but the old warlord would have none of it, so Oswiu vowed he would endow twelve Monasteries in his Kingdom if he gained victory, this came with the death of Penda in the field, and it is said many heathens died in the river they tried to cross, which had been swollen by heavy rain the night before. With them fell the last stronghold of the heathens, from then on Christianity went from strength to strength. “Being thus freed,” Bede tells us, “the Mercians with their King rejoiced to serve the true King, Christ. In point of fact Oswiu put his chief thegns in charge of Mercia for the next three years.
The spread of Celtic Christianity
The Irish missionaries increased their spreading of the Gospels, with Ceadda (St. Chad the name Saint of Lichfield Cathedral) becoming Bishop of the see of Lindiswaras large parts of Mercia and Middle England. He was another, wont to travel by foot until literally manhandled onto the back of a horse by the Archbishop Theodore. Mercia however soon had its eclipse, its fall from power swifter than its rise, leaving Northumbria looking more powerful than ever.
Cuthbert bestrides this period of Christian expansion, he was attracted to the faith while still a boy, orphaned he was taken in by a widow in the village of Wrangholm which is taken to be on the River Tweed in modern Scotland, but then in Northumbria, where to earn his keep he looked after the sheep on the wind swept sheepwalks of heather and bare rock.
One day while tending sheep on the fells he injured his knee. A monk was passing on a horse and tended the young lad’s lame leg. The monk in his white robe was as an Angel to him, and at that moment decided to follow the faith. 651 saw him tread his way to Melrose and the mission-station of straw-thatched hovels that lay amongst the untilled heath-land.
It was the lodging of a few Irish monks but here Cuthbert trained for the monastic creed, and from here he would walk or ride the uplands of Northumbria and preach his faith in the tongue of the locals reaching to those who were nearly forgotten. The moors and dales of Cheviot and Lammermoor were and still are sedgy marshes, and chill misty nights that encourage the warm peat fires and a minstrel’s song.
Conversion to Christianity was not an overnight phenomenon, while many of the peasants were Christian in name, they also relied on the pagan Gods and beliefs in times of trouble, but Cuthbert spoke in their own language. The Irish missionaries suffered from being foreigners, Cuthbert needed no interpreters he was of the people, his words were simple,“Never did man die of hunger who served God faithfully, look at the eagle overhead! God can feed us through him if he will.” Caught in a snowstorm while at sea, his comrades bemoaned. “The snow closes the road along the shore, the storm bars our way over sea.” Cuthbert was quick to reply, “There is still the way of heaven that lies open,” his faith in his God composing his fellow seafarers.
Streoneshealh is the name of the double monastery that also became a seminary of priests and Bishops situated above what was later called Whitby, it was run by Hild (St. Hilda) who came from a noble Angle family, her counsel was held in such high regard that even Kings would consult with her.
It was one of a number of Celtic Monasteries that had been built in Northumbria they were places for prayer and solitude, rather than the later Benedictine style of strict order.
Whitby was where Saint John of Beverley learnt to be a Bishop, however the name above all others with regard to English Literature is Caedmon, he became a monk when well into manhood (we don’t know if he was 25 or 50) and it was his ability to transform prose into verse that was to leave its mark.
The legend behind him is that he was unable to sing the right notes so would often leave any festivities which included songs to tend to the cattle, and that he was plain unmusical. After one such occasion later while sleeping he dreamt he was asked to sing, at first refusing his discursive asker he was persuaded to sing, he asked what he should sing about, and he was told the “The creation”. In the morning he felt compelled to go to Hild and tell of his dream, she concluded it was divine inspiration, and gave him a text to translate into song, the following morning he came to her with a completed verse, whereupon she had him quit being a cattle-herd and take up monastic orders. He completed putting into verse large sections of the Pentateuch and the story of Christ’s incarnation, passion, resurrection and Ascension to heaven. He also put into song the rewards of heaven, and the hell of damnation.
Mercia in something akin to a revolt threw off the yoke of Oswin who had succeeded Penda, and put Wulfhere a Christian son of Penda on the throne. Change was in the air, the Irish Church long predominant was under threat from Rome. Oswiu who still ruled Northumbria had married Eanflaed, who was the only remaining heir of Eadwine, she was raised in Kent and brought with her the traditions of Rome, in particular the way of calculating Easter, this came to a head when two young Thegns who had been on a pilgrimage to Rome returned full of zeal, condemning the Irish tradition of Easter as a schism, and possibly filled with stories of the Gnostics and the early problems of the Roman See they took the Roman line as the only one permissible, along with some other minor details, like how the tonsure should be cut it was decided a synod should be called and the points debated and settled.
According to Bede 664 saw the council held at Whitby, although Sir Frank Stenton places it in September 663 and is most likely correct, on one side was Oswui a Deacon named James, Bishop Caedda and Bishop Colman from Iona representing the Irish tradition of St. Columba and on the other side the Roman delegation whose spokesman was Wilfred, who was a Northumbrian and led a small monastery based at Ripon on the River Nidd later the site of Ripon Cathedral.
As far as can be determined the argument was kept mainly to the subject of when to celebrate Easter, the Celtic way was following a system that had been used by St. John the Evangelist, or the Roman way set down by St. Peter, in the end it seems that the authority of St. Peter was acknowledged as the true cause, being accepted by both sides.
What could have been a serious rift was averted, the Celtic church having penetrated through the Low Countries and Denmark well into central modern day Germany, they were now harmonious with Rome. The decision seems to have been made by Oswui who humorously made the comment that if he got to the gates of heaven he should wish to be admitted by someone who held the keys, not another who like he served their master. The Church in following Rome also followed its organizational setup and immediately extended the reach of Rome and hence England was not an isolated purlieu but in constant contact with Europe.
In the whole of the Island at this time a pestilence swept through killing many including Bishop Tuda.
Excerpt from the Anglo Saxon Chronicle, which I have used for much of my source material.