In the 7th century, British Christianity was defined by two differing models of the same religion: The Church of Iona, founded by St. Columba on the distinctly Irish traditions of Celtic Christianity, and the Church of Canterbury, which followed the guidance of Rome. Despite being confined to separate regions of the British Isles, the two churches came into direct conflict in a highly unstable region that was prone to usurpation and political strive, called Northumbria. The issue was a simple one, but immensely divisive for the competing churches, as it concerned the most important Christian traditions: how to properly date Easter. Both had come up with their own methods to date the feast, and the Christian church in Britain was heading towards crises as the Celtic churches in Northumbria refused to concede to Roman customs. The dispute ran deeper than a mere quarrel over when it was proper to feast or fast in celebration of the Christian faith, beneath this was a persistent social divide between the conservative mores of a dwindling generation being challenged by a relentless call for modernity from the evermore increasing youth.
Fearing a schism, and perhaps sensing a political opportunity, King Oswiu of Northumbria called a synod (a church council) at Whitby to resolve the conflict. Both sides were to present their case for Oswiu to consider before passing the final judgment on which practice would be observed in the kingdom. The Synod of Whitby was a defining moment in the history of British Christianity; its inception lies in a combination of religious and political factors that must be examined in order to gain a concrete understanding of the historical significant, and its role in creating a unified church, and more importantly a unified people.
Before the Conflict: the End and Reinstitution of Roman Christianity in Britain
The first decade of the 5th century was the last for the Western half of the Roman Empire. In Britain this meant that roughly 470 years of Roman authoritative control was over, taking with it any established Romano-British identity that may have been formed by the native inhabitants of the British Isle. What followed is a remarkable abandonment of Roman customs and traditions, as the native Britons no longer viewed themselves as being part of the Empire.
Amongst the discarded traditions was Christianity, which had been imported to Britain from Rome in the early 3rd century but apparently—outside of the higher Romanized sectors of society—never became fully integrated into the daily lives of the common villagers (hence how the Latin word for villager, paganus, eventually came to mean the pejorative pagan).
The exact process of how Christianity disappeared on the island is a mystery, no doubt a combination of social apathy and Anglo-Saxon raids played a role, but ultimately this period in history is one devoid of concrete records or narrative chronicles and largely left to speculations. What is known is that from the 5th to 6th century, Britain underwent a drastic process of exogenesis, where its people willingly started to identify with the warrior rulers of the invading Germanic (mostly Saxon and Angle) tribes, who came from across the English Channel, settled, refashioned and integrated the native Britons under their own customs. Immersed within these customs was the adherence to Germanic tribal religions, their native Heathenism (again a term referencing the uncooperative country villagers that will make its way into the Christian lexicon), which was readily adopted by the British people who dwelled under Anglo-Saxon rule.
The story of Britain’s rechristening under the Roman faith traces back to continental Europe, where in 596 Pope Gregory I saw it as his Christian duty to send missionaries to the island and save the souls of the nonbelievers. The man he sent was Augustine, a prior of the Church—equivalent to an office administrator—who along with a handful of monks, headed north to make claims in the name of Christ. The journey was a daunting one. What sort of barbaric peoples awaited the missionaries? Have these unbaptized Anglo-Saxon any idea of civility? Will they be able to communicate God’s word to the pagans in their foreign tongue? Such questions must have been heavy on Augustine’s mind as he crossed the English Channel, making landfall in the Isle of Thanet, and headed towards Canterbury. Unknowingly to the administrator, his first steps on the British coast would turn out to be the defining moment of English ecclesiastical history.
Upon his arrival, Augustine set up his congregational base in Canterbury within the Kingdom of Kent, where he restored several abandoned churches from the Roman era to conduct services and conversions. Conversions were slow as the mission was constantly plagued by Augustine’s infuriating habit of getting bogged down in administrative jargon. Throughout his time in Canterbury, Augustine had regular correspondences with Pope Gregory in which he shows a pattern of indecisiveness in dealing with issues (mostly concerning theft and marriage practices) that even for the most blase of theologians would have seemed palpable. Gregory himself grew irate with this habit and often responded to Augustine in a patronizing tone, “You know your Bible well enough, just use common sense.” However much of a nuisance it may have been for the Pope, Augustine’s lack of confidence would be of great consequence for the British Church, and eventually Western Europe: Setting the precedent of always looking to Rome for guidance. But any such significance was arcane to the early Christians involved in the mission, as the church itself could have easily fallen into oblivion were it not for the support and protection received from the King of Kent, Aethelberht.
Aethelberht was a pagan, but through possible persuasion by his Christian wife Bertha, he allowed Augustine to preach the Christian faith from Canterbury. And although he resisted at first, by 601 the heathen king is known to have converted to Christianity (either out of sincere conviction or political motive to establish closer ties with Europe, or both). Upon the fateful conversion of their king, the people of Kent followed suit and gave the young church the success needed to cement it as a legitimate institution of the land. Pope Gregory was so pleased by the progresses of the mission that he had Augustine ordained a Bishop, with full authority over all British churches. The intention was to create a lineage for the church to ensure its lasting presence in the region for generations thereafter, but what it did was undermine the authority of a possible ally Pope Gregory didn’t even know existed, namely that of the forgotten British Christians who had survived the Anglo-Saxon raids.
Unlike that of continental Europe, the existing British church had not had its development influenced by the turbulent political circumstances which had arisen in Europe after the Roman Empire fell. Instead, the remaining few Christians moved West, away from the invading Germanic tribes settling into the island, and closer towards the influence of the growing Irish Church, whose practices in this era of early Christianity would not have been very dissimilar to their own. Both sides underwent a process wherein Christian ideology begin to define itself within the context of the individual society of its practitioners, and more and more separate traditions formed in the two churches, completely independent from one another until Pope Gregory I sent his missionaries to the island to introduce Christianity to what he thought was solely a heathen land. Once contact was established through Augustine’s presence in England, it became clear that the two sides had different views on what constituted true Christianity. For one thing, the British church made no attempt to convert the heathen Anglo-Saxons, and instead chose to retreat away from social life in England altogether; a move Pope Gregory saw as counter to his evangelization efforts. The original goal of the mission was to take the island for Christianity, but once the existence of the British Church was found out a pressing concern for Gregory and Augustine became to gain the trust of these rogue Christians in order to bring them in line with the Roman style of the faith. Unfortunately, Augustine himself ruined any such hopes from the first meeting he had with the British priests.
The story goes that prior to the meeting, the British priests decided to test the Roman: “If he stands to greet us, then he is of sound moral character, but if he sits then he is too arrogant in demeanor.” When the meeting came Augustine remained seated throughout, and negotiations between the two churches broke down immediately as a consequence. Even though the scenario is keeping in character with Augustine’s questionable competence for initiative, there is also a more divisive reason for the growing tension between the two Christian authorities.
The celebration of Easter, the most important feast in the Christian calendar as it celebrates the resurrection of Jesus Christ, was the issue that grew to be most discordant for the early church. During the two centuries that the British and Roman Christians existed independently of one another, both sides develop their own method by which to date the feast. By any means, determining on which day Christians are supposed to observe Easter is a complex matter. The general system agreed upon by Christian authorities is that it had to fall on a Sunday, on the third week of the first lunar month of the year, but the first full moon could not fall before vernal equinox. In the early-mid 6th century, Dionysius Exiguus came up with a system that became widely promoted by Rome, and carried by Augustine to Britain in 596. Although Dionysius’ Easter table was not immediately adopted in Europe (the concept of Papal authority was not yet established), Pope Gregory was determined that the heathen converts adopt the traditions he considered most true to the Christian faith; a move that conflicted with the already present British Church, which dated Easter based on the system established by the Irish Christians, independent of Rome. When the British refused to abandon their traditional observation of the feast, Gregory grew discontent, and deemed the practices of Celtic Christianity as heretical in nature, and in need of correction. Unfortunately for Gregory, the British did not submit to his will, and their Irish counterparts were even embarking on an evangelical mission of their own just north of Augustine’s base.
Celtic Christianity: Faith in Isolation
Ireland had never been part of the Roman Empire, yet due to the close proximity between Roman Britain and the Irish island cultural influences were inevitable. How exactly the Irish became Christianized is another of the vast mysteries surrounding this period. St. Patrick writes in his narrative how he converted to the faith after being kidnapped into slavery, thereby providing one possible means of transmission by which ideas (and religious conversions) could have spread during this time. Whatever the exact details are the fact remains that after the fall of the Roman Empire Ireland’s spiritual life developed in isolation from the rest of Europe, spawning a seperate form of practices and traditions that can be described as uniquely Celtic in character.
By 600, the Irish church has developed a level of academic scholarship unseen by the European continent at the time. In isolation Irish monks attained a mastery of Latin grammar, biblical exegesis and the indispensable discipline of chronological computation (a mathematical system by which to determine important dates on the Christian calendar), and revitalized monasticism as the functional structure of the early church. These achievements gave Irish scholarship a high reputation and soon gave rise to the practice of Peregrinatio, where Irish monks went into self-imposed exile to Britain and Europe, thereby bringing their learning to these regions. In the context of these cultures, which valued the protection of tribal and clan allegiances, exiles were deemed the worst punishment one could receive short of death because it placed the individual outside the protection of his clan. Peregrinatio was a way for monks to show devotion to God by taking on the worst punishment for themselves and suffer as Christ had done. A leading example of this sort of devotion would be personified in the person of St. Columba.
The details of St. Columba’s life and actions are often muddled in hagiography—literally the study of saints, but largely a term used to describe a form of hero worship—by his earliest biographers (as churches held a monopoly on literacy, and thereby history). What is known is that he was born in Ireland to the powerful Ui Neill clan (often anglicized as O’Neill), and entered the monastery at a young age where he became a monk and subsequently was ordained a priest. Circa 560, Columba was caught in a scandal over the ownership of a Psalter (Book of Psalms). Columba had made a copy of the scripture from a manuscript belonging to St. Finnian, with the intent to keep the Psalter for himself. Finnian charged that allowing Columba to keep the copy devalues the book, and as the source of the original material Finnian should be given ownership of Columba’s copy. Formal judgment ruled in favor of Finnian but Columba refused to relinquish his book to Finnian, and got his family to defend him on the issue. In 561, the dispute came to a devastating finish at the Battle of Cúl Dreimhne, where Columba’s side emerged victorious. Although his side had won, the death toll of the battle was so high that a council of clerics threatened to excommunicate Columba for having caused and taken part in the battle. Columba suggested he would put himself in self-imposed exile (Peregrinatio) as penance, to bring as many souls to heaven as have died from the consequence of his actions.
In 563, Columba founded his monastery in Iona, off the coast of Scotland. He would spend the next three decades as a scholar, diplomat, and spiritual authority in the region. From his base in Iona, he established missionaries in North Britain with the sole goal of evangelizing Christianity to the heathen populace and their rulers. Consequentially, as a member of the ruling Ui Neill clan in Ireland, he served as a vital political liaison between the two islands, even mediating a territorial dispute in 575 between his home clan and the Scottish Kingdom (then known as the Kingdom of Dál Riata). But, by far, Columba’s greatest significant lies in the legacy he set up in North Britain by founding a system of monasticism with the strictest intention of seeking conversion and spreading Christianity. The turning point into true dominance for his church will come in the early 7th century, after his death, upon the conversion of the Northumbrian dynasty, thereby providing a political means by which to expend the influence of Iona into mainland Britain. St. Columba died in Iona in 597, and was buried in the monastery he founded.
The Council: Confrontation between Two Ideologies
Throughout the early to mid-7th century, both Iona and Canterbury continued to seek converts to their faith and establish spiritual supremacy over the British people. Augustine’s church went through some turbulent times after his death in 604, as his successors struggled to keep the Anglo-Saxon rulers and their subjects from reverting to their native Heathenism. But, after several setbacks in the 610s-630s, the situation stabilized as many incoming rulers saw the political advantages of embracing Christianity in terms of legitimizing their sovereignty to Christian Europe. By 663, Canterbury was an integrate part of Britain’s political scene. Iona, on its part, embedded itself firmly within the Northumbrian Dynasty, important in maintaining its stronghold over northern Britain. Although the Roman Church of Canterbury was exercising its authority over a larger population than the Celtic Church of Iona, Iona held sway over the Bretwalda (overlord) of Britain at the time. Thus, causing the unresolved strives between the two sides over their traditional disagreements, primarily concerning the dating of Easter, to remain at a tense stalemate.
While all these events were occurring, it is important to note there was no such thing as a unified British state. Britain was composed of various kingdoms, each ruled over by individual kings, where usurpations were common and borders were never decisively established. Policies were dictated by the most dominate power (a very unstable pattern of governance). In Northumbria, King Oswiu—who ruled as close to a British overlord as would be possible for the times—saw Christianity as an important factor of commonality for his subjects, and took great interest in the development of the church.
King Oswiu was an observer of the Celtic Easter, but was married to Queen Eanfled who feasted according to the Roman tradition. He found it odd that he feasted while she fasted, and saw the unresolved disparity as a dispute that would prove catastrophic to Britain political/spiritual structure. He sought to end the debate between the two Churches, and referred that each side present its case to him at Whitby, so he could decide on which resolution would be the best for Britain to follow.
In 664, the Synod of Whitby met, with Bishop Colman of Northumbria defended the Ionan position, while Abbott Wilfrid argued in favor of the Roman practice. Colman maintained that the Celtic system was the one advocated by St. Columba, who himself was following the tradition of St. John, and as holy men their judgment should not be questioned. Wilfrid retorted by appealing to St. Peter as the founder of the Roman Church and gatekeeper to heaven. With respect to St. Columba, it would be of the utmost folly to act counter to the will of St. Peter, and that in light of everything it was only Iona which was resisting Roman custom (Ireland itself had recently accepted the Roman Easter tables). After the cases were made, Oswiu rose and asked both sides as to whether or not they agreed that St. Peter was pronounced by Christ as the rock on whose model the Church would be built, as both sides affirmed the truth of what he said, King Oswiu proclaimed that between St. Columba and St. Peter he is obliged to side with St. Peter as the ultimate authority of the Christian Church.
Along with settling the dispute over how to date Easter, the decision reached at Whitby also enabled the English Church to become unified, and unite the British wholly back to the European continent (a political move Oswiu must have been aware of prior to making his choice). The influence of Celtic Christianity did not disappear altogether, instead its imagery and scholarship blended with the English Church, and gave it a uniquely British individuality. By the end of the 7th century the English Church, presiding from Canterbury, became all about ecclesiastical order and unity, which allowed it to rise and become an indispensable factor in defining the future British state.
Bede. Ecclesiastical History of the English People
Adamnan. The Life of St. Columba
St. Patrick. The Confession of St. Patrick