In seventh century England, missionaries from the Celtic Church of Scotland and Ireland established the Christian Faith among the Anglo-Saxons.
The following article describes the Celtic origins of the English Northumbrian Church.
Celtic Foundations Within the English Church
During the 7th century Christianity spread throughout England. At the start a hot dispute had arisen between Pope Gregory’s envoy, Augustine, and the Celtic Church of the British Isles, which was flourishing in Wales, Cornwall, Scotland and Ireland.
Kent, Rome and Iona
At the outset of English church history, the Christian Faith had come to the kingdom of Kent through the marriage of a Frankish princess to a Kentish prince during the latter half of the sixth century. Within time papal Rome’s envoy arrived in Kent in the person of Augustine, prior of St Andrew’s monastery at Rome and later Archbishop of Canterbury. According to ecclesiastical tradition, Augustine is the apostle of England, but following historical events, it becomes clear that Irish and Scottish missionaries starting from the small island of Iona in the Inner Hebrides came from Scotland to England, establishing the Celtic Church in many of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms.
Celtic Apostles in England
According to Diana Leatham, author of Celtic Sunrise, the Irish monk Aidan of the monastery of Iona and his monastic companions who went with him to Northumbria are the apostles of England, and not Augustine who the Pope had sent from Rome to England. She points out that, in all England, Augustine’s authority as Archbishop of Canterbury was effective only in Kent, as neither he nor his immediate successors managed to establish the Church beyond Kent’s boundaries.
Celtic Christianity was brought to seventh century Anglo-Saxon England some forty years after Augustine’s arrival in Kent, becoming firmly established first in Northumbria and within time in the Midlands, East Anglia and western England. Celtic evangelisation seems to have been of profound spiritual character, and Diana Leatham states that at the beginning of the eighth century, the Roman Church was still struggling ‘to oust deep-rooted Celtic religious customs in Northumbria, in the Midlands, and among the West and East Saxons’.
In the south-west of England, Cornwall began embracing the Christian Faith in the fifth century due to the British Church (the Church of the Celtic Britons) whose early spiritual centres were in Wales. Where-as Welsh bishops, presbyters and monks were ethnically and linguistically the same people as the inhabitants of Cornwall, namely Britons, the Celtic missionaries of Iona of the seventh century who had come to England were making known the Gospel to people speaking a different language. Indeed the kingdom of Northumbria in northern England had developed into a confederation of Britons and Anglo-Saxons, hence both Celtic and English were spoken among its inhabitants.
The Kentish Faith
In the subsequent contest between Celtic Iona and Rome as to which church authority should be established in Anglo-Saxon England, with Rome later trying to uproot Celtic Christian customs from England’s Shires in the name of supreme papal authority, it ought not be forgotten how the Christian Faith reached Kent, as this did not come about through any missionary envoy sent from Rome. The Gospel came to sixth century Kent in the hands of a French princess, Bertha, daughter of King Charibert of the Franks.
The first known church to be built by Anglo-Saxons in England is in Canterbury, Kent’s capital at that time. Dedicated to Saint Martin, it was built for Bertha, whose husband, Ethelbert, later succeeded his father to the Kentish throne. This church was standing before Augustine came to Kent.
King Ethelbert had already converted to his wife’s faith prior to the baptism in water which came with Augustine in 597. The origins of the English Church in Kent sprang from this spiritual conversion and not from Augustine’s baptism in water: in fact Augustine's later personal authority as Archbishop of Canterbury never passed Kent’s boundaries into the other English kingdoms, as he lacked the missionary zeal of the Celtic Church.
Baptism in water without proper biblical knowledge of the Gospel’s spiritual message was unlikely to convince the Anglo-Saxons, and so the pagan religion remained steadfast throughout England except in Kent and Cornwall for another forty years after 597, the date of Augustine’s entry in Canterbury.
The ideals of the Kentish faith in that period lay in spiritual conversion of individuals and not in large scale baptism in water administered to poorly instructed people. Both the Archbishop in Canterbury and the Pope in Rome were impotent to oppose Kent’s first Christian king in regards to the Church’s authority among the people, and indeed when Ethelbert died, his son and rightful successor Eadbald was not a Christian, but a pagan. King Eadbald, who succeeded his father in 616, later converted to the Christian Faith, yet through his own decision and in a period when many of Kent’s inhabitants were pagan. No-one among his people opposed him for reasons of religion, whether he was pagan or Christian.
Augustine Fails to Assert Papal Authority
As Kent already had a king spiritually converted to the Christian Faith at the end of the sixth century, this would reasonably explain why Augustine found hospitality there and received permission to establish a diocese at Canterbury, Kent’s capital. Yet the Pope’s envoy was unable to achieve any part of the original task for which he had set out from Rome, namely to assert papal authority over the British Church in Wales, Cornwall, Scotland and Ireland and introduce Christianity all over England.
The conclusion that Augustine accepted the hospitality of the Christian Kentish court – whose monarch had already converted – and received permission from King Ethelbert to establish a diocese within the burgh of Canterbury, is confirmed in terms of historical evidence by his failure to accomplish his original mission. Pope Gregory had ordered Augustine to organise England in two ecclesiastical provinces with archbishops at London and York. The decision to establish England’s first and primary diocese at Canterbury derived not from papal authority, but rather from that of King Ethelbert, for Augustine had failed to make any missionary headway in England and Britain outside of Kent.
A Kentish Princess in Northumbria
In the year 625 King Edwin of Northumbria married Ethelburga, sister of the Kentish king Eadbald. In the same way as her mother Bertha had brought the Gospel with her from France to Kent, so too did Princess Ethelburga take her Christian faith to Northumbria, and the Northumbrian king accepted his wife’s religion as his own. His conversion was sincere beyond doubt, for Edwin was, as Diana Leatham in her book Celtic Sunrise writes: ‘a deep thinker who was only converted to the new religion after much deliberation’.
Ethelburga’s presence in Northumbria’s capital York and the interior conversion of Northumbria’s King Edwin attracted the attention of Rome, and indeed Paulinus, who Pope Gregory I had sent to England in 601 to reinforce Augustine’s mission, took up residence at York after Ethelburga’s entry there. Consequently, the Roman custom of baptising in water in the name of the Holy Trinity quickly spread throughout Northumbria, and many went and were baptised, but few believed. Referring to King Edwin's reign, Diana Leatham notes in Celtic Sunrise that ‘the wholesale baptism of his people that followed as a matter of course affected the country hardly at all during the next eight years, as they seem to have been given little or no instruction’.
The Superficial Fruits of Paulinus
In 633, a pagan king from among the Britons by the name Cadwallon invaded Northumbria together with Penda, pagan king of the Anglo-Saxon Mercians. In the ensuing confrontation the Northumbrian soldiers were unable to hold their ground and Edwin himself fell on the battlefield, leaving the way open for Cadwallon to become Northumbria’s king. The Venerable Bede, England’s renowned eighth century ecclesiastic and historian from the abbey at Jarrow, notes in his book Ecclesiastical History of England that Northumbria’s Anglo-Saxons returned forthwith to their previous pagan religion and to their idols.
Ethelburga returned to Kent, and with her came Paulinus, papal Rome's envoy to Northumbria. In Kent the Christian Faith was by no means superficial. King Ethelbert had in fact been careful to avoid any form of mass-baptising on the part of the papal envoys – including the Archbishop of Canterbury – to people who had received little or no spiritual instruction. In this respect his authority as Christian king decisively overruled that of the Archbishop who resided in the same burgh of Canterbury, as well as that of the Pope in Rome.
In Northumbria, however, Paulinus, who had been consecrated Archbishop of York, carried out a policy of mass conversion through baptism in water. His presence there lasted from 625, the year in which Edwin married Princess Ethelburga of Kent, to 633, when Edwin fell in battle, but in all that time he completely failed to bring over the message of the Gospel to the people. It was only when the Celtic missionaries from the Scottish island of Iona founded the Church in Northumbria in the year 635 that England’s inhabitants outside Kent and Cornwall began to find a spiritual anchorage to the Church and her message.
Oswald Confronts Cadwallon for the Northumbrian Throne
Edwin’s nephew, Oswald, was son of the Northumbrian king who had reigned before Edwin had come to power in the year 616, and he was the rightful heir to the Northumbrian throne. He and his younger brother Oswy, together with a number of their faithful nobles, had taken to the Celtic monastery on the island of Iona during Edwin’s reign, and there they had converted to the Faith in Christ.
When news reached them of Edwin’s fall, they gathered a small army and confronted Cadwallon, Northumbria’s new king, for Oswald still held his claim to the throne. In 634 the two armies met and the battle was decided in favour of Oswald, who ascended the throne of Northumbria.
The Scots Establish the Church in Northumbria
After Edwin, Oswald was Northumbria’s second Christian king, and he chose the Celtic Church of the Scots, not Rome, to send missionaries to his kingdom. The Scots inhabited Scotland and Ireland, as too did their neighbours the Picts, both peoples being of Celtic origin.
In response to King Oswald’s request for missionaries, the Scots sent Aidan, an Irish monk resident in the monastery of Iona which Saint Columba of Ireland had founded in 563. On reaching northern England, Aidan founded a monastery on the island of Lindisfarne off the coast of Northumbria, and was consecrated Bishop of Lindisfarne in 635. For seventeen years Aidan upheld his ministry as missionary to the Northumbrians until the year of his death in 651.
Many were the Scots who accompanied him in order to take part in the profound spiritual conversion of King Oswald’s kingdom. Oswald, who had spent a number of years in the monastery island of Iona, spoke the Scotic language and often upheld Bishop Aidan by translating to his own people all that Aidan taught them, until the Scots themselves had comfortably mastered the English language.
Whenever Celtic missionaries from any part of the British Isles went to make known the Gospel, they would build monasteries in the midst of the population to whom they intended presenting Christianity. These timber-built ecclesiastical centres would be permanently inhabited by monks who lived in small wooden houses, known as cells, situated around the central church.
The monks would work the surrounding land, keep cattle and dedicate themselves to manufacturing whatever artefacts they required. Highly skilled in manual labour and economically self-sufficient, they would also dedicate their time to studying and writing, making copies of old books and of the Holy Scriptures, and to teaching the students who were sent to them to learn the Word of God. They would travel from village to village and talk to the people, and hold services of prayer and ecumenical communion for all who desired to attend.
Papal influence and authority within the English Church came gradually, the process being finally complete with the advent of William the Conqueror in 1066. Yet nowhere in England did Rome actually lay the foundations of the Christian Faith or participate in the origins of the English Church.
Written by D. Alexander
Read also about the Kentish origins of the English Church:
Photo 1: Saint James church, Dover, Kent.
Photo 2: Saint Mary at the Castle, Dover, Kent.
Some say the Church of Saint Mary at the Castle was built by the Anglo-Saxons, others believe it is of Celtic origin, built by the Christian Britons.