Battle for Saxon minds

The Celtic Church had already made inroads in the lands surrounding the Celtic kingdoms in Wales and in Northumbria, where monks from Iona had converted the king and his nobles. While expanding its influence, the Celtic church was also moribund, and lacked the dynamism associated with St. Augustine and his modern Roman notions of devotion. The lack of doctrinal unity within the Celtic church also made it harder to present a unified structure for the Anglo-Saxon converts to follow.

Augustine made early inroads in Kent and Essex, established a new church in London, and a religious headquarters at Canterbury. Following the death of /Ethelbert of Essex in 616, both Anglo-Saxon kingdoms reverted to their old beliefs, but a marriage between the houses of Northumbria and Kent led to the arrival of Roman missionaries in York around 625.

Evidently Canterbury was active as an ecclesiastical center, despite the official policy of the Kentish court. I^aulinus, Archbishop of Canterbury, converted King Edwin of

By the sixth century, the Celtic Church in Britain and Ireland was thriving, but isolated from the influence of the Roman Church. Its policies and practices consequently differed from the rest of Christian Europe. Just at the time the Celtic saints completed their conversion of the Celts, the Roman Church became established in Anglo-Saxon England. Inevitably a theological struggle for dominance would ensue.

Right: The holy island of Lindisfarne once contained a thriving Celtic monastic community. The buildings shown here are later medieval structures.

Northumbria to the Roman Church in 627, effectively preventing any further inroads into England by the Celtic Church. The pope duly made York a second archbishopric. Within two years, the death of Edwin prompted an anti-Christian rebellion. The Celtic Church was offered a second chance to till the Christian vacuum left when Archbishop Paulinus fled to Canterbury.

In 635 Oswald seized the Northumbrian throne, and he allowed missionaries from Iona to establish a new Celtic monastery at Lindisfarne. Northumbria became Christian again, but now owing allegiance to Iona rather than to Rome. With the Celtic Church established in the north of England, and with Irish monastic settlements at Glastonbury and Malmesbury in the west, it looked as though the Roman clerics may have lost the race.

Bede explains how everything changed, starting from 663. A conflict within the Northumbrian court over the right date to celebrate Easter led to the call for a religious debate. It was convened at the Sy nod of Whitby (664). In drawn-out arguments the Roman Church's calendar was adopted for the dating of the Easter festival. At the time, this acceptance of a Roman preference over a Celtic one may have seemed an insignificant point. What it did, though, was mark the point at which the Church of Rome seized the moral advantage. Still lacking unity, the Celts were unable to

Battle Map Whitby Abbey

withstand the encroachment of Roman ideas on Celtic religious practices. Over the next century the idiosyncratic Celtic church would bow to the inevitable, and region by region it would become assimilated within the Church of Rome.

Above The City August

Above: Canterbury Cathedral towers above the city's roofs. Founded as headquarters of the Roman Church by St. Augustine c.597. most of the building work was carried out between the 11th and 12th centuries.

Left: The ruins of Whitby Abbey, a medieval building constructed on the site of the earlier structure where the religious debate between the Celtic and Roman Churches was settled.

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