CELTIC AND EARLY SAXON CHRISTIANITY IN ENGLAND
by Gerald Prater
April 18, 2008
during the early Roman occupation of southern Britain, Christianity slowly
gained followers among the Britons, i.e. the Celts who had previously
settled there. Although the main religion of the Romans at that time was
Mithraism, some of the occupation forces were evidently Christians. But the
new faith probably spread through trade, either with Britons travelling
abroad or traders coming to its shores. One has to remember that the Roman
Empire was like the EU today, with little restriction on travel within its
boundaries. Already at the end of the 2nd C the famous church leader in N.
Africa, Tertullian, wrote that Christianity had penetrated into Britain.
We know that at the Synod of Arles 314 AD Britain was represented by 3
bishops. But some time before that the first notable persecution had taken
place at Verulam (later called St Albans after its famous martyr).
Archaeological remains of Christian centres of worship date back to about
350 AD, e.g. in Kent, Hampshire and Gwent.
When the imperial forces were withdrawn in 407 AD, the British were left
open to attack from surrounding pagans, marauding Irish in the west and
above all Picts from north of the border. Before long the east of the
country also was invaded by Saxons. When a British king had the idea of
the help of the Saxons against the Picts, this only led to large numbers of
barbarians from the continent coming and occupying the land, gradually
spreading westwards. Although we presume that the Britons were not wiped out
in these areas, they quickly lost their identity. The area not dominated by
the pagans was roughly defined by a frontier running southwards from
Edinburgh bordering on Cumberland, the West Yorkshire Dales, Wales and
Cornwall, as well as Brittany.
The renewal of British Christianity at that time (6th C) was due largely to
two Welsh saints, Illtyd – pioneer in education and founder of a monastery
at Llantwit Major and David, the national patron. Beyond the old Roman wall
the Scots were evangelized by St Ninian in Galloway and Dumfries and Ireland
by St Patrick. Later an Irish saint Columba came from Ireland to the
Scottish coast and established a community on the Island on Iona, from which
the northern Picts were evangelized.
Missionaries sent from Rome by Pope Gregory (and led by Augustine) had
landed in Kent (597 AD), whose king, Ethelbert, had a Christian queen,
Bertha, daughter of the king of Paris. It appears that the old Germanic
religions had been weakened and without compulsion!! the king and his people
accepted the new faith, creating a bishopric at Canterbury. Thus in the
north the Kingdom of Northumbria was surrounded by Christians on three sides
and in 624 AD its Anglian king, Edwin, was converted.
Up till now the British, i.e. Celtic, churches had used a liturgy based on
the French (Gallican) one, while in the north the Ionian tradition was also
followed. But Augustine wanted all the British churches to
adopt the Roman one. One of the main differences was fixing the date of
Easter. However, it was not until the Synod of Whitby in 664 AD that
agreement was reached.
England was Christianised in this period and took up the torch of
evangelisation, taking the faith to the Germans and the Swiss. It produced
famous scholars, e.g. Bede of Durham with his ecclesiastical history of
England, Caedmon the poet and King Alfred, truly one of the greatest kings
who ever lived. Apart from being a military leader, Alfred formulated a code
of laws, furthered Christian learning and piety, even translating Latin
books himself. He successfully defended his kingdom of Wessex against the
Vikings. Gradually these Danes were absorbed into the Anglo-Saxon culture.
Fortunately the later Viking invasions did not seek to destroy this culture.
So perhaps without Alfred we would be speaking a mixture of Danish and
The talk will include projected maps, pictures of Celtic sites and
monuments, example of old English texts, extracts from Bede and Caedmon.