Note: I originally published this in 2015, in the first year of my blog, and it didn’t get a lot of traffic. As we have just begun Lent, I thought this post would fit in nicely this week. It explains one of the key controversies in Northumbria in the 7th century. I hope you enjoy!
Believe it or not, this was a vitally important question back in 7th Century Britain. Not so much whether or not to celebrate Lent, but when. The whole question of when Easter began, and thus, when to start celebrating Lent, was the source of great division and controversy.*
It may seem silly to us now, but it was a serious problem for the Church. It’s a difficult one to encapsulate in one blog post, but I’ll give it a shot.
Christianity first arrived in Britain with the Romans, who conquered the island (or parts of it, anyway) in the early parts of the 1st century. By the time the legions withdrew somewhere near the end of the 4th century, the Church had established a presence in the island, but it was not a major presence, just a religion among the other pagan religions that people followed, and it likely might have died out as the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes invaded and brought their own pagan religions with them. But the Celts in the South-west and North resisted those invasions as they had resisted the Romans, and Christianity survived and indeed began to flourish in those corners of the island.
However, they were cut off from Rome, and their practice of the faith began to take on a decidedly Celtic feel. The Irish and British priests and Bishops still venerated the Roman pope, but in all practicality their allegiances were much more tribal, and the Abbots of the monastery had more sway in spiritual matters than the Bishops of the dioceses. In some cases, the Abbot was both Abbot and Bishop. The Abbots were often descended from ruling Irish families, and held great influence over their people. The practice of the faith was very much centred around the monasteries, as opposed to the diocesan, urban model developed in Rome. Due to their influence, the monastic lifestyle was held up as the ideal of Christian living in the Celtic church.
Unbeknownst to the Celts in Britain, the Roman church had abandoned the original method for dating Easter, making some changes based on astronomical calculations (and other considerations, such as wanting to distance the resurrection of Christ from the Jewish passover) which are too complicated to get into here. Pope Gregory sent Augustine to Britain in 597 AD to convert the southern Saxon kings of England, which gave the Roman Church a firm hold on the southern parts of the island. But the it quickly came into conflict with the established “Celtic” church in the north as their differences in practice came to light.
All this brings us to the date of my novel, set in 642 AD, and the situation in of the northern kingdom of Bernicia, which illustrates some of the difficulties in having two sets of practices. King Oswy of Bernicia, who, although a Saxon, had been brought to the Church through his exile in Dál Raita, and the influence of the monks at Iona, the island monastery off the west coast of what is now Scotland. For political reasons he married Eanflead, a princess of Kent, who was a Roman Christian. Therefore, at Easter, one spouse could be celebrating Christ’s resurrection while the other was still practicing Lent. It was all very awkward and, I imagine, confusing for the lay people.
There were other differences as well, including the style of tonsure worn by monks. The Roman monks shaved the top of their heads, leaving a ring of hair, echoing Christ’s crown of thorns. The Celts shaved the front of their heads from ear to ear, in what some surmise was the same haircut that the Druidic priests once wore.
This conflict between the two approaches to the faith continued until the Synod of Whitby, in 664 AD, instigated, interestingly enough, by King Oswy. He wanted to determine once and for all which practices would be the ones to follow for the Church in Britain as a whole (one wonders how much pressure his wife put on him to get it all sorted out!). Based in part on the influence of the charismatic Bishop Wilfred, Oswy ruled in favour of the Roman practices and the Celtic style began to be phased out, although the Church in Britain retained a couple of hold-overs from its Celtic monastic past, including the emphasis on missionary work and its dedication to intellectual pursuits. Pockets of resistance to this change lasted until the 9th century.
It may seem a tempest in a teapot to us, but at the time it was a vitally important matter as power, politics, and religion were all stakeholders in this conflict. The upshot of the whole thing was that the Church in England remained staunchly Roman until the marital shenanigans of Henry the VIII brought a whole new religious controversy to Britain.
*Interestingly, there is still a difference today between the Eastern Orthodox church calendar and the Western (Roman) one, but for different reasons than the ones delineated in this post.
Photo credit: Celtic Cross at Ballinskellig Priory by Ulrich Hartman