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Anglo-Saxon Tradition of Christianity

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Why did the Roman tradition of Christianity finally triumph in England?
Many have argued that collision between the Celtic and Roman churches in England was inevitable. The Celtic Church held concepts of episcopacy that “were fundamentally different from that of the Roman Church”. For example, under the organisational structure of the Celtic Church, the abbot’s authority was paramount. In contrast to this was the Roman Church, where the bishop was the central figure in the diocese. The most striking issue between the two churches was in relation to ecclesiastical practise. The Celtic Church practised a different form of baptism; tonsure and most notably deviated in their calculation of Easter. One of the earliest examples of this conflict came when St. Augustine met the British bishops in 603. Here, he succeeded in offending the British by refusing to rise upon their entrance, showing that he did not think of his Celtic counterparts as equals. The Easter discrepancy was addressed at the Synod of Whitby in 664. King Oswy of Bernicia, the bretwalda of Northumbria, is reported to have declared that “he would rather be on the side of St. Peter, who held the keys to heaven, than that of St. Columba”. His decision at the synod to accept the Roman method of calculating the feast of Easter marked an end to the rival Celtic tradition. It brought the Church in England closer together by accepting Roman organisation. Despite the advent of the Synod of Whitby, the triumph of the Roman tradition of Christianity did not simply transpire by coincidence. The acceptance of Roman organisation occurred for a variety of reasons. In exploring these, it is useful to focus on the role of several key institutions and individuals. Firstly, the institution of marriage was an important factor throughout Anglo-Saxon history in the transmission of Christianity and significantly the Roman brand of it. The role of women and the practises of king’s wives was a central factor that contributed to King Oswy’s decision. Secondly, the role of King Oswy’s son King Alfrith of Deira and Abbot Wilfrid of Ripon were central in the instigation of the Synod of Whitby. Thirdly, the synod itself provided the arena where the two traditions were debated and which allowed for Roman logic, and Wilfrid’s skill, to prevail and convince Oswy. Finally, the subsequent rise of monasteries that followed the Roman tradition will be investigated as concrete evidence of the triumph of Roman Christianity in England.

The impact of having a Christian wife in Anglo-Saxon England has proved to be an influential factor in the process of spreading the Roman tradition of Christianity. Indeed the first Roman mission to England was greatly facilitated by the fact that King Ethelbert of Kent had a Christian wife from Gaul. This served to familiarize him with the religion and may have contributed to his eventual conversion. A similar pattern of influence occurred in the case of King Oswy. King Oswy’s wife Eanfled, who was the daughter of King Edwin, was raised in Kent. During her time in Kent she grew up under Bishop Paulinus and as a result her beliefs would have been firmly rooted in the Roman tradition. Consequently, King Oswy and Queen Eanfled often celebrated Easter on different days. Thus on Easter it was no uncommon to find King Oswy feasting while his Queen was still fasting and observing Palm Sunday. The discrepancy of dating Easter was the result of Oswy’s observance of the Celtic tradition, which calculated Easter based on an eighty-four year cycle while Eanfled followed the Roman tradition based on a nineteen year cycle. Thus between 635 and 664, Easter had been celebrated twice with the exception of 638, 655 and 658. Celebrating Easter on two separate occasions would not have been ideal in the court of a king. It would have appeared disorganised and was a potent example that some form of conformity was needed in the church in England. Henry Mayr-Harting wrote that “it was certainly no laughing matter when this kind of thing happened to the ceremonial of the chief Christian festival at the court of the Northumbrian bretwalda...”. The deviance of the date of the celebration of Easter in the Northumbrian court proved to be a significant factor in King Oswy’s decision to convene the Synod of Whitby and which ultimately led to his verdict in favour of the Roman tradition.

King Oswy’s son, King Alfrith of Deira was central in propagating the need to observe Roman Easter. King Alfrith was particularly influenced by Wilfrid and the knowledge he had acquired while in Rome. As a result, Alfrith removed the monks loyal to Lindisfarne from his monastery at Ripon and made Wilfrid the abbot. Alfrith’s devotion to the Roman tradition was one of the key forces that led to the Synod of Whitby. Henry Mayr-Harting has attributed this devotion to Alfrith’s ambition to gain more power in the Kingdom of Northumbria by siding with a tradition which deviated from King Oswy. The synod was an “opportunity to bring political pressure to bear and weaken the influence of his father”. Although King Alfrith achieved little in terms of power at the synod, his influence in its origin is nevertheless significant .King Alfrith was one of the major figures who stressed the divide between the two traditions and therefore the subsequent need felt in the kingdom to determine a solution to the problem of dating Easter.

The Synod of Whitby itself was held at the monastery in Streanaeshelh in 664. It was the arena where the two Christian traditions were debated. Its proceedings were attended by some of the main proponents of both Celtic and Roman customs. Pioneers of the Celtic tradition such as Bishop Colman of Lindisfarne were present while Abbot Wilfrid and others like James the deacon argued the Roman cause. It should be noted, as Kenneth Hylson-Smith has argued, that even before the Synod of Whitby was underway, King Oswy “was predisposed to accept the Roman way...this was not only because he was convinced of its inherent truth...[but] he saw the advantages of incorporation into the extensive and authoritative Roman Church system” . This predisposition is certainly possible but the synod was significant nonetheless as it represented an official ruling in favour of the Roman tradition. The arguments of the synod are too vast to explore completely in this essay, but the skill of Abbot Wilfrid in combating the Celtic stance is worthy of particular mention. During the synod, Wilfrid presented a stronger case for Roman logic and tradition. According to Bede, Wilfrid successfully discredited Bishop Colman’s claims that the Celtic tradition followed the observances of St. John by demonstrating that the Saint celebrated Easter irrespective of what day it fell on. Most significantly, Abbot Wilfrid was able to argue that even the beliefs of St. Columba, the paramount figure of Iona, were not above those of St. Peter and the Roman Church. The end result was that King Oswy favoured the Roman tradition of Christianity. Perhaps the most symbolic action that epitomised the Roman triumph at Whitby was that in his refusal to accept that the decision, Bishop Colman went to Iona and instead of returning to the seat of his bishopric at Lindisfarne. Bishop Colman’s successor was Tuda who although was Irish trained, observed the Roman tradition of Easter. It should be noted that although the synod was held in the Kingdom of Northumbria, the effects of King Oswy’s decision were felt throughout England. Francis Betten noted that “the acceptance of the Roman Easter in Northumbria meant its ascendancy in all the other Anglo-Saxon realms”.

Peter Hunter Blair has argued that the real Roman triumph came during the generations that followed the Synod of Whitby. He stated that “the decisions taken at the Synod of Whitby marked only the first step towards the ascendancy of the Roman Church in England”. For Blair, the real triumph came from the actions of men like Theodore of Tarsus who became Archbishop of Canterbury in 668 and Benedict Biscop. Archbishop Theodore was responsible for the General Assembly of the English Church in Hertford where adherence to the Roman method of calculating Easter was stressed. Benedict Biscop on the other hand, founded two of the most notable monasteries in England at Monkwearmouth in Durham in 674 and Jarrow which was dedicated in 685. These monasteries followed the Roman tradition, and provided the Roman Church with monasteries to rival great Celtic institutions renowned for their learning like Iona and Durrow. “The assembly of libraries and the diffusion through monasteries of some understanding of the power of the written word placed the Roman Church in England in a much stronger position to compete against the scholarship of the Celtic Church”. It is perhaps more suitable to view Peter Hunter Blair’s contention as products of the Roman triumph as opposed to evidence of it. The monasteries at Monkwearmouth and Jarrow were impressive centres of learning. Both monasteries have strong connections with Bede, who, if we consider as a representation of the quality of their scholarship, show they were fine institutions that could indeed rival their Celtic counterparts. However, the event that marked the Roman triumph of Christianity in England was most certainly the Synod of Whitby in 664.

The term “triumph” can perhaps be misleading. Although the Roman tradition of calculating the date of Easter was accepted at the Synod of Whitby, it did not necessarily mean the strict decline of Celtic Church or characteristics of it in the English Church. Many Celtic Churches had already conformed to the Roman calculation of Easter before the Synod of Whitby. For example, the Southern Irish accepted the Roman calculation in 633. Coincidently, Edward James has written that “the most violent supporter of Roman Easter was an Irishman called Ronan”. Furthermore, many Celtic elements also remained in the Roman Church. The system of double monasteries remained while the English Church “continued to be profoundly influenced by the stress on asceticism and penitential discipline so characteristic of Irish Christianity”. For doctrinal matters, however, the Church in England looked to Rome.

The need to establish a uniform practise in the celebration of Easter in England was one of the central reasons that the Synod of Whitby was established and why the Roman practise was accepted. The divide between the two traditions was epitomised by King Oswy and Queen Eanfled who often celebrated on separate days. It is perhaps because of the deviance in his own court that prompted King Oswy to convene the synod to seek a resolution. The role of his son King Alfrith is also worthy of mention. His vigour for the Roman tradition combined with his ambition also contributed to the advent of the Synod of Whitby and the eventual Roman triumph. The synod itself allowed for Abbot Wilfrid to take centre stage and eclipse many of the Celtic beliefs and the legacies they claimed. Finally, the fine monasteries established at Monkwearmouth and Jarrow can be viewed as concrete evidence of the Roman triumph of Christianity in England.

Betten, Francis S., ‘The So-Called Council of Whitby 664A.D.’, The Catholic Historical Review, 13 (Jan., 1928), pp. 620-629.
Blair, Peter Hunter, An Introduction to Anglo-Saxon England (Cambridge, 1956 (2nd Edition, 1977)).
Hylson-Smith, Kenneth, Christianity in England from Roman Times to the Reformation: Vol I From Roman Times to 1066 (London, 1999).
James, Edward, Britain in the First Millennium (London, 2001).
Mayr-Harting, Henry, The Coming of Christianity to Anglo-Saxon England (London, 1972 (3rd Edition, 1991).

[ 1 ]. Peter Hunter Blair, An Introduction to Anglo-Saxon England (Cambridge, 1956 (2nd Edition, 1977)), p. 133.
[ 2 ]. Kenneth Hylson-Smith, Christianity in England from Roman Times to the Reformation: Vol 1 From Roman Times to 1066 (London, 1999), p. 147.
[ 3 ]. Edward James, Britain in the First Millennium (London, 2001), p. 165.
[ 4 ]. Henry Mayr-Harting, The Coming of Christianity to Anglo-Saxon England (London, 1972 (3rd Edition, 1991)), p. 105.
[ 5 ]. Mayr-Harting, The Coming of Christianity to Anglo-Saxon England, p. 105.
[ 6 ]. Blair, An Introduction to Anglo-Saxon England, p. 130.
[ 7 ]. Francis S. Betten, ‘The So-Called Council of Whitby 664A.D’, The Catholic Historical Review, 13 (Jan, 1928), p. 623.
[ 8 ]. Mayr-Harting, The Coming of Christianity to Anglo-Saxon England, p. 106.
[ 9 ]. Ibid, p. 107.
[ 10 ]. Ibid, p. 108.
[ 11 ]. James, Britain in the First Millennium, p. 164.
[ 12 ]. Hylson-Smith, Christianity in England from Roman Times to the Reformation, p. 175.
[ 13 ]. Mayr-Harting, The Coming of Christianity to Anglo-Saxon England, p. 109.
[ 14 ]. Ibid, p. 109.
[ 15 ]. Hylson-Smith, Christianity in England from Roman Times to the Reformation, p. 176.
[ 16 ]. Ibid.
[ 17 ]. Betten, ‘The So-Called Council of Whitby 664A.D’, p. 625.
[ 18 ]. Blair, An Introduction to Anglo-Saxon England, p. 134.
[ 19 ]. Ibid, p. 136.
[ 20 ]. Ibid, p. 139.
[ 21 ]. Ibid, p. 140.
[ 22 ]. Mayr-Harting, The Coming of Christianity to Anglo-Saxon England, p. 109.
[ 23 ]. James, Britain in the First Millennium, p. 167.
[ 24 ]. Hylson-Smith, Christianity in England from Roman Times to the Reformation, p. 181.

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An Outline of English Literature

...ENGLISH LITERATURE ITS HISTORY AND ITS SIGNIFICANCE FOR THE LIFE OF THE ENGLISH-SPEAKING WORLD A TEXT-BOOK FOR SCHOOLS BY WILLIAM J. LONG, PH.D. (Heidelberg) TO MY FRIEND C H T IN GRATITUDE FOR HIS CONTINUED HELP IN THE PREPARATION OF THIS BOOK CANTERBURY PILGRIMS From Royal MS., 18 D.ii, in the British Museum PREFACE This book, which presents the whole splendid history of English literature from Anglo-Saxon times to the close of the Victorian Era, has three specific aims. The first is to create or to encourage in every student the desire to read the best books, and to know literature itself rather than what has been written about literature. The second is to interpret literature both personally and historically, that is, to show how a great book generally reflects not only the author's life and thought but also the spirit of the age and the ideals of the nation's history. The third aim is to show, by a study of each successive period, how our literature has steadily developed from its first simple songs and stories to its present complexity in prose and poetry. To carry out these aims we have introduced the following features: (1) A brief, accurate summary of historical events and social conditions in each period, and a consideration of the ideals which stirred the whole nation, as in the days of Elizabeth, before they found expression in literature. (2) A study of the various literary epochs in turn, showing what each gained......

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