5th century was a time of turmoil in the Roman Empire. The century
began with the Goths in Italy and the sack of Rome itself in
imperial court of Empress Galla Placidia and her half-brother
had cowered in Ravenna, at length inducing the Visigoths to leave
Italy and establish
tribesmen were camped in northwest Spain and Vandals further
to the south.
Constantinople the Christian fanatic Empress Pulcheria ruled
on behalf of her
infant brother Theodosius II, buying off the Huns and issuing
ever-harsher edicts against unbelievers.
denuded of its garrison, slipped out of Roman orbit into anarchy.
disintegration of the western empire nonetheless provided new
opportunity for hierarchs of the Church. Individual Christian
advantage of the chaos and climate of fear to advance
their own claims to a superior authority:
personal claims could not be canvassed without the accusation
of the sin of pride ... each put forward a different
dogma as to the Nature of Christ in order to attract followers
to his cause."
– Roberts, In Search of Early Christian Unity, p120.
The main contenders were bishops John in
Antioch, Cyril in Alexandria, Nestorius in
Constantinople and Celestine in Rome.
Ebb for Catholicism
western contender, the imperious Pope Celestine I (422-432),
faced a power struggle on many fronts, with Nestorians in
Rome itself, a rival Donatist church
in north Africa,
and Priscillians in
Spain (the first 'heretics' to be murdered for their faith).
In Illyricum, bishops were threatening defection to the Patriarchate
of Constantinople and worst
of all, the Germanic invaders had reintroduced Arian priests
back into Gaul.
crucial to Papal dominance of the west, yet in Gaul Pelagianism, the
British heresy, had
supporters here too – including Cassian, doyen of monasticism
in the west, and Vincent, supremo of the monastery at Lérins.
face-down the threat of Pelagianism in its heartland,
in 429-431 the Gallo-Roman provincial governor-cum-bishop Germanus was
dispatched to Britain. At a conference held in Verulamium (a still functioning 'Roman' town) he was not well received.
To stiffen the resolve of the local Catholic faction, Germanus
left 'martyrs' bones' at a grave attributed to 'St Alban' (about
which England's wealthiest monastery would grow). Germanus's
mission failed, as did a second attempt in 446-447.
431 another Gallic aristocrat and archdeacon Palladius was
sent to southwest Ireland (Chronicle of Prosper of Aquitaine),
but with notably little success ("neither did those
fierce and cruel men receive his doctrine readily" – Life
of St Patrick). Palladius died within months.
contemporary Patricus, working independently in the
north, had limited success in Armagh and died about 493. With
the disintegration of the empire in the west links between the
Roman Church and the distant British Isles withered. Roman
Catholicism's return would have to await the rise and rise of
Angles and Saxons
the 5th and 6th centuries a new race of pagans, the Saxons (and
tribes) established a wedge of territory in the south and east
of Britain, effectively isolating British Christians from their
brethren in Europe. The Britons retreated into Wales and the
west ('Welsh' being
Saxon for 'foreign' with an interesting modern usage meaning 'to
decamp without paying'). A significant number of Britons
migrated to north west Gaul, in the process transforming Amorica
priests hurled curses at the hated invaders. From the Welsh mountains,
an angry Celtic monk called Gildas condemned
clerical decadence for the Anglo-Saxon victories ("De
excidio Brtanniae"). All the evidence makes clear that
there was little mixing of the newcomers with the original inhabitants.
isolated enclaves Britain was again a pagan isle.
Kingdoms (6th century)
As in Gaul, Spain and elsewhere, the Catholic hierarchy successfully exploited
inter-tribal conflict and dynastic strife.
their Frankish bridgehead in the minor kingdom
of Kent the Catholics made little headway in either
pagan Wessex or Mercia. But Northumbria had already
been softened up by Irish missions.
brokered strategic marriages, procuring Catholic
brides for barbarian kings – and thus levering
Catholic bishops into the royal households. Thus
placed they could tutor the royal offspring in
the rewards and terrors of Holy Mother Church.
a pause in the early 6th century, the Saxons advanced
to engulf the entire country but for Cornwall,
Wales and Strathclyde (Scotland remained divided
between Scots in the west and Picts in the east).
was the Celtic Church, which would be trounced
at the Synod of Whitby in 664, driven westward
and into oblivion.
of the Jedi:
The Augustinian Mission
residual British Church, Rome
and the pope took an 'imperial' perspective on the Saxon conquest
Britain. Gregory I was encouraged by successes in Spain, where Recared,
the Catholic candidate in the civil war, had triumphed in 586.
Gregory saw opportunity in fratricidal strife among barbarian
battle between Anglo-Saxon tribes had occurred in 568. Ethelbert,
King of Kent, had failed to wrest the high kingship or 'Bretwalda'
from Ceawlin of Wessex
and needed allies. Papal agent Liuhard of Senlis
brokered a strategic marriage to Bertha, daughter
of Charibert, King of the Franks. The Catholic emissary had established
a toe-hold among the heathen.
In 596, with
his bride of Christ in place, Gregory chose one of his closest
fellow Roman and
to lead a task-force of forty-one missionaries to the court of
Ethelbert. Whatever machinations occurred at the court of the
barbarian king, it seems likely Ethelbert was impressed more
by the rapid expansion of the 'Catholic' Frankish empire (now
reaching as far as the Elbe) than the 'pure lives' and 'miracles'
of the saints. Mass baptism followed.
Catholic intrusion was less than secure. Ethelbert's son and
successor Eadbald was
far from enamoured with the newfangled religion and its meddlesome
priests. On accession to the throne of Kent in
616 he promptly reinstated the old gods and,
following custom, married the widowed queen – his mother! Yet
the local papal agent Lawrence, ensconced in the
ruins of the Roman city of Canterbury, threatened Eadbald with
intervention by the Franks, and the Kentish king capitulated
to Christ. Part of the settlement was a bride – Emma,
Catholic daughter of Theudebert II of Austrasia.
reconcile the Papal strategy of Christianizing the Saxon invader
with the remnant of the British Church came to nothing. A confrontation
with the 'Welsh' Christians in London (who rejected
the arrogant assumption of Augustine and Lawrence of a universal
authority) saw them expelled from the city. The hostile 'Welsh'
the Kentish kingdom.
the ruins of Roman cities the papal agents
set up shop – Augustine and Lawrence
at Durovernum (Canterbury), followed by Mellitus
in the East
Saxon capital of London and Justus in Durobrivae
The missionaries arrived with
suitable 'relics' to dazzle the natives, who
had a natural wariness
of alien 'magicians.'
Christianity in Ireland Goes Walkabout -
Roman agents were entering Britain from the south, rival Celtic
monks were entering Britain from the north and west.
original 'missionaries' to Ireland had taught Latin but Irish
devices. Huge flocks of sheep made parchment readily available
and this in turn encouraged the development of an 'Irish
With a particular affectation for talismanic, spellbinding
initial capitals, often filling a whole page, and
fabulous animals entwined within scrollwork, 'illumination'
essence of the 'golden
the mainland of Britain suffered recurring warfare as the Saxon
invaders advanced westward (perhaps resisted by a Romano-British
'King Arthur'), Ireland enjoyed relative stability. Over the
course of 300 years
monasteries produced a handful of impressively decorated gospels.
Supposedly, 'thousands' of scholars, from all over Europe, were
educated in monastic scriptoriums in the green. Balancing the
scholastic flow were Irish 'peregrini' – peripatetic
monks enthused to evangelise their god – or perhaps,
simply wishing to escape the claustrophobic
life for fame and fortune elsewhere. In any event, Irish monasticism
put no special value on staying in one place.
and missions of the 'peregrini'. The Irish sallied
throughout the Frankish lands and also went northward,
as far as Iceland (or even America!)
'peregrini' followed the main rivers into the heart
of Gaul to found their Celtic-style monasteries – much
to the chagrin of papal agents moving north.
for example, late in the 6th century Columbanus left
the monastery of Bangor and made for Gaul. He set
up shop in a ruined Roman fort at Aunigray in the
Frankish kingdom of Austrasia. He moved on to another
ruined Roman castle Luxovium (Luxeuil).
his monks lived according to Irish tradition,
keeping the Irish date of Easter, having a
bishop who was subordinate to the abbot promulgating
Irish penitential practice."
– Oxford Dictionary
important and flourishing monastery in Gaul' soon
became the envy of the Roman hierarchy.
the attempts of 'Roman' bishops to muscle in on
his operation and was driven into exile by King
Thierry and his grandmother Queen Brunehaut. The
Benedictine Rule was imposed on the inmates, and
Luxeuil became the heart of a monastic 'Roman'
Britain in chaos, Irish monks saw opportunities initially along
– among the savage Picts of Scotland, and in Wales and
British bishop Ninian had established a small enclave on the
Isle of Whithorn
in southwest Scotland – beyond the frontier of Roman Britain
– as early as 397 but it had had little consequence. Columba,
exiled from Ireland, had a more profound
pagan kingdom of 'Northumbria' (in northwest Britain) had been
created by Bernicia's defeat of Deira in 603.
But in 616 Edwin, of the fallen house of Deira,
seized the throne with the help of King Redwald of East Anglia.
Oswald, heir to the throne of Bernicia, spent years in exile
among the Irish until the death of Edwin allowed him to return
and establish himself as 'Bretwalda' and lord not just
of Northumbria but also 'of the Irish and the Picts.'
it was that, in
grateful King Oswald invited monks of Iona into his kingdom,
with their talismanic war-god Christ. As a result, a posse of
clerics led by Aidan established
a new monastery – Lindisfarne –
off the Northumbrian coast.
Irish monks moved into mainland Europe and the lands of
633 Fursey, left Ireland
and (with the backing of Sigebert, a minor Franco-Saxon
king in East
set up a shrine in a ruined Roman coastal fort at Burgh
Castle. When Sigebert fell from power, Fursey fled
to northeast Gaul – taking along 'relics
of St Patrick' to dazzle the natives. With the backing
of another local chieftain he set up a monastic enclave
Irish 'peregrini' ventured beyond the Alps into
driven out of Luxeuil by
the local Catholic thugs, established
most famous monastery at Bobbio in the relative safety of
free-roving Celtic Christianity had emerged as an
rival to the
of Rome and was about
to be very firmly brought to heel.
Roman Church Quashes Celtic Independence
Augustinians, alarmed by the activities of Irish missionaries
and not wishing to be outmanoeuvred, cast their own
eye on the Saxon stronghold of Northumbria, a kingdom
extending from the Wash to the Forth.
established themselves initially at York by levering
the Catholic princess Aethelburg into
the marriage bed of King Edwin (of
the house of Deira),
with bishop Paulinus as her 'chaplain.'
But the plan fell apart when Edwin was defeated and
killed by Penda, the pagan king of Mercia, in 633.
Aethelburg and her minder fled back to Kent. A generation
would pass before Rome could advance its ambitions
Lindisfarne Celtic Christians continued to exercise
a powerful influence
on Oswald (633-641) but less so on his brother Oswy (642-670)
king of Bernicia (the northern half of Northumbria). His queen
Eanflaed – inevitably – was a 'Catholic princess' and her ambitious
son Alcfrith, the sub-king of Deira,
saw advancement with the backing of Roman Catholic priests. A
civil war loomed.
the middle of the 7th century, in the middle of Northumbria,
Celtic and Roman Churches confronted
each other. The
final showdown was at the Synod of Whitby summoned
by Oswy in 664. The venue was the 'double' monastery of the abbess
Hilda at Streanoeshalch (Whitby).
In the Red Corner ... The Roman Party
At the synod
the senior Roman prelate was Agilbert, Bishop of Dorchester (a
Roman ruin in Wessex) and Agatho – a Sicilian
and future Pope. But as neither spoke the local language a local
Wilfrid served as their spokesman.
a Northumbrian nobleman's son who had been indentured as a
monk on the windswept rock of Lindisfarne. He grew tired of
the of severe
'Irish' asceticism and ran off, first
to Canterbury and then to Rome. In Rome, and then Lyons, he
was trained as
agent and was sent back to England where he was able to exploit
the conflict which had arisen in the royal house of Northumbria.
Alcfrith, he gained from himself
the abbey at Ripon, from
which he expelled the Celtic monks. For his services to
Rome at the Whitby synod he was promoted to bishop,
and with his new found wealth settled into a 'Frankish'
in the Blue Corner ... The Irish Party
Hilda was the hostess for the synod. The main spokesmen were
Colman from Lindisfarne, Cuthbert (expelled
from Ripon) and Cedd, returning
from Essex and acting as translator for the Irish party.
Hilda as a
child had been raised by émigré parents in the British enclave
of Elmet (North Yorkshire). Perhaps for this reason she is reputed
to have been well-educated and to have possessed a library of
Latin classics. As abbess Hilda encouraged
a local bard (Caedmon) to write Christian poems
and songs – useful propaganda in an illiterate age.
The power struggle
– often abbreviated to a simple difference of opinion
over the 'calculation of Easter' – was in fact the clash
of two radically different cultures, both claiming some sort
of fidelity to a
Celtic (Irish/British) tradition – less
structured, idiosyncratic, coenobitic, integrated closely with
the tribal structure and
disposed towards women in authority.
Roman Obedience – rigidly hierarchical,
uniform, highly centralised, episcopal, integrated closely
with kingship and regal authority, with women held in
The Celtic party spoke for tradition, for Aidan and Columcille,
but it was in vain.
Roman party impressed upon the Northumbrian king the
beneficence of papal recognition, of the military
successes that God had bestowed on Catholic kingdoms, of
the dynastic security which came when the common people were
guided by the firm hand of Holy Mother Church. For good measure,
the superstitious monarch was assured that the bones
of St Peter
were a more powerful
magic than the
St Columcille – leaving
Oswy terrified by the Roman threat that if he
did not concur
with Catholicism he ran the risk of being locked out
not longer contradict the decrees of him who
keeps the doors of the Kingdom of Heaven, lest he should refuse
ruled for Rome.
Agilbert was rewarded with the key position of
Bishop of Paris,
where he became a crony of the notorious Ebroin –
Mayor of the Palace and effective ruler of Neustria. (Ebroin
made a name for himself by his bloody vendetta against Leger,
the Bishop of Autun,
whom he blinded, mutilated and beheaded. Nice guy.)
defeat at Whitby the monks of Iona could no longer maintain
the struggle in England.
shortly after the synod. Some like Cuthbert, accepted the new
order of things, but retreated into seclusion. He enjoyed an
illustrious posthumous career – his "incorrupt" corpse became
a source of
wonder and profit at a shrine in Durham for several hundred years. Colman and most of the 'Irish' monks retired to Ireland – taking the bones of Aidan with them.
had now installed itself in the royal house of the most powerful
kingdom in England. No doubt back in the Lateran Palace Pope Vitalian
drank a toast or two to a magnificent outcome – perhaps
with a flask of Burgundy – and selected a
Greek by the name of Theodore to 'reorganize' the English church.
Priests: How Catholicism 'Married' its way across
Burgundy – The
Key to Gaul
Burgundians, fleeing before the Huns, settled
as 'foederates' within the empire near Geneva
in 443. Cousins to the Suevi they were favoured by
the 'protectorate' of Ricimer, the
Suevi/Goth de facto ruler of the west, who
appointed and disposed of 4 of the last western emperors.
married Gundioc, the Burgundian
king, and his successor as 'generalissimo' was his
nephew, prince Gundobad, who followed
his uncle's example and appointed the penultimate
'emperor' in the west (Glycerius).
the late 5th century, Burgundy had grown into a considerable
dominion stretching from Switzerland to the Mediterranean.
In the eyes of the beleaguered Catholics, the offence
of the Burgundians was not their barbarism but their Arianism.
the rise of Burgundy, the only remaining Catholic
province in the west, Roman Soissons in
northern Gaul, was cut off from Rome – and
Soissons was soon to be overrun by a fierce tribe
of pagans, the Franks (486).
strife saves the day
had two rival brothers Chilperic II and Godigisel.
In the struggle for tribal leadership they had embraced
Catholicism as a way of soliciting support from their
indigenous Roman subjects.
broke off from his role as protector of the 'Roman
Empire' to safeguard the throne in Burgundy. In the
civil war that followed, he cut down Godigisel in
a church to which he had fled.
Catholic Bishops, however, made off with a prize – the
daughter of Chilperic II, Clothilde (474-545) ('so
brutally oppressed by her cruel uncle.')
a method which would be used repeatedly by the
Catholic hierarchy, a nubile, Catholic princess,
typically from a tribe already won for the pope,
would be found for the bed of a hoary Germanic
warrior. Though the warlord might himself never
convert, the bride would arrive with her own Catholic
bishop as 'private confessor' and the offspring
would be raised in the true faith.
it was that among the blandishments and cajolery
used to 'convert' Clovis, King of
Franks, was the 17-year-old, 'wise and beautiful' Catholic
princess Clothilde, whom he married in 493. The 'Grey
Eminence' appears to have been bishop Aurelian.
Clothilde (made a saint by a grateful Church) saw
her own daughter Clothilde married off to Amalaric,
King of Visigoths, in a repetition of Catholic marriage
sons avenged the treatment of their mother by killing
the sons of Gundobad and conquering Burgundy. In
516 the defeated Burgundians relented of Arianism
and 'embraced' Catholicism.
the repeating procurement policy a young cousin of
Clothilde, Ingoberga, became the
first of four wives of Charibert I ('King of
Paris') – the procurer on this occasion
none other than Gregory of Tours (538-594).
of her offspring was Bertha (aka
Adelberg). She was married off in turn to the pagan
Saxon king of Kent Aethelbert, with
the priest Liuhard of Senlis selling
the woman, the faith, papal recognition and a prestigious
dynastic link to the all-conquering Franks.
the next link in the chain, Bertha's daughter Ethelberg,
raised as Catholic princess in Kent, was dispatched
as the nuptial offering to Edwin,
King of Northumbria, with Italian bishop Paulinus pulling
the strings (625).
so the holy sacrament of dynastic marriage rolled
across Europe, installing Catholic henchmen where
it mattered most – in the heart of the royal
peasants and plebs would be brought to heel soon
may not get the father," said Pope Vitalian, "but
we will get the children."
Thomas Cahill, How the
Irish Saved Civilization (Doubleday, 1995)
Barry Cunliffe, Facing the Ocean - The Atlantic & Its
L. & J. Laing, Celtic Britain and Ireland (Irish Academic Press,
W. Cook & R. Herzman, The Medieval World View (OUP, 1983)
David Farmer, Oxford Dictionary of Saints (OUP, 1997)
J. N. Kelly, Oxford Dictionary of Popes (OUP, 1986)
Rosamond McKitterick, The Early Middle Ages (OUP, 2001)
J. Gardiner & N. Wenborn (Eds.) Companion to British History (Collins & Brown,
P. H. Blair, Roman Britain & Early England (Sphere, 1974)
John Cannon (Ed.), The Oxford Companion to British History (OUP, 1997)
Robert Kee, Ireland, A History (Abacus, 1998)
Some fifty articles are now available as a book.
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Copyright © 2004
by Kenneth Humphreys.
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