Columban Christian influence in Northumbria, before and after Whitby


Columban Christian influence in Northumbria, before and after Whitby

By Martin Grimmer

Journal of the Australian Early Medieval Association, Vol.4 (2008)

Abstract: The Synod of Whitby of 664 has traditionally been regarded as the great ‘set-piece’ debate between the so-called ‘Celtic’ and Roman churches in Britain, and as the turning-point for Irish – and more specifically Columban – ecclesiastical domination in Northumbria. In his Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum, the principle source for the Synod, Bede declared that after Whitby, ‘all present … gave up their imperfect rules’. But to what extent could Columban influence be completely eradicated in seventh-century Northumbria? This paper examines the role that Columban clergy from Iona played during the formative period of the Christian church in Northumbria, and then considers the Synod of Whitby. It is shown that Northumbria and the Irish Christian world, including Columban Iona, were not cut off from one another after 664. Irish and Columban influences continued to reach Northumbria in the late seventh and eighth centuries, if less directly, and Northumbrian literate culture was still characterised by its substantial Columban/Irish flavour developed prior to the events at Whitby.




Introduction: The Synod of Whitby of 664 has traditionally been regarded as the great ‘set-piece’ debate between the so-called ‘Celtic’ and Roman churches in Britain, and as the turning-point for Irish – and more specifically Columban – ecclesiastical domination in Northumbria (and beyond). In his Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum, the principle source for the Synod, Bede declared that after Whitby, ‘all present … gave up their imperfect rules’. But to what extent could Columban influence be completely done away with in seventh-century Northumbria? Indeed, the evidence that the Columban church was fundamental in the establishment and development of Christianity in Northumbria is both abundant and undisputed, and is well-supported in the secondary literature. As explained by David Dumville, the nominal Christianisation of at least half of Anglo-Saxon England through the seventh century was brought about by Irish clerics and their Anglo-Saxon trainees. Granted, Northumbria had seen the introduction of Christianity under King Edwin in the late 620s, spear-headed by the Roman bishop Paulinus and, after Paulinus fled on the death of Edwin in 633, his ministry in York was continued by James the Deacon. However, it was under the bishops from Iona that Christianity ultimately triumphed. It is the aim of this paper, therefore, to first of all examine the process by which Christianity was fostered in Northumbria under the instruction of Columban/Irish clergy. The paper will then go on to consider the Synod of Whitby, and its consequences, in order to demonstrate that Columban/Irish influence and interaction with Northumbria did not simply stop after 664, but continued into the late seventh and eighth centuries.

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