The Celtic Church in Northumbria (4)

Aidan of Lindisfarne – Oswald of Northumbria

In spite of what I have already said regarding the Synod of Whitby, I think it would be wrong and misleading to compare the Irish “Celtic” Church and the Roman “Anglo Saxon” Church as if they were two separate and distinct entities; and it certainly would be wrong to set one up against the other. The uniqueness of the early Church in Northumbria, in my view, arose out of the special relationship between Aidan and Oswald and the subsequent partnership of Church and State in this great missionary enterprise. As we have already heard Aidan’s mission from Iona was in response to Oswald’s invitation, and Bede tells us that Oswald didn’t just leave Church and Spiritual matters to Aidan so that he, himself, could get on with his civic duties. He shared in Aidan’s mission supporting and encouraging him and, as a Gaelic speaker, often joining him on his missionary journeys as an interpreter, which must have been an important factor in the rapid spread of the Church in the North East of England. As Bede puts it: On arrival, the King appointed the Island of Lindisfarne to be his see as requested; the King always listened humbly and readily to Aidan’s advice, while the bishop who was not yet fluent in the English language, preached the Gospel, it was most delightful to see the King himself interpreting the word of God to his thanes and leaders; for he himself had obtained perfect command of the Scottish [Irish] tongue during his long exile. Churches were built in several places, and people flocked gladly to hear the word of God, while the king of his bounty gave lands and endowments to establish monasteries, and the English, both noble and simple, were instructed by their Scots teachers to observe a monastic life (1).

Saint Aidan (d. 651)

One can gather from Bede’s writings that Aidan and his followers lived as they preached and taught. Aidan didn’t seem to have any interest in material things and if he was given money by the wealthy he either distributed it for the needs of the poor or for ransoming slaves. While some stories about Aidan are presented in court settings Bede observes that Aidan seldom ate with the king and when he did Bede stresses that he ate sparingly. Two such occasions when Aidan dines in the company of Oswald and Oswin, Oswald’s successor, are recorded by Bede and they show how deeply rooted both kings were in the faith and how engaged they were in Aidan’s mission to their subjects. And so Bede relates: The story is told how on the feast of Easter one year, Oswald sat down to dine with Bishop Aidan. A silver dish of rich food was set before him, and Bishop Aidan had just raised his hand to bless the food when the servant who was appointed to relieve the needs of the poor came in suddenly and informed the king that a great crowd of needy folk were sitting on the road outside begging alms of the King. Oswald at once ordered the food to be taken out to the poor and the silver dish to be broken up and distributed among them. The bishop, who was sitting beside him was deeply moved to see such generosity, and taking hold of the Kings right hand, exclaimed, “May this hand never perish”. Later events prove that this prayer was heard, for when Oswald was killed in battle, his hand and arm were severed from his body, and remain incorruptible to this day. (2)

Saint Oswald (605–42)

Oswald was, in fact, killed in battle with the British king Penda at Oswestry on the borders of England and Wales, in the year 642AD, only 9 years after he became king of Northumbria. Lamenting his tragic loss and sudden death Bede writes: How great his faith towards God, and how remarkable his devotion, has been made evident by miracles since his death; for in the place where he was killed by the pagans, fighting for his country, infirm men and cattle are healed to this day. Whereupon many took up the very dust of the place where his body fell, and putting it into water, did much good with it to their friends who were sick (3). Bede also tells the story, handed down by St. Wilbrord an Englishman who, before he began his mission to the mainland of Europe, spent many years studying and living the life of a monastic pilgrim in Ireland. While he was in Ireland there was an epidemic that caused havoc in the country. Quoting Wilbrord Bede goes on: ‘At the time,’ said he ‘of the mortality which made such great havoc in Britain and Ireland, among others the infection reached a certain scholar of the Scottish [Irish] race, a man indeed learned in worldly literature, but in no way solicitous of his eternal salvation; who seeing his death near at hand, began to fear, lest, as soon as he was dead he should be hurried away to hell for his sins. The sick man sent for Wilbrord who was in the neighbourhood, and in fear and trembling made his confession; after which he said: We have heard, and the report is universal, that there was in your nation a king, of wonderful sanctity, called Oswald, the excellency of whose faith and virtue has become renowned, even after his death by the working of miracles. I beseech you, if you have any relics of his in your custody that you will bring the same to me, in case the Lord shall be pleased through his merits, to have mercy on me.” I answered, “I have indeed some of the stake on which his head was set up by the pagans when he was killed, and if you believe with a sincere heart, in Divine goodness may, through the merit of so great a man, both grant you a longer term of life here, and render you worthy of admittance into eternal life.” He answered immediately that he had entire faith therein.” Wilbrord then blessed some water and put into it a chip of the wood and gave it to the sick man to drink, who immediately recovered from his sickness and lived a long time after.

Saint Oswin (d. 651)

The next story I would like to relate to you is about Oswin, Oswald’s successor, who, as Bede relates: had given Bishop Aidan a very fine horse, in order that he could ride whenever he had to cross a river or undertake any difficult or urgent journey, although the bishop ordinarily travelled by foot. Not long afterwards, when a poor man met the bishop and asked for alms, the bishop immediately dismounted and ordered the horse with all its royal trappings to be given to the beggar; for he was most compassionate, a protector of the poor and a father to the wretched. When this action came to the king’s ears he asked the bishop as they were about to dine: “My lord bishop, why did you give away the royal horse which was necessary for your own use?”The bishop at once answered, “What are you saying your majesty? Is this foal of a mare more valuable to you than this child of God?” The king turned over in his mind what the bishop had said and having realised its import: He impulsively knelt down at the bishop’s feet and begged forgiveness…the bishop was deeply moved and raising him immediately assured him of his high regard.(4)

Afterwards some of the kings attendants noticed Aidan in tears and when they enquired why he was in tears he replied:I know,’ he said, ‘that the king will not live long; for I never before saw so humble a king; whence I conclude that he will soon be snatched out of this life because this nation is not worthy of such a ruler. Not long after that the king was murdered and within a few days Aidan himself was dead, some would say of a broken heart. While Aidan was buried in Lindisfarne Bede tells us that Bishop Coleman took some of his remains with him to Ireland after the Synod of Whitby. What was left behind may have been destroyed by the Vikings. Aidan died resting on a wooden beam which acted as a buttress in his Church near the king’s palace at Bamburgh. In the present church dedicated to St Aidan the spot where he died is marked with a little shrine, while Bede tells us a fascinating story about the beam. He relates how some years after his death Penda, British king of Mercia, ‘destroyed all he could by fire and sword in the kingdom of Northumberland and burned down the Church where Bishop Aidan died but, he goes on to say, it fell out in a wonderful manner that the post, which he had leaned upon, could not be consumed by the fire which consumed all about it. This Church was soon rebuilt in the same place, and that very post was set up on the outside, as it had been before, to strengthen the wall. It happened again after that the same church and village was burned down the second time, and even then the fire could not touch that post. The Church being therefore built a third time, they did not, as before, place the post on the outside as a support but within as a memorial of the miracle, and the people coming in were wont to kneel there, and implore the Divine mercy. (5) He goes on to say that many were healed in that spot and many who took chips of the wood and put them in water were healed. The same beam of wood is still in the Church but it is set on the ceiling over the baptistery, probably to save it from being chipped out of existence.

Saint Cuthbert (634-787)

This evening I am trying to put faces to names and put some flesh and blood on the bones of the early Irish Church in Northumbria in telling some of the stories of the main characters passed onto St Bede who wrote within living memory of those times. Although Oswald, Oswy and Oswin were Anglo Saxon they clearly belonged to what became known as the Irish or “Celtic” Church, as did their subjects. While at the early stages, certainly until the Synod of Whitby, the links with Iona and Ireland were very strong and the Irish identity was maintained especially by the Irish monks and scholars who populated the monasteries in Northumbria. Gradually, however the Anglo-Saxon presence became more and more prominent. So while Aidan was undoubtedly the Apostle to Northumbria and the founding father of the Church there and has been immortalised through the writings of St Bede; there is a real sense in which he disappeared off the screen after his death. In a short few years his place was taken over by an Anglo-Saxon man named Cuthbert and I have no doubt that Aidan would have approved of the honour given to Cuthbert as Northumbria’s greatest Saint and the real hero of the Northumbrian Church – a legend in his own day.

Cuthbert was born in 634 a year before Aidan came to Lindisfarne. Nothing is known of his background, although it is believed that he was of princely stock. He lived on the Scottish borders and apparently was strong, vigorous and athletic as a child, and as a young man he tried his hand at soldiering and shepherding. He never met Aidan but Bede tells us that on the night of Aidan’s death while out shepherding his flock he saw a vision of Aidan’s soul being carried to heaven by a band of angels. He was so amazed by this vision and so moved by the accounts of Aidan’s holiness that he immediately renounced all worldly ambition and entered the Irish monastery at Melrose. As Bede puts it the monastery at Melrose was: organised in the Christian tradition with its emphasis on simplicity, ascetic practice and religious devotion. (6) The abbot was Eata trained in the Celtic tradition by Aidan and the prior at the time was Boisil renowned for his wisdom and piety.

Life of St. Cuthbert

Being formed in this environment there is a sense in which Cuthbert more than any other English or Irish man represents the “Celtic” tradition in England. Some historians would in fact claim that he had Irish blood. We owe his greatness and popularity especially to the Life of St. Cuthbert,(7) which was written anonymously by a monk from Lindisfarne around the year 700AD some ten years after his death, so he probably would have known Cuthbert well. The real credit for Cuthbert’s popularity, however, must go to St. Bede who later published the original Life of St Cuthbert but in embellished form both in verse in prose. To what extent the real person can be recognised from these accounts is anyone’s guess because those who wrote such accounts, as hagiography, had a very definite agenda and facts were very often sacrificed or greatly exaggerated to suit the agenda. And I have no doubt that high, certainly on Bede’s agenda was the desire establish the identity of the Church in Northumbria as Anglo-Saxon and Roman with Cuthbert as its champion.

These facts have to be borne in mind as we read through the Life of St Cuthbert. For example we are told how as a child Cuthbert, playing with some neighbours, stood on his head so long that his playmates became distressed and asked him to stop. When he refused one of them started to cry and addressed him as, Holy bishop and priest, telling him that such tricks did not become one who was destined for such high office. Cuthbert, we are told did not understand but none-the-less took stock of what the lad said and became more restrained and less demonstrative. The Life ealso relates that on another occasion as a child he developed a growth in his knee.

One day while sitting out in the sun a stranger in a white robe came along on horseback asking him for some assistance, Cuthbert replied he would gladly do so but was too ill to stand up. The man got down from the horse suggesting that Cuthbert make a poultice of wheat flower boiled in milk and apply it to the diseased part and that he soon would be healed and so he was. He and his family believed that the man on the horse was an angel from heaven. Then through his missionary work both within the monastic setting and among the Northumbrian people from Melrose to Ripon to Cumbria he established himself as a man of charity, of great simplicity and of holiness of life. Miracles and great works were attributed to him wherever he went.

The “Celtic” Tradition

In true “Celtic” style and in the spirit of St Aidan Cuthbert was interested neither in power, in position nor in popularity. Strongly influenced by the asceticism of the Irish monks he longed for the quiet secluded life to be alone with the Lord in prayer. When he went to Lindisfarne as Prior after the Synod of Whitby he built himself a little cell just off shore where he went regularly to pray. The ruins of that are still visible and it is possible to visit the little island in low tide. Cuthbert accepted the ruling of Whitby and Bede informs us that he worked tirelessly to bring about a reconciliation between the English and the Irish branches of the Church in Northumbria, yet in spirit he remained a true Celt and so in 676, desiring greater privacy he moved from Lindisfarne to one of the Farne Islands, where Aidan had gone before him. Eventually, he was released by his superiors, from his duties as Prior of Lindisfarne, to live as a hermit in a cave type cell. While there he was troubled in many guises by demons.

For the most part he just had the companionship of the wild animals; even they at time annoyed him. He had to, according to Bede, banish two ravens that were disturbing the thatch on his little hermitage, eventually he became reconciled with them and allowed them back. In true Celtic ascetical spirit he used to pray for hours with hands out-stretched and his body submerged in the icy waters of the North Sea. Then we are told that when he came out of the water the otters used to come along to warm and dry his feet with their furs. Eventually in the year 684 he was begged to leave his hermitage in Farne to become Bishop of Hexham. Even though he went against his will Bede tells us that he gave himself completely to serving the people and was loved by all. Two years later, however, he returned to Farne where he died in 687 after a short illness. But rather than the end of his life and story, it was only the end of the first Chapter. Before going on I would say that in former pilgrimages to Northumbria one of the highlights was a guided tour around the Farne Islands, then finishing up with a Mass on Cuthbert’s Island in the little Chapel which marked the site of his hermitage.

The Cult of St Cuthbert

After his death miracles attributed to the great saint abounded but the greatest miracle was discovered 11 years after his death, when on opening his coffin for veneration of the remains they found the body fresh and incorrupt. This miracle finally established Cuthbert as the greatest of the Northern Saints and as patron of Northumbria. The body continued to be venerated until 7th June 793 when the Vikings attacked and plundered Lindisfarne, and the monks had to flee. While the monastery was desecrated but when the monks returned after the Vikings moved on they found the tomb of Cuthbert miraculously undisturbed. When in 875 the Vikings returned the monks, following Cuthbert’s dying wish, took his body with them with relic of Oswald’s head and also a copy of the famous Lindisfarne Gospels dedicated to Cuthbert by the Scribe and Bishop of Lindisfarne Eadfrid shortly after Cuthbert’s death. They travelled all over Northumbria, Yorkshire and Lancashire and even at one stage tried to make the trip across the Irish Sea but were prevented by a gale that drove them back to the English shore. The story is told that in the course of the storm the copy of the Gospels fell overboard and miraculously was there awaiting them when they were driven back to the shore. They eventually came back to Northumbria and settled temporarily in a place called Chester-le-Street where the Lindisfarne Gospels were bound and details of the scribe and dedication inscribed. The journey continued until his final place of rest was revealed in a dream and that place was Durham. There a Church was built as a shrine to house the remains of St Cuthbert. Before the end of the tenth century the Church was replaced by the magnificent Durham Cathedral dedicated to St Peter, as the Priory in Lindisfarne was dedicated to St. Peter. Within the Cathedral there is a shrine behind the high altar to mark this final resting place. He will hear a little more of that story during the pilgrimage.

With Cuthbert the person and writings of Bede one of the greatest creations and trophies of that Golden age is the Lindisfarne Gospel Book (c. 700AD,) written in the style of the Book of Kells, having said that it is likely that it predated the Book of Kells, and some historians would even suggest that the Book of Kells was produced by the monks at Lindisfarne, it is regarded as one of the great manuscripts of the early Middle Ages. This beautifully illuminated book of the four Gospels according to a tenth century scribe was written by Eadfrid For God and St. Cuthbert, was bound by Aethelwald and adorned with gold, silver and jewels by the anchorite Billfrith. The historian T. D. Kendrick states that: This grand and moving manuscript takes its place with Bede’s Ecclesiastical History and St. Cuthbert’s funeral treasures in Durham Cathedral, as one of the most significant inheritances of early Northumbria.(8) As they followed the footsteps and example of their brother and master Aidan their labours bore great fruit and the Church began to expand and flourish in the North of England and beyond.

Saint Wilfrid (634-709)

We have already come across Wilfrid and his role in the Synod of Whitby; he was born in 634 the same year as Cuthbert and at a young age he entered into Aidan’s monastery at Lindisfarne where he was educated, although he left the monastery in 652, the year after Aidan’s death without taking his monastic vows. From there he headed for Rome spending some time, with royalty, in the south of England before he found someone to accompany him to Rome; however, on arriving in France he stopped over some time in Lyons where he was offered the archbishop’s niece in marriage, but he turned down the offer and continued his journey and reached Rome in 654. It was while he was there that he learned about the new Roman way of calculating Easter. On his way home he returned to Lyons and stayed there for three years. It was there that he eventually took his monastic vows after which he had to flee; his life being in danger because of political and civil strife. He returned to England where he received some land in Ripon, Yorkshire, to establish a monastery. He was ordained priest there and became abbot of the monastery. Later he was appointed to York and went to France to be ordained Bishop, which according to his hagiographer Eddius was a glorious occasion with 12 bishops involved in the ceremony, however when he went to York it was occupied by Chad so he returned to Ripon. In the meantime Wilfrid became embroiled in allsorts of ecclesiastical and secular politicking.

He became bishop of Hexham for a time then he lost favour with the king and was imprisoned for some time. He then went off to Rome to plead his case and seek justice. Rome came out on his side but when he returned to Northumbria the ecclesiastical and royal authorities ignored Rome’s rulings. He spent some time in York where he repaired the Church there bringing builders from the Continent, he also brought the Benedictine Monastic Order and Rule into England to replace the Irish Monasticism. During this period he spent time in prison having meddled with the affairs of the Northumbrian king. Eventually he went off to Rome to plead his case again. His case was heard and took many sittings come to a conclusion but not to a resolution as he was told to go back and call a synod to sort things out in his own country. He returned however not to the north but to the south of England where he spent many years building monasteries and evangelising in the south and midlands. While there his ambition remained to return to York and become Archbishop of York; an ambition he did not realise by the time of his death at the age of seventy five in 709.

His life was a stormy one moving from monasteries to dioceses from England to Europe. He seemed to be an ambitious and contentious character who moved about like a whirlwind inviting controversy, if not trouble, where ever he went. He spent forty six years as a bishop 26 of those years he spent either in prison or in exile, which were not voluntary in the nature of the Irish monks “Peregrinatio pro Christo.” Yet some historians would claim that his four, apparently happy years, at Lindisfarne made a lasting impression on his life, and as a result he in fact saw himself as a Pilgrim for Christ and that he was deeply committed to the penitential and ascetical dimension of his Christian life. (9) He is counted as one of the great saints of Northumbria, but much of the credit of that must go to his hagiographer Eddius whose Life of St Wilfrid offers a glowing account of his achievements. He talks about the occasion when King Egfrith King of Northumbria who imprisoned him on his return from Rome in 680. While he was almost in complete darkness at night bright lights could be seen emanating from his prison cell and he could be heard singing the psalms in melodic tones. However, others would say that Bede, while he couldn’t understand the Irish monks stance on Easter, none-the-less deeply valued the witness that the Irish monks gave in living by the spirit of the Gospel detached from worldly power and possessions; and would say that in this Bede was critiquing the kind of life that Wilfrid lived, certainly as presented in the Eddius’ Life of Wilfrid, where we see Wilfrid embroiled in material pursuits and particularly in the world of politics. I have no doubt at the same time that Wilfrid was a hugely charismatic figure and was passionate in his love for the Church and perhaps he earned his sainthood in his asceticism and in the humiliations he endured in his many years of imprisonment and exile which he would see as a form of “Peregrinatio Pro Christo.”

Saint Bede (673-735)

Almost everything that is known of Bede’s life is contained in the last chapter of his Ecclesiastical History of the English People. It was completed in about 731 and Bede implies that he was then in his fifty-ninth year, which would give a likely birth date of about 672–673. Bede says nothing of his origins, but indicates his connections with men of noble ancestry which would suggest that his own family was well-to-do. At the age of seven, he was sent to the monastery of Wearmouth by his family to be educated by Benedict Biscop and later by Ceolfrith. Bede may not have been sent to the monastery with the intention of becoming a monk, as it was a fairly common practice among nobility in Ireland and probably among the noble Anglo-Saxons at that time for young boys to be fostered out for some years. Within a few years of his arrival at Wearmouth a sister monastery was founded at a place called Jarrow just south of Newcastle-on-Tyne in the year 682, and it is believed that Bede moved there with the monk Ceolfrith, Four years later, in 686, plague broke out at Jarrow. The Life of Ceolfrith, written in about 710, records that only two surviving monks were capable of singing “with antiphons”; one was Ceolfrith, and the other a young boy of 14, thought by most historians to have been Bede.

Bede – A prolific Writer

In about 692, in Bede’s nineteenth year, Bede was ordained a deacon; although the canonical age for the ordination of a deacon was 25; Bede’s early ordination may mean that his abilities were considered exceptional. In Bede’s thirtieth year (about 702) he became a priest. By that time Bede had begun to write textbooks for his teaching at the monastery and from then on he continued to write for the rest of his life, eventually completing over 60 books, most of which have survived. As well as a writer he was believed to have been an accomplished singer and a lover of music. As a contemporary of Wilfrid tho’ much younger he had occasion to clash with Wilfrid when some of Bishop Wilfrid’s monks at Hexham, in 708, accused Bede of heresy in one of his writings. Bede set forth his defense sending it off to Wilfrid and the matter seemed to end there, but, as I have already suggested, Bede didn’t seem too enamored with Wilfrid’s style of life which was worldly in comparison with the spirituality of the Irish monks.

In 733, Bede is believed to have travelled to York, to visit the bishop of York; this was just two years before he died and two years before York became the Metropolitan seat for the Church in the North of England. He was also believed to have travelled to the monastery of Lindisfarne. These are believed to have been the only places that Bede travelled to in his lifetime, though there are indications in his History that he may have visited other areas in Britain. He died on 26 May 735 as he put the finishing touches to a book he was writing; and was buried at Jarrow. Tradition has it that in the 11th century a monk from Durham Cathedral visited Jarrow and took off with Bede’s bones now believed to be interred in its Galilee Chapel, although in 1541 the tomb was believed to have been looted.

Bede’s Works

His works show that he commanded all the learning of his time. It is believed that his library at Wearmouth-Jarrow had between 300-500 books, making it one of the largest in England. It is clear that Biscop made strenuous efforts to collect books during his extensive travels in the Continent. Bede wrote scientific, historical and theological works, reflecting the range of his writings from music and metrics to exegetical Scripture commentaries. He knew patristic literature, as well as classical Roman and Greek literature. His greatest work and the one that he is best known for is The Ecclesiastical History of the English People. It was this book that has established Bede’s reputation and immortalized him. As a result he is known as the Father of English History and the first great Englishman.

In 1899 he was declared a Doctor of the Church, and was declared a saint in 1935 although he was accepted a saint by popular acclaim by popular acclaim shortly after his death. He became known as Venerable Bede by the 9th century where Bede was grouped with others who were called “venerable” at two ecclesiastical councils held at Aix in 816 and 836.


(1) The Ecclesiastical History of the English People (Oxford: Printing Press, 1999), III, 3.

(2) Bede, III, 6.

(3)Bede, III, 1

(4) Bede, III, 14.

(5) Bede III, 16

(6) Gallyon, The Early church…47.


(8) Quoted from Gallyon, 113.

(9) Henry Mayr-Harting, The Coming of Christianity to Anglo-Saxon England (Pennsylvania: Pennsylvania, University Press, 1994) p. 143

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