The Eclipse Of Ad 664

It might be imagined that King Oswy must have been a good and pious man, who had recognized the problem with the differing Easter dates through a domestic issue, had called experts together to discuss the matter, and had then made a wise decision based upon the arguments presented. There are several misconceptions there that need to be demolished.

As a matter of fact Oswy was a bloodstained monarch who had carried out many unchristian acts, including the murder of his cousin Oswin. Oswy had then founded various abbeys in the north of England not so much out of goodwill, but more as an act of expiation. There were already monasteries at York, Ripon, Lastingham, and Lindisfarne. In association with the last of those Oswy had built new establishments at Hartlepool and Gilling, plus Whitby as has already been mentioned, and another dozen abbeys in the region, all long-since lost in the mists of time. Each was administered as part of the Celtic Church until the synod led to their transfer to the Roman tradition.

This was a major transitory step and following the synod the delegates of the Celtic Church, abashed and defeated, hastily beat a retreat to Iona, after a 30-year ascendancy in Northumbria. As aforementioned there is an extensive account of the actual debate at Whitby that has been handed down to us, but again we need to remember that the victor writes the history, and so we might perhaps look for other definitive evidence of the circumstances, such as astronomical clues.

One thing that is not known for sure is the date of the synod, which seems remarkable: if it were so pivotal, why did no one mark down precisely when it occurred? Some historians have even argued that it was held in 663 rather than 664, but on a mistaken basis. We know that it was during the latter year, and the recent recognition of the significance of that year has led to the possibility of a good guess at the date being made.

Another great event occurred in the British Isles in A.D. 664: a total eclipse of the Sun. This is the earliest such eclipse to have been definitely recorded in England, the path of totality also crossing the northern parts of Ireland (Figure 16-1). As a recent research paper by Dublin academics Daniel McCarthy and Aidan Breen points out, it seems remarkable that the possible link between the synod and the eclipse had not previously been examined because the events occurred close in time and both involved the Moon.

Were the records perhaps fudged deliberately to obscure the connection? It seems certain that the Synod of Whitby was held at some time towards the middle of 664, but on an indeterminate date. The non-recording of the date of the synod, blurring its association with the eclipse, may have been part of a plan designed to fool potential opponents of the Roman Church. This is a suggestion I will argue below.

We know when the eclipse occurred because we can compute such things with utmost accuracy, given other eclipse records that allow the deceleration in the Earth's spin rate over the past few millennia to be ascertained. It was on the first day of May. We know the track that the eclipse took across northern England, as shown in Figure 16-1. Whitby is close to the center, but most of the major monasteries in the north of England were also within the path of totality. As part of his act of expiation, Oswy had only recently established many of those monasteries and they all practiced according to the rites of the Celtic Church.

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