The Situation In Northern Britain

After the withdrawal of Roman governance and the incursions by numerous barbarian bands, various pagan religions were followed in England. Bordering on Scotland, Northumbria under King Oswald had become an adherent to the Celtic Church from about 633 onwards. In 642, though, King Penda of the more-southerly Mercians defeated Oswald in battle, and promptly dismembered him. The latter's followers collected various parts of his body and distributed them to several churches (his head went to Lindisfarne and is now in Durham), leading to a cult of Oswald and eventually to his sainthood. Heathenism dominated in Northumberland until Penda died in 655.

A new king, named Oswy or Oswiu, then seized the throne, and the region reverted to Christianity, in particular the Celtic Church. To the south, Mercia also became Christian. Previously there had been a pagan buffer zone between the spread of Celtic influence in Scotland and that of the Roman Church much further south, but now that buffer was gone and internecine confrontation was inevitable as each church vied with the other to spread its influence.

Heeding the Nicene Creed, the Celtic Church made some attempt to understand the doctrine of the Roman Church and sent at least two delegates to Rome to obtain information and instruction. These men were rich Northumbrian nobles; dictionaries of the saints recall them as Saint Benedict Biscop (628—689) and Saint Wilfrid (633—709). Benedict Biscop departed first in 653 (he made five visits in all), accompanied on that trip by Wilfrid who, after a protracted stay in France, returned in 658. After much discussion with the Pope on doctrinal questions, they were convinced of the rectitude of the Roman computus and returned with many valuable ecclesiastical items such silken cassocks and extensive collections of Church documents, including Easter tables calculated according to the rules adopted by Dionysius.

With Benedict Biscop and Wilfrid having been won over to the opposite side, much argument ensued on the Easter question, although there were other grounds of debate, such as the form of the tonsure as mentioned earlier and also the role and power of the bishops.

These matters were brought to a head in the 660s, apparently due to the fact that Oswy was married to a Kentish lady, Queen

Eanfleda, whose personal priest ensured that she followed the Roman rules for Easter. In one year it happened that the fourteenth day of the month counted from new moon was a Sunday and so the Celtic Church scheduled Easter for that day, whereas the Roman computus put it a week later because the fifteenth was the earliest day permissible under its rules. This meant that the Easter Sunday feasting of the Celts coincided with the Palm Sunday of the Roman Church, a day of atonement, resulting in King Oswy attending the festivities while his consort was fasting and so unable to join him.

The upshot of this was that Oswy decided that the matter must be brought to a resolution, and so he called the Synod of Whitby in 664. Our surviving accounts present what happened at the synod as being a triumph of reason over an inferior computus (but then the winner always gets to write the history). It seems that Wilfrid championed the cause of the Easter calculation of Dionysius, and the argument finally swung that way when he claimed the authority of Saint Peter, which much impressed Oswy, since he did not want to offend the keeper of the keys to the gates of Heaven.

The outcome was that the Roman Easter system became accepted throughout much of the previous Celtic domain, although the monks of Iona in the Western Isles held out on the 84-year cycle until 715. In the region we now call England, the Roman Church held sway throughout. Between 669 and 690 Theodore of Tarsus, Archbishop of Canterbury, was instrumental in bringing together the seven feudal kingdoms, united now in religion, to form what became the English nation.

The Synod of Whitby was a pivotal event then in both the history of the British Isles and the evolution of the calendar. It was the acceptance and preservation in Britain of the Easter tables invented by Dionysius Exiguus—while most of Europe was in chaos during the Dark Ages—that led to the dating system we use today. Because of this, it is important that we understand what took place at the synod.

The simple and conventional account given above is not the whole story of the synod, and scholars have suspected for some centuries that there was more to the transactions than first meets the eye. Just in the past few years some more light has been cast on the happenings through astronomical investigations. It seems that the Roman party accomplished a sneaky but successful subterfuge.

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