The Northern Saints – some stories of people and faith

The Northern Saints – some stories of people and faith
Setting the scene – Christianity in the north-east of England
Christianity first came to English shores during the period when the north of England
was a frontier of the Roman Empire. The faith was spread through traders and
soldiers and led to the establishment of a few churches including at Eboricum – the
Roman name for York. Following the collapse of the Roman Empire in 410 the northeast evolved into two kingdoms, Diera in the south centred on York and Bernicia in
the north centred on Bamburgh. As the Romans retreated so paganism developed as
the dominant religion again, a situation that continued until the early 7th century when
Christianity came again, this time from two different directions.
First Pope Gregory the Great sent a
mission which began under
Augustine and was followed a
generation later by Bishop Paulinus
who was sent from the established
church at Canterbury to be the
chaplain for Queen Ethelberga of Kent
when she married King Edwin at York.
The second mission came from the
north west. King Edwin was killed in
battle and succeeded by Oswald.
Oswald had been baptised on Iona
whilst in exile, and having come to
power sent for a missionary from Iona.
The mission from the south and the north were of contrasting styles. The southern
mission was rooted in Rome with its more established and universal style of church,
under direct Papal authority. The northern mission was of a more monastic
Irish/Celtic style of Christianity, spread by Columba and others from Ireland across to
the south west of Scotland in the kingdom known as Dalraida, with significant
authority exercised by the spiritual leaders of the monastery houses.
The story of the northern saints has roots in the monastic/Ionan style of Christianity
and includes the meeting with the more Roman Christianity at the Synod of Whitby.
Some hold that the future direction of Christianity in Britain was set at the Synod, with
victory to the Roman authority, others that differences were not necessarily so great.
Some today look back to this period as a golden age of Christianity, others as a time
of inevitable evolution. Others are not so concerned with the past but find inspiration
in the stories of the northern saints that speak to the 21st century church and world.
On becoming King of Northumbria Oswald turned to Iona for help in converting his
new kingdom to Christianity. The first monk didn’t do well, returning to Iona
complaining that the Northumbrians were too obstinate and barbarous. At their
community meeting a young monk named Aidan rebuked the monk for going to far
too quickly rather than leading the people gently. Aidan was subsequently chosen to
go himself to Northumberland.
Aidan chose Lindisfarne as his base, it was an island like Iona (at least twice a day
when the tide came in) and was close to the court at Bamburgh. From here Aidan,
together with a band of monks, undertook many missions, gently and politely
conversing with people and gradually winning hearts and minds to the Christian faith.
Aidan lived in two worlds, his influence was both amidst the finery of the court and
equally in the peasant villages. Two stories illustrate this. One tells of Aidan and King
Oswald seated together in front of a silver dish laden with good things, when a
steward announced that there were people at the door begging for bread. Oswald
commanded that everything on the plate be given to those at the door and that the
plate be broken into sufficient pieces such that every person should have a piece of
silver too. Aidan responded by praying that Oswald’s right hand would never perish.
Aidan also influenced Oswald’s successor, Oswin. Oswin gave Aidan a horse
thinking it would be more suitable for a bishop to ride than walk on foot. One day
Aidan met a beggar, and having nothing to give him, gave him the horse. On hearing
this the king rebuked Aidan but Aidan responded… asking “which is more important,
this child of a mare or this child of God?” Humbled by Aiden’s authenticity and
simplicity the king went down on his knees and asked for forgiveness.
Aidan died in 651 after 16 years working for the conversion of Northumbria. His
legacy included many hearts won for Christ and the establishment of Lindisfarne as a
monastery and centre of spiritual life in Northumbria.
Cuthbert grew up in a rapidly Christianising
Northumbria and experienced a turning point when
aged 16. With a group of shepherds in the Borders
Cuthbert stayed awake at night on guard. When
praying to God he saw movement and a stream of
light cut across the sky. It was the following day that
Cuthbert learnt that Aidan had died the night of his
heavenly vision. Cuthbert felt he was called by God,
and went to test his call in the monastery at Melrose.
Cuthbert was accepted into the monastery, served as
a monk, then soldier, then monk again before
becoming Abbot of Melrose Monastery. In 676 he left
Melrose for a solitary life, settling on one of the Farne
Cuthbert at prayer in The
Islands to live an austere life as a Christian hermit.
Little Lives of the Saints,
He received visitors and washed their feet though later
illustrated by Charles
confined himself to a cell from where he would offer
Robinson in 1904.
people his blessing. Whilst on the Farne Islands he
protected eider ducks, instituting what may be the first bird protection law in the
world. Eiders are known in Northumberland as cuddy ducks meaning Cuthbert’s
Cuthbert was elected Bishop of Lindisfarne in 684, but not long after his consecration
he returned to his cell on the Farne Islands where he later died. Cuthbert was buried
on Lindisfarne but his remains were taken later to Durham Cathedral.
Cuthbert is remembered for ministering to peoples spiritual needs, carrying out
missionary journeys, preaching, and performing miracles; for having a loving and
patient nature, for charm and generosity to the poor and for his asceticism.
Hilda was born in 614 into the royal household of Northumberland. As a great niece
of King Edwin she was brought up in court and baptised along with King Edwin by
Paulinus at York. Later in life she answered the call of Aidan and went back to
Northumbria to live as a nun. She learnt from Aidan the Celtic monastic traditions and
was appointed the second Abbess of Hartlepool Abbey. In 657 she became the
founding Abbess of a monastery at Whitby where she remained until her death.
Her monastery was a so-called ‘double monastery’ with men and women living
separately but coming together for worship. The monastic style was Celtic, with
members living in twos and threes in small huts, all property and goods were held in
common, the Christian virtues of peace and charity were promoted and every
member had to study the Bible and do good work.
Hilda is remembered as a woman of great energy who was both a skilled
administrator and teacher who gained a reputation for wisdom. She was known as
‘mother’ by all because of her outstanding devotion and grace. She also had insight
into people’s gifts. One such person was Caedmon, a poor elderly cowhand who
couldn’t read, write or sing. The story is told that one evening, while the monks were
feasting, singing, and playing a harp, Cædmon left early to sleep with the animals
because he knew no songs. While asleep, he had a dream in which he was asked to
sing of the creation of the world. He first refused and then produced a short poem in
praise of God.
When he woke the next morning he
remembered the verses, added to
them and having told his foreman
about the vision was taken to Hilda.
Hilda tested Caedmon, ordered him
to take monastic vows, after which
he was taught both sacred history
and doctrine. These Caedmon
turned into beautiful verse.
Now [we] must honour
the guardian of heaven,
the might of the architect,
and his purpose,
the work of the father of glory
— as he, the eternal lord,
the beginning of wonders.
He, the holy creator,
first created heaven as a roof
for the children of men.
Then the guardian of mankind
the eternal lord,
the lord almighty
afterwards appointed
Above – Whitby Abbey
Left: A modern English translation of
one of Caedmons poems.
the middle earth,
the lands, for men.
Many stories of the saints might have been lost
through the mists of time were it not for the ‘Venerable
Bede’. Born around 673, Bede grew up to become a
monk at the monastery of St Peter in a place now
known as Monkwearmouth and of its sister Monastery
of St Paul in Jarrow. Bede developed as a scholar and
author, drawing on the library facilities of the
monasteries. His best known and perhaps greatest
legacy is Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum The Ecclesiastical History of the English People.
It is a work which earned him the title of the father of
English history and which chronicles the lives of saints
and kings. It also includes a full account of the Synod
of Whitby, arguably one of the most significant turning
points in British Church history.
The Synod of Whitby
With Christianity arriving in England from two different directions, two forms of
practice developed side by side. One which followed the customs of Rome, the other
the Ionan Celtic monastic tradition. Differences included the dating of Easter and the
style of wearing the tonsure (haircut). The dating of Easter was an issue within the
Northumbrian royal household with Queen Eanfled, who being a daughter of Edwin
observed the Roman Easter, and her husband King Oswiu who followed the Ionan
tradition. But behind this issue was the desire of the Roman Church to bring
consistent order and central authority across Christendom, whilst the Ionan
community sought to follow the practice of Columba.
A Synod was called at Streanaeshalch, set in Hilda’s monastery at what is now
Whitby, to try and resolve the issue. Colman, Bishop of Northumbria stood for the
Ionan tradition and spoke of the practice of Columba who was founder of their
monastic network and a saint of unquestionable holiness who was himself following
the tradition of St John the Evangelist. In the opposing corner Wilfrid of Ripon argued
for the Roman position, using his persuasive more adversarial skills to state the
priority of the Roman practice following the apostles of Peter and Paul, the universal
practice of the church, that the Council of Nicaea had effectively superseded the
customs of John, that Columba had set a practice based in part on ignorance – an
excuse no longer valid, and that no one has authority over Peter or his papal
successors in Rome. Oswiu asked both sides if they agreed that Peter had been
given the keys to the kingdom of heaven, to which they agreed. Oswiu then declared
in favour of the holder of the keys. The decision led to the establishment of ordered
Roman practice; Colman and some of his supporters withdrew to Iona.
At one level the Synod was about the date of Easter and the tonsure. At a deeper
level the Synod has been portrayed as the Roman verse Celtic tradition, with the
victory of the Roman position paving the way for the Romanisation of Christianity in
England. It is interesting to reflect on what Christianity in England might be like today
had the decision gone the other way.
Despite the decision, the legacy of the northern saints remains strong, with many
today inspired in their faith by the ministry and witness of the early saints and sensing
that they have much wisdom to offer individual spiritual life and the church today.
DAP August 09.