There is very little extant archaeological data to piece together a comprehensive historical picture of Celtic society and the Celtic Church in the British Isles in Early Christian times and a lot of what is known is pieced together from archaeological findings at gravesites, reliefs, carvings and various personal effects. Bede, an English monk who lived from 637-735 AD wrote “Ecclesiastical History of the British People” around 731 AD and this is a historical work that many historians draw upon as a reference. In addition to this Gibbon’s “History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire” adds snippets of information about surrounding nations and the state of Imperial Rome that add context and reference to parts of Bede’s historical narrative.
The beginning of the 5th Century AD marked a turning point in the relationship between England and the Roman Empire. Alaric and his Visigoth army sacked Rome first in 410 AD and then again in 425 AD. The march of the Visigoths from the Danube to the Atlantic ocean necessitated the withdrawal of Roman troops stationed in Britain to protect the heartland of the Empire against the advancing hordes. Britain at that time lay on the very edge of the known world and was the final frontier of the Roman Empire being fairly isolated from the nerve centers of Ravenna and Rome.
With the withdrawal of the British troops came the inevitable need for the British people to band together to defend themselves and their way of life against the marauding Picts in the east and the Irish from the west and the Scandinavian and Frisian tribes from the North. Gibbon writes that they did this by making the Clergy a central pillar of government and instituting the ecclesiastical synod as a parliamentary assembly composed of Bishops, Clergy, and ruling princes, convening to resolve conflict, legislate policy and form political alliances.
There is much debate over how and when the Angles and the Saxons settled in Britain and both Bede and Gibbon place the date around 449 AD. The historian Gildas records that they received a serious setback in their conquests at the Battle of Mount Badon in 516 AD, which suggests that they were actively invading Britain between 449 AD and 516 AD. According to Gildas the complete collapse of Roman Britain and the arrival and establishment of the Anglo-Saxons is dated around 540 AD.
Soon after in 565 AD, Columba founded the training school at Iona as a missionary training center to evangelize the pagan tribes in Scotland. We know from History that Scotland was ruled by the Picts, who had divided themselves between north and south and had seven sub-kingdoms and the Dal Riada of Ireland who had conquered western Scotland. Iona was within the territory of the Dal Riada and Columba himself had Dalriadian lineage.
Augustine and his Catholic missionaries arrived in Kent in 597 AD and were welcomed by the Saxon Aethelberht, King of Kent. In order to fully grasp the political machinations and maneuvers surrounding the arrival of Catholicism in the British Isles, it’s important to understand some of the histories of Continental Europe during this time.
In the early 4th Century AD Ulfilas, a Cappadocian captive, enslaved by the Goths on one of their invasion of Constantinople began to evangelize the Germanic tribes that occupied the territory across the Danube. He preached the Gospel to them and provided them with the Bible in their own language which led to many of the Gothic tribes embracing Christianity.
A century later Alaric and his Visigothic armies became a conquering force that swept across Europe from the Danube to the Atlantic. The Visigoths at this time were Christians, descendants of the first converts of Ulfilas, and on their march across Europe, they took their religion with them, converting most if not all the Teutonic tribes that occupied Western Europe.
The conversion of Clovis, king of the Franks to Catholicism was a significant turning point in the shift of power in the Western Empire. From 476 AD onwards the Western Roman Empire had officially fragmented into a division of Germanic and Teutonic tribal territories, largely independent of each other. Clovis upon taking the throne of the Franks began an aggressive military campaign against the Germanic tribes of Western Europe, conquering almost all of them. He was married to the Burgundian Princess Clotilda, daughter of King Chilperic of Burgundy, who was a devout Catholic and who did not rest until she had converted her husband to Catholicism. When Clovis conquered the Germanic tribe of Europe he took Catholicism with him converting many of his new subjects and thus establishing Catholicism among the once Arian tribes of Western Europe.
This left the Saxons as the only remaining tribe to be conquered and a marriage of convenience was formed between Bertha of the Franks and Aethelberht of the Saxons, allying Aethelberht with the most powerful state in Western Europe at the time.
Bertha arrived in Kent with her Catholic chaplain in tow and Augustine and his embassage followed shortly after. Under the influence of his Catholic queen, Aethelberht submitted to Rome and was baptized as the first Catholic Anglo-Saxon king and other conversions followed with Paulinus converting Edwin of Northumbria shortly after in 627 AD. The conversion of Aethelberht was a substantial victory for Catholicism because as Bede states he wielded significant authority and influence over other Anglo-Saxon kingdoms.
Around this time, and after the deaths of both Aethelberht and Edwin, Aidan founded his training school on the island of Lindisfarne in 633 AD. The island was gifted to him by Oswald, the new ruler of Northumbria who was eager to have Celtic Christianity, and not Roman Catholicism, thrive in his kingdom. After Oswald’s death in 642 AD at the Battle of Oswestry against the at the hands of the Pagan Penda of Mercia, the Celtic church began to be overtaken by the advances of Catholicism. The Synod of Whitby, convened by Oswald’s successor Oswy in 664 AD saw the Celtic church accede to the wishes of Rome in the matter of the celebration of Easter triggering the slow process of assimilation. Interestingly Oswy’s wife, Eanfeld was also a Catholic princess and played a significant role in helping the Roman church subjugated Celtic Christianity.
The pattern of a Catholic princess marrying a Pagan prince thus setting in motion his inevitable conversion seems to run through the history of the English Heptarchy in early Christian times and seems to be the preferred method of operation in bringing Catholicism to the Saxons. By combining church and state the Roman church hope to broaden and deepen its influence over every aspect of society and this seemed to work for a time until the Danish Vikings swept through England almost extinguishing the Christian faith, Celtic and Roman alike. However, despite the spread of paganism in the wake of the Viking conquests, there were still pockets of Celtic Christian believers who preserved the faith of their fathers, keeping the light of truth burning awaiting the dawn of the Reformation.