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Christianity in Britain

No one knows for sure when Christianity arrived in Britain. The Roman Catholic version we know arrived around 600AD and others suggest far earlier, but the Roman Catholics became the major form, from the synod of Whitby in 664, when the Celtic church gave way to the catholic variant. Some would class this as the beginning of Christianity in Britain but earlier surviving texts tell us it was here far before this.

What we can say is that it was before the books that make up the New Testament section of the bible were written, and independent of political infighting that occurred within the Mediterranean are in the first few centuries of Christianity, and the establishment of the Catholic church.

We know, both from information in Europe and later activities of 'Catholic Christians' conquering other lands, that a lot of book burning and record destruction occurred, so that few remains exist of anything that differed from the political viewpoint they wished to promote.

So what can we find in early documentation:-

  • Tertullian (AD155-222) wrote in 'Adversus Judaeos' that Britain had already received and accepted the Gospel in his lifetime, writing: "… all the limits of the Spains, and the diverse nations of the Gauls, and the haunts of the Britons – inaccessible to the Romans, but subjugated to Christ."

  • Eusebius, (AD260-340) Bishop of Caesarea and one of the earliest and most comprehensive of church historians, wrote of Christ's disciples in 'Demonstratio Evangelica', saying that "some have crossed the Ocean and reached the Isles of Britain." Saint Hilary of Poitiers (AD300-376) also wrote (Tract XIV, Ps 8) that the Apostles had built churches and that the Gospel had passed into Britain.
  • This claim is echoed by Saint John Chrysostom (AD347-407), the Patriarch of Constantinople in 'Chrysostomo Orat. O Theos Xristos'
  • Hippolytus AD170-236), considered to have been one of the most learned Christian historians, identifies the seventy whom Jesus sent in Luke 10, and includes Aristobulus listed in Romans 16:10 with Joseph and states that he ended up becoming a Pastor in Britain.
  • This is further argued by St. Hilary in Tract XIV, Ps 8.
  • The Church in Britain seems to have developed the customary diocesan system as evidenced from the records of the Council of Arles in Gaul in 314. Represented at the Council were Bishops from thirty-five sees from Europe and North Africa, including three Bishops from Britain: Eborius of York, Restitutus of London, and Adelphius.

Much later in the 11th century, but heavily relied on in other areas of history, William of Malmesbury mentions Joseph going to Britain in one passage of his 'Chronicle of the English Kings'. He says Philip the Apostle sent twelve Christians to Britain, one of whom was his dearest friend, Joseph of Arimathea. William does not mention Joseph by name again, but he mentions the twelve evangelists generally. He claims Glastonbury Abbey was founded by them.

Elizabeth I cited Joseph's missionary work in England when she told Roman Catholic Bishops that the Church of England pre-dated the Roman Church in England.

Often discussion from this point looks at the likelihood and other information that suggests that Joseph of Arimathea, brought Christianity to Britain, and that he had previous trading links with Britain. There are also legends that he had previously brought Jesus here as a large child or young adult.  We have legends associated with a thorn that grows on Glastonbury Tor coming from Josephs staff and of course all the discussion of the Holy Grail, in its original and renewed form. Some of which we have discussed before when looking at the legend of King Arthur and places associated with him.

In this article I want to return to the evidence of early Christianity in Britain, moving on to looking at evidence that Christianity existed while the Romans were in Britain.

There is a second century word 'square' that may be the earliest Roman artefact of Christianity in Britain. Not everyone however accepts this to be Christian.

Archaeological evidence for Christian communities begins to appear in the 3rd and 4th centuries. Small timber churches are suggested at Lincoln and Silchester, and fonts have been found at Icklingham and the Saxon Shore Fort at Richborough.

The Water Newton Treasure is a hoard of Christian silver church plate from the early fourth century and the Roman Villa at Lullingstone contained Christian wall paintings and the Roman Villa at Hinton St Mary contains Christian mosaics.

For the Roman Empire Theodosius I made Christianity the state religion of the empire in 391, and by the 5th century it was well-established. Saint Alban, the first British Christian martyr, is believed to have died in the early 4th century (although some date him in the middle 3rd century), followed by Saints Aaron and Julius of Isca Augusta.

Around Britain we find many ancient stone crosses, some clearly Celtic, many having no known origin. There were many more, but in the time of Cromwell, many were destroyed and pieces scattered.

One claimed heresy, 'Pelagianism', was originated by a British monk teaching in Rome, Pelagius lived c. 354 to c. 420/440. It is thought he originated from either Scotland or Ireland, but was for many years thought well of as he taught Christianity in Rome, later some of his teachings, although widely accepted, came into conflict with other developing ideas. Some suggest his preaching's represent the earliest form of Christianity in Britain, but others may dispute this.

Others suggest that the original form of Christianity in Britain had a single God, that wrapped around all others, so that, perhaps like some Pagan groups today, they viewed all forms or religions as different faces of the same God, which differs from the Catholic and derivative churches that are based upon a three person hierarchy, God, Son and Holy Ghost, with the Catholics adding Mary, providing 4 Godheads and matching better wrapping or renaming the four principle Roman Gods.

While the Romans were in Britain many religions were allowed to co-exist, and after they left this would have continued, although perhaps some new ones came in. Some suggest that in this period the earlier form of Christianity ceased, while others see it as continuing in family lines and through the establishment of monasteries.

Towards the end of the period the Romans were in Britain another religion Mithraism, gained a large foothold, this was a Roman mystery religion with no books, but their 'secrets' shared from one initiate to another. Religious practice was centred around the 'mithraeum' (Latin, from Greek 'mithraion'), either an adapted natural cave or cavern or an artificial building imitating a cavern. Mithraea were dark and windowless, even if they were not actually in a subterranean space or in a natural cave. When possible, the mithraeum was constructed within or below an existing building. The site of a mithraeum may also be identified by its separate entrance or vestibule, its "cave", called the 'spelaeum' or 'spelunca', with raised benches along the side walls for the ritual meal, and its sanctuary at the far end, often in a recess, before which the pedestal-like altar stood. Many mithraea that follow this basic plan are scattered over much of the Empire's former area, particularly where the legions were stationed along the frontiers, such as Britain. Others may be recognized by their characteristic layout, even though converted as crypts beneath Christian churches, suggesting that Christianity wrapped around and included this.

Ancient British sites often have 'fogo' some of the best being found in Cornwall, these subterranean caves may be connected with this, similarly in Scotland and elsewhere earlier underground structures exist, some others may be connected with springs and water offerings. Whatever format the religions involved, just about all were wrapped and absorbed into Christianly, sacred wells becoming holy wells, and most sites of other religions being developed and included into Christian churches.

In the Mediterranean through this period a lot of dramas were played out with a number of popes existing at the same time each excommunicating the others and wrapping different local religions, so that a number of variant forms of Christianity developed.

As other peoples moved into Britain, as today, they brought their religions with them. From each of these earlier belief systems, some aspects were absorbed into Christianity, for example the winter solstice being transformed to Christmas, and according the the monk Bede, Easter coming from Goddess Feast of the Anglo Saxon Pagan Goddess 'Eostre', which had occurred at the same time.

By around 600 catholic Christianity was being introduced to Britain, while at the same time a form of Celtic Christianity existed, some suggest this form of Celtic Christianity came from Ireland and western and northern Gaelic areas of Britain, perhaps surviving forms of early Christianity through the monasteries route. We know these two branches had different histories as their organisational structure was different, and Celtic monasteries were far more independent having more variation, some coming to accept the Bishop of Rome (Pope) as the supreme, others not.

Celtic Christianity sometimes called insular Christianity, was not accepted by Catholics as true Christianity to them, unity under a single Pope was a part of the definition.

By the seventh century, the established ecclesiastical structure for Catholicism on the Continent consisted of one Bishop for each diocese. The Bishop would reside in a “see”, or a city able to support a cathedral. This structure was in part based on the secular administrative organisation of the Roman Empire, which had subdivided provinces into “dioceses”.

The structure of Celtic or insular Christianity was based around monastic networks ruled by Abbots. These Abbots were of Royal kin. The nobility who ruled over different tribes, and whose sources of power were rural estates, integrated the monastic institutions they established into their Royal houses and domains. Abbots were monastic, and  were not necessarily ordained so they were not necessarily priests or bishops, and so bishops were still needed, since certain sacramental functions were reserved only for the ordained, however, unlike on the Continent, these bishops had little authority within Celtic ecclesiastical structure. Of course in many of the areas they were located, such as Ireland and Scotland, there had never been a Roman administration, so no historical dioceses existed in any case.

There were other differences, Easter was calculated a different way so would be at different dates and the Monastic tonsure was different. At this time you could tell who a person was by the way their hair was cut, so the tonsure of the Celtic monks was the hair cut up from the bottom, like cutting around a small pudding bowl leaving hair on the top of the head, while the catholic monks tonsure was the opposite hair cut completely from the top of the head but a band of hair left around the head.

There was also dofferences of practice and belief, rites and orders. Prayer, baptism and confession practices differed.

While the Celtic or insular Christians saw nothing wrong with this, structured church of Rome did, and could not accept any variant formats.

This came to a head in different places and countries at different dates, and this is illustrated by the acceptance of the 'Church of Rome' way to calculate Easter. South Ireland, 626-8; North Ireland, 692; Northumbria (converted by Celtic missions), 664; East Devon and Somerset, the Celts under Wessex, 705; the Picts, 710; Iona, 716-8; Strathclyde, 721; North Wales, 768; South Wales, 777. Cornwall held out the longest of any, perhaps even, in parts, to the time of Bishop Aedwulf of Crediton (909).

At the same time some who felt strongly in favour of Celtic traditions expanded their influence and traditions throughout Europe. A lot of fragments of different rites and other information survives showing the diversity.

Over time, the Catholic church of Rome, became the public face of all Christian religion, and a strong political  and financial force, supporting Kings, and supporting war and oppression. It was however not a totally one way movement, for example the system of confession came from the Irish Celtic church and was taken up by the Catholic church over time becoming established and totally bound into their beliefs in the 1200's.

Later after the reformation, the break away from Rome and formation of an independent church in Britain some of the Celtic traditions were rediscovered, and more recently we see many others surfacing in parts of new age belief systems.

See Also:

Abbey and Religious Buildings Section for all articles, lists and location guides on Abbey's, Cathedrals, Churches, Holy Wells etc.


By: Keith Park Section: Abbey and Religious Buildings Key:
Page Ref: christianity_in_britain Topic: Abbeys Last Updated: 02/2011

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