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The Celtic Church in Britain #1

The Introduction


by Leslie Hardinge (1972)


Studies in the Celtic Church are attaining increasing importance,
not only among scholars, archaeologists, theologians, historians,
and linguists, but also among general readers. The books on
Celtic topics, both popular and technical, multiply year by year.
The anniversary of the landing of Columba fourteen centuries ago,
celebrated in so many ways in 1963, has aroused great interest.
The purpose of this work is twofold: to investigate the sources
so as to discover what Celtic Christians actually believed and
practised; and to arrange the available facts so as to present a
systematic picture of this aspect of Christianity. Due emphasis
will be placed on those points which are unique.

The expression "Celtic Church", as used in this work, connotes
that group of Christians which lived in the British Isles before
the coming of the Italian mission of Augustine (A.D. 597), and
continued for about a century, or a little more, in an
independent state. The term "church" is a handy title for this
body of believers, and has no suggestion that they constituted
anything of an organization with a centralized government or an
acknowledged head. "Britain" is employed as a simple designation
of the entire British Isles, as, during the period under review,
Ireland was known as "lesser Britain."

Certain appellations are used with special meanings. The names
of countries, such as England, Wales, Scotland, Ireland, Germany,
and France, and of counties, such as Cornwall, Somerset, and
Devon, indicate the localities suggested by their
twentieth-century meanings. This is done for clarity. In original
quotations, in which, for example, the Irish are called Scots,
the context will reveal the correct significance. "Old-Irish",
always hyphenated, points to works written before about eight
hundred. "Glossator", "commentator" and "theologian", connected
with the glosses preserved in the Thesaurus Palaeohibernicus, are
general titles for the clerics who wrote them. They are used
interchangeably for variety. Although these glosses were written
by two or three hands, they all come within the Old-Irish period.
They are regarded as containing what might for convenience be
called the consensus of Celtic opinion on topics theological. In
the context of Christian studies, "Celtic" invariably means
"Celtic Christian". The word "beliefs" is a simple heading for
the doctrinal and moral concepts which were the dynamics of the
conduct of Celtic Christians, while "practices" indicates their
outward religious acts, both in worship and behaviour which grew
out of such beliefs.

The Celtic Church began at a date unknown. In this investigation
the starting-point is the mission of Patrick some time towards
the end of the fourth and the beginning of the fifth century. The
investigation of the beliefs and practices of the Christianity
which he professed, and which he probably gained from his father
and grandfather who were both clergymen, will have as its
starting-point the usages and doctrines of the mid-fourth
century. During the larger portions of the fifth and practically
the entire sixth century the Celtic Church was apparently cut off
from Western Christianity, and developed points of view which
were different from those of the broad stream of believers in
Mediterranean lands. Subsequent to their contact with continental
Christianity at the very end of the sixth century the Celts
continued their independence until they were, section by section,
gradually absorbed by the Church of the Romans.

The end of the independence of the segments of the Celtic Church
took place at different times. Southern Ireland was the first to
throw in its lot with the representatives of the Italian mission.
If a date is to be set, perhaps 632 would be suitable.
Northumbria, through its king and leaders, gave up Celtic usages
following the Council of Whitby, 664. Northern Ireland
surrendered to the eloquent appeals of Adamnan and accepted Roman
customs at the very end of the seventh century, 695. The
Christians in Scotland, with their headquarters at Iona, felt the
heavy hand of King Nectan, who in 717 banished the Columbate
brethren from their island retreat and established at Iona those
who followed Roman traditions. But there were still remnants of
these independent Christians in Scotland when Margaret became
queen in the second quarter of the twelfth century, at which time
they threw in their lot with Canterbury. Some time about 768 the
Celts of South Wales, that is, Somerset, Devon, and Cornwall,
appear to have joined forces with the Anglo-Roman Church, while
North Wales (modern Wales), accepted Catholic views about 777.
When the Celts assumed Roman usages, they surrendered their
independence. The Celtic Church was no longer purely "Celtic",
but became Anglo-Roman-Celtic. Its uniqueness receded with the
passing years. It is the purpose of this study to seek for those
beliefs and practices which these Celtic believers professed
before they were modified by seventh and eighth-century
traditions from continental Europe.

That they held special doctrines and usages, differing in several
respects from those of Italian Christianity, is vouched for by
the sources.

The weight of this evidence tends to underline the fact that
there existed fundamental and far-reaching differences between
the Celtic and Roman Churches. Rome was ignorant of these
discrepancies until the opening decade of the seventh century. It
seems reasonable to conclude that the Celts were, for their part,
also unaware of the beliefs and usages of the Roman Christians.

The purpose of the historian is to discover what those
differences were.

A vast literature has sprung up during the past century on
various aspects of the Celtic Church. Monumental bibliographies
have been compiled, among which J. F. Kenney, "The Sources of the
Early History of Ireland; Ecclesiasticali," and Wilfrid Bonser,
"An Anglo-Saxon and Celtic Bibliography," 450-1087 deserve
special mention. They greatly aid the historian who is kept up to
date with the help of the bibliographies published annually in
the journal of the "Irish Historical Society," under the
inspiration of Ludwig Bieler.

But among the almost twenty-five thousand books and articles
listed the present investigator has not been able to find a
single volume devoted solely to a consideration of the beliefs
and practices of the Celtic Christians. Passing allusions to, and
studies of, concepts and acts of worship and conduct there are,
but the only work even nearly touching the plan of this book is
F. E. Warren, "The Liturgy and Ritual of the Celtic Church," and
it was written over eighty-five years ago. But, as its title
suggests, it deals with only one important phase, which is
actually outside the scope of this book. It is hoped that the
following pages will be a first step in filling the need for a
brief, comprehensive handbook on the topic of the beliefs and
practices of the Celtic Church. It should be emphasized that this
study excludes the liturgy and the institutions of the Celts
which constitute a phase too vast to be touched in this work, and
must be left to another investigation.

The sources for this study may be listed under seven heads.

Histories and geographies, by Patrick, Gildas, Nennius, Bede and
Adamnan, Dicuil and Giraldus Cambrensis, while not specifically
such in the modern sense, reveal insights into the thinking and
acting of the Christians during the times of these authors.
Narratives, which were but oral traditions written down later,
are replete with clues. Comminatory stories, containing
anachronisms, nevertheless reveal what the writers believed were
the actual facts of the case. Reflecting traditional memories of
the clerical scribes, they are often very useful contributions to
an understanding of early conditions and backgrounds. The
critical historian must try cautiously to demythologize these

The Lives of saints, a large number of which have been preserved,
also often full of anachronisms and propaganda, reveal
conditions, not always of the saint's age, but of the times of
the writers. These biographies are occasionally in the form of
homilies. They were probably read long ago, by the light of
sputtering candles, to monks relaxed over their suppers, and
present points which the historian is able to weave into the
tapestry he is preparing.

Scattered over the pages of Celtic Christian literature many
poems and verses may be found, containing religious ideas which
are illuminating. The ancient Annals are indispensable mines of
information. Although they are more accurate for the compiler's
own age, they also show, here and there, what the Celtic
Christians believed and practised. Legislation, both civil and
ecclesiastical, the Liber ex Lege Moisi, laws, penitentials, and
rules, also are vital sources.

Glosses, crowding between the lines of Old-Irish biblical texts
and commentaries on the Scriptures, being suggestions for
sermonic development, are the finest indexes for the theological
views of these ancient Christians. Written in Old-Irish,
preserved inviolate in continental libraries, they crystallize
the concepts of the Celtic Church.

A word of thanks is also due to my artist friends, Clyde
Provonsha and C. M. Hubert Cowen, for the line drawings and
initial letters and chapter headings which add so much interest
to the opening pages of each chapter.


The RISE of the CELTIC church m BRITAIN

Christianity tiptoed into Britain. It left no written records of
its entry, but here and there its footprints may be traced in the
soil of these islands.
Archaeological evidence of Christianity in Roman Britain is
meagre. A fragment, containing a Christian cryptogram, attests
the witness of Christians before the peace of Constantine. The
foundations of what were probably two small churches of this
period have so far been discovered at Silchester and Caerwent.
The chirho monogram has been found in several places: worked into
mosaics; carved on building stones, rings, and lamps; and painted
on the walls of houses. It is found most frequently in southern
England. Excavations since 1947 in London, and from 1949 at the
Roman villa of Lullingstone, on the Darent, have revealed other
possible Celtic Christian remains. Christian symbols found at
Lullingstone house chapel are the earliest in any building in
Britain. Similar house chapels have been unearthed in Gaul.

The purpose of this chapter is to consider briefly the evidences
bearing on the origin of Celtic Christianity so as to form a
framework for the study of its beliefs and practices.

Among the precious remains in Scotland are the three Kirkmandrine
gravestones. Excavations at the east end of the church at
Whithorn have revealed what might well be a fifth-century place
of worship. Three possible Celtic Christian artifacts were
unearthed at Traprain Law in East Lothian. But these fragments of
archaeological evidence tell only of the presence of Christians
before the fifth century, they do not establish that an organized
Church existed, nor do they show any particular place of origin
for Celtic Christianity.

Written records of the presence of early Christians are extremely
meagre. The earliest statements are merely passing illusions by a
few church fathers. The first hint of a group of organized (314),
convened by the Emperor Constantine. Three bishops, a presbyter,
and a deacon are recorded as having come from Britain, but even
this statement is open to question. It should be stressed that
this council met independently of the bishop of Rome, who was not
present. A copy of its decisions was sent "fratri Sylvestro."
British clerics were also present at the Council of Rimini (359).
Three of them were so poor that they accepted financial aid from
the Emperor.

Gildas lamented that British Christians were plagued by Arianism,
while Germanus and Lupus are believed to have come to their aid
against Pelagianism. Germanus is believed to have returned with
Severus (444-5) at the request of British Christians, possibly to
help in their combat with Pelagianism, or perhaps to encourage
them to bear up under the blows of the Picts and Scots. Who
authorized these visits has yet to be established. But from the
middle of the fifth century nothing further was heard of British
Christians until the arrival of Augustine one hundred and fifty
years later. That Christians were in Britain during the fourth
and fifth centuries is known, but when or whence they came cannot
yet be established.

(The author lacked the knowledge or research into the early
arrival of Christianity into Britain, which has been established
by other authors and researchers, reproduced on this website -
Keith Hunt)

Scarcely had the tramp of the feet of the departing Romans died
away than the Picts and Scots surged into northern England. The
people fled, their farms ravaged, their homes in ashes. Decades
of fluctuating war and peace followed. About the middle of the
fifth century the desperate British leaders solicited help from
the pagan Saxons. Soon the guests from the Continent had become
the masters of England. When Augustine landed in Britain in 597
the country was virtually heathen. What Christians there were had
fled to the far west.

(Again the author was short on correct research into early
Christianity in Britain - Keith Hunt)

But even traces of these Christian settlements in Wales before
the coming of Augustine are slight and scattered. On the lonely
moors of Cornwall Christian settlers have left traces of their
existence in several caves. The Picts of southern Scotland
probably received the faith through the preaching of Ninian.
Ninian's name is embedded in several place-names scattered over
Scotland and the Western Isles.

The presence of Christians in Scotland during the fifth century
is also vouched for by Patrick's complaint to Coroticus that his
soldiers were "apostate." About a century after Ninian's death
Kentigern laboured in the region now known as Glasgow. He is even
more of a shadowy figure than Ninian. Jocelyn, his biographer,
confessed that he had found some things "contrary to sound
doctrine and the Catholic faith" in the old biography of
Kentigern. Being "grieved and indignant that the life of so
priceless a prelate ... should be tainted with heretical
passages", he rewrote his story, seasoning "the barbarous
composition with Roman salt." Ailred recorded that he had used
similar methods in his "Life of Ninian." This tendency of later
bagiographers must be kept in mind when seeking for the beliefs
and practices followed by early saints. The faith and works of a
sixth-century Celtic saint evidently appeared "contrary to sound
doctrine and the Catholic faith" to a pious writer of the twelth
century. What these "heretical passages" might indicate will be
considered later. When Columba arrived there were few, if any,
Christians still surviving in Scotland. It would appear that it
was from Ireland that the faith was successfully reintroduced
into Scotland.

But how Christianity came to Ireland in the first place is not
known. By the end of the fourth century a few representatives of
the faith had apparently reached its shores. The old Irish
writers had little doubt that there had been Christians in
Ireland before Patrick began his missionary work. Tirechan, in a
homily on the life of Patrick, mentioned archaeological remains
of liturgical objects, glass chalices under a stone altar. There
are also notices, in the Book of Armagh, of Christian clerics in
Ireland before the saint's arrival who later pledged the support
of their churches to Patrick. Patrick himself recorded that he
had laboured "to confirm the people". This might well mean those
previously baptized by others. He also noted that he had
travelled into pagan regions in which no Christian had previously

(Once more I state that the coming of Christianity into Britian
very early - during the first century AD can be found in
historical material, but most will not acknowledge it. It would
seem this author was one of them, if she even knew where to look
for such proof - Keith Hunt)

At the end of the fourth and the beginning of the fifth centuries
conditions on the Continent seem to have forced numbers to flee
westward. Kuno Meyer rightly pointed out that among these
refugees there were probably Christians. Virgilius Maro recorded
that Huns invaded the Goths with the result that the depopulation
of the entire Empire commenced. This was completed by the Huns
and Vandals and Goths and Alans, "owing to whose devastation all
the learned men on this side of the sea fled away, and in
transmarine parts, i.e. in Hiberial and wherever they betook
themselves, brought about a very great advance of learning to the
inhabitants of those regions" Ecclesiastical loan words modified
in Irish would attest such intercourse.

During the fifth and sixth centuries, while the Continent and
even Britain were ravaged by sporadic wars, Ireland in its
seclusion appears to have been the bastion of learning and
Christianity. During these troubled years many British students
received a kindly welcome and hospitable entertainment from the
Irish schools. The lot of Christians in Ireland was improved by
the coming of Patrick, a Briton, born of three generations of
clergy about 388. Patrick's grandfather was ordained a priest
about 325. The Christianity practised by Patrick's ancestors and
by the saint himself would reflect no further modifications in
faith and works than would be held by Christians generally,
during the early fourth century.

When Palladius, ordained and authorized by Celestine, came to
Ireland (c. 431), he "baptized a few in that place" and founded
three churches." But the "Irish already believing in Christ" did
not rally about Palladius, who withdrew from the island and died
during the following year. It seems that the attitude of the
Celtic Christians in Ireland towards the emissary of Pope
Celestine, was similar to that shown by the Celtic Christians of
England a century and a half later towards Augustine.

The churches which Patrick established in Ireland continued after
his death, but were apparently not many in number. Wilfrid
taunted Colman and his friends, saying: "Do you imagine that
they, a few men in a corner of a remote island, are to be
preferred before the universal Church?" And the letter of Pope
Honorius addressed to the Irish "earnestly warned them not to
imagine that their little community, isolated at the uttermost
ends of the earth, had a monopoly of wisdom over all the ancient
and new churches throughout the world" When the clerics at the
court of Alfred were trying to convert Adamnan to the Roman
practices, Adamnan "was earnestly advised by many who were more
learned than himself not to presume to act contrary to the
universal customs of the church, whether in the keeping of Easter
or in many other observances, seeing that his following was very
small and situated in a remote corner of the world. In his letter
to his superior at Iona, Cummian gave his reasons for deserting
the usage of the Celts in favour of that of Rome. He discussed
the unity of Catholic countries and contrasted them with "the
little party formed by the Britons and Scots, who are almost at
the very end of the world, and but a mere eruption, so to speak,
on its surface."

These charges could easily have been countered had the Celtic
Church had a large following. The picture that seems to emerge
from the sources is of a comparatively small band of enthusiastic
missionaries wielding an influence greatly disproportionate to
their numbers, doing a work quite out of keeping with their size,
and maintaining their zeal for an impressively long period.

The time during which British Christianity is lost sight of (450-
597), was an important one for the development of Western
Christian thinking. Many changes took place. It does not seem
likely that the recommendations of Nicea or the definitions of
Augustine and other great councils and teachers were known to
Patrick and the Christian communities he established. L. Gougaud
might well be right in thinking that there was no such thing as a
Celtic Church with a unified system of beliefs and practices.
Christianity in the far west of Europe during the unsettled
decades of the fifth and sixth centuries would concern itself
only with providing principles for a simple and helpful way of
life. With little centralized control communities would develop
their own emphases and views, and ecclecticism and pragmatism
would mark the early beliefs and practices of Celtic Christians.
As teachers developed, they interpreted the Scriptures as they
felt best.


The author, and many others, did not research enough, or
deliberately refused what they saw in recorded history to prove
there was a large and vast Christian religion in the British
Isles centuries before the coming of the Roman church in 597 AD.
That history you can find in other studies on this website.

Keith Hunt

To be continued

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