A king, a queen, and England’s Easter dilemma

April 7, 2014

St. Finan of Lindisfarne, Bishop of Lindisfarne

St. Finan of Lindisfarne,
Bishop of Lindisfarne

When Finan died, leaving Bishop Coman—like himself, Irish by birth and a monk of Iona—as his successor at Lindisfarne, the dispute became at once open and general. Wilfrid had succeeded in sowing agitation and uncertainty in all minds; and the Northumbrians had come so far as to ask themselves whether the religion which had been taught to them, and which they practiced, was indeed the religion of that Christ whose name it bore.

The two Northumbrian kings mingled in the struggle on different sides. Oswy, the glorious vanquisher of Penda, the liberator of Northumbria, the conqueror and benefactor of Mercia, the Bretwalda or military suzerain of the Anglo-Saxon confederacy, naturally exercised a much greater influence from that of his young son, whom he had associated with himself in the kingdom. And the mind of Oswy, who had been baptized by the Celtic monks, who spoke their language perfectly, and was probably desirous of conciliating the numerous Celtic populations who lived under his rule from the Irish Sea to the Firth of Forth, did not go beyond the instructions of his early masters.

Oswiu, King of Northumbria

Oswiu, King of Northumbria

Notwithstanding he had to contend within the circle of his family, not only with his son Alchfrid, excited in behalf of the Romish doctrine by his master and friend Wilfrid, but also with his queen, Eanfleda, who did not need the influence of Wilfrid to make her entirely devoted to the Roman cause, since, on returning from exile to marry Oswy, she had brought with her a Canterbury priest—Romanus by name, and Roman in heart—who guided her religious exercises. Under the direction of Romanus, the queen and all her court followed Roman customs. Two Easter feasts were thus celebrated every year in the same house; and as the Saxon kings had transferred to the chief festivals of the Christian year, and especially to the greatest of all, the meeting of their assemblies, and the occasion which those assemblies gave them of displaying all their pomp, it is easy to understand how painful it must have been for Oswy to sit, with his earls and thanes, at the great feast of Easter, at the end of a wearisome Lent, and to see the queen, with her maids of honor and her servants, persisting in fasting and penitence, it being with her still only Palm Sunday.

This discord, as Bede says, with regard to Easter, was the capital point of the quarrel which divided the Anglos-Saxons into two bodies according as they had received the faith from Roman or Celtic missionaries. The differences remarked by Augustin in his struggles with the British clergy appear henceforward reduced to this one….

On this diversity, then, which was in appearance so slight and trifling, turned the great dispute between the Celtic and roman monks, between those who had first begun the conversion of the Anglo-Saxons, and those who had so happily completed it. It is amazing to note the vehemence and the duration of a dispute so bitter on a subject so insignificant….

St. Colman of Lindisfarne, Bishop of Lindisfarne

St. Colman of Lindisfarne,
Bishop of Lindisfarne

It is this which gives a truly historic interest to the famous conference of Whitby, convoked by King Oswy, for the purpose of regulating and terminating the dispute which troubled his kingdom and the neighboring countries. He desired that the question should be publicly debated in his presence, and in that of the Witenagemot, or parliament, composed not only of the principal ecclesiastics and laymen of the country, but of all those who had a right to sit in the national councils of the Anglo-Saxons. It is to be remarked that there, for the first time in the history of these assemblies, a sort of division into two chambers like that which has become the fundamental principle of parliamentary institutions is visible. Bede states that the king consulted the nobles and the commoners, those who were seated and those who stood round, precisely like the lords and commons of our own days.

The place chosen for the assembly was on the sea coast, and in the center of the two Northumbrian kingdoms, at Streaneshalch or Whitby, in the double monastery of monks and nuns governed by the illustrious Hilda, a princess of the Northumbrian blood royal, who was now fifty years of age, and thus joined to the known sanctity of her life maturity of age and experience sufficient for the government of souls. Although baptized by Bishop Paulinus at the time of the first Romish mission to the court of her grand-uncle King Edwin, she was completely devoted to Celtic traditions, doubtless from attachment to the sainted Bishop Aidan, from whom she had received the veil. Her whole community were of the same party which had been hitherto favored by King Oswy, and was naturally represented by Colman, Bishop of Lindisfarne, at that time the only prelate in the vast kingdom of Northumbria. He, with all his Celtic clergy, attended the council, as well as Cedd, a monk of Lindisfarne, who had become Bishop of the East Saxons, among whom he had re-established the Episcopal see of London, after the expulsion of the Romish missionaries….

St. Hilda, Abbess of Whitby

St. Hilda, Abbess of Whitby

The side opposed to the Celts had at its head the young King Alchfrid and the Bishop Agilbert; the latter, though educated in Ireland, not having hesitated to embrace the cause of those Roman customs which prevailed in France, his native country. Wilfrid was the soul of the discussion he had so warmly desired, and its special orator: he appeared in the arena in all the glow of youth and talent, but supported by two venerable representatives of the Roman missions to England—the priest Romanus, who had accompanied the Queen from Canterbury; and James, the aged, courageous, and modest deacon, sole relic and sole surviving witness of the first conversion of Northumbria under the father of Eanfleda, who had remained alone, after the flight of St. Paulinus, for nearly forty years, evangelizing Northumbria and observing Easter according to the Roman custom, with all those whom he had preserved or restored to the faith.

North West View of Whitby Abbey, by G. Wardale. Earlier picture of Whitby Abbey which was founded in 657 AD, laid waste by Danes from 867-870, then abandoned for 200 years and then disestablished during Henry VIII’s disestablished during the Dissolution of the Monasteries.

All being assembled, perhaps in one of the halls of the great monastery of St. Hilda, but more likely, from the great numbers, in the open air on the green platform which then, as now, surmounted the abrupt cliffs of Whitby, and from whence the eye wanders far over those waves which bore the Saxons to the shores of Great Britain; King Oswy opened the proceedings by saying that as they all served the same God and hoped for the same heaven, it was advisable that they should follow the same rule of life and the same observance of the holy sacraments, and that it would therefore be well to examine which was the true tradition they ought to follow. He then commanded his bishop, Colman, to speak first, to explain his ritual, and to justify its origin. “I have,” said the Bishop of Lindisfarne, “received the Pascal usage which I follow from my predecessors who placed me here as bishop; all our fathers have observed the same custom; these fathers and their predecessors, evidently inspired by the Holy Ghost, as was Columba of the Cell, followed the example of John the apostle and evangelist, who was called the friend of Our Lord. We keep Easter as he did, as did Polycarp and all his disciples of old. In reverence for our ancestors we dare not, and we will not, change.” Then the king gave leave to Agilbert to speak, that he might describe the reasons of his different observance; but the poor bishop, remembering that he had lost his vast diocese of Wessex through his imperfect knowledge of Anglo-Saxon, begged that his disciple Wilfrid might be allowed to speak in his place. “We think precisely alike,” said Agilbert, “but he can better express our thoughts in English, than I could through an interpreter.” Then Wilfrid began, “We keep Easter as we have seen it kept by all Christians at Rome, where the blessed apostles, St. Peter and St. Paul, lived, taught, suffered, and are buried. He had seen the same rule observed in Italy and in Gaul, where we have studied; we know that it is so in Africa, in Asia, in Egypt, in Greece, and throughout Christendom, in spite of all difference of language and of country. It is only the Picts and Britons who, occupying the two most remote islands of the ocean, nay, but a part even of those islands, foolishly persist in contradicting all the rest of the world.”

The Ruins of Whitby Abbey. In 1914 the abbey was shelled by the German Fleet.

The Ruins of Whitby Abbey. In 1914 the abbey was shelled by the German Fleet.

Colman replied, “It is strange that you speak of our traditions as absurd, when we only follow the example of the great apostle who was thought worthy to lay his head upon the breast of our Savior, and whom the whole world has judged to be so wise.” The dialogue then continued in a less excited manner. In this discussion the bishop displayed the natural haughtiness of his race, and the abbot that persuasive eloquence already so dear to the Anglo-Saxons, who were charmed to hear their own barbarous language spoken perfectly by a man cultivated and formed by the learning of Italy and Gaul….

Saint Columba, Apostle to the Picts, banging on the gate of Bridei, son of Maelchon, King of Fortriu.

Saint Columba, Apostle to the Picts, banging on the gate of Bridei, son of Maelchon, King of Fortriu.

“Can we admit,” said Bishop Colman, “that our most venerable father Columba, and his successors, men beloved of God, have acted contrary to the Divine Word? Many of them have given proof of their sanctity by miracles; and as for me, who believe in that sanctity, I choose to follow forever their teaching and their example.” Here Wilfrid had the better of the argument. “As to your father Columba and his disciples, with their miracles, I might answer that, at the day of judgment, many will say to Our Lord, that they have done miracles in His name, and He will answer that He never knew them. But God keep me from speaking thus of your father! It is better, when one is ignorant, to believe good than evil. I do not therefore deny that they were servants of God, and beloved by Him: no doubt they loved Him in their rustic simplicity, with the most pious intentions. I do not think there was much harm in their observance of Easter, because no one had told them of more perfect rules. If a Catholic calculator had been presented to them, I believe they would have followed his counsel as they followed the commandments of God which they knew. But as for you, without doubt you sin, if, after having heard the decretals of the Apostolic See, and even of the universal Church, confirmed by Holy Scripture, you still despise them. Even admitting the sanctity of your fathers, how can you prefer, to the Church spread over the whole earth, this handful of saints in one corner of a remote island? Finally, for your Columba (and I would willingly say our Columba, so far as he was the servant of Christ), however holy or powerful by his virtues he may have been, can we place him before the chief of the apostles, to whom Our Lord Himself said—“Thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build My Church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it; and I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven?”

Subscription7The Saxon king then addressed his bishop, “Is it true, Colman, that these words were said by Our Lord to St. Peter?” “It is true, O king,” was the answer. “Can you then,” rejoined the king, “show me a similar authority given to your Columba?” “No,” said the bishop. “You are then,” continued the king, “both agreed that the keys of heaven were given to Peter by Our Lord?” “Yes,” answered the two adversaries together. “Then,” said the king, “I say, like you, that he is the porter of heaven, and that I will not oppose him, but on the contrary, obey him in all things, lest when I reach the doors of the celestial kingdom, there be no one to open them for me if I am the adversary of him who carries the keys. In all my life I will neither do nor approve anything or any person that may be contrary to him.”

The whole assembly approved this conclusion of the king by vote, holding up their hands, both the nobles who were seated, and the freemen who stood round, and all decided to adopt the Roman custom.



Count de Montalembert, The Monks of the West: From St. Benedict to St. Bernard Boston: Thomas B. Noonan & Co., n.d.), Vol. II, 317-8, 320-7.

Short Stories on Honor, Chivalry, and the World of Nobility—no. 374




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