Tracts for the Times 2.0
Today’s offering is Part 2 (of 3) of Tract #2. In it, I will continue presenting evidence that the Church in the British Isles was planted long before 597, was relatively well-established, and was associated with but not under the rule of the Roman Catholic Church during this time.
At least five early Church historians speak of Christianity as existing in the British Isles long before 597 (last time we looked at the testimony of the Church Fathers). Theodoret (393-458) wrote an Ecclesiastical History less famous than either Eusebius’ or Bede’s. In it, he writes: “Know, O holiest Augustus, that this faith is the faith preached from everlasting, this is the faith that the Fathers assembled at Nicaea confessed. With this faith all the churches throughout the world are in agreement, in Spain, in Britain, in Gaul.” Theodoret also wrote, in his Cure for Pagan Maladies, that many nations, including the Britons, had “been persuaded to accept the laws of the Crucified.”
Eusebius writes, not, as we might expect in his Ecclesiastical History (324 or before), but in his The Proof of the Gospel, that in preaching the Name of Jesus: “some have crossed the Ocean and reached the Isles of Britain.” Eusebius further confirms this when he writes in his Life of Constantine that Christianity had been received in many lands, including Britain, and “that the number of churches is far greater in the regions I have enumerated than in any other.”
Sozomen, writing in his ecclesiastical history around 440, states: “Hence it is probable that while Constantius was alive, it did not seem contrary to the laws for the inhabitants of the countries beyond Italy to profess Christianity, that is to say, in Gaul, in Britain, or in the region of the Pyrenean mountains as far as the Western Ocean.” Constantius was the father of Constantine the Great and died in 306, so Sozomen’s reference to the coming of Christianity in Britain dates it before the end of the 3rd century.
The Venerable Bede (in many ways a Roman Catholic apologist) wrote in his Ecclesiastical History of the English People (c. 731) that while Eleutherius (c. 174-189) was the bishop of Rome, a king of Britain named Lucius wrote him asking to be made a Christian. Bede continues: “His pious request was quickly granted and the Britons preserved the faith which they had received, inviolate and entire, in peace and quiet, until the time of the Emperor Diocletian.” Bede movingly and in detail narrates the conversion and death of the man celebrated as England’s first martyr: St. Alban. The traditional date for Alban’s martyrdom, which Bede tells us happened during the Diocletian persecution, is 304. A church had been built on the site (Bede calls it Verulamium, but today it is called St. Alban’s) of Alban’s martyrdom as early as 429, when St. Germanus made a pilgrimage to Bede’s shrine.
Christians, especially Anglicans, still remember Bede. But, generally, we have long forgotten the source for much of his material, a source approximately 200 years closer to actual events. That source is Gildas’ On The Ruin of Britain. Gildas (born in Scotland), writing sometime between 500 and 540, said that Britain received the precepts of Christ at the latter part of the reign of Tiberius Caesar (Tiberius reigned from 14-37). Even if Gildas is mistaken about how early Christianity got to Britain, Gildas casually and confidently makes this claim 50-100 years before Augustine showed up in 597. Gildas provides more details (but less than I’d like) about the church in Britain before Augustine. He states that Christian churches took root in Britain until the persecution of Diocletian (the first decade of the 300s), some of them to a greater or lesser degree. He narrates the martyrdom of St. Alban more briefly than does Bede, but he also mentions that Aaron and Julius of Carlisle (Caerleon) and many others were martyred (he’s the source for what Bede says about these other martyrs). Remarkably, Gildas narrates how, in less than ten years after Diocletian’s persecution, Christ’s disciples began to rebuild the churches that had been leveled and erect churches to the martyrs. Gildas also provides a scathing condemnation of the priests of his day, a condemnation which, although it portrays a church in moral decay, nevertheless provides evidence for a well-established church continuing into the sixth century in Britain.
An indigenous British Church must have been well-established to send some of her bishops to Church councils in the early and middle fourth century. Three British bishops attended the Council of Arles in 314, and although we cannot determine the size of their dioceses with any certainty, the fact that as early as 314 there were three ecclesiastical sees indicates a church which, to be this large and organized, must have existed for decades before 314. This pushes back the latest possible date for an independent British church into approximately the late third century.
While some have claimed that British bishops were present at the Council of Nicaea in 325, I have been unable to confirm this, especially since no official list of attendees is still extant, and the other evidence is inconclusive. However, Athanasius did state in a 363 letter to the Emperor Jovian that “these things have been preached from time immemorial, and this faith the Fathers who met at Nicaea confessed; and to it have assented all the Churches in every quarter, both those in Spain, and Britain. . . . ” He also stated that the British bishops were among those who voted in his favor at the Council of Sardica in 345 (he doesn’t mention their names or sees). Likewise, Sulpicius Severus (c. 363 – c. 425) states that British bishops were among those who met at the Council of Ariminum in 359, although he, like Athanasius, provides us no names. Additionally, in 358 Hilary of Poitiers, in his de Synodis, writes to British bishops, among others.
It would require an additional Tract or two to do justice to the churches in Ireland, Wales, and Scotland, but it’s not necessary to belabor the point that the Church in the British Isles was well-established long before 597. Nevertheless, a brief discussion of the Church in Ireland will round out the picture I am painting. We should remember, to begin with, that Ireland, unlike Britain and the Continent, was never conquered by Rome, which means that Roman civilization and structures took no root in Ireland. Ireland, unconquered by Rome, continued to have a decentralized government, an organization that fit well with the monastery-centered churches of Ireland. It wasn’t until centuries later that Ireland developed a diocesan episcopal structure and came under the Roman Catholic Church. These things are important to remember when considering the nature of Christianity in Ireland in its earliest centuries and helps explain some of the Celtic distinctiveness from the Roman Church, which I will mention in Part 3 of Tract 2.
Most people are surprised to learn that there was a church in Ireland before Patrick. Prosper of Aquitaine, in his Chronicles, states that in 431 “Palladius was ordained and sent as first bishop to the Irish who believed in Christ by Pope Celestine.” Prosper died in 455, when his Chronicles, a continuation of Jerome’s similar work, concludes. While Prosper’s references to Palladius are extraordinarily close to the time in question, he tells us no more. Palladius is of interest because the Pope sent Palladius to the Christians who were already in Ireland. Evidence strongly suggests that Christianity reached Ireland either from Gaul or from Britain (more likely) before the end of the fourth century. The church in Ireland had enough Christians by 431 to merit Pope Celestine sending Palladius to be its first bishop, even though this church apparently existed without previous papal involvement. There are also Irish legends of British missionaries before either Palladius or Patrick. While these legends cannot be conclusively confirmed, neither should they be rejected a priori.
And yet it was not Palladius’ Roman mission that converted Ireland but the early Britons, along with Patrick, who seemed to have converted Ireland without a mandate or support from Rome. Much about Patrick is either legendary or not known with certainty. What we know of Patrick and his mission we know from Patrick himself: there are no other contemporary accounts, and he is not mentioned by others until 632. We are not even sure when and where he was born or when he died, but modern scholarship puts his death somewhere between 460 and 493. A good case can be made that he was born around 390 in the west or southwest of Britain.
Patrick is extraordinary in many ways, and I find the historical Patrick far more fascinating and substantial than the legendary Patrick. That Patrick had a heart to evangelize barbarians who had never been civilized by Rome is perhaps his most extraordinary virtue. Most significantly, for the limited focus of this tract, is that Patrick and his mission are thoroughly British, and neither Roman nor Continental. Patrick himself was very self-conscious about his inadequate, interrupted (by slavery) education. He writes a kind of British, vernacular Latin: had he spent time being educated in Gaul, for example, his Latin would have been different and better. Patrick never mentions being sent by Rome, although he had opportunity and cause to do so, for example, when his authority as a bishop in Ireland was questioned. Patrick wrote with the British Church in mind and was sent by the British Church. When he quotes a Rule of Faith, it appears to be a British Rule of faith, related to others in use but also unique.
An examination of Latin loanwords used in Ireland when Christianity made its way to Ireland proves conclusively that the Christian missionaries in Ireland came from Britain, and neither from Gaul or from some other part of the Continent. In fact, the conversion of Ireland by missionaries from Britain is probably the strongest evidence that Christianity had become dominant in Britain by around the year 400. Christianity in Britain was already multigenerational by Patrick’s time: Patrick begins his Confession by stating that his father Calpornius was a deacon and that Calpornius’ father was a presbyter.
The rapid spread of Christianity in Ireland under Patrick is well-known, although Patrick tells us that he (like St. Paul) went to places not previously evangelized, which indicates that some of Ireland was already Christian and which confirms what the Pope had written to Palladius about Christians already in Ireland. Patrick’s mission to Ireland tells us two significant things about the British Church in the early fifth century. First, we learn that in spite of what is usually seen as an eradication or severe diminution of the British Church in the fifth century, it was strong enough to send Patrick (and others later, especially in the sixth century). Second, we learn that from the beginning, the form of Christianity Patrick took to Ireland was not dependent on the Roman Church and was not identical to it in its character.
Another measure of the existence and vitality of the early British Church is the relatively small but significant body of physical and archeological evidence for Christianity in Britain in the fourth through sixth centuries. Perhaps the most intriguing physical evidence for early Christianity in Britain is the Paternoster word square at Cirencester, which may, in the eyes of most scholars, be both Christian and second century. The physical evidence also includes mosaics found at Frampton and Hinton St. Mary, both of which were discovered in fourth-century estate churches. Archeologists ascertain the Christian identity of much of this physical by the presence of Christian symbols. The Chi-Rho is the most common Christian symbol found, some of which date from the fourth century, although other symbols exist as well. Among the thirty pieces of silver discovered in the Mildenhall Treasure, buried around 360, are three spoons with the Chi-Rho and two other spoons that are likely christening spoons. An even more significant and intriguing find is the Water Newton Treasure, which dates as early as the mid-third century, although a date in the 360s is more likely. The Water Newton Treasure, which consists of silver pieces and one gold disc, is the earliest known group of Christian silver from the entire Roman Empire. At least some of the vessels were related to liturgical use, especially to the Eucharist.
The physical evidence includes ancient church structures. Two examples are the congregational church at Silchester (fourth century), and St. Alban’s (previously mentioned), which some believe was converted from a shrine into a church c. 396. At the estate (house or villa) church at Lullingstone in Kent (second half of the fourth century) one of the rooms was converted into a chapel; busts of emperors were buried; and frescoes exist portraying the ubiquitous Chi-Rho, a painting of a youthful Christ, and a church. The living room demonstrates the blending of the Christian and pagan cultures with its mosaic showing Bellepheron killing the Chimera, which was now interpreted by Christians as Christ overthrowing the powers of evil.
The Christian population in the early British Church is greater than most of us would have imagined. For example, the cemetery at Poundbury, a fourth-century Christian burial site, attached to a city that is a known Christian site, contains a minimum of 1400 burials, with a possible total of around 4000. This cemetery contains some Chi-Rhos, as well as other Christian markings. Charles Thomas estimates that Britain contained about 5% of the Roman population at the end of the 4th century, or 200,000 people. Of this number, Thomas estimates that even a mere 5% of this 200,000 would mean 10,000 urban Christians. He believes, further, that individual town numbers might range from several thousand in London to a few hundred in places like Lincoln and that even a hundred Christians probably implies a bishop. Martin Millett, on the other hand, estimates that during the time of the Roman occupation, the town population in Britain was approximately 240,000, out of a total population of 3.6 million, and that London may have had 30,000 people. Although early Christianity was primarily an urban phenomenon, physical evidence suggests that Christianity in Britain had made inroads into the rural population as well. A population this substantial could easily have numerous Christian churches and bishoprics.
The Church in the British Isles was planted long before 597, was relatively well-established, and was associated with but not under the rule of the Roman Catholic Church.
Next time, in Part 3 of Tract #2, I’ll discuss some of the differences of the Church in the British Isles from the Roman and Continental churches, and add a summary and chronology of the Church in the British Isles until 597.
- Eusebius speaks of how Constantius, Constantine’s father, visited Britain and how Constantine was the son of a British princess. ↑
- While Bede himself is writing around 731, the earliest version of his source, the Passion of St. Alban, dates from 500-550. The Passion, however, dates Alban’s martyrdom to the reign of Septimius Severus, from 193-211. Most modern scholars think Bede was right to correct his source on this date. Not all scholars agree, and it is possible that Alban’s martyrdom is closer to A.D. 200. ↑
- The three bishops were Eborius of York, Restitutus of London, and Adelphius of Lincoln or possibly Colchester. ↑
- For example, the legend about Patrick driving out the snakes from Ireland was first recorded in the 12th century, while his use of the shamrock to explain the Trinity was not recorded until the late 17th century. ↑
- The Chi Rho is named because the symbol is composed of the first two Greek letters in “Christ,” which are Chi and Rho. The Chi Rho was the symbol used and propagated by Constantine. ↑
- Many scholars believe that such treasure was buried as a response to the encroachment of the Picts and Scots during the so-called “Barbarian Conspiracy” of 367. ↑
- Christianity in Roman Britain to A.D. 500, 193. ↑
- Roman Britain, 44-45, 65. ↑