In that rather simplistic view of the early medieval period that regards Romanitas (‘the Roman way’) as the norm and everything else as falling short, the idea prevails that Britain descended into barbarism from the late 4th century. And there was no surer sign of this than the abandonment of Christianity, which was given legal status by the Emperor Constantine’s Edict of Milan in AD 313 and made the Empire’s official religion by the Edict of Thessalonica in AD 380. Not only do many archaeologists and historians now challenge the idea of decline in the post-Roman centuries, but recent writers on the subject have begun to emphasise the continuity of Christianity in parts of Britain, not just as an arcane religion practised by the few, but as a mainstream influence on people’s daily lives.
Preaching to the converted?
Traditional teaching has it that a monk called Augustine brought Christianity back to Britain in AD 597. We are told that Pope Gregory (c.540-604) was struck by the beauty of some fair-haired English slaves that he saw for sale in the market in Rome one day and, on asking where they came from, he was told they were ‘Angli’. He is said to have responded with the pun: non Angli sed angeli (‘not Angles, but angels’), and this encounter inspired him to send Augustine to convert the heathen Angli to Christianity. On arriving in Britain, Augustine enjoyed an early success when King Æthelberht of Kent agreed to embrace the religion, along with thousands of his subjects, who were baptised en masse on Christmas Day in AD 597.
What this charming piece of propaganda omits is the fact that Æthelberht’s wife, the Merovingian princess St Bertha (d. 601), was already a Christian, with her own chaplain, Bishop Liudhard, and a private chapel outside the walls of Canterbury, which Augustine used as his mission headquarters. Indeed, he probably chose to start his campaign in Kent precisely because of this existing link to the Christian Frankish court. What is more, Christianity was well-rooted in parts of Britain (especially in Wales and Dumnonia – Somerset, Devon, and Cornwall) before Augustine arrived. Bede tells us that Christian leaders in these regions were not at all impressed by Augustine and his fellow missionaries; he upset them by summoning them to a meeting and then treating them as inferiors by failing to rise from his seat to greet them when they arrived.
In his magisterial work A History of Christianity, Diarmaid MacCulloch says that Augustine had no real understanding of the history and traditions of the British church, and that his mission was based on ideas some 200 years out of date. Augustine thought he was arriving in land still organised as it had been under Diocletian’s reforms, with London and York as provincial capitals and smaller sub-provinces ruled by governors, supported by judicial and administrative officials. All it would take, he assumed, was to install archbishops in each metropolitan capital with the authority to appoint further bishops in each province, thus creating a network of religious authority alongside the secular administration that would quickly convert Britain’s erring population back to Christianity.
In reality, urban life had long ago decayed (if it had ever really thrived). Much of Britain had reverted to (or had never really abandoned) a series of separate territories ruled by leaders whose power was rooted in their ability to keep order and defend people, cattle, and crops from acquisitive and expansionist neighbours, or from the activities of pirates and raiders, such as those who captured and enslaved the future St Patrick (c.351-c.428) when he was a teenager. Patrick tells us, in his Confessio (his spiritual biography), that he was the son of a deacon, grandson of a priest, and was born in Bannavem Taberniae, where his family owned a small estate. Nobody really knows where that is, but it was probably located within raiding distance of the coast somewhere in Wales, north-western England, or Scotland, for he was captured by seaborne raiders, taken to Ireland, and sold. He was then forced to spend six years as a herdsman before escaping on a trading ship to Brittany, from where he managed to get back to his family in Britain.
Having previously rejected Christianity, Patrick underwent a conversion during his years as a slave; he then saw it as his destiny to return to Ireland as a missionary. Once again, it is clear from his own writing that he wasn’t introducing his new religion to Ireland, but was following in the footsteps of Palladius (died c.457-461), an earlier emissary sent by Pope Celestine in AD 431 ‘to the Irish believing in Christ’ – that is to say to the Christian community that already existed in Ireland at that time. Indeed, St Patrick, like Augustine, faced opposition from Ireland’s existing Christians, who accused him of enriching himself by accepting valuable gifts from wealthy converts when he baptised or ordained them, thus bringing the Church into disrepute.
Whether or not this was true, Patrick succeeded in forging alliances with Irish chieftains, laying the foundations for the so-called ‘Celtic’ form of Christianity in which secular and monastic were intimately enmeshed. Land given by dynastic leaders for monastic settlements did not become Church property but remained part of the family’s estate. Sons, daughters, nephews, and nieces of these elite families became priests and nuns; priesthood was passed from one generation to the next. Married clergy, celibate monks, and laity lived together under a variety of different disciplines in Christian communities that combined worship, teaching, and manuscript-production with farming and industrial activities (such as stone-carving, metalwork-production, tanning, and vellum-manufacture). But for its church and burial ground, an Irish monastic settlement might look very like a secular one.
What’s in a name?
Diarmaid MacCulloch describes these Irish Christians as full of ‘restless energy’. For them, the sea was not a barrier but ‘a series of trackways to their neighbours and cultures far beyond’, and St Patrick’s escape from Ireland provides evidence of trade and transport connections between Ireland, Britain, and Brittany. Seafaring, travelling, and wandering, whether purposeful or random, is one of the many tropes, or literary themes, found in the lives of these early missionaries and saints. Setting out on a journey across the sea was an act of faith and trust in divine providence; surviving to land on far shores was a sign of divine approval for one’s missionary activities. One of the most famous of the saints’ lives concerns Brendan ‘the Navigator’, whose quest for the legendary ‘island of the blessed’ in the west has been interpreted by some commentators as evidence that he was the first European to reach America (inspiring Tim Severin’s ‘Brendan Voyage’ of 1976-1977).
The evidence that this was more than just storytelling can be seen to this day in the form of the ogham stones (pronounced like ‘ome’ or ‘oyam’ in Irish, and ‘oggam’ in English) that are found in the south and east of Ireland, the Isle of Man, Wales, western Scotland, and Dumnonia. Dating from the 5th and 6th centuries, these memorial stones commemorate people with British and Irish personal names written in two forms: in Latin script, carved into the faces of the stone, and in ogham script, consisting of lines cut into the edge of the stone. Barry Cunliffe’s book Britain Begins shows a distribution map of the 400 or so known ogham inscriptions to illustrate the scale of contact between settlers and traders from western Britain and Ireland at this time, as they sailed back and forth across the Irish Sea.
Certain names and places emerge consistently from the myth-making to give us a sense that Christian leaders… played a very active role.
Place names tell a similar story. In Wales, there are more than 630 settlements that start with the element llan- followed by the name of the founding saint of the parish. Thus Llanilltud in the Vale of Glamorgan is the enclosure of St Illtud. The same is true of Brittany and Cornwall: hence Lanust in Cornwall (St Just in English) is the parish of St Just, and Lanhelen in Brittany (Lanhélin in French) is the settlement of St Helen.
Most of the founding saints are known only from these place names, and few are officially recognised as saints by the Roman Catholic church, but a significant number are recorded in saints’ Lives. These are a difficult form of evidence, because they were mainly written from the 12th century onwards about people who lived up to six centuries earlier. They tend to follow standard literary forms, and they were often intended as foundation stories, to support the primacy of one institution or another, and to justify their expanding territorial claims or their right to rule a daughter institution. Even so, they contain clues about the real people and events that are the best evidence we have for the period, and certain names and places emerge consistently from the myth-making to give us a sense that Christian community leaders, alongside secular rulers, played a very active role in migration, settlement, education, and cultural life in the immediate post-Roman period.
In Wales, the Centre for Advanced Welsh and Celtic Studies is engaged in gathering together the literary evidence for the many saints recorded in place names, church dedications, and holy wells in order to understand this period better. Also in Wales, Nancy Edwards is working on the fourth volume of the Corpus of Early Medieval Inscribed Stones and Stone Sculpture in Wales, of which 570 examples are known, and new discoveries are being made all the time, while there are similar studies under way in Scotland and Ireland.
Left without a trace?
Frustratingly, the archaeological evidence for settlements of this period corresponding to the literary evidence, the carved stones, and the place names is proving elusive. As Barry Cunliffe found in his report on the archaeology of Sark (see CA 361), these settlements lived lightly on the land and left few traces. The Life of St Magloire says that he founded a monastery on Sark in the mid-6th century where the boys from noble families in Brittany were sent to school, but finding the possible location is based on slender clues and hints found in the historical and hagiographical records, and making assumptions about natural landscape features, such as freshwater supplies and access to a harbour.
An example of this is the search for the monastic settlement at Llanilltud Fawr (Llantwit Major in English). One of the most active missionaries and teachers of his age, and one of the best documented, is St Samson of Dol (d. 565; the cousin of St Magloire of Sark). His biography (the Vita Samsonis) was written c.610, much closer to his actual life than many such stories. The author, a monk at Dol-de-Bretagne (the monastery and now cathedral where St Samson is buried), says in his prologue that his source was a ‘religious and venerable old man’ who, before coming to Dol, had lived for 80 years in the British monastery founded by St Samson ‘beyond the sea’. He had received the story of St Samson’s ‘wonderful career’ from a monk called Henoc (yet another cousin of St Samson, and a former Dol resident, by then deceased), who had got the facts of St Samson’s early life from the saint’s own mother. Such an elaborate apparatus designed to demonstrate the veracity of the Life can either be seen as a convoluted variation on a standard literary trope, or likely to be true because it has so many layers.
From the Life, we learn that Samson was born in Wales and was brought to the school founded by St Illtud (c.475-c.525) at the age of five, which seems (from other Lives) to have been the standard age at which boys were sent for monastic training. The author of the Life describes St Illtud as ‘the most learned of all the Britons in the knowledge of scripture, both the Old Testament and the New, and in every branch of philosophy – poetry and rhetoric, grammar and arithmetic, and he was most wise and gifted with the power of foretelling future events’.
Samson was subsequently ordained at Llanilltud by Bishop Dubricius, went on to become the first abbot of Caldey Island, returned to Llanilltud (now as abbot), then sailed across the Severn Sea (Bristol Channel) accompanied by his father, his cousin Henoc, and many other companions. Sailing up the Camel Estuary, they stayed for a while near an established monastery at St Kew (Landochou in Cornish, ‘the settlement of St Docco’) before going on to found a new monastery at a Cornish site that has never been identified. Samson left Henoc and his father Amon in charge, then set off across the Southern Sea (the Channel) to Brittany. There he established the monastery at Dol – then a coastal site but today separated from the sea by an extensive area of salt marsh.
There is clearly an element of propaganda in this writing, as with all saints’ lives, and the matter is further confused by the important group of inscribed stones and crosses that survive in the church of St Illtud in Llanilltud Fawr, whose inscriptions commemorate Illtud and Samson – except that they date from the 9th and 10th centuries and relate to different people of the same names. Even so, it is generally accepted that there are kernels of truth in all of this. Like so many of his saintly contemporaries, St Samson and his family travelled widely by way of the western sea routes linking Ireland, Wales, Cornwall, and Brittany. They were able to settle unchallenged and establish new settlements along the coasts, river estuaries, and bays of this Atlantic seaway. Christianity, its literature and liturgy, survived in this part of the world following the withdrawal of Rome. There was an active native priesthood, and Classical learning survived as the basis for training future priests.
St Illtud was ‘the most learned of all the Britons in the knowledge of scripture… he was most wise and gifted with the power of foretelling future events’.
Scholars also agree that there was a monastic settlement and school at Llanilltud Fawr, probably founded by St Illtud sometime in the 6th century, which attracted high-flying pupils from Welsh families – some have even suggested that Gildas and St David had both been students there. Searching for clues to its location, archaeologists have looked for topographical information in the 12th-century the Vita Iltutti (‘Life of St Illtyd’), hoping that some facts might have survived six centuries of oral transmission. From this, it has been deduced that the monastic settlement lay somewhere beneath the Iron Age promontory fort called Castle Ditches, about a mile south of the current village, in the fertile valley around the junction of the brooks that merge to form the Afon (River) Colhuw; Castle Ditches is known from later Welsh chronicles to have been used as a refuge by monks during various Viking raids in the 9th century.
The proximity of the sea would clearly have enabled communication with Brittany, Dumnonia, and Ireland, but the Life tells us that storm surges occasionally threatened the settlement. St Illtud is said to have built ‘an immense dyke, a mixture of mud and stones’ on three separate occasions, and each time it failed to withstand the force of the waves. On the point of abandoning the site, Illtud was visited by an angel who commanded him to stay; after that, the sea retreated to leave dry meadows that provided abundant fodder for the settlement’s cattle.
From such slender clues we can build a tentative picture of life in the early medieval period, even if we lack a large body of corroborating archaeological evidence. Likewise, it is from small fragments of evidence that Elizabeth Rees has recently tried to reconstruct a history of early Christianity in south-west Britain. The illustrations for this article come from her book (see ‘Further reading’ on facing page), which is essentially a gazetteer of every pre-Norman site with an early medieval saint’s dedication, grave marker, cross, chapel, or holy well. Taken together, these build to create an impressive collection of early Christian monuments in which modified springs, holy wells, and their associated chapels feature large.
A reliable source of clean water was vital to any newly formed settlement, as well as having great symbolic value as a baptismal site; they often developed as places associated with ‘miraculous’ cures and healing. There are memorable and impressive well sites all over Wales, Ireland, the Isle of Man, Brittany, and south-western England, often located in a churchyard or close to a church. Saints’ Lives will sometimes attribute the existence of the spring to the actions of a particular saint. For example, at Holywell in north Wales, the beheading of St Winifred caused water to flow from the place where her head fell (at which point St Beuno intervened to place her head back on her shoulders and restore her to life).
It is impossible to tell whether all of these springs represent early Christian sites (perhaps pre-Christian ones as well), because so many of them have been modified in more recent times, but their physical proximity to early medieval memorial stones and churches dedicated to early saints is suggestive. A significant number bear the names of Irish, Breton, and Welsh saints, and many also commemorate holy women. St Patrick’s Confessio sets out his hope that the sons and daughters of Irish leaders should become ‘monks and virgins of Christ’. St Patrick’s call did not always go down well with the leading families. The story of St Winifred illustrates how upset they might be at the loss of a marriageable daughter to a life of celibacy and, with it, the potential for a useful tribal alliance (although in St Winifred’s case it was her would-be spouse, Caradog, who decapitated her when she decided to become a nun). Clearly, however, the naming of sites after female saints suggests that they were able to perform a leadership role, and even to found their own monastic settlements.
Slight though it is, all this evidence offers glimpses of a thriving and widespread Christian culture in the post-Roman decades, very different from the traditional story of decline. Christians in the west enjoyed connections to neighbouring kingdoms and more distant places, including Rome, and they travelled widely and regularly. The complex interplay between Ireland, Wales, the Isle of Man, Scotland, Cornwall, and Brittany at this time is what lays the foundation for the different Celtic languages now spoken in these parts of the world.
Latin remained a language that they had in common, and that is why Augustine and his band of missionaries from Rome were able to communicate with the pre-existing Christian communities they encountered when they came to Britain. Theirs was not, it seems, a campaign to convert Britain, as is so often said. Rather it was a campaign to convert parts of Britain, and to bring an older Christian community – one that had incorporated much secular and non-Christian practice – into line with orthodox practice in Rome. Therein lies one of the broader themes of western Christianity – the battle that still reverberates to this day to assert the authority of the Church in Rome over the entirety of Christendom.
Elizabeth Rees, Early Christianity in South-west Britain (Windgather Press, £34.99, ISBN 978-1911188551).
Philip Morris, Llanilltud: the story of a Celtic Christian community (Y Lolfa, £9.99, ISBN 978-1784617530).
Diarmaid MacCulloch, A History of Christianity (Penguin, £18.99, ISBN 978-0141021898).
Barry Cunliffe, Britain Begins (Oxford University Press, £30, ISBN 978-0199609338).