Sunday, April 4, 2021

Notes for Easter

Good Friday.  The church bell has rung at 2.0.clock, the vicar stands outside the church dressed in white with a mask, she is working in the dying world of British Christian faith, maybe 6 people will turn up but probably fewer.  In my mind the time of 3.30 hovers this is when Jesus dies on the cross.  I remember as a school girl in classroom waiting for this event one Good Friday, and lo and behold the skies darkened - it was a storm of course, but even so! That day I almost believed.....

Which leads me to when Christianity came to these isles.  First of all it came in the form of Celtic saints proselytising, Rome slowly accepted this new young faith and it migrated over to Britain, though Ireland was probably the first to feel its touch.  

The original church was called The Celtic Church it designated the period before Catholicism took hold in the form of Rome's interference.  This was agreed at the Synod of Whitby 664 AD, so it was goodbye to Irish monks and welcome Catholicism, it was Easter dates that finalised the changeover. We had lost Roman over lordship in the year 410, and we entered what was called the 'Dark Ages'.  Though this must be taken with a pinch of salt, written records around the following four centuries were just thin on the ground.

It can be traced through letters from the popes to their bishops in this country, on how to tame the pagans!

Timeline;  Augustine of Canterbury was a monk who became the first archbishop of Canterbury in 597 AD.  After this the conversion  (601) of the Anglo-Saxon Kentish King Aethelberht.  Pope Gregory (540 to 604) had intended that Augustine become the metropolitan archbishop of the South of England.  It was Aethelberht's daughter who took the challenge of Christianity to the North when she married a Northern king.

Correspondence of how Christianity overcame paganism.

Letter from Gregory taken to England by Mellitus;

When almighty god has brought you to our most reverend brother Bishop Augustine, tell him what I have decided after long deliberation about the English people, namely that the idol temples (fana idolurum) of that race should by no means be destroyed, but the idols in them. Take holy water and sprinkle it in these shrines, build altars and place relics in them. For if the shrines are well built, it is essential that they should be changed from the worship of devils (cultu daemonum) to the service of the true god. When these people see that their shrines are not destroyed they will be able to banish error from their hearts and be more ready to come to the places they are familiar with, but now recognizing and worshipping the true god.

And then there is this answer from Gregory to a letter from Augustine;

Because they (the English) are in the habit of slaughtering much cattle as sacrifices to devils, some solemnity ought to be given in exchange for this. So on the day of the dedication or the festivals of the holy martyrs, whose relics are deposited there, let them make themselves huts from the branches of trees around the churches which have been converted out of shrines, and let them celebrate the solemnity with religious feast.
Do not let them sacrifice animals to the devil, but let them slaughter animals for their own food to the praise of god, and let them give thanks to the giver of things for his bountiful provision.

4th Century - Martin of Tours

As bishop, Martin set to enthusiastically ordering the destruction of pagan temples, altars and sculptures. Scholars suggest the following account may indicate the depth of the Druidic folk religion in relation to the veneer of Roman classical culture in the area:
"[W]hen in a certain village he had demolished a very ancient temple, and had set about cutting down a pine-tree, which stood close to the temple, the chief priest of that place, and a crowd of other heathens began to oppose him; and these people, though under the influence of the Lord, they had been quiet while the temple was being overthrown, could not patiently allow the tree to be cut down".
In one instance, the pagans agreed to fell their sacred fir tree, if Martin would stand directly in its path. He did so, and it miraculously missed him. Sulpicius, a classically educated aristocrat, related this anecdote with dramatic details, as a set piece. Sulpicius could not have failed to know the incident the Roman poet Horace recalls in several Odes, of his narrow escape from a falling tree.

The felling of 'sacred trees' in Ireland is documented in the old  Celtic tales, and I have often wondered if the tree carried on the shoulders of the Celtic soldiers on the Gundestrup cauldron, is a sacred tree won from their enemy.

Gundestrup Cauldron


  1. You're right to stick 'Dark Ages'in quotes. It's quite a misnomer. All sorts of fascinating things went on then. If we'd lived then we'd probably be quite shocked to discover that people thought of our era that way. I was just reading an article in Time magazine about it. Apparently, in that era, they not only thought the earth was round but reasoned a way of working out its size! They invented lots of gadgets, too. Sometimes I think that in future people will think of our times as a 'dark age', as so much of what we write is stored on unreliable electronic devices and will almost certainly vanish.

    1. Think also that when the Romans left, a certain anarchy existed. Anglo-Saxons moved in as well, but there is plenty of evidence for beautifully crafted work. It has been mislabelled because evidence for what really happened is thin on the ground.

  2. You see old stories recycled in the Old Testament over and over again as well. You have only to read Gilgamesh to realize that the stories in the old testament have been recycled.

    1. Stories just go round and round Debby. Paul and I used to visit many churches basically to look for their origins, some churches are built within the circumference of prehistoric stone circles or the banks of Neolithic henge as at Knowlton church in Dorset.

  3. I have just realized that now we are in Powys, we are within striking distance of Ysbyty Cynfyn Stone Circle, so that will have to be added to the list of places to visit. Knowlton I have visited a couple of times and I think it may even have been within a Yew tree grove, as there are still many Yew trees in the vicinity.

    St David's Church at Llanddewi Brefi is built on a hump - Christianity puts it down to being where St David preached against Pelagianism in 550 (the ground rose up underneath him as he spoke . . . apparently). We had an Archaeaology Field Trip which included this site and we were told it was a Bronze Age burial site . ..

  4. Yes those mounds on which some churches are built could always be much earlier. There are stones under the church at Pewsey. I just love Welsh spelling!


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