The Synod of Whitby (664 C.E.) was an important event in the history of British Christianity which established Roman Catholic practice as the norm for the Kingdom of Northumbria thus bringing the Celtic church into the mainstream of Roman culture. At the Synod, King Oswiu of Northumbria decreed that Northumbria would thereafter observe the monastic tonsure and calculate Easter according to the customs of Rome, rather than the customs practiced by Iona and its satellite institutions. Held at Saint Hilda's double monastery of Streonshalh (Streanoeshalch), later called Whitby Abbey, the Synod of Whitby transferred the episcopal seat of Northumbria from Lindisfarne to York. Bishop Wilfrid (c. 634 - April 24, 709), chief advocate for the Roman position, would eventually become Bishop of Northumbria, while Colmán and the Ionan supporters who did not change their practices withdrew to Iona. Colmán was allowed to take some relics of Aidan, who had been central in establishing Christianity of the Ionan tradition in Northumbria, with him back to Iona. To replace the departing ecclesiastics, Oswiu chose mostly Irishmen who were from the parts of Ireland that kept the Roman Easter (as most of Ireland had done for some time by the 660s).
Christianity in Britain during the seventh century existed in two forms distinguished by differing liturgical traditions, labeled the “Ionan” and “Roman” traditions. The “Ionan” practice was that of the Irish monks who resided in a monastery on the isle of Iona (a tradition within "Celtic Christianity"), whereas the “Roman” tradition kept observances according to the customs of Rome. In the kingdom of Northumbria, these two traditions coexisted, and each had been encouraged by different royal houses. Edwin of Northumbria had converted to Christianity under the influence of missionaries sent from Rome by Pope Gregory the Great and thus had established Roman practice in his realm. However, following his death and a year of political instability, Oswald of Northumbria gained the throne. He had learned Christian practice from the monks of Iona during his stay there (while a political exile in his youth), and had encouraged Ionan missionaries to further the Christianization of Northumbria, especially the famous Bishop Aidan (died 651 C.E.).
One of the main differences between the two traditions, and hence a source of controversy, was the proper calculation of Easter. Early Christians had probably originally celebrated Easter concurrent with the Jewish Passover (see Passover, Christian holiday), which was held on the fourteenth day of the first lunar month of the Jewish year, called Nisan, the day of the crucifixion according to John 19:14. However, it came to be considered that Easter should be held on a Sunday, the day of the resurrection, and the First Council of Nicaea in 325 fixed the precise date for celebrating Easter so that all Christian churches in all regions should celebrate the principal festival of the Church on the same day. Calculating the proper date was a complex process (involving a lunisolar calendar), and different calculation tables developed which resulted in different dates for the celebration of Easter. By the 660s, Ionan adherents were still using calculation tables that had been regarded as in error by Rome (ultimately in favor of the tables of Dionysius Exiguus). The Ionan tables not only often resulted in a different date for the celebration of Easter, but they also allowed Easter to be celebrated on Nisan 14 if that were a Sunday, whereas Roman custom would have Easter moved to a different week in such a year. The Ionan Easter had already resulted in conflict in Gaul, in the early seventh century, between Frankish monasteries and Ionan monasteries (the latter had been founded there by the Ionan abbot St. Columbanus), and the Ionan tables had been rejected. Likewise, synods in southern Ireland, in the 630s, had also considered the matter and accepted the Easter calculation according to the custom of Rome.
The issue was therefore a question over the proper celebration of the most significant Christian feast, and the situation in Northumbria had resulted in visible disunity, even in the royal court. Hence, Queen Eanfled, daughter of Edwin (and thus keeper of the Roman Easter) and her entourage observed Easter on a different day than did King Oswiu. While one royal faction was celebrating Easter, the other would still be fasting during Lent. Nonetheless, the disunity did not result in problems as long as the well-respected Aidan was alive. After his death, his successor Finan found himself challenged by a certain Ronan, an Irishman who had been trained in Rome and who wished to see the Roman Easter established. It was only in the time of Colmán, the third Ionan monk elected Bishop of Northumbria, that the conflict required royal attention and resolution.
An important figure in the convocation of the synod was Alchfrith, Oswiu’s son and sub-king in Deira. Henry Mayr-Harting considered him the “chief cause of trouble which led to the Synod”. In the early 660s, he expelled Ionan monks from the monastery of Ripon and gave it to Wilfrid, a Northumbrian churchman who had recently returned from Rome. Alchfrith’s position in the royal house, together with his promotion of Wilfrid (who would be the spokesperson for the Roman position at the synod), has contributed to the view that he was instrumental in arranging his father’s convocation of the synod.
The synod was held at Whitby abbey, monastery of Hilda, herself a powerful Northumbrian noble and adherent to the Ionan Easter. The Ionan position was advocated by Colmán, Bishop of Northumbria. In support of the Roman position, Eanfled had sent her chaplain Romanus, and the position was also taken by Agilbert, a Frankish bishop who also held office in England. Because of Agilbert’s inability to express the complicated arguments in Old English, which was for him a foreign language, Wilfrid was selected as the prime advocate for the Roman party. King Oswiu presided over the synod and acted as the final judge, who would give his royal authority in support of one side or the other.
Bishop Colmán argued the Ionan calculation of Easter on the following grounds that it was the practice of Columba, founder of their monastic network and a saint of unquestionable holiness, who himself had followed the tradition of St. John the apostle and evangelist. Wilfrid argued the Roman position on the following grounds (according to Bede's narrative): (1) it was the practice in Rome, where the apostles SS. Peter and Paul had “lived, taught, suffered, and are buried,” (2) it was the universal practice of the Church, even as far as Egypt, (3) the customs of the apostle John were particular to the needs of his community and his age and, since then, the Council of Nicaea and established a different practice, (4) Columba had done the best he could considering his knowledge, and thus his irregular practice is excusable, but the Ionan monks at present did not have the excuse of ignorance, and (5) whatever the case, no one has authority over Peter (and thus his successors, the Bishops of Rome).
Oswiu then asked both sides if they agreed that Peter had been given the keys to the kingdom of heaven by Christ and pronounced to be “the rock” on which the Church would be built, to which they agreed. Oswiu then declared his judgment in favor of the holder of the keys, i.e. the Roman (and Petrine) practice.
There are two principal sources for the synod. The first source, the Life of Wilfrid, is a hagiographic work written by Stephen of Ripon, often identified as Eddius Stephanus, probably soon after 710. The second source is the Historia Ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum by the Venerable Bede, written in 731. One of Bede’s sources was the Life of Wilfrid itself, but he also had access to people who knew participants in the synod. For example, Bede knew Acca of Hexham, and dedicated many of his theological works to him. Acca was a companion of Wilfrid’s on some of his journeys to Rome.
Both accounts basically agree, though Bede gives a much lengthier discourse on the debate. The description of the proceedings, where King Oswiu presides and rules but does not engage in the debate itself, which instead is conducted by ecclesiastics, parallels examples of other synods in other sources, such as one in the Vita Sancti Bonifati by Willibald (where King Ine of Wessex performed the same function as Oswiu). Nonetheless, it is important to observe that the authors, despite their relatively good access to sources concerning the synod, still wrote at a considerable distance, and the accounts, especially the quotations attributed to the participants, are more likely to be summaries of how Bede and Stephen understood the issue, rather than something like true quotations. Further, the motivations of the authors influenced how they presented the material. Bede placed his description of the event centrally in his narrative, and he has been recognized as overemphasizing the historical significance of the synod because Easter calculation was of special interest to him, and also because he wished to stress the unity of the English Church. However, Bede’s accuracy as a historian has been well regarded by Anglo-Saxon scholars, and historians have generally been comfortable following Bede's basic presentation of the synod. Stephen’s text has found more criticism, and Reginald Poole identified many of his inaccuracies, but Stephen's account of the synod did not suffer the same criticism as other passages in his work.
If the focus regarding the Synod of Whitby is on the specific decisions made, then it was simply one of many councils held concerning the proper calculation of Easter throughout Latin Christendom in the Early Middle Ages. It addressed the issue of Easter calculation and the proper monastic tonsure, and concerned only the part of the English Church that answered to the See of Lindisfarne – that is, it was a Northumbrian affair. Wilfrid’s advocation of the Roman Easter has been called, “a triumphant push against an open door,” since most of the Irish had already accepted the Roman Easter and for this reason Iona “was already in danger of being pushed to one side by its Irish rivals”.
If the focus on Whitby is on the eventual consequences, then we might see the effects as more than just decisions on tonsure and dating of Easter, and on the eventual Romanization of the church in England. This Romanization might have occurred anyway without the Synod of Whitby. Nonetheless, following the Protestant Reformation, the events of the synod have been symbolically interpreted as a “Celtic Church” opposing a “Roman Church,” and the decision of Oswiu was thus interpreted as the “subjugation” of the “British Church” to Rome. Until fairly recently, the Scottish Divinity Faculty course on Church History ran from the Acts of the Apostles to 664 before resuming in 1560. In the words of Patrick Wormald:
“From the days of George Buchanan, supplying the initial propaganda for the makers of the Scottish Kirk, until a startlingly recent date, there was warrant for an anti-Roman, anti-episcopal and, in the nineteenth century, anti-establishment stance in the Columban or ‘Celtic’ Church…. The idea that there was a ‘Celtic Church’ in something of a post-Reformation sense is still maddeningly ineradicable from the minds of students.”
Whatever might be the facts, to supporters, the symbology of a Celtic Church has importance post-Reformation.
In placing the synod in its proper historical context, Anglo-Saxon historians have also noted the position of the synod in the context of contemporary political tensions. Henry Mayr-Harting considered Alchfrith’s interest in the convocation of the synod to be derived from his desire to see his father’s position in Bernicia challenged and to see the replacement of Colmán with another bishop who would be more aligned with himself.
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