Monday 31 August 2015

The Irish Bishops of Lindisfarne

As the very last day of August sees the feastday of the Irish bishop of Lindisfarne, Saint Aidan, here is an account of his life, and that of his immediate successors, by Archbishop John Healy.


ABOUT eight miles to the south of Berwick, opposite the Fenham Flats on the coast of Northumberland, is Lindisfarne or Holy Island. It was called Ynys Medcant by the native British tribes, and by our Irish Annalists the name was slightly varied to Inis-Medcoit, in which form we find it in Tighernach, and the Annals of Ulster. The island is about four miles long by two broad, and is separated from the mainland by a channel about two miles wide, which is dry at low water, and affords a passage over the sands for foot passengers and even vehicles. The soil is fertile, supporting not only sheep and cattle, but especially in the north western corner of the island, great quantities of rabbits. No trace of the primitive buildings raised by the Irish monks now remains; but the stately arches and beautiful columns of the later Benedictine monastery still form a most interesting and picturesque group of ruins.

The island furnished an admirable site for a religious house. It was secluded, yet not inconveniently situated for holding the necessary intercourse with the mainland. Then as now, the soil and the fisheries were capable of maintaining a considerable population, if willing to labour with their own hands. The old monks, too, loved to contemplate the beauty of God in his works, and Lindisfarne can still show scenes both by land and sea of various and striking beauty. From the towers of Berwick to the cliffs of Bamborough the coast-line is crowned with fertile fields and smiling woodlands revealing many a spire and town, while seaward the eye stretches over the far-reaching ocean brightened with ships, and steamers, and fishing craft.

The monastery of Lindisfarne was an off-shoot of the great Columbian establishment of Iona, and in many respects these two institutions were strikingly alike. They were both island monasteries, both were founded by Irishmen, and mostly recruited from Ireland ; the work accomplished by both was very similar, and both were tenacious even to a fault of the discipline and traditions of their founders. As Iona was the nursery of the saints and scholars who evangelized the wild Pictish tribes of the Highlands of Scotland, so Lindisfarne was the home of those holy men who converted to Christianity the fierce Anglo-Saxon warriors of the vast kingdom of Northumbria. It is fortunate for us that Venerable Bede has left us a most interesting and authentic account of the labours of the four great Irishmen who were in succession Abbots and Bishops of Lindisfarne and Apostles of Northumbria. Mr. Skene too, in his excellent work on  "Celtic Scotland," has done much to exhibit in a clear light the career of these holy and learned men, a short sketch of whose labours will, we hope, be acceptable to our readers.

The Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Northumbria extended from the Forth to the Humber, thus including the Lothians in Scotland as well as the north-east of England. It consisted of two great provinces Deira, whose capital was York, and Bernicia, whose chief stronghold was the Royal Castle of Bamborough, built on a cliff overhanging the German Ocean, a few miles to the south of Lindisfarne, and directly opposite the small group known as the Fame Islands. The river Tees, rather than the Tyne, seems to have been the boundary line between these two provinces. The British kingdom of Cumbria or Strathclyde lay along the western border of Northumbria from the Clyde to the Derwent, but the boundary line varied with the valour and fortune of the rival princes on either side.

We hear of Angles first landing on the Northumbrian shores so early as the year A.D. 364, when they joined the Picts and Scots in their incursions on the Roman Province. After the final withdrawal of the Roman troops in 409 they appear to have made permanent settlements in those territories, and were of course in constant conflict with the native British tribes of the western shores and mountains. It was against these pagans of the north, rather than in Cornwall and Wales, that King Arthur fought those great battles that have been so celebrated in song and story. Ida, one of their chieftains, ruled over Bernicia in 547, and built his castle of Bamborough like an eyry over the ocean waves. His successor, Ella, added Deira to his dominions, but leaving, it seems, no children to succeed him, the kingdom passed in succession to six sons of the warlike Ida. The last of these brothers died in 594, and was succeeded by his son, the brave and ambitious Aedilfrid, or Ethelfred, as he is frequently called. He, as well as all his subjects, were still pagans, and during the twenty-four years of his reign, he was in constant warfare with the Christian Britons of Cumbria. In 603 he completely defeated Aidan, King of Dalriada, who had been crowned by St. Columba himself, and thereby extended his dominions across the country from sea to sea. He had already expelled Aeduin, or Edwin, the prince of Deira, from his dominions, thus adding that province also to his already wide domain. But the exiled Edwin was not idle during the years of Aedilfrid's victorious career. He was silently employed in gathering troops and seeking allies. When a suitable opportunity offered, in conjunction with Redwald, King of the East Angles, he attacked Aedilfrid, and completely defeated him in a pitched battle on the borders of Mercia in the year 617, depriving him at once both of his crown and his life.

This battle had other very important consequences. The sons of Aedilfrild who, like his subjects, were still pagans, fled for refuge to Scotland. The eldest, Eanfrid sought the protection of the Christian king of the Picts, and in course of time became himself a Christian. His two younger brothers Osuald and Osuin, more commonly known as Oswald and Oswy took refuge with the Scots of the kingdom of Dalriada, by whom the young princes were sent, both for security and instruction, to the great monastery of Iona. So these two boys, who were afterwards destined to become, in succession, kings of Northumbria, had the good fortune to be trained up in the Christian faith by the holy "Seniors of the Scots," as Bede says, that is by the Irish monks of Iona. Meanwhile King Edwin having taken a Christian wife from Kent became himself a Christian, and was solemnly baptised with many of his subjects by Paulinus at York, on Easter Sunday in the year 627. This important step seems to have offended his pagan neighbours. Penda, the fierce pagan king of the Mercians, entered into an alliance with the half Christian king of North Wales commonly known as Ceadwalla,and with their united armies they advanced against King Edwin. A great and bloody battle was fought on the 12th of October in the year 633, at Hatfield in Yorkshire, in which Edwin was slain and his army utterly routed. Nor were the savage victors content with this victory, they ravaged all Northumbria, slaughtering the Christians, burning their few churches to the ground, and wasting all the land with fire and sword. When this storm blew over, Osric, a cousin of the late king, took possession of Deira, and Eanfrid, the eldest son of King Aedilfrid, who had fled from the conqueror of his father, returned from his exile amongst the Picts and assumed the Government of Bernicia. Then followed what Bede calls "a hateful year before God and men." These two princes, Osric and Eanfrid, were nominal Christians, but now openly renounced the faith and once more adopted the paganism of their ancestors. Like all apostates they were the bitterest enemies of the Christian name, and strove to root it out from amongst their subjects. They had almost succeeded, when fortunately a swift vengeance overtook them. The same Ceadwalla of North Wales again appeared upon the scene and made short work of the apostate princes of Northumbria. He first captured York and slew Osric, and then advancing towards Bamborough met the terrified Eanfrid with a few soldiers and disposed of him in like manner.

When this news reached young Oswald in Dalriada he collected a small army of Picts, Scots, and Angles, and advanced to meet the foe. St. Columba appeared to him in a vision the night before the battle and told him to be of good courage, for that God would give him the victory. Thus confident in God's protection the young prince marched through the Lothians to meet the enemies of his family.

The battle was fought at a place called Heavenfield, near Hexham, in the valley of the Tyne. Oswald completely defeated his enemies and thus mounted the throne of Northumbria in the year 634, which is an era in the history of that kingdom, for it marks the foundation of Lindisfarne and the real conversion of the pagan Angles of Northumbria. Oswald's first care after ascending the throne was the conversion of his pagan subjects. He had himself been baptized and educated by the " Seniors of the Scots" at Iona. Accordingly instead of seeking Christian teachers from the newly formed churches of the south of England, he very naturally turned to these holy "Seniors of the Scots" in Iona, by whom he himself had been so carefully trained in the Christian faith, and requested that they would send him a bishop to preach to his people and administer the sacraments of the Christian faith. His pious request was readily granted by the community of Iona. At first it seems that a certain Corbanus was sent to preach to the Northumbrians. But his mission, like that of Palladius in Ireland before St. Patrick, was a failure. He found the people rude and intractable, and thereupon returned home in disgust to report his failure to the elders of the community of Iona. He told them that the Angles were untameable men of a stubborn, and barbarous disposition, unwilling to profit by his words. The elders thereupon were grieved, but one of them, Aidan by name, addressing the unsuccessful missionary said, "I am of opinion, brother, that you were more severe towards your unlearned hearers than you ought to have been, and did not at first, in accordance with the apostolic discipline, give them the milk of more gentle doctrine, until being by degrees nourished with the Word of God, they might become capable of greater perfection and able to practise God's higher precepts." The elders knowing Corban to be a man of austere disposition, felt the justice of these words, and came to the conclusion that Aidan himself was more fitting for the task, and that he ought to be made a bishop at once and sent to preach to the Northumbrians. Accordingly, as Bede informs us, Aidan was consecrated a bishop and sent from the aforesaid island, and from this college of monks to instruct the province of the Angles in Christ. It was in the end of 634 or the beginning of 635, and at that time Segine, abbot and priest, presided over the monastery of Iona, as the same authority expressly informs us. It is very likely King Oswald himself went on that occasion to Iona to urge his request.

Aidan was certainly an Irishman, for almost all the monks of Iona came from Ireland. It is very probable, too, that he came of the royal race of Conal Gulban, to which St. Columba himself and so many of the succeeding abbots belonged. Bede gives us a most interesting account of his life and character. He neither sought nor loved any worldly goods, but gave to the poor all that he received from kings and other wealthy men. He nearly always travelled on foot, both through town and country, preaching to the infidels, whenever he met them, the mysteries of the faith. He and his companions, when not actually preaching, were always engaged either in holy meditation or reading the Scriptures, or learning the psalms by heart. Even when he dined with the king he made haste after leaving the table either to read or write. He and his disciples fasted on Wednesdays and Fridays during the year, except during Paschal time, until the ninth hour, and whatever money he received he either gave to the poor or spent in ransoming the wretched slaves whom he saw groaning in oppression. The king was not unworthy of the bishop; once on Easter Sunday when Oswald and Aidan were dining together the king ordered the meat set before them on a silver dish to be given to the poor at the gate, and the dish itself to be cut up and divided amongst them. Thereupon the bishop took the king by the right hand and exclaimed, "May this hand never perish." And though the king was afterwards slain in battle, "that hand remains," says Bede, "to this day uncorrupted within a silver case in St. Peter's church in the royal city of Bamborough."

But though Aidan had a large diocese and led a very active life, he wished to have some place where he might retire for the practice of prayer and meditation, far from the world's disturbing influence. So he asked the king to give him the little island of Lindisfarne that he might establish there a monastery and make it his Episcopal See. The king readily granted his request, and so in 635 Lindisfarne was founded by St. Aidan. It was in many respects like his own beloved Iona about the same size, and almost the same distance from the shore, but more fertile and more easy of access than the rocky islet of Columba. Here he built his little church and oratory in the simplest and most primitive style, probably of wattles, and roofed it with shingles or thatch.

It is not to be wondered at that such a man succeeded where his predecessor had failed. The people joyfully flocked to hear the Word of God from his lips; churches were built in many places ; money and lands were given by the king and his nobles to build monasteries; and the "nations" over which Oswald reigned were all converted to the faith by Aidan and by the "Scottish" monks who daily came to help him in preaching the Word of God. " So the English, great and small, were by their Scottish masters instructed in the rules and observance of regular discipline." At first, ignorance of the Anglic tongue was an obstacle to Aidan's preaching, but Oswald himself during the long years of his exile in Iona had become familiar with the Irish language, and was thus enabled to become an interpreter of the sermons of the holy bishop for his people. A school too, was established at Lindisfarne, and Aidan selected twelve youths of the Anglic nation that they might be trained up,under his own guidance, to become worthy ministers of the Gospel for their countrymen. Amongst these was Wilfrid, afterwards Archbishop of York, the controversialist who thirty years later was the means of driving Bishop Colman and the Irish monks from Lindisfarne.

Aidan's prelacy lasted sixteen years and some months, during which he laboured incessantly for the kingdom of God. He died in his oratory at one of the king's country houses, not far from Bamborough in 651. The holy remains were carried to his own island of Lindisfarne. and buried in the churchyard of the brethren. Afterwards when the large Church of St. Peter was built there, his sacred relics were transferred to the right side of the high altar and there interred with becoming honour, that is, the portion of the relics which Colman left when departing from Lindisfarne. Bede narrates many miracles wrought by the holy prelate both during his life and after his death. He then adds that in what he wrote about Aidan he does not mean to approve of his method of calculating the Easter festival, but he wished to preserve for the benefit of the reader the memory of his virtues ; "of his love of peace and charity, his continence and humility, his mind superior to anger and avarice, despising pride and vain glory ; his industry in keeping and teaching God's commandments; his diligence in reading and watching; his authority becoming a priest in reproving the haughty and powerful; and at the same time his tenderness in comforting the afflicted and in relieving and defending the poor." Surely a noble testimony from such a pen to the Apostolic virtues of the Irish monk.

Bishop Aidan being dead, Finan was ordained and sent by the monks of Iona to succeed him in the Bishopric of Lindisfarne. It was in the beginning of 652. Like his predecessor he was an Irishman. It seems that the conversion of the Angles had left St. Aidan little time for church building on the island, for Bede expressly tells us that Finan's first work was "to build a church, not of stone but of hewn oak after the manner of the Scots, and he covered it with reeds." The reeds were afterwards taken off and replaced by plates of lead in the time of Bishop Eadbert, when the church was dedicated to St. Peter by Theodore, Archbishop of Canterbury. It was there that the bones of Aidan were placed at the right hand side of the high altar, as stated before. The Easter controversy seems to have embittered the brief episcopacy of Finan. Like all the monks of Iona at this time, he could not be convinced that the manner of celebrating Easter practised by their sainted founder and his successors, could by any possibility be wrong. He was, too, as Bede says, a man of a rather quick temper, whom argument or reproof only made still more inveterate in his prejudices. Perhaps he thought that Ronan, the Irishman, fresh from the schools of Italy, and the Kentish priests who came with Queen Eanfleda to the North, might have abstained from troubling his diocese with their new-fangled notions. They argued and remonstrated with him, but in vain; he only became more obstinate in adhering to his own ideas. The consequences of this diversity in the celebration of Easter soon became very inconvenient. The good king Oswald was slain in battle in 642, and Oswy, his brother and successor on the throne having been educated at Iona, adhered to the usages of the Bishop Finan. But the Queen Eanfled, and her chaplain Romanus were from Kent, and followed the Roman usage. The result was that on one occasion the king was celebrating Easter Sunday, and of course had given up fasting, whilst the Queen and her chaplain were keeping Palm Sunday preparatory to the rigorous fast of Holy Week. Nothing, however, was done during the ten years of Finan's episcopacy to effect a settlement of the question.

After his death, however, another Irishman coming, as Bede says, direct from Ireland (Scotia), one Colman by name, persisted in the same practice. It was now felt that something should be done to stop the scandal and secure uniformity. The king was, indeed, in favour of the Columban usage, but his son and heir, Prince Alfrid, had been a pupil of the celebrated Wilfrid, and adhered to the views of his own teacher. It was agreed, however, between the two kings, as Bede calls them, and all other parties concerned, to hold a synod or conference for the purpose of obtaining a final decision on the question. This famous assembly was held in the monastery of Streaneshalch, since called Whitby. The venerable abbess Hilda presided over this great establishment, which was built on a cliff 300 feet above the sea and commanding a fine view of the "Bay of the Lighthouse," from which the place obtained its Saxon name. The rival parties at the conference were evenly matched. King Oswy favoured the Scots, but Alfrid was for the Southerns. Bishop Colman was the great champion of his own party, while on the other side was Agilbert, a Frenchman, who had studied the scriptures in Ireland, and afterwards became Bishop of the West Saxons, The learned and eloquent Wilfrid was at that time only an abbot, but he had much influence for he was known to have studied both at Rome and in Lyons under Archbishop Dalfin. The no less influential abbess Hilda was however on the side of Colman, for that royal maid received the veil from the saintly Bishop Aidan, and was trained in religious observance by him and his Irish successors. Bishop Cedd too, who had been long ago ordained by the Scots, although now a Southern prelate was inclined to their views. However he abstained from taking any decided part on either side, acting merely as an interpreter, for he was equally well acquainted with the Gaelic and the Saxon tongue.

Colman was called upon by the king to begin the discussion to which we can refer only very briefly. He justified his own usage by three arguments, first, that he received that practice from the holy elders of the Scottish Church who had sent him there ; secondly, that it was the practice of the holy Apostle Saint John ; and thirdly, that this was the usage sanctioned by Anatolius, a holy and learned man of great authority in the Church.

Bishop Agilbert was then called on to reply to Colman, but not being a fluent speaker of the Anglo-Saxon tongue, he deputed Wilfrid to speak in his name. Wilfrid was an able and learned man who had travelled much abroad. His first argument against Colman was of itself quite conclusive. "The Easter which we observe we saw celebrated everywhere, in Africa, Asia, Egypt, and Greece. We saw it celebrated by all men at Rome, where the blessed Apostles Peter and Paul lived, taught, suffered and were buried." Apostolic authority and universal usage were against the few Picts and Britons who adhered to the old Easter and the frontal tonsure. As to the authority of St. John, appealed to by Colman, it was not to the purpose. For St. John, according to Wilfrid, kept Easter on the 14th day of the first moon in the evening, no matter what day of the week it happened to be, in this respect following the Jewish Law, whilst it was yet lawful to judaize. " But you admit it may be not celebrated on a week day, and hence you do not follow the practice of St John, nor of St. Peter either," he added, "for he kept Easter on the first Lord's day after the 14th of the moon in the evening, and therefore from the 15th to the 21st while you keep it from the 14th to the 20th moon, so that you often begin Easter on the 13th of the moon in the evening," and hence "sometimes keep it before the full of the moon."

As to Anatolius, whom Colman quoted in his favour, Wilfrid admitted that he was "a holy, learned, and commendable man;" "but you," he said, "do not observe his decrees, for he had a cycle of nineteen years which you know nothing of, or if you do, you despise it, though it is now kept by the whole Church." Besides, the 14th of the moon on which our Lord celebrated the Pasch, Anatolius,"according to the custom of the Egyptians, explained to be the 15th moon in the evening," so that like St. Peter he held that Easter was to be kept on the Sunday between the 15th and 21st day of the moon. How far Wilfrid was accurate in this exposition of the teaching of Anatolius we cannot undertake to say, because most of the writings of that learned prelate are lost, and we only know his teaching from some very obscure references in Eusebius.

As to Colman's appeal to the tradition of the Columban Church, Wilfrid admitted somewhat dubiously the sanctity and miracles of its founder, which, however, were quite consistent with his adopting an erroneous Easter from rustic simplicity, "but you," he says, "have no such excuse, the,more perfect rule of the entire Church is brought home to your minds." Once more he appeals to the authority of the Apostolic See as conclusive, for it was to St. Peter our Lord said, "Thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it."

"Colman,'' said the king, "is it true that these words were spoken to Peter by our Lord ?" "It is true, king,'' said Colman. "Then," said the king, "as Peter is the doorkeeper, I will not contradict him in any thing lest there should be none to open to me if I made him my adversary.'' So the conference concluded, and Colman and his clerics were defeated. The Roman Easter was adopted in Northumbria, and the usage of the Columban Church formally repudiated.

This was a severe blow to the venerable old man, and he felt it keenly. "His doctrine," says Bede, "was rejected and his sect despised," and that, too, by men whom he must necessarily consider interlopers. Why should they put their sickles into his harvest ? Why could not they leave him and his clergy and his people in peace? They were not there when the Northumbrians were to be converted, but they came now to regulate the date of their Easter, and to change the tonsure that he and his monks had worn from their boyhood. It was intolerable, and as King Oswy and his son, the young prince, had now joined Wilfrid and his party, Colman resolved to leave Northumbria to themselves. He would return whence he came, to some of the islands in the wild ocean on the far west of his native Connaught. There at least he could keep his Easter and his tonsure and serve the Lord in peace. But his beloved children in Lindisfarne would not stay behind. All the Irish and at least thirty of the English monks resolved to follow their master. And they would bring with them, too, at least a part of the relics of their sainted father Aidan that were buried outside in their little green churchyard. The grave was reverently opened, part of the sacred remains they carried with them, the only treasure they bore from the borders of Northumbria, and part they buried again in the sacristy for those who were to come after them.

So the exiled band set out on their journey. They stopped no doubt at old Mailros on the Tweed, where an Irish house was founded some time before, and where they were sure to be hospitably received. Then they made their way to Iona, the mother house, to take counsel of the abbot and the community. They remained there for a considerable period preparing their currachs and provisions for the voyage, until after about three years delay they finally set out for Ireland in the summer of 667, according to our most accurate annalists.

It was a long and dangerous voyage from Iona to Inisboffin, but the Irish monk lived always under the protection of God his father, and had no fear of winds or waves, when doing what he thought was the will of God.

Still the king did not wish to break completely with his Irish teachers to whom he owed so much. Another Irishman named Tuda, from the South of Ireland, where the correct method of fixing Easter Day had been adopted thirty years before, was chosen to succeed Colman as Bishop of Lindisfarne. He was a good and religious man, but unfortunately governed his church only a very short time, for the same year he fell a victim to the great plague that carried off so many of the Saints and Scholars both of England and Ireland. Colman had, it seems, not finally departed when Tuda died, for it was at his special request that the king nominated Eata to succeed to the abbacy and afterwards to the Bishopric of Lindisfarne. Eata was of English race, being one of the twelve boys whom Saint Aidan had selected to be trained up for the sacred ministry in the monastery of Lindisfarne. And so after thirty years' duration the rule of the Irish prelates of Lindisfarne came to a close, when they had just converted the Anglo-Saxon race of Northumbria to the true faith of Christ.

Then Bede adds this beautiful paragraph which is a noble testimony to the worth and holiness of these Irish missionaries. "The place (Lindisfarne) which they governed shows how frugal he and his predecessors were, for there were very few houses besides the church left at their departure; indeed, only what was barely sufficient for their daily abode ; neither had they any money but cattle; for if they received money from the rich they immediately gave it to the poor. There was no need to gather money there, or provide houses of entertainment for the great ones of the world, for such persons never resorted there except to pray in the church and hear the word of God. The king himself when opportunity offered came with only five or six servants, and having performed his devotions in the church departed. But if any took a repast there they were content with the plain daily fare of the brotherhood, and required no more. The whole care of these teachers was to serve God not the world to feed the soul and not the belly. For which reason the religious habit was at that time in great veneration so that wheresoever any priest or monk happened to come he was joyfully received by all persons as the servant of God, and if they chanced to meet him on the road they ran towards him, and bowing were glad to be signed with his hand or blessed with his mouth. Great attention was also paid to their exhortations, and on Sundays the people flocked eagerly to the church or to the monasteries, not to feed their bodies, but to hear the word of God, and if any priest happened to come into a village the inhabitants flocked together to hear from him the word of life, for the clergy went into the villages for no other purpose but to preach, baptize, visit the sick, in a word, to take care of souls; and they were so free from worldly avarice that none of them received lands or possessions for building monasteries unless they were compelled to do so by the temporal authorities, which custom was for some time after observed in all the churches of the “Northumbrians."



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