Whitby (664 A.D.) was a Northumbrian synod where King
Northumbria ruled that his kingdom would calculate
observe the monastic tonsure according to the customs of Rome, rather
than the customs practised by Irish monks at
Iona and its satellite
institutions. The synod was summoned at Hilda's double monastery of
Streonshalh (Streanæshalch), later called
6 Legacy and historical significance
7 See also
9.1 Primary sources
9.2 Secondary sources
10 External links
A manuscript of Bede's Historia Ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum.
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
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
ecclesiastics' debate himself, parallels examples of other synods in
other sources, such as one in the Vita Sancti Bonifati by Willibald
Ine of Wessex
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 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 recognised as
overemphasising 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.
Celtic Christianity and Computus
Christianity in Britain during the seventh century existed in two
forms distinguished by differing liturgical traditions, labelled the
"Ionan" and "Roman" traditions. The "Ionan" practice was that of the
Irish monks who resided in a monastery on the isle of
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
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.
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
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.
First Council of Nicaea
First Council of Nicaea in 325 decreed that Christians
should no longer use the Jewish calendar but universally adopt the
practice of celebrating it on a Sunday, the day of the resurrection,
as had come to be the custom in Rome and Alexandria. Calculating
the proper date (computus) was a complex process (involving a
lunisolar calendar), and different calculation tables developed which
resulted in different dates for the celebration of Easter.
In the 660s, Ionan adherents chose to continue using the 84-year
Latercus cycle invented by Sulpicius Severus c. 410. Meanwhile, the
Papal Curia had commissioned the Aquitanian scientist Victorius (AD
457) and later Dionysius Exiguus (AD 525) to produce a new reckoning
in order to sort out the differences between the Roman and
scientifically superior Alexandrian Church. The three reckonings often
resulted in a different date for the celebration of Easter. Neither
the Victorian or Dionysian reckonings were without problems. Dionysius
simply translated the Alexandrian system into latin without
understanding it. The Victorian system, confusingly, produced
double-dates relying on the pope to choose which date to use.
Nevertheless, the Victorian table was accepted widely outside of the
Irish world. Around 602, the Irish missionary St
already been condemned by a synod of French clerics for ignoring their
authority and following his homeland's
Easter calculations (the
Victorian table was declared official in Gaul in AD 541). About AD 600
Columbanus wrote to Pope Gregory I : "You should know that
Victorius has not been accepted by our teachers and by the old Irish
experts and by the mathematicians most skilled in the calculation of
the computus, but was considered more worthy of ridicule and pity than
of authority."  Although, in Ireland, too debate raged over the
best option for calculating the date of Easter. Was it better to be on
the inside in accepting a dating system that brought the celebration
Easter into line with the rest of the church but one that did not
hold up to scientific scrutiny?
The proper date of the celebration of the most significant Christian
feast had already resulted in visible disunity in the Northumbrian
court: Queen Eanfled of
Bernicia and her court 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 monk named 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
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 a place called Streanæshalch, at a monastery of
Hilda, herself a powerful Northumbrian noble and adherent to the Ionan
Easter. The identification of the location with the place later called
Whitby is generally accepted, but not absolutely certain. Another
possible candidate is
Strensall near York.
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
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
Bishop Colmán argued the Ionan calculation of
Easter on the 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):
it was the practice in Rome, where the apostles SS. Peter and Paul had
"lived, taught, suffered, and are buried";
it was the universal practice of the Church, even as far as Egypt;
the customs of the apostle John were particular to the needs of his
community and his age and, since then, the Council of Nicaea had
established a different practice;
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
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 favour of the holder of the keys, i.e.
the Roman (and Petrine) practice.
Whitby established Roman practice as the norm in
Northumbria, and thus "brought the Northumbrian church into the
mainstream of Roman culture." The episcopal seat of Northumbria
was transferred from
Lindisfarne to York. Wilfrid, chief advocate for
the Roman position, later became 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).
Legacy and historical significance
If the focus regarding the
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
already in danger of being pushed to one side by its Irish
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 instead see it as an important step in the eventual
Romanisation of the church in England. This Romanisation 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. There is a debate
regarding the reality of a pre-
Whitby "Celtic" Church versus a
Whitby "Roman" Church. (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
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
and to see the replacement of Colmán with another bishop who would be
more aligned with himself.
Colmán of Lindisfarne
Eanfled of Deira
Religion in the United Kingdom
Paschal Full Moon
^ Colgrave, The Life of Bishop
Eddius Stephanus, pp i–ix.
^ Catherine Cubitt, Anglo-Saxon Church Councils p. 6–7.
^ Patrick Wormald, '
Bede and the 'Church of the English', in The Times
of Bede, p. 211.
^ see Poole, Reginald L. 'St.
Wilfrid and the See of Ripon', in
English Historical Review 34 (1919).
^ Constantine (325), "Letter on the Keeping of
Easter to those not
present at Nicaea", in Eusebius of Caesaria, The Life of Constantine,
III (published 1996), §18–20, ISBN 1-56085-072-8
^ G.S.M. Walker (ed. and trans.), Sancti Columbani opera (Dublin,
1957), p. 7.
^ Mayr-Harting, The Coming of Christianity to Anglo-Saxon England, p.
^ a b c Mayr-Harting, The Coming of Christianity to Anglo-Saxon
England, p. 108.
^ Barnwell, P.S.; Butler, L.A.S.; Dunn, C.J. (2003), "The Confusion of
Whitby and the Northumbrian
Church", in Carver, Martin, The Cross Goes North,
York Medieval Press,
^ Colgrave, Earliest Life of Gregory the Great, p. 9.
^ see C. W. Jones introductory text to his edition of Bedae Opera de
Temproibus (Cambridge, Mass., 1946) pp. 55–104.
^ a b c Patrick Wormald, '
Bede and the 'Church of the English', in The
Times of Bede, p. 210.
^ Brown, Rise of Western Christendom, p. 361.
^ Patrick Wormald, '
Bede and the 'Church of the English', in The Times
of Bede, p. 207.
Bede, Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum, in Venerabilis Baedae
Opera Historica. ed. C. Plummer (Oxford, 1896)
Stephen of Ripon, Life of Bishop Wilfrid, ed. and trans. Bertram
Colgrave (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985)
Abels, Richard. "The Council of Whitby: A Study in Early Anglo-Saxon
Politics", in Journal of British Studies, 23 (1984)
Brown, Peter. The Rise of Western Christendom: Triumph and Diversity,
2nd ed. (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2003)
Cubitt, Catherine, Anglo-Saxon Church Councils c. 650–850 (London:
Leicester University Press, 1995)
Higham, N. J. The Kingdom of
Northumbria AD 350–1100 (Alan Sutton,
Mayr-Harting, Henry. The Coming of Christianity to Anglo-Saxon
England, 3rd edition (London: B. T. Batsford Ltd, 1991)
Stenton, F. M. Anglo-Saxon England, 3rd edition (Oxford: Clarendon
Wormald, Patrick, The Times of Bede: Studies in Early English
Christian Society and its Historian, ed. Stephen Baxter (Oxford:
Blackwell Publishing, 2006)
Herbert Thurston (1913). "
Synod of Whitby". In Herbermann,
Charles. Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Apple