The Extent of the Celtic Church.


A complete history of the Celtic Church is a vast undertaking and far beyond the capabilities of these pages. However, even a cursory study requires that we take some time to define and determine the extent and duration of what is called the Celtic Church.

Generally speaking it means the Church which existed in Great Britain and Ireland (with certain continental offshoots) before the mission of St Augustine, and, to an extent, somewhat after his arrival on these shores, until by absorption or submission the various parts of it were at different dates incorporated into what may be called the Romish Church of the Anglo-Saxons.

Central England.

The Celtic Church in Central England became extinct towards the close of the fifth century, its members either being killed or retreating to the more remote areas of the country to shelter from the attacks of the heathens from Jutland, Sleswig, and Holstein. In these more distant areas they maintained a separate existence long after the conversion of the Anglo-Saxons by Augustine's Roman mission.


The Britons of north Wales did not conform to the usages of the Anglo-Saxon Church till AD768, whilst those of south Wales did not yield until AD777. This was not a permanent change since in the Chronicle of Brat-y-Tywysog it is stated that in AD 809, "there arose a great tumult over the Easter issue, and that the bishops of Llandaff and Menevia, "themselves bishops of older privilege," repudiated the change to Roman ways. The supremacy of the See of Canterbury was not established until the twelfth century.

Southern England.

The British Church in Somerset and Devon (i.e. the British population conquered by the West-Saxons) conformed at the beginning of the eighth century. This was achieved very much due to the influence of Aldhelm who, according to Bede, became Abbot of Malmesbury A.D.671 and later Bishop of Sherborne in A.D.705.

Further west, in Cornwall, the Bishops of the British Church were not subject to the See of Canterbury before the time of King Athelstan (925-940), the submission of Bishop Kenstec to Archbishop Ceolnoth (833-870) being the only exception. On the eventual conquest of Cornwall by the Saxons the British Bishop Conan submitted to Archbishop Wulfhelm, and was then recognised by King Athelstan, who formally nominated him to the See of Bodmin, A.D.936


The Celtic Church, established in Northumberland by King Oswald A.D.634-5, after having flourished thirty years under the "Scottish" bishops Aidan, Finan, and Colman, successively, conformed to Roman practice at the Synod of Whitby A.D.664 However, this was not achieved with ease and Colmān left Northumbria, with those who would follow him, and returned to Scotland (Ireland).


The Britons of Strathclyde conformed in A.D.688, the year after the death of St Cuthbert, on the occasion of a visit to them by Adamnān, Abb of Iona, who had himself been converted although his community at Hy (Iona) had not. Sedulius, the first Bishop of Strathclyde who conformed to Roman usage, is said to have attended at a council of Gregory II in Rome, A.D.721.


When Adamnān returned to his familia on Hy he attempted to convert them to the Roman usage but was unsuccessful. Even at his death, A.D.704, there were still two factions, and it was not until A.D.710 that matters started to be resolved in favour of Rome as the result of the intervention of Nechtan Derelei, King of the Picts. However, it was not until the time of Abb Suibhne, in A.D.772, that matters on Hy can be considered to have been finally settled in favour of Rome. It should be understood as well that the influence of the Columban Church of Dalriada was not as pronounced as some historians would have it in other parts of what is now Scotland (see below).

Pictland of Alba.

When Margaret, a Saxon Princess, married King Malcolm III, A.D.1069, she came across many "abnormalities" in the church, particularly in what would have been called Pictland of Alba. It has to be said that the final extinction of the Celtic Church in these parts was due as much, perhaps, to internal decay as the efforts of Margaret and her sons. However, even then, the Celtic Church took a long time to die and many years later, we still read of communities of Culdees living alongside the Roman establishment at places such as St Andrews and Monymusk.


The Celtic Church in the south of Ireland started to conform to Rome during the pontificate of Honorius, A.D.626-638. The letter of Cummain, Abbot of Durrow, written A.D.634 to Ségéne, fifth Abb of Hy, announcing the determination of Southern Ireland to conform to Roman usage, is still in existance {Migne, Bib. Pat. Lat. lxxxvi, p.969}. The Church in Northern Ireland, in spite of the efforts of Colmān, and because of the influence of Adamnān, was persuaded to follow the same course at the Synod of Tara, A.D.692. However, as in Pictland of Alba, the last vestiges of the old Celtic Church were not finally put to rest for many centuries. It was only with the advent of St Malachy, who became Bishop of Armagh (1134-1148) and one of the first Irish Bishops to gain legatine powers from the pope, that the Church became fully Roman. At a Synod held at Kells under papal legate Johannes Paparo, further steps were taken to enforce conformity to Roman usage. Finally, in 1172, at the Synod of Cashel, presided over by Christianus, Bishop of Lismore and papal legate, the Anglican Use, that is the Sarum modification of the Roman Missal, was ordered to be used throughout Ireland.

The Continent.

The Celtic Churches on the Continent, founded by the missionary enterprise of the native Church of the British Isles chiefly during the fifth, sixth, and seventh centuries, included parts of modern France, Belgium, Germany, Austria, Italy, Switzerland, and Spain. We should also remember that Iceland, the Faroe Isles and probably Greenland, were first colonised by Celtic missionaries and, if we are to believe the modern interpretations of the stories of St Brendan, we may even add North America to the list!

The dusk of this continental Church was hastened by the work of the Anglo-Saxon apostle, St Boniface, A.D.680-755.

In Spanish Gallicia, the Celtic usage was set aside by the Fourth Council of Toledo, A.D.633. In Brittany, British customs lasted longer till A.D.817, when they were abolished under Louis le Dčbonnaire, and everywhere the rule of St Benedict replaced that of St Columbanus.



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