Northumbria and Lindisfarne, The Anglo-Saxons

Article from Mayo Abbey Parish Magazine 1995

An interesting thing about the invasion of Britain by the Angles and Saxons was that the Angles gave their language and title to the partnership that became England, but National Leadership was established by the Saxons of Wessex. The formative power was Alfred, The Saxon, the greatest King in Western Europe after Charlemagne. He, with his grandson, Athelstan, united the whole land into one powerful kingdom.

Christianity played a crucial two-pronged part in the creation, arriving in or about, AD 600 - AD 640 in almost simultaneous incursions. One was the Papal Mission to Canterbury which in AD 627 moved North to York; the other was Columba's Irish Mission to Iona and thence to Lindisfarne in AD 635. As we know, the twin movement clashed at the Synod of Whitby in AD 664. The story is well known in Mayo Abbey.

The point at issue was the method of choosing the date of Easter, but behind it was the issue of Authority. The Irish lost this debate, and their Abbot-Bishop, Colman, withdrew the community of monks. A remarkable display of affectionate loyalty was that they were accompanied by 30 English monks who stayed with them. It was these that Colman brought to MaghEó and settled under St Gerald, whom it is now known was already there, an English exile.

The Synod of Whitby was therefore tragic for the Irish mission but dynamic for the Northumbrian Church which went on firstly under the saintly, Irish trained, Cuthbert, whose reputation for sanctity lives on unbroken in his land. He gave and gives incomparable prestige to the great Bishopric of Durham. Jarrow, the home of Bede, was essentially a Roman creation deriving its strength from Gaul and Rome: the first stone monastic buildings with a massive cultural investment.

It was a contemporary growth with the initial development of the academic and teaching establishment at Mayo, and we now understand their simultaneous influences were parallel and could have been mutually supportive. We hope the historical research now underway will throw some light on this. Alcuin played a part. So the academic and spiritual interchange was a two-way traffic between Mayo and the burgeoning young Kingdom of Northumbria.

The Anglican Church in the area, the Church of England today, is formed into the two dioceses of Durham and York with several suffragan Bishops, notably Hexham, Jarrow and Whitby amongst others. The Catholic Bishops governing the same territory were reestablished in 1850 by Pope Pius IX, and are the Dioceses of Hexham and Newcastle based on the latter, and Middlesbrough based on the Tees and continuing South to the Humber.

It is from Middlesbrough on Tees, the centre point of Northumbria, that I write these notes. The Tees was the dividing line between the two halves of Northumbria, known as Deira and Bernicia. An Anglican Monastery was built here and it later became a Benedictine house.

The original structure is considered (not with historical certainty) to have been consecrated by St. Cuthbert. It would be nice if it were so. The great Victorian industrial and urban complex of Middlesbrough covers the site today, but we know where it is.

If we can conjure up the reality of the bonds that united the efforts of Aidan, Colman and Cuthbert, MaghEó somehow symbolises what unites us. The need for us all to grow closer in our own love of Christ is a duty for us all and a harbinger of much good. Stones are only symbols.

The pioneers, the link men, were St Gerald and St Colman. If you in Mayo can research them and rediscover them for us, we may be creating a unifying factor that our two great nations desperately need.

God chooses His moments. Maybe He has chosen this one. We can only hope so.

Bernie Connelly

Alcuin Pilgrimage Group

18 The Avenue

Middlesbrough

October 1995