• Henry Hopwood-Phillips

A Deadly Dance: The Papacy, Anglos, Britons & Irish


“To go to Rome

Is much trouble and little profit. The King whom you seek there Unless you take Him with you, you will not find.” – An epigram of Sedulius of Liege, ninth-century Irish scholar Early in the fifth century a debate – presumably held in Latin – on free will and the essential goodness of human nature drew large crowds of supporters. The ideas of Pelagius garnered so much attention that he drew major opposition in Jerome and Augustine, thus demonstrating how much a Briton could affect intellectual life on the continent.

The British Church was also active over the channel, sending bishops to councils at Arles (314), Serdica (347) and Rimini (359). Its inscriptions indicate a close relationship with Gaul’s Church. The most popular of its early formulae (Hic iacit [sic] with the name of the dead in the nominative case), for instance, was largely restricted to Gaul and must have been introduced via this route. British churchmen were everywhere. Faustus was a monk at Lerins and later bishop of Riez. Riocatus brought books from Gaul. Another British pilgrim, known rather unimaginatively as the “Sicilian Briton” after being dissuaded from travelling East by a religious lady in Sicily, disseminated egalitarian tracts on Matthew 19:21: “If you would be perfect, go sell what you possess and give it to the poor.” The religious warp and weft of Romano-British Christianity was secure by the time Rome’s political threads had begun to fray. When Theodosius quelled a rebellion – led mostly by raiders – in 368 he also uncovered evidence of a coup planned by an exile, Valentinus. Worse, the milites areani (Roman Mi6) had been turned and were in the pay of the frontier tribes, forcing the general to disband them. At roughly the same time (c.372) Valentinian sent Britain its first boatload of Germanics when he allowed an Alamannic tribe from the upper Rhine to settle on the island under its king Fraomarius as foederati.



Sozomen claimed the usurper Maximus withdrew most of Britain’s troops to support an ultimately fatal campaign against Theodosius, which ended at the battle of the Save (388). 402 ominously marks the last year Roman coins arrived in Britain in any meaningful quantity. Zosimus observed that c.406 Marcus and Gratian were promoted as emperors in Britain, probably to test whether the tentative political vacuum there was real or a product of the imagination. Both were rapidly deposed and killed, though this seems to have been the result of anarchy at home rather than legitimist concerns on the continent.

Constantine III emerged as victor but took the fight to the Rhine and, in a funny inversion of Christianity’s directional flow (from Rome to Arles to Canterbury), established his HQ at Arelate (Arles) becoming recognised by Honorius in 409. A year later, according to the Chronica Gallica: Britanniae Saxonum incursionae devastatae. Then Honorius had his colleague besieged and killed. Zosimus (fl. 490s) lamented how “The barbarians have taken every province, reducing not only the Britons but other Celtic nations to revolting against the empire… The Britons therefore took up arms.” No Roman town in Britain was abandoned in a hurry, however. Most recycled on smaller and lesser scales, public spaces were adopted for private use, and industrial craft production was permitted within once forbidden zones. The Britons did not run away en masse to what would become Wales. Instead, corporate solidarity morphed into privatised oligarchy. Senior officials either left, lost credibility, or were deposed, ignored, murdered and so on. Fascinatingly, one of the last named vicarii of Britannia, Chrysanthus later became a schismatic (Novatian) bishop of Constantinople, apparently against his will as he’d originally wanted to be appointed prefect of that city. The shift in the fifth century was less Britain enthusiastically absorbing Germanic cultures like a sponge than the fact these North Sea forces stepped into a power vacuum created by Romano-Britons who appear to have been indifferent at best to urban life, villas, privatised wealth, conspicuous consumption, central taxation, martial rule, a lack of protection and absentee landlordism.



As Germanics took advantage of this diffidence – violently when required – so the parts of the West and North (parts that had historically been lukewarm at best in their embrace of Romanitas) began to sell themselves as champions of Latinate culture in opposition to the south-east and its barbaric mercenaries (paradoxically imported as part of Roman political culture). In reality, only the Christian Latin education system was continued in any meaningful form and a folk memory that cherished Maximus the Great (Magnus Maximus) – the formidable royal pedigree of Dyfed pushing this trend a step further and including Constantine the Great. Churches were maintained, though almost none survive in meaningful forms. There are a dozen credible locations of late Roman churches in Britain at locations such as Silchester, Colchester, Lincoln and Canterbury. House monasteries have also been suggested at late Roman villas such as Frocester, Chedworth and Halstock (in Cornwall and Wales the obscure saints these sites are named after probably reflect the fact elites sponsored local holy men and women). The early fifth century also supplies evidence for contact between the papacy and the Britons. Prosper tells us Celestine I, concerned at the spread of Pelagianism, sent Germanus to combat it in 429. The same pope sent Palladius to Ireland two years later as the nation’s first bishop (interestingly, the Annals of Ulster contain the first record of a Saxon assault on Ireland c. 433).

Nevertheless, it was Patrick the Briton whom the Irish recognised as their apostle. In general, it seems British evangelism – strong among the Celts but absent among the Saxons – retained the initiative. Dubricius, papa of the Welsh saints, worked in Archenfeld on the Welsh border. The British bishop Ninian – who received orthodox instruction at Rome – founded a church (candida casa, the white house) at Whithorn and converted the southern Picts. A memorial stone at Whithorn priory contains a touching inscription: TE DOMINVM LAVDAMUS LATINVS ANNORVM XXXV ET FILIA SVA ANNORVM IV HIC SIGNVM FECERVNT NEPVS BARROVA DI (We praise the Lord. Latinus aged 35 and his daughter aged 4. The nephew of Barrovadus set up this memorial).



Iona was founded among the Scots in 563 by an Irishman, Columba, who became apostle to the northern Picts. When he ordained king Aedan on Iona in 574 – evoking Samuel’s ordination of Saul – it may have been Europe’s first explicit anointing of a Christian king. Much of the evangelism was spearheaded by an ascetic monasticism, which the fierce Gildas represented. Furious at the worldly state of the Church, the deacon fulminated against simony and indulgence (as well as the laziness of garrison troops). Whether these claims were true or not, an inscription in Caernarvonshire reading “in tempore Iustini consulis” (thus dating the memorial to 540 in a phrase only used around the city of Lyon) proves that supranational ecclesiastical structures still held. Indeed, formulae for the dead continued to be imported in the sixth century. The older form being modified to “hic in tumulo iacit [sic],” while a memoria was used with the name in the genitive case, a custom popular in Africa and Italy. From the British Church’s perspective, popes were venerated as bishops of the sole apostolic see in the West. Their advice was sought and given in decretals. Their seat possessed a primacy of honour. Yet, though recognised as the successors of St Peter, the commission to bind and loose had been granted to all the apostles, not only to Peter. The bishops in council were successors to the apostles, not just the bishop of Rome. As much was uncontroversial among big-shots like Cyprian who noted that Christ extended his authority equally to all the apostles after the Resurrection, as well as Augustine who saw the Church as inheriting the powers granted to Peter. It was pope Leo I (440-461) who, in a summary of the work of his predecessors, attempted to infiltrate a judicial conception of the papal office. This was achieved by establishing a legal connection between the eternal authority of St Peter, which found its sole and legitimate expression in the reigning pope. From this point onwards, papal theory viewed the pope as the indignus haeres beati Petri, the heir in Roman law who legally continued the deceased, taking over all rights and duties. Rome morphed from an honorary womb of (western) churches into a web whose spider sought predatory (presidential) powers, headed by a pope who had gubernacula and potestas over all. This was a considerable development. Pope Leo found his innovations opposed in Gaul by St Hilary of Arles among others. The emperor, however, approved of centralisation and supported the pope with an imperial rescript, which ordered governors to force attendance at the papal court when summoned. Back in Britain, Gildas regarded Peter as princeps apostolorum, but he also used the phrase sedis Petri apostoli to mean the office of any sacerdos. He commented on the Petrine commission as follows: “As the Lord asked whom the disciples thought him to be, Peter answered ‘Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God.’ And the Lord for such a confession said ‘Blessed art thou, Simon bar Jonah, for flesh and blood hath not revealed this unto thee, but my Father who art in heaven.’… To every holy sacerdos it is promised: ‘And whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth, shall be bound also in heaven.’”

The most obvious lack of papal centralisation can be found in the observation of Easter. While Rome normally followed the reckoning of Alexandrine computists and the Quartodecimans (who kept Easter on the Jewish Passover) had been condemned at Nicaea, other deviations were ignored. In 577, for instance, the Victorian calculations adopted by Gaul gave 18th April for Easter, the Dionysian reckoning accepted by Alexandria gave 25th April, while the Visigoths observed the 21st March. Gregory of Tours moaned that he respected Latin dates but his neighbours loved “Greek” ones. In Britain, however, this controversy was exacerbated by ethnic tensions and the collapse of urban norms. On the one hand, maintaining diocesan integrity in a period that had no large towns (and wouldn’t have any until the ninth century) was difficult (St Cuthbert, for example, was taken to Carlisle’s ruins to admire the Roman fountain as a tourist attraction). On the other, British Church could hardly be said to be excited at the prospect of being schooled or dominated by the recently-formed Church of their conquerors. These Anglo-Saxons had originally been employed to fend off their own yet they ended up insisting on increases to their monthly allowance (epimenia), land on which to settle their dependents, and rights to collect their own taxes in kind (annonae). When these demands weren’t met they rebelled and called in their compatriots, thus increasing a foe that Sidonius Apollinaris described as “The most ferocious.”

A border kingdom, however, made the initial concession of accepting Augustine’s invitation, sending bishops and sapientes to the border between the West Saxon and Hwiccan kingdoms – a place Bede identified as “Augustine’s Oak” – for a meeting. The papal party admonished the British for failing to preach to the English and remaining unaligned to Rome in their customs. Augustine proposed the debate be settled by a miracle-contest, though British suspicions were hardly allayed when a blind Englishman remained in that state for their own prayers and yet responded to Augustine’s efforts (a miracle that was probably a conscious echo of Germanus’ healing of the British Pelagians in 430). The second conference was attended by seven British bishops and countless viri doctissimi, mostly drawn from their most prestigious monastery at Bancornaburg (Bangor-on-Dee). En route they consulted an anchorite who advised them to base their decision on Augustine’s sanctity, his humility. Bede described the holy man’s speech in the following terms:


“Contrive that Augustine may first arrive with his company at the synod, and if on your approach he rises then hear him submissively. But if he despises you and does not rise in your presence, let him also be despised by you.”


Augustine failed to rise and the Britons accused him of pride (political theatre mattered). They reminded him that they acknowledged neither Kentish overlordship (a Saxon ideology) nor the spiritual imperium of the pope. Augustine then rather stiffly resorted to warnings of disaster. A coda that Bede was perhaps a little too eager to add in vindication of the English conquest.



These tensions, mostly expressed by Britons parading their Romanitas (archaeology has uncovered fifth-century works at Viroconium Cornoviorum [Wroxeter], Verulamium [St Albans], Calleva Atrebatum [Silchester], while other cities such as Lindum [Lincoln], Camulodunum [Colchester], Glevum [Gloucester] and Eboracum [York] took pride in being founded by Roman veterans, and others like Winchester liked to peacock their blend of Pax Romana with local sensibilities) constantly froth in the background.


The political landscape was complex. It contained Britons who, on the one hand, purchased pilgrim flasks from far flung locations such as the shrine of St Menas in Egypt and may have even received Byzantine ships if Leontius’ biography on St John the Almsgiver, patriarch of Alexandria c. 610–19) is correct. In this surprising account an incompetent naval captain was given 20,000 bushels of corn by St John to sell in Britain where he was paid in nomismata or its equivalent in tin, then traded the metal at Pentapolis (Cyrenaica) for a healthy profit. It’s certainly not an impossible tale given Bantham on the River Avon in Devon has coughed up 44 tin ingots – almost certainly used for long-distance trade – in the contents of a sixth or seventh century wreck.

On the other hand, Britons could be paragons of parochialism. Aldhelm could write in 705, for example, that the priests of Dyfed never worshipped nor sat at the same table as Anglo-Saxons. In fairness, this was less than a century after a great battle at Chester (616) where hundreds of British monks were slaughtered for having the temerity to overtly pray for a British victory. Both parties nevertheless respected the pope. So the basis upon which the Celtic Church managed to argue against the Roman position is worth spelling out. For Wilfrid, Roman customs were St Peter’s directives. To scorn them was to sin. Aldhelm later wrote that failure to conform imperilled the soul. The British Church, however, regarded the date of Easter as a matter of ritual, not belief. Uniformity of belief mattered, its expression didn’t.



Though pope Honorius had written to the Irish asking them to conform to current practice, he did not treat the issue as a matter of faith. When a later pope (John) wrote in stronger terms it was only because he’d been misadvised that the Irish had crossed a line and become Quartodecimans. For an outside power such as the papacy – respected as a font of orthodoxy – to then turn on matters of ritual, traditions set by the elders, to the Britons was a sign of disrespect and haughtiness. Hence the confusion on how to respond. Before and after Whitby (664), none of the Celtic areas had a metropolitan see (like Canterbury), no Celtic bishop went to receive a pallium from the pope, no tribute for the papacy was collected, and the popes sent no legatine commissions. Two legates sent by pope Hadrian in 786 proceeded as far as Mercia (perhaps passing a monument erected in Horsa’s name that still stood in eighth-century Kent) then complained that there were too many kingdoms. One went on to Northumbria, while the other visited other parts of Britain (Britanniae partes), which were probably the border districts of Offa (whose battles are recorded as being 760, 778 and 784). Certainly no British bishop attended the synod held in Mercia, or at least none signed its decrees. Some British rulers imitated Anglo-Saxon kings and visited Rome. Cyngen, king of Powys, for instance died in Rome in 854. Dwnwallon, prince of the Strathclyde Britons, visited the city in 975. Towards the end of the eleventh century the Irish appear to have established themselves in a church called the S. Trinitas Scottorum on the Palatine Hill. Yet it wasn’t until 1101 that an Irish papal legate was appointed and 1152 when four pallia for the metropolitans of Armagh, Cashel, Dublin and Tuam were sent. In short, direct contacts between the British Church and the papacy were only re-established when Roman diocesan organisation was accepted. Urban (Welsh: Gwrgan), bishop of Glamorgan, professed his obedience to Canterbury and other bishops followed suit: St David’s in 1115, Bangor in 1120, St Asaph’s in 1143. From this period onwards the papacy exercised a great influence on affairs, mainly because the Welsh took their appeals against the English to Rome. The historians of Llandaff and St David’s even sought the origins of the British Church, elaborating on Bede’s account of Lucius’ appeal to pope Eleutherius (175-89), in the papacy; a story which was almost certainly a misunderstanding of the Liber Pontificalis.

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