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Sacred England - The Making of the Sacred Landscape - Sample 1

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The Traveller's Guide to Sacred England - click to read a sample

The Traveller's Guide
to Sacred England

A guide to the legends, lore and landscape
of England's sacred places

John Michell


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Sample one:

The Making of
the Sacred Landscape


Before the Protestant Reformation in the sixteenth century, England was very obviously a sacred land. In both town and country the church steeple was the dominant symbol of the landscape, while the Church calendar with its feasts and saints' days dominated the pattern of the year. Stone crosses by the roadside guided travellers to the famous places of pilgrimage, where shrines and holy relics gave miraculous cures and other blessings. At innumerable lesser shrines about the countryside, by rocks, hills, and holy wells, crowds gathered on certain days to perpetuate rites and customs which, though often of pagan origin, were sanctioned by the Church.

These occasions were marked by fairs, festivals, and markets where all kinds of local business were conducted. Every corner of the landscape had its sacred and legendary associations, and these were constantly added to as successive generations contributed new tales of marvels and miracles. Thus the face of the country was like a storybook, illustrated by the monuments and natural features which preserved its history. This book could be read by country people who, being generally illiterate, could read no other. It was the source of their education and culture and enabled them to live fully human lives in their own native surroundings.

The Puritans' destruction of religious relics and "idols," and the suppression of festivals and popular assemblies, coincided with the growth of centralised political and economic power. These developments had a crushing effect on local independence and culture. The rural population declined, and whole chapters of its traditional lore were erased from the face of the landscape. Modern industry and the methods of modern agriculture and communications have since hastened the process of deculturisation; but that process has at the same time brought about a reaction. It is now widely apparent that the future of the earth as a living system is in many ways threatened, and that the basic cause is modern alienation from nature. There is a very essential difference between the present scientific way of regarding the earth, as a mass of inert matter, and the traditional view of it as a living, spiritual entity. It may be that, out of sheer necessity, the traditional view will once again become popular. In that case, the proper understanding of the earth, including its spiritual aspect, will be the priority of future science. That implies the future reconsecration of the earth, as a whole and in all its parts, to the spirit which gives it life. How that is done can be discovered through study of the landscape and the history of its sacred places, to which the following is an introduction.


THE PRIMEVAL GARDEN

Everything about prehistoric times is by the nature of things uncertain. No one knows who were the first inhabitants of England or when they appeared. The earliest known stone implements are dated to about 300,000 years ago, after which successive ice ages are said to have driven everyone out of the country. The date of about 10,000 BC is given as the end of the last ice age, when England again became comfortably habitable. It was then occupied by groups of nomadic people, each group ranging over a particular region and living on the natural resources of its territory.

These people lived well and simply and made so little impression upon the earth that what chiefly remains from their time is the debris of their feasts. Feasting played a large part in their lives. Following the necessary fast of early spring (corresponding perhaps to our Lenten fasting), they began the yearly ritual journey around their country. As nomadic people have always done, they took the accustomed routes and stopped at familiar places. These places were marked by some natural feature, a tree, a rock, or a spring of water, wherein dwelt a spirit, and the nature of that spirit determined what should be done there. Some places were for gathering herbs or nuts, others for hunting a particular game. With these substantial gifts of the local spirit came others of a different order: healing, fertility, and oracular dreams. At certain places other travelling groups were regularly encountered, leading to ceremonies and exchanges of gifts which later became festivals and markets.

Thus, from the very beginning of their history, the sacred places of a country accumulate a wide variety of lore and custom. Nomadic people, such as the Australian Aborigines today, perform their annual journeys in the footsteps of the creative spirits who first shaped the hills, rivers, and other features of the landscape. The paths they took, the places where they stopped, and the locations of episodes on their journey form the sacred geography of the nomads, who ritually imitate the actions of the creative spirits at the appropriate spots. The places where a certain animal or plant was first created are made sacred to that species, and whatever member of the tribe has a special affinity for it is charged with performing the proper ceremony. Other places are scenes of mythical adventures, where a divine ancestor did some heroic act which ever afterward has been commemorated there. It was no doubt by a similar process that certain British landmarks first became associated with the prototypes of Arthur, Merlin, and other native heroes.

This picture of Mesolithic or Middle Stone Age life in Britain emphasises its most essential feature, the intensely spiritual relationship between people and landscape. It shows how successfully the ancient people communicated with the local spirits of the country and how well they were able to live as a result. Dr. Richard Muir (Reading the Celtic Landscapes, 1985) gives detail to the picture:

As long as these hunting and fishing folk did not upset the natural balances, each valley, strand and lake basin could sustain a clan of hunter-gatherers, which migrated around an eternal circuit, harvesting each resource which the changing seasons provided. There were salmon in the rivers, eggs to be gathered on the sea cliffs, fish, seals and stranded whales along the coast and limpets on the rocks, while the rich woodlands harboured wild cattle. deer and horses, fungi, fruit, roots and shoots. . . . To live well under the Mesolithic economy one needed to have an intense awareness and understanding of Nature, know the habits and behaviour of the intended prey and when each edible plant would release its fruits and where it could be found.

All that survives of Mesolithic craftwork are the beautifully formed flint implements known as microliths, which include saws and delicate arrowheads. These fine objects were exchanged as gifts between tribes and have often been found far from their original sources.

The pattern of life at that time was closely in accord with the pattern of human nature (which was no doubt formed under similar conditions) and with the requirements of human spirit. Every aspect of life was celebrated. This was the innocent Golden Age yearned for by poets, the Garden of Eden or lost paradise. People felt secure in their own country, a sacred landscape inhabited by familiar spirits, each of which was visited in the course of the annual pilgrimage. Though it has left scarcely any physical mark upon the landscape, that way of life laid the foundations of native culture, which rest in the sacred places of the country. Certain spots, where the old British nomads gathered at the shrine of some nature spirit, are now marked by cathedrals and churches. Many have retained sacred and legendary associations from the old times. Thus the basic pattern of the English landscape, still discernible beneath its modern accretions, was laid down in times before settlement as a network of sacred centres with pilgrimage paths between them.


SHRINES AND SETTLEMENTS

In a book with the amusing title Civilisation: Its Cause and Cure, the nineteenth-century sage Edward Carpenter suggested that civilisation was a "disease which the various races of man have to pass through – as children pass through measles or whooping cough." There is no knowing what it is that causes a people, who for thousands of years have been living satisfactorily in the same nomadic pattern, to move toward a settled life-style. An elderly person may sometimes have been left by the travelling group to shelter by a sacred spring, later to become its resident priest, priestess, or oracle. Certainly the first settlements were by springs and traditional shrines.

The change from nomadic to settled life coincided with the beginning of agriculture, and the first traces of cultivation in England are from about 5000 BC. That time, therefore, was the beginning of serious warfare, which occurred first between settled and wandering people – as in the story of Cain and Abel or the farmers-against-the-cowboys tradition in the American West – and was perpetuated in disputes between settled communities over property and possessions.

With settlement came formal religion and science. They were required for the organisation of society and to preserve contact with the spirits of nature, theologised as gods, on which life still depends. Settlement involves guilt. In the exchange of the delights and hardships of the road for the more even life of domestic comfort, certain things were lost. Human nature is no longer as fully satisfied as it was in the old wandering days; the distant shrines are no longer visited, and the sacred landscape has shrunk to the district around the homestead. The feeling of guilt is expressed by prophets who urge a return to the sacred journey. Their voice rings through the Old Testament, as in Jeremiah's reproach to the Tribes that they "stumble in their ways from the ancient paths" (18:15) and in "Thus saith the Lord, stand ye in the ways, and see, and ask for the old paths, where is the good way, and walk therein, and ye shall find rest for your souls" (6:16).

The way to compensate for giving up the sacred journey is to ritualise it. Plato's advice to colonists in the Laws was to seek out the sacred places of the old inhabitants, rededicate them to familiar gods, and reinstitute festivals there on the appropriate days. There should be, he said, at least 365 festivals in the course of a year. Thus the shrines of the local spirits in the country were to be attended and honoured at the proper seasons in imitation of nomadic times.

Plato looked for the best possible social order, one combining the advantages of settled life with the spiritual values of nomadism. That is the ideal of every civilisation, and early religion and science were designed to realise it. Religious systems reduced the wide-ranging sacred landscape of the nomadic people to the proportions of a settled district. No longer did seasonal festivals occur spontaneously, as the old wanderers reached the customary site; their times were now determined by a priestly calendar based on astronomy. The round of festivals still reflected the rhythm of nomadic life. Each was dedicated to a particular god who corresponded to an aspect of human mentality and instinct and presided over one of the stages in the farmer's and the hunter's year. Life thereby was made rich and varied, less so than under the free spirit of primeval times, but with the comfortable compensations of settled life.

Civilisation demands hierarchies and specialisation in functions. A priestly profession comes into being, whose tasks include keeping the calendar and the record of events and officiating at rituals. The overall purpose of the priests is to keep the life of their communities in harmony with the seasons and ways of nature. In many parts of the world, including the British Isles, a comprehensive code of science was developed with the object of regulating the dealings between humanity, the earth, and the cosmos. Much is still to be learned about its methods and achievements; the following summarises the present state of knowledge on the subject.


SACRED SCIENCE AND THE MEGALITHS

Not long after the beginning of Stone Age agriculture, something dramatic but mysterious took place along the western coasts of Europe. From the Canary Islands, Spain, and Portugal to Brittany, Ireland, Britain up to the northern Scottish isles, and parts of Scandinavia, large, skilfully built stone structures began to appear from early in the fifth millennium BC. Among the oldest and most impressive are great chambered mounds, such as New Grange in Ireland, Maes Howe on the main Orkney island, and the smaller Bryn Celli Ddu in Anglesea. Their main feature is a passage way, walled and roofed with large stones, leading to an inner stone cavern, sometimes with side chambers, buried deep within a dome-shaped mound of earth and stone. Archaeologists refer to them as tombs, but that was certainly not the limit of their function. Westminster Abbey, for example, is full of old bones but cannot be described as a mere tomb or reliquary. Particularly in Ireland, some of the stones within and around the mounds are inscribed with patterns or symbols. Their meaning is unknown, but in Martin Brennan's book The Stars and the Stones, it is shown that some of the symbols are picked out by rays of light or shadow at particular times of the year. Brennan also shows that the passages into the mounds are so oriented that at a certain date they allow a light beam from the sun or moon to penetrate into the inner recesses of the chamber. New Grange, for example, receives the light of the rising sun at midwinter. This interplay of light and darkness with the carved symbols on the walls of the inner chamber suggests that the buildings were used for purposes other than burials: for recording seasons and astronomical cycles and as places of vigil and initiation. Rather than tombs, perhaps, they might be called temples.

According to the revised method of radiocarbon dating, the earliest known mound is at Kercado in Brittany, which was built in about 4800 BC. Others range from about that time to 3000 B.C or later. In the same period and into the second millennium BC. many thousands of great stone or megalithic structures were built, together with vast stretches of earthworks. Regional variations are found between those in different lands, Britain having by far the greatest number of stone circles – almost a thousand are known – but the similarities between them are so striking that they must surely have had a common origin and purpose.

Until a few years ago it was believed that the megalith builders must have spread to the northwest fringes of Europe, as conquerors or missionaries, from some original seat of civilisation on the Mediterranean. However, that theory was disproved by the discovery of radiocarbon dating, which established that the monuments on the Atlantic coastline were considerably older than their supposed Mediterranean prototypes. Academic patterns of prehistory were thereby upset, but attention was drawn to certain earlier writers, long ignored, who had anticipated this development. One of them was J. Foster Forbes, an antiquarian mystic and the author of several books on ancient Britain, such as The Unchronicled Past (1938). On the subject of stone circles he wrote that:

They were made from about 8000 BC by people from the West, priests who survived the Atlantis cataclysm.
Their overall purpose was to establish and maintain social order.
They functioned both as lunar observatories and as receiving stations for celestial influences at certain seasons.
They were instrumental in augmenting the earth's fertility and the prosperity of the people by controlling the earth's field of vital and magnetic energies.

Several of these ideas, such as the western origin of the megalith builders, are in accordance with the later evidence, and others have since been verified. The use of stone circles for measuring the complicated cycles of the moon was demonstrated in Alexander Thom's Megalithic Lunar Observatories in 1971, and in his earlier work, Megalithic Sites in Britain. Through statistical analysis of the numerous surveys he took of stone circles and neighbouring monuments, Thom was able to show that:

Stone circles were precisely planned and laid out in accordance with certain geometric figures in the classic Pythagorean tradition. The unit of measure in their designs was the "megalithic yard" of 2.72 feet. Stones within and beyond the circles lined up to indicate a natural or artificial mark on the horizon where the moon or sun reached one of the extreme positions in their cycles, as at a solstice. The megalith builders had a highly developed, unified code of science based on number and geometry, and they were expert surveyors, engineers, and astronomers.

These conclusions indicate that the ancient dwellers in Britain were not, as had previously been thought, savages and simple peasants, but people who lived in ordered societies governed by a religious-scientific priesthood.

From the 1970s, research into the hidden properties of stone circles has produced some remarkable results which, though not yet conclusive, tend to support the ideas of J. Foster Forbes. The investigation of anomalous energies at the old sites has attracted dowsers, engineers, and scientists. Tom Graves's Needles of Stone gives a dowser's view of the connection between megalithic sites and magnetic earth currents. The use of Geiger counters and ultrasonic detectors has revealed abnormal patterns of pulsations within stone circles that vary throughout the year. One effect which has been widely recorded is that the levels of ultrasound and radiation inside the circles is significantly lower than outside; hence the title of Don Robins's book on megalithic energies, Circles of Silence.

From the apparent fact that the megalith builders placed their circles and other stone monuments on sites with peculiar dynamic properties, it seems likely that they were aware of and made use of certain natural energies for practical purposes connected with their way of life. Early settled societies were concerned above all with the fertility of land and ,livestock and communication with the local and ancestral spirits who were presumed to be the cause of human prosperity. The megalithic science is certain, there fore, to have been spiritually based. In simple nomadic times, communication with spirit was made naturally and spontaneously in the course of the annual journey; the science of early settled times was designed to make up for the loss of natural communication by a system of ritualised invocation. It was a form of magical technology. The power of the ancient shrines was augmented by the erection of stone monuments or temples, where the local spirit was induced to dwell and follow human example by becoming domestic. Where in the old wandering days the shrines had been active only during the short period when they were visited, their season of potency was now extended. How this was done is told symbolically in the heroic legends of the dragons or serpent killers. The serpent is an image of the mercurial earth currents by which the country is made fertile; transfixing the serpent's head with a stake or stone pillar is the traditional method of arresting and tapping its flow of energy. At Delphi, where in archaic times the Pythoness or earth serpent had dwelt and given oracles for a brief season in the year, the piercing of her head by Apollo's staff lengthened her period of efficacy by several months. The spot where her energies were centred was marked thereafter by the omphalos stone at the centre of the shrine. Further information on the ancient sacred science and its perception of the nature and use of earth energies can be found in The Decline of Oracles, a work by Plutarch, who was a priest at Delphi in the first century AD.

The religious-scientific works of the megalith builders, along with domestic building and agriculture, produced a dramatic change in the appearance of the landscape. Yet the new pattern of temples, roads, and settlements was firmly based on the sacred geography of nomadic times. Temples and oratories were built on the old nature shrines, and the paths between them were still trodden by pilgrims or used for religious processions. On their straight course between the sacred places, the people erected stones and other landmarks, and thus were created the straight alignments of ancient monuments, known as "leys," which have been the subject of much modern research in the British landscape. These lines across the country were as sacred as the temples and shrines they linked, and evidently they played an essential part in the mystical megalithic science. Memories of the old times, preserved in the folklore record, identify the paths between the old shrines as ways of the dead and spirit paths, where at certain times of the year strange lights and phantom creatures are seen. Where the paths intersect, the old stone monuments have a variety of strange reputations, as the scenes of supernatural events or for powers of healing and fertility. The folklore of megalithic monuments forms a significant background to the modern scientific discoveries of abnormal energy patterns at the old sites.

In creating their sacred landscape, the Stone Age priests of settled times were careful to preserve the old pattern and the spiritual values attached to it. The temples and natural shrines about the country were seen as forming the body of one great temple, the native holy land. By a round of feasts and rituals throughout the year, the spirit of the earth was made content and bountiful, allowing the settled communities to grow and prosper. Archaeologists now reckon that the population of England in the second millennium BC. was at least as large as the two to three million it was at the time of the Norman Conquest. Prehistoric standards of craftsmanship, science, and general culture were many degrees higher than those of medieval England.


THE CELTIC DRUIDS

The question of who invaded Britain in prehistoric times, and when these incursions took place, was much debated by earlier generations of scholars. Bloody battles were imagined, in which one race virtually exterminated another and populated the country anew. Mysterious "Beaker" folk were said to have arrived in the third millennium BC., introducing metalwork and burying their chiefs in barrow tombs along with their favourite beakers. After them came the Celts; around 600 BC. was the accepted date for their appearance in Britain.

The nature of these invasions and their supposed dates are all now disputed. Archaeological science earlier in this century was much concerned with racial types, and it was fashionable to argue that successive invaders prevailed because they were of superior stock to the natives. At the root of these theories were Darwin's theory of evolution and belief in progress. The influence of such theories has now waned, and scholars are more inclined to regard social changes as being produced by migrations of culture at least as much as by warfare. In ancient times, as today, new ideas spread quickly enough around the world without violence. Nor is there any more certainty about the date of the Celts' arrival. One can speak of Celtic culture and languages, but there is no single Celtic race; Celtic speakers vary in appearance from short and swarthy to tall and fair. Evidence of Celtic culture appears in Britain from the second millennium BC, and it is now suggested that the Celtic priesthood could have been responsible for the Stonehenge temple, built in about 2000 BC.

Celtic society in Britain preserved many features from the previous order, including shrines and feast days. Its calendar combined lunar and solar cycles, as in megalithic times. The social structure was similar to that advocated by Plato, based on a religious cosmology and democratic idealism. Each tribe had its own territory with fixed borders, and that land, held by the tribe as a whole, consisted of forest and wilderness, common lands and agricultural holdings. Under a complicated system of land tenure, everyone's rights and obligations were carefully defined. Some of the land was worked in common for the chieftain, the priests, and the old, poor, and sick tribesfolk; the rest was apportioned as family farms. Grazing and foraging rights were shared on the common lands. Much of the tribal business was conducted at annual assemblies, where land disputes were decided, petty offenders were tried, and chiefs and officials, both male and female, were appointed by popular vote. A great many old farmsteads in Britain today are on Celtic sites. During his raid on Celtic Britain in 55 BC, Julius Caesar commented on its high population and numerous farms and cattle.

The unifying bond between all the Celtic tribes was their common priesthood, the Druids. Their efforts preserved common culture, religion, history, laws, scholarship, and science. They had paramount authority over every tribal chief and, since their office was sacred, they could move where they wanted, settling disputes and stopping battles by compelling the rival parties to arbitration. They managed the higher legal system and the courts of appeal, and their colleges in Britain were famous throughout the Continent. Up to twenty years of oral instruction and memorising was required of a pupil before being admitted into their order. Minstrels and bards were educated by the Druids for similar periods.

Knowledge of the Druids comes directly from classical writers of their time. They were compared to the learned priesthoods of antiquity, the Indian Brahmins, the Pythagoreans, and the Chaldean astronomers of Babylon. Caesar wrote that they "know much about the stars and celestial motions, and about the size of the earth and universe, and about the essential nature of things, and about the powers and authority of the immortal gods; and these things they teach to their pupils." They also taught the traditional doctrine of the soul's immortality. They must have professed detailed knowledge of the workings of reincarnation, for one writer said that they allowed debts incurred in one lifetime to be repaid in the next.

A significant remark of Caesar's was that Druidism originated in Britain, which was its stronghold. Indeed, it has all the appearance of a native religion, being deeply rooted in the primeval native culture. Its myths and heroic legends are related to the ancient holy places of Britain, and they may largely have been adapted from much earlier traditions. In Celtic as in all previous times, the same holy wells and nature shrines were visited on certain days for their spiritual virtues. The overall pattern of life was scarcely changed. In the course of time, society became more structured and elaborate and the Druid laws more rigid, but the beginning of the Celtic period in Britain was evidently not marked by any major break in tradition. Nor was there any great shift in population; the British today, even in the so-called Celtic lands, are predominantly of native Mesolithic ancestry. The Druids' religion and science also have the appearance of belonging to an earlier Britain. Their knowledge of astronomy may have descended from the priests of megalithic times, together with the spiritual secrets of the landscape.

Yet there is an obvious difference between the Celtic Druids and the megalithic priests before them. The Druids abandoned the great stone temples and reverted to the old natural shrines, the springs and groves where they held their rituals. A religious reformation is here implied. It is characteristic of state priesthoods that their spiritual powers wane as their temporal authority grows, and the less confidence they inspire, the more tributes and sacrifices they demand of the people. In its latter days the rule of the megalithic priesthood probably became so onerous that it was over thrown. Whether as a native development or prompted by outside influences, a spiritual revival seems to have occurred in Britain in about 2000 BC, with the building of the cosmic temple of Stonehenge and the first evidences of Celtic culture. Stonehenge is a unique monument, a symbol of a new revelation. The tendency in modern scholarship is to see it once more as the temple of the Druids. If so, it proclaims the high ideals on which Druidism in Britain was founded.


ENGLAND'S FIRST CHRISTIANS

The date and circumstances of Christianity's origin in England are unknown. According to the legend of St. Joseph of Arimathea's missionary journey to Glastonbury, it was shortly after the Crucifixion. Bran the Blessed is credited by the Welsh with bringing Christianity to the British Isles in the first century, and there is a record of King Lucius's receiving missionaries from Rome in 167.

Although the Romans persecuted the early Church and made St. Alban the first English martyr at the end of the third century, their soldiers and officials in Britain were susceptible to the new religion and no doubt helped to spread it among the natives. Yet it was recorded by Tertullian in about 200 that there were Christian colonies in parts of Britain which the Romans never reached. Many other old writers remark on the early beginnings of Christianity in Britain, implying that it was never imposed on the Celtic culture but developed naturally from the existing religion as a reformation of Druidism.

The original institution of British Christianity was the Celtic Church. Its history, rituals, and above all its spirit were essentially different from those of the Roman Church. Its saints, as the early priests and holy men were called, were heirs to the Druid tradition, often literally so, in that many of them were children of Druids or former Druid priests themselves. Like the nonconformists of modern times, they rejected the formalism of the established religion and re turned to the source of religious spirit in the wild places of the countryside. The doctrines of Christianity were not unfamiliar to them, for the Druids recognised the mystical Trinity, and the image of Divinity sacrificed on a cross or tree was significant in their own theology. Thus the Celtic Druids readily adopted Christianity in its original, gnostic form. Their Celtic Church was that of St. John the Divine, visionary and spiritual, rather than that of St. Peter in Rome. In many ways the Celtic Church perpetuated the customs of the Druid religion from which it sprang. The Celtic monks adopted the Druid tonsure, shaving their heads across the crown from ear to ear and leaving it long behind. That was the tonsure of St. John rather than that of St. Peter, where the head is shaved on the crown. The Celts celebrated Easter on a day calculated by the Jewish lunar calendar, also used by the eastern churches, while the Roman calendar, as amended by a succession of popes, produced a different Easter Day.

As successors to the Druids, the Celtic bishops and priests were appointed by their own tribes and ministered to their own tribal districts. Their monasteries replaced the Druid colleges, which had been suppressed by the Romans, as centres of learning. In them were preserved the native traditions of philosophy, craftsmanship, and bardic lore. The wisdom and scholarship of the ancient world survived in the Celtic monasteries during the Dark Ages, when missionaries from Britain and Ireland spread the light of Christianised culture throughout Europe.

The Celtic Church was distinguished by its close relationship to nature, its belief in immortality and individual free will, its married priests and women saints, and its tolerance. These were also features of Druidism. Religious fanaticism was alien to the Celtic spirit. For several centuries Christians and pagans lived side by side, warring among themselves for traditional tribal reasons rather than for ideology. One of the last of the old-fashioned pagan kings, Penda of Mercia in the seventh century, fought his rivals, pagan and Christian alike, without rancour, and said that he had nothing against Christians except bad ones. Pagan kings married Christian princesses and allowed them to practice their own religion, and the Christians refrained from aggressive proselytising. One complaint the Roman Church brought against the Celts was that they were not active enough in the missionary field.

When the Roman legions withdrew from Britain at the end of the fourth century, leaving cities, temples, and great country houses to fall into ruin, the only cultural institution remaining in these islands was the Celtic Church. Native and classical learning was upheld in its monasteries, which were the sole providers of higher education. Pagan nobles sent their children to them, and thus Christianity began to prevail in the ruling families. Pagan customs were long maintained throughout the countryside, but among educated people paganism was regarded as outmoded and provincial. Christianity had become the religion of modern international culture.


THE END OF THE CELTIC CHURCH

The Church of Rome was long jealous of Celtic independence and disapproved of the pagan customs and doctrines that the Celtic Church had adopted. When St. Augustine was sent to England by the pope in 597, his mission was both to convert the pagan kingdoms of the Anglo-Saxons and to bring the native church under Roman discipline. The Celtic bishops refused to oblige him, but Roman influence nevertheless began to prevail. Rome was the world centre of power and scholarship and was thus naturally attractive to ambitious clerics. Rome's constant appeal was for worldwide Christian unity, by which it meant total subservience to Rome. Some of the Celtic clergy thought the price was worth paying, while others were firm in preserving the traditional rites of their church.

The two sides met in 664 at a synod or church council in Whitby, a town on the east coast of Yorkshire with a Celtic abbey founded by St. Hilda. The immediate point at issue was the date of Easter and whether it should properly be calculated by the Celtic or the Roman method. Attached to this was the whole question of whether the Celts should keep their independent rites or whether they should reject them in favour of Rome's.

At the Synod of Whitby, Bishop Colman of Lindisfarne spoke for the Celtic Church. Being Irish, he was not fluent in the Saxon English language of the debate. Opposing him was Bishop Wilfrid, a man of formidable intellect and ambition with powerful connections in Rome. His patron, King Oswy of Northumbria, presided over the debate. He may not have understood the subtle arguments which both sides produced, for he settled the issue on one simple point. Colman claimed the apostolic descent of his church from St. John. Wilfrid asserted the seniority of the Roman Church's founder, St. Peter. King Oswy knew of St. Peter as the keeper of the gates to heaven and said that he would not dare to offend him for fear of being refused admittance. He therefore awarded victory to the Roman party.

Bishop Colman resigned his see at Lindisfarne and retired with a few followers to the old Celtic monastery at Iona. Even there the Roman influence was soon apparent, and the Celtic diehards found their last refuge on an island off the Irish coast.

The absorption of the Celtic Church by the Roman caused pain and resentment but no bloodshed. The Celtic virtue of tolerance was displayed by many priests of the old church who accepted with good grace the new order and worked peacefully to implement it. One example was St. Cuthbert, who obeyed the Synod by converting to Rome and was then sent as prior to Lindisfarne, where he tactfully persuaded the monks to abandon their Celtic practices. Compromises were allowed and local customs were often respected, with the result that the Roman Church in Britain became subject to Celtic influence. That influence can be seen most clearly today in Ireland, where feast days and pilgrimages from Celtic and pagan times are patronised by the Church.

In England the traditions of Celtic Christianity were inherited by the Saxons whom the Celtic saints converted. Their churches were built on the old sanctuaries, and their sacred art followed Celtic models. The Celtic spirits survived the Norman invasion. Medieval kings boasted of their Celtic lineage from King Arthur, and Celtic ideals were revived in the age of chivalry. In churches and cathedrals the medieval craftsmen carved symbolic figures that had nothing to do with Roman Christianity but reflected the Celtic love of nature and humanity. Mystics in all ages have been inspired by the memory of Celtic Christianity.


CONTINUITY AND REFORMATION

Stability and change are the two opposing principles in nature that lie behind the world of appearances. In English religious history they are represented by the two themes which govern its entire course: continuity and reformation.

Continuity is demonstrated by the ancient, enduring sanctity of many of the great religious centres. It is illustrated, for example, by the prehistoric holy wells which are found beneath such cathedrals as York, Winchester, Carlisle, and Ely and at innumerable parish churches.

Reformation plays a necessary part in religious history because spiritual powers can never adequately be confined, codified, or institutionalised. All man-made systems are imperfect and doomed sooner or later to fail. The more powerful and elaborate they become, the nearer they are to collapse. Religion expresses the communion between the human spirit and the divine spirit in nature. That communion can be achieved through various forms of magical or religious techniques, by invocation in appropriately designed temples, or through sacred architecture, chants, music, incense, and images in dimly lit cathedrals. These methods are of course artificial, and the more ritualised they become, the more they diverge from the simple, natural processes of spiritual communion. When a religious system becomes too formal and oppressive, religious people abandon it and return to the natural sources of spirit in the wild places of the countryside. There they build shrines and oratories, thus beginning a new cycle of religious development.

Sacred places are not fixed and permanent. Formerly great shrines are abandoned and desecrated; others spring up with the cult of a saint or a memorable person and fade away with it. Then there are places such as Stonehenge, which retain their reputation for sanctity but, through losing their local populations, or for some other reason, fall aside from the mainstream of religious continuity. Yet many of the sites described in this book have been religious centres since before the dawn of history, and they illustrate the themes of continuity and reformation.

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