The Synod of Whitby- 664AD

The Event:

 

The members of Cleveland and Teesside History Society voted this the fourth most significant event in the history of Cleveland and Teesside.

 

We owe the date we celebrate Easter to an event that took place over 1,300 years ago at an abbey situated on a cliff top overlooking a harbour in what is now North Yorkshire.

 

However, that event, the Synod of Whitby, had far more wide-reaching significance.

 

In 664Ad King Oswy / Oswiu of Northumbria called a convocation to meet at Whitby Abbey, a monastic settlement on the cliff top overlooking the North Sea and the mouth of the River Esk.. The purpose was to settle a dispute about the practice of Christianity.

 

There had been problems because 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 Iona (a 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.

 

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 the Jewish Passover, 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. However, the 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.

 

The dispute caused 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.

 

The situation was tolerated whilst  Aidan was alive. Once Aiden died, things came to a head: Aiden’s successor Finan was challenged by a monk named Ronan, an Irishman who had been trained in Rome and who wished to see the Roman Easter established.

 

By the time of Colmán, the third Ionan monk elected Bishop of Northumbria, it was clear that the conflict required royal attention and resolution.

 

In the early 660s, Alchfrith, Oswiu’s son and sub-king in Deira, 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 promotion of Wilfrid (who would be the spokesperson for the Roman position at the synod), meant that there was a visible conflict between the royal house and the Bishop.

 

The synod was held at a monastery under the control of Hilda, a powerful Northumbrian noble and adherent to the Ionan Easter. The monastery was called Streanæshalch,

 

Whilst some believe that this place was Strensall, near York, the more commonly accepted view is that it was the place later called Whitby.

 

The Ionan position was advocated by Colmán, Bishop of Northumbria. In support of the Roman position, 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 the other.

 

Having heard from both sides, Oswy decided that as Peter was presumed to be superior to Columba, the Roman practice for the calculation of Easter must be accepted at risk of being rejected by Peter himself at the gates of heaven.

 

 

The Significance:

 

The Synod of Whitby did not just address practical matters such as tonsure and the dating of Easter.

 

The Synod established Roman practice as the norm in Northumbria.

 

 

The chief advocate for the Roman position, Wilfred, later became Bishop of Northumbria. Bishop Colmán and the Ionan supporters withdrew to Lindisfarne, and thence to Iona and Ireland, taking with them some relics of Aidan, who had been central in establishing Christianity of the Ionan tradition in Northumbria. In Ireland they were free to practice their religion as they desired for the time being.

 

The episcopal seat of Northumbria was transferred from Lindisfarne to York.

 

In the longer run, the Synod was an important step in the eventual Romanisation of the church in England. This might have happened anyway but the Synod of Whitby was seen as a turning-point in the conflict between the “Celtic Church” and the “Roman Church”, with the latter as the victor.

 

 

Suggested Places to Visit:

 

Whitby Abbey

Lindisfarne

Iona.