The Golden Age of Northumbria by H.E. Davidson (1958) [Part 3: Christian Missionaries]

CHRISTIAN MISSIONARIES

For a long time there had been talk at the court of King Edwin about the “Christians”. Men used to get together in little groups, sometimes in angry argument. As for the king, he said little, but it was noticed that he often sat silent as though he were thinking deeply. The ladies of the court whispered together, too, when the queen was not there. Edwin’s young queen was called Ethelberga, but her family and friends always called her Tata for short. She was a great lady, a princess from Kent, which in those days was avery powerful kingdom. When she came to Northumbria, it was soon seen that there was something different about her. She did not go into the temple or come to the winter feasts of the gods, and among her followers there was a tall man in black, stooping a little, with a thin worn face. He was a man of great dignity and power, and people felt rather afraid of him.

This man was said to be a new kind of priest, a priest of the god called Christ. Certainly this man, whose name was Paulinus, was quite different from Coifi. Many strange stories were told of his god. Some men said they wanted to have nothing to do with him, because the Britons, their old enemies, worshipped him. But others said that was foolish, since many powerful kings of their own race across the sea worshipped him too. Some said his magic was greater than Woden’s, and that his priests were mighty wizards.

Some of King Edwin’s men had been in Kent when the priests of Christ came from Rome to the great King Ethelbert, Tata’s father. They told how the king had been afraid to let them come under his roof, lest they should work spells on him, and so he met them on the island of Thanet. They came carrying a silver cross and a banner of wood, on which there was a painting of their god, and they chanted songs in a strange language, which the men of Kent thought were spells. But Ethelbert talked to them for awhile, and as they seemed friendly, he invited them to Canterbury as his guests. He gave them a house in the city, and told them they might speak to the people about their Christ, and men could listen and judge for themselves. He would listen too, for he was a wise king who decided nothing in a hurry.

Metal figur of Christian priestSo the priests of Canterbury with their cross and their banner, and the people watched them closely. They soon decided that these were no ordinary men. They wore long robes and had shaven heads, like the little metal figure of a priest which you see here. They ate little and slept little, and seemed to spend much time praying and singing to their god, by night as well as by day. They had some great rich treasures, like the cross they carried, yet they seemed to care nothing for wealth or comfort for themselves, and lived very simply. They had no swords or spears, and injured no-one, yet they lived as hard as warriors preparing for battle, and they seemed without fear, ready to die for the faith which they preached.

As time went on, more and more people came to hear them, and some were dipped in the river by the priests as a sign that they had given up their old life and were starting afresh after baptism as Christ’s followers. At last the day came when the king himself and all his family became Christians, and Augustine, the leader of the Christians, baptized them in the river, the little girl Tata among them.

These things were much talked of at Edwin’s court. They spoke of the fine churches that had been built in Canterbury out of Roman bricks. There was nothing like them in Anglo-Saxon England, and Augustine had sent abroad for workmen who knew how to build this way.

The Anglo-Saxons thought these churches very wonderful. They had been afraid of the old Roman ruins, but now the Christians used Roman bricks and stones to build new churches. One little church which still stands was built upon the wall of an old Roman fort in Essex: here is a picture of it:

Essex Church

The men of Kent now used the new kind of writing, by which men could send long messages to one another, painted on stuff like cloth which could be rolled up and carried about easily. The Northumbrians knew about these, because one day a special messenger came from Rome, and brought a long letter to the king, and another to Queen Tata. these were sent by the Pope of Rome, the head of the Christian Church, who had sent the priests to Kent. with these letters came wonderful gifts, robes and rich material for King Edwin, and a silver mirror and comb of gold for the queen. People were very excited and admired the treasures greatly, but they noticed that the king was now more silent than ever.

One day special services were held by Paulinus, Queen Tat’s Christian priest, and those who had become followers of Christ. There was much singing and rejoicing, for they said it was the day on which their god came back from the dead (we would call it Easter Sunday). That day was long remembered in the court, first because it was the day on which Edwin’s enemies tried to kill him and his minister Lilla saved his life; and secondly because that same evening the king’s first child, a baby girl, was born. All were thankful that their king had been saved, and rejoiced over the new princess, and many said that the Christian priests had brought them good fortune. The king must have felt this too, for he promised Paulinus that if he was granted victory over his enemies, he would let his little daughter be made a follower of Christ, as the queen begged him to do. Soon after this he marched against his enemies, and won a great victory over those who had sought his life; and the princess was baptized as a Christian when she was six weeks old.

Still the king could not decide to become a Christian, for he knew that once he did so his country would never be the same again. But one day, when he was sitting thinking, Paulinus came softly up to him, and put his right hand on the king’s head. “Do you remember this sign?” he asked. At this the king turned white and trembled, for, as the priest touched him, he remembered the strangest thing that had ever happened to him, in the days in which he was a miserable exile from his country. Do you remember the words that the strange man had spoken to him? Now it seemed to Edwin that he had been given the promised sign, and at first he was terrified. But Paulinus grasped his hands, and told him it was Christ who had given him back his kingdom. If now he would accept Christ’s teaching he could win a place, when his earthly life was over, in the kingdom of Christ which has no end.

Then Edwin ceased to doubt. He believed that the god of Paulinus had sent a message to him, and that he must hold back no longer.

 

The Meeting in King Edwin’s Hall

 

So, not long after, there was a special meeting in the hall of the king. (It was in the year 627). All the king’s thanes and councillors were there, and Coifi, the High Priest of the Old Gods, and Paulinus, the priest of Christ. The king said that he believed Paulinus’ teaching to be true and good, but he wanted to know from each man in turn what he thought of it. Then Coifi rose, and all waited anxiously to hear what he would say. But Coifi did not want to fight for the old gods. They had brought him little regard, he said, for all his years of service. Others had been more honoured than he (here he looked reproachfully at the king), and others had been more successful. So if the new teaching seemed better than the old, by all means let them accept it.

This speech seemed a little bitter, and some felt that Coifi thought more about success and a good position at the court than finding out the truth. But there was another of the king’s councillors who was a very wise man, and perhaps he may have been a poet. Men always listened intently when he spoke, and now he rose to his feet. This is what he said:

“Sire, when we think of this present life of ours, and then compare it with the great stretch of time that comes before and after, about which we know nothing, it brings a picture to my mind. I see a sparrow flying swiftly through the king’s hall, where you are all sitting on a winter’s day. Inside there is a warm comforting fire to keep the cold away, but outside it is winter, with raging snow and rain. The sparrow flies quickly in at one door and right through the hall and out through the other. While he is inside, he is safe from the winter storm; he is warmed and comforted–but only for a moment; then he is gone again out of our sight back into the darkness.

It is just like that with us. Each of us appears on this earth for just a little while. What happened before this life of ours and what will happen after it, when our life comes to an end and we go forth from this world–about that we know nothing. And so if there is anything which this new teaching can tell us about what we do not know, then indeed it must be right for us to follow it.”

For a while no one spoke, for they all knew that what he said was true. Their lives were full of danger and fear and uncertainty. Not many men in Northumbria lived to be old, and they had many enemies. The country outside the hall was full of terrors and no one knew how long there would be peace for the king and his bodyguard, or safety for their wives and children. Though they had prayed to the gods and sacrificed to them, they did not feel that Woden or Thunor or any of the other old gods could comfort them, or tell them clearly what would happen to them after death. But now Paulinus rose, and he talked of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who had lived a hard and dangerous life like theirs and been cruelly put to death by his enemies, but who had come back from the dead to show his friends the way that leads to heaven. Paulinus declared that a follower of Christ need not fear the worst that can happen in this world. It seemed to the men in the hall that this new faith could give them something which the old gods could not, and they all spoke, saying that they desired to become the friends and followers of Christ.

“But what shall we do with the old temples?” asked the king. They all looked at Coifi. But Coifi was a man who knew his own mind, and now that the decision had been made, he did not hesitate. “Now that I have learned this new truth,” he said, “it is right that I should be the one to destroy the idols I used to worship.”

So Coifi asked the king for weapons, and the king gave him a sword and a spear; his own mare was outside, but he asked for a horse to ride on, and the king gave him his own. Then he rode away, and all the people were amazed as they saw him doing all the forbidden things, for a priest was forbidden to carry weapons, and must ride nothing but a mare. And everybody was sure that Coifi had gone mad when they saw him ride up to the temple and aim his spear at its roof! This was a terrible sin against the gods and the holiness of the place. But nothing at all happened to Coifi, and he ordered those who followed him to set it on fire. All watched, some glad and some afraid, as the little temple burned.

Then came a busy time for Paulinus and his followers. They worked hard, teaching the king and Coifi and as many as they could about Christ and his Church. A little wooden church was quickly built in York, where Paulinus could hold services. Next Easter Day there was a great gathering to see the king baptized. After that there were so many Northumbrians who wanted to hear about Christ that Paulinus had to go from place to place preaching and teaching those who wished to be Christ’s followers.

 

The Crosses of Northumbria

 

Six years later King Edwin was killed in battle, and then a sad time came to Northumbria. Heathen enemies came and killed many of the first Christians and drove them away. Paulinus the priest escaped with the queen back to Kent, and very few Northumbrians kept to their Christian faith in those difficult times. Two young kings after Edwin were killed, and then the nearest heir to the throne was Oswald, who was the son of the old king Ethelfrith, of the royal house of Bernicia.

Ethelfrith had been Edwin’s enemy, but Oswald was very different from his fierce father. When Edwin became king, Ethelfrith’s son had fled, Oswald and his brother escaping to the island of Iona, off the west coast of Scotland. It was a very famous place in those days, for the Irish saint Columba had started a wonderful monastery there. The people over in the west beyond Northumbria, in Ireland and in parts of Wales and Scotland, had been converted to Christianity long ago while the Anglo-Saxons were still heathen. So although Oswald never met Paulinus and the missionaries from Rome, he learned about Christ in Iona, and became a true and loyal follower. He listened to tales told by the monks about their founder. Columba had been a proud young prince in Ireland, who became a Christian and a monk. But he made war against an Irish king, and as a punishment he was told to leave Ireland and go to a place where he could not see his home, and there he must win as many men for Christ as he had killed in battle. So Columba sailed to Iona and built the monastery there.

By and by Oswald decided he must go back and rescue Northumbria from its enemies. So he came back with twelve faithful thanes, who had followed him into exile, and a small army. They marched across northern England until they came to a part of the moors near Hexham, up beside Hadrian’s Wall. here the enemy, King Cadwallon, waited with a far larger army.

The night before battle, Oswald set a rough wooden cross in the ground, holding it firm with his own hands while the soldiers stamped in earth around it. Then he called to them all to kneel with him and pray to God to save them from their cruel and savage enemy. It was the custom of the kings of Northumbria to go into battle with the king’s royal standard, which could be stuck into the ground so that they could fight round it, but Oswald wished to fight with the cross itself as his banner. That night he slept soundly, and he told them afterwards that in his sleep he had seen the holy St. Columba himself and that he had promised him victory on the next day.

So he and his men attacked with high hopes at dawn, and small though their army was, they won a great victory. From that time the place where the cross was set up was called Heavenfield, and there the cross remained standing, until it was all overgrown with moss. The Northumbrians loved to tell the story of how the first cross was raised in their land, and the Christian faith came back to them with King Oswald. They always loved stories of battles and fighting against odds, and this was one after their own heart.

Northumbrian CrossAs time went on, many other crosses were set up in Northumbria. In lonely places where there was no church, Christian people used to gather near the cross to hear the priests who came to preach to them. Other crosses were set up outside churches for the glory of God, or to mark the spot where there had been some great happening. They were made of wood and stone. Some, like Oswald’s cross, were simple, but others were very elaborate and beautiful. You can still see many of them standing today, though often broken in pieces now. The Northumbrians carved their crosses carefully and lovingly. Some have twisted patterns, like this one.

Others have pictures from Bible stories, or lives of saints. One of the most beautiful of these crosses is one you can still see at Ruthwell. For many years it stood in the open, and at one time the top was broken off, but now it has been placed inside the church to keep it from further harm from the weather. Though it is so worn, we can still see that it is like a great picture-book in stone. There was a picture of Christ’s birth, of the flight of Joseph and Mary with the infant Jesus into Egypt, of Christ healing the blind man, of the Crucifixion, of two saints meeting in the desert, and many other things besides. The two largest pictures are of Christ; in one He is standing in majesty, with evil creatures trampled beneath His feet, and in the other He is standing beside Mary Magdalene, who kneels before Him:

Christian art

These were all new stories for the Northumbrians, and this was a new kind of art for them too. They had long been able to make up wonderful patterns and queer animals, but they had never learned to do pictures of dignified men and women, like the ones you see in the sculptures of Greece and Rome. These figures of Christ are in the new kind of art, but when you look at the figure of Mary Magdalene, with her hand and her hair turning into a kind of pattern, you see something nearer the kind of picture they were accustomed to make. We do not know who made the Ruthwell cross, but whoever these men were, they knew the old runic letters as well as the new style of carving, for if you look at the sides of the cross, you will find that they have written out part of a poem in runes round the border.

Ruthwell Cross

This poem was an Anglo-Saxon one, perhaps composed by a Northumbrian poet after he became a Christian; it is a very beautiful poem about the Cross of Christ, and we call it ‘The Dream of the Rood’. (Rood is the old word for cross.) The Cross is supposed to be speaking, and telling how it felt when the Son of God hung upon it. He seemed a brave young warrior, going out to the Cross as a hero goes into battle, for the poet thought Him like one of the old heroes, of whom the Northumbrians loved to tell in their poetry. Not very much of the poem is written out in runes, but by a most lucky chance a great deal more of the same poem was written down in an Anglo-Saxon book later on, and we still have this book, so that we know what these runes are about.

You can imagine that men came from far to see a wonderful cross like this. About the same time, another beautiful cross was put up not far away at Bewcastle, and perhaps the same artist worked on it. It has many patterns, the kind the Northumbrians loved:

This cross too has runes on it, very skilfully carved; we can still read these, and they tell us that the cross is a memorial set up for a king of Northumbria. You can see them in the picture.

Bewcastle Cross

The Monks from Iona

 

The first priests of Christ, you remember, came from Rome, sent by the Pope. But when young King Oswald defeated his enemies and became king of Northumbria, he at once thought of the holy monks of Iona, and sent them messengers asking for a bishop to help him win his people to Christ. The monk who was sent was grim and stern. When he preached to the people they did not believe him. Many people grumbled, saying that ever since they gave up the old religion and became Christians, bad luck had come to them. The monk from Iona shouted at them and scolded them, but they would not listen. So, although Oswald was very sad, the monk gave up and went back to Iona. he told his fellow monks that the Northumbrians were rough, uncivilized barbarians, and that it was impossible to teach them.

There was a long discussion, and at last one man, whose name was Aidan, a man of great gentleness but also of much good sense, rose and said quietly that perhaps the brother who had gone to Northumbria had been too hard on these simple people: “He ought to have remembered what the Apostles did when they preached to men who did not know Christ”, he said; “they talked to them very simply at first, just as children are fed on milk before they can eat meat, and they only taught them the more difficult parts of Christ’s faith as they grew able to understand it.” Everyone thought this a very wise speech, and the end of it was that they decided Aidan himself should go and see what he could do.

So Aidan came as the new bishop to the hall of King Oswald. From the time he arrived, things began to change in Northumbria. For Aidan lived so simply and humbly himself, and he taught the people so clearly and well and showed such love for them, that before long the Northumbrians flocked to hear him, and forgot all the hard things they had been thinking about Christ’s Church. Oswald, too, won victories over his enemies, and the land became united and a great kingdom again as it had been under Edwin.

Although Aidan was bishop of Northumbria, he lived as simply as when he was a monk at Iona. he went about the country on foot whenever he could, and when the king or nobles gave him splendid gifts, he gave them away to the poor. Once when he was growing old, the king gave him a specially fine horse, so that he could travel more quickly and easily. But it was not long before the bishop met a poor man on the road. He stopped at once, as he always did, for it was his habit to speak to all he met. The man told him such a sad story that he was filled with pity and immediately gave his horse to the stranger, and went on his way on foot as usual.

When the king heard this, he was angry. When the bishop came to dine with him in the hall, he asked him outright why he had given away the royal horse, which was specially meant for him. “Surely”, said the king, “there are plenty of ordinary horses good enough for beggars?” But Aidan was neither angry nor dismayed. He merely looked at the king and said: “What are you saying, Sire? Do you really value the foal of a mare more than the Son of God?” To this the king could find no answer. He stood for a while by the fire, and then, taking off his sword, he knelt down at the feet of the bishop, in the sight of all the company assembled for the feast, and begged his forgiveness.

King Oswald did not reign for long. Like Edwin, he was killed in battle against a heathen enemy. After his death he was thought of as a saint. It is said that his last words before he fell in battle with his faithful followers round him was a prayer for the souls of his warriors who were dying at his side. This time the Christian Church in Northumbria did not come to an end with his death; indeed it became stronger, and after a few years another king, Oswy, won a great victory over the heathen enemies of Christian Northumbria.

rune
Close Up of Part of Runic Inscription on the Ruthwell Cross.

Glossary

 

  • Baptism – Ceremony by which a new member is received into the Christian Church: in those days he was dipped in the water of sea or river and then dressed in new white robes.
  • Thanes – Warrior or councillor of noble birth in the king’s service.
  • Uncivilized – Ill-mannered and ignorant.

St. Aidan of Lindisfarne

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