Was Newbiggin an integral part of the march of Christianity?

Newbiggin St. Bartholomew
Newbiggin St. Bartholomew

The latest Morpathia nostalgia feature by Roger Hawkins.

THE Venerable Bede gives us our only comprehensive account of the conversion of the Anglo-Saxons. It began in 597 when St Augustine landed in Kent with a party of monks sent from Rome by Pope Gregory the Great.

Gregory’s instructions to Augustine were based on the belief that England was one kingdom. It was not. Traditionally, there were seven kingdoms, but more at that time.

Augustine died in 604, and despite his best efforts, only succeeded in converting Kent and Essex. Both relapsed into paganism in 616, though Kent only briefly, and all the other kingdoms remained obstinately pagan.

Things progressed rapidly in the next generation, however, when Edwin, King of Northumbria, married Ethelburga, a Kentish princess and a Christian.

Ethelburga was allowed to follow her own religion and bring her chaplain with her, a priest of Canterbury called Paulinus, who was almost certainly Italian.

Shortly before Ethelburga’s party left Canterbury for York, a journey they would have accomplished by sea, Archbishop Justus consecrated Paulinus as Bishop of York.

He was going to a pagan kingdom so, like it or not, was perforce a missionary bishop. York, however, was little more than a name.

Town life had survived reasonably well in Western Europe and places once the seats of Roman government were now the seats of bishops. Ecclesiastical officials in Rome tended to assume that the same was true in Britain. But it wasn’t.

The characteristic form of Anglo-Saxon settlement, whether royal estate or peasant hamlet, was an unenclosed scatter of buildings and small compounds.

So York – once a Colonia, an outstation of Rome itself – would not have looked remotely like a town to a man like Paulinus, though the ruins would tell him that it was one once.

The way to convert a kingdom in those days was to concentrate on the king and the nobility. Paulinus did so and in 627 had the satisfaction of baptising Edwin, his chief nobles and many of the common people in a specially-built wooden church at York.

After that, you cannot fault his energy in converting the ordinary people.

He spent 36 days on the royal estate at Yeavering, near Wooler, teaching and baptising them, apparently by the hundred, in the River Glen.

Where he failed, however, was in establishing any kind of church organisation. As far as one can tell from Bede, in all this time Paulinus was the only priest in Northumbria, and he had one assistant, James the Deacon.

Edwin was killed in battle in 633. Northumbria reverted to paganism, split into its component parts of Bernicia (Northumberland and Durham) and Deira (Yorkshire), and was twice invaded, each time with terrible cruelty, by a British king, Cadwallon of Gwynedd.

Oswald, son of Edwin’s predecessor, turned the tide. He was Edwin’s nephew, but in those days being a relation of the king did not mean he wouldn’t try to murder you, so Oswald and his brothers and sister were taken to an Irish monastery far up on the west coast of Scotland, now called Iona.

They became Christians and the boys learnt their warfare in Ireland.

In 634, he assembled an army at Heavenfield, north of Hexham and just beyond the Roman Wall. There he met and defeated Cadwallon and Cadwallon was killed.

Oswald, now the undisputed King of the whole of Northumbria, sent straightway to Iona for a bishop.

The first, Corman, found the Northumbrians ‘intractable men, and of a stubborn and barbarous disposition’, but the second, Aidan, was ideal.

Aidan was an Irishman – ‘not perfectly skilled in the English tongue’ – and we have the attractive picture of him preaching to the King’s ealdormen and thegns, and Oswald, who was bilingual, translating for him.

Oswald gave him an island, Lindisfarne, for his headquarters and Aidan at once did what Paulinus had failed to do – he sent away for helpers, most of them monks.

“From that time,” says Bede, “many came daily from the country of the Scots (ie Ireland and western Scotland), and with great devotion preached the Word to those provinces of the English over which King Oswald reigned.”

Aidan had two related tasks: First, to thoroughly convert the people of Northumbria, Paulinus’s conversion having been somewhat superficial; and secondly to establish a network of churches to keep them in the faith.

Bede says: “Churches were built in divers places; lands and other property were given of the king’s bounty to found monasteries; English children, as well as their elders, were instructed by their Scottish (ie Irish) teachers in study and the observance of monastic discipline.”

The engine for these tasks was the Anglo-Saxon minster. Minsters were not monasteries, but collegiate churches and in the early days typically consisted of a compound containing a church and other buildings, all of timber with thatched roofs.

Bede gives no detail about the churches built in ‘divers places’, but since he distinguishes them from monasteries it seems reasonable to equate them with minsters.

We need at this point to use historical imagination.

Starting from Holy Island, how would St Aidan go about the systematic conversion of the kingdom? Northumbria extended from the Humber to the Firth of Forth at that time and the best means of transport was by sea or navigable river.

Even on Roman roads, travel by land was slow and dogged with obstructions.

Given fair weather, the way to kick-start the mission was to send parties of helpers from Lindisfarne by sea to places up and down the coastline.

The first minsters, or mission stations as they were then, were almost certainly on the coast or on navigable rivers.

Although they may not all have been founded during that first phase of mission, Bamburgh (village, not castle), Warkworth, Tynemouth, South Shields, Jarrow, Gateshead, Wearmouth and Old Seaham are all examples of Anglo-Saxon churches on coastal or estuarine sites.

Some were proper monasteries, others non-monastic minsters.

Nobody, as far as I know, has identified the church of St Bartholomew at Newbiggin-by-the-Sea as an Anglo-Saxon minster, but three things suggest to me that it was.

First, there is a tradition that it was founded by monks from Lindisfarne.

If so, it is likely to have been among the earliest of the ‘divers places’.

Secondly, Church Point was just the kind of place that Celtic missionaries liked – a well-defined site, island or peninsula, with good access by sea.

That it was battered by every wind that blew and every wave that crashed on the seashore was, if anything, a recommendation.

Comfort was of no consequence, and indeed St Cuthbert used to set his fellow monks a good example by occasionally spending the night up to his neck in the sea.

Thirdly, although St Bartholomew’s has no visible Anglo-Saxon work, the ground-plan of the nave (where the congregation sits) is narrow in relation to its length.

This admittedly slender evidence suggests that it may be standing on the foundations of an Anglo-Saxon church, they being typically narrower than churches of the later medieval period.

Quotations from Bede’s Ecclesiastical History are from A.M. Sellar’s translation, available on www.archive.org