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§ 8. The Britons.


Literature: The works of Bede, Gildas, Nennius, Ussher, Bright, Pryce, quoted in § 7.


Britain made its first appearance in secular history half a century before the Christian era, when Julius Caesar, the conqueror of Gaul, sailed with a Roman army from Calais across the channel, and added the British island to the dominion of the eternal city, though it was not fully subdued till the reign of Claudius (a.d. 41–54). It figures in ecclesiastical history from the conversion of the Britons in the second century. Its missionary history is divided into two periods, the Keltic and the Anglo-Saxon, both catholic in doctrine, as far as developed at that time, slightly differing in discipline, yet bitterly hostile under the influence of the antagonism of race, which was ultimately overcome in England and Scotland but is still burning in Ireland, the proper home of the Kelts. The Norman conquest made both races better Romanists than they were before.

The oldest inhabitants of Britain, like the Irish, the Scots, and the Gauls, were of Keltic origin, half naked and painted barbarians, quarrelsome, rapacious, revengeful, torn by intestine factions, which facilitated their conquest. They had adopted, under different appellations, the gods of the Greeks and Romans, and worshipped a multitude of local deities, the genii of the woods, rivers, and mountains; they paid special homage to the oak, the king of the forest. They offered the fruits of the earth, the spoils of the enemy, and, in the hour of danger, human lives. Their priests, called druids,88    The word Druid or Druidh is not from the Greek δρῦς, oak (as the elder Pliny thought), but a Keltic term draiod, meaning sage, priest, and is equivalent to the magi in the ancient East. In the Irish Scriptures draiod is used for magi, Matt. 2:1. dwelt in huts or caverns, amid the silence and gloom of the forest, were in possession of all education and spiritual power, professed to know the secrets of nature, medicine and astrology, and practised the arts of divination. They taught, as the three principles of wisdom: “obedience to the laws of God, concern for the good of man, and fortitude under the accidents of life.” They also taught the immortality of the soul and the fiction of metempsychosis. One class of the druids, who delivered their instructions in verse, were distinguished by the title of bards, who as poets and musicians accompanied the chieftain to the battle-field, and enlivened the feasts of peace by the sound of the harp. There are still remains of druidical temples—the most remarkable at Stonehenge on Salisbury Plain, and at Stennis in the Orkney Islands—that is, circles of huge stones standing in some cases twenty feet above the earth, and near them large mounds supposed to be ancient burial-places; for men desire to be buried near a place of worship.

The first introduction of Christianity into Britain is involved in obscurity. The legendary history ascribes it at least to ten different agencies, namely, 1) Bran, a British prince, and his son Caradog, who is said to have become acquainted with St. Paul in Rome, a.d. 51 to 58, and to have introduced the gospel into his native country on his return. 2) St. Paul. 3) St. Peter. 4) St. Simon Zelotes. 5) St. Philip. 6) St. James the Great. 7) St. John. 8) Aristobulus (Rom. xvi. 10). 9) Joseph of Arimathaea, who figures largely in the post-Norman legends of Glastonbury Abbey, and is said to have brought the holy Graal—the vessel or platter of the Lord’s Supper—containing the blood of Christ, to England. 10) Missionaries of Pope Eleutherus from Rome to King Lucius of Britain.99    See Haddan & Stubbs, Counc. and Eccles. Doc. I. 22-26, and Pryce, 31 sqq. Haddan says, that “statements respecting (a) British Christians at Rome, (b) British Christians in Britain, (c) Apostles or apostolic men preaching in Britain, in the first century—rest upon either guess, mistake or fable;” and that “evidence alleged for the existence of a Christian church in Britain during the second century is simply unhistorical.” Pryce calls these early agencies “gratuitons assumptions, plausible guesses, or legendary fables.” Eusebius, Dem. Ev. III. 5, speaks as if some of the Twelve or of the Seventy had “crossed the ocean to the isles called British;” but the passage is rhetorical and indefinite. In his Church History he omits Britain from the apostolic mission-field.

But these legends cannot be traced beyond the sixth century, and are therefore destitute of all historic value. A visit of St. Paul to Britain between a.d. 63 and 67 is indeed in itself not impossible (on the assumption of a second Roman captivity), and has been advocated even by such scholars as Ussher and Stillingfleet, but is intrinsically improbable, and destitute of all evidence.1010    It is merely an inference from the well-known passage of Clement of Rome, Ep. ad Corinth. c. 5, that Paul carried the gospel “to the end of the West” (ἐπὶτὸτέρματῆςδύσεως). But this is far more naturally understood of a visit to Spain which Paul intended (Rom. xv. 28), and which seems confirmed by a passage in the Muratorian Fragment about 170 (”Profectionem Pauli ab urbe ad Spaniam proficiscentis ”); while there is no trace whatever of an intended or actual visit to Britain. Canon Bright calls this merely a “pious fancy” (p. 1), and Bishop Lightfoot remarks: “For the patriotic belief of some English writers, who have included Britain in the Apostle’s travels, there is neither evidence nor probability” (St. Clement of Rome p. 50). It is barely possible however, that some Galatian converts of Paul, visiting the far West to barter the hair-cloths of their native land for the useful metal of Britain, may have first made known the gospel to the Britons in their kindred Keltic tongue. See Lightfoot, Com. on Gal., p. 246.

The conversion of King Lucius in the second century through correspondence with the Roman bishop Eleutherus (176 to 190), is related by Bede, in connection with several errors, and is a legend rather than an established fact.1111    Book I., ch. 4: “Lucius, king of the Britons, sent a letter to Eleutherus, entreating that by his command he might be made a Christian. He soon obtained his pious request, and the Britons preserved the faith, which they had received, uncorrupted and entire, in peace and tranquillity, until the time of the Emperor Diocletian.” Comp. the footnote of Giles in loc. Haddan says (I. 25): “The story of Lucius rests solely upon the later form of the Catalogus Pontificum Romanorum which was written c. a. d.530, and which adds to the Vita Eleutherus (a. d.171-186) that ’Hic (Eleutherus)accepit epistolam a Lucio Britanniae Rege, ut Chrristianus efficeretur par ejus mandatum.’ But these words are not in the original Catalogus, written shortly after a. d.353.” Beda copies the Roman account. Gildas knows nothing of Lucius. According to other accounts, Lucius ((Lever Maur, or the Great Light) sent Pagan and Dervan to Rome, who were ordained by Evaristus or Eleutherus, and on their return established the British church. See Lingard, History of England, I. 46. Irenaeus of Lyons, who enumerates all the churches one by one, knows of none in Britain. Yet the connection of Britain with Rome and with Gaul must have brought it early into contact with Christianity. About a.d. 208 Tertullian exultingly declared “that places in Britain not yet visited by Romans were subject to Christ.”1212    Adv. Judaeos 7: ”Britannorum inaccessa Romanis loca, Christo vero subdita.” Bishop Kaye (Tertull., p. 94) understands this passage as referring to the farthest extremities of Britain. So Burton (II. 207): “Parts of the island which had not been visited by the Romans.” See Bright, p. 5. St. Alban, probably a Roman soldier, died as the British proto-martyr in the Diocletian persecution (303), and left the impress of his name on English history.1313    Bede I. 7. The story of St. Alban is first narrated by Gildas in the sixth century. Milman and Bright (p. 6) admit his historic reality. Constantine, the first Christian emperor, was born in Britain, and his mother, St. Helena, was probably a native of the country. In the Council of Arles, a.d. 314, which condemned the Donatists, we meet with three British bishops, Eborius of York (Eboracum), Restitutus of London (Londinum), and Adelfius of Lincoln (Colonia Londinensium), or Caerleon in Wales, besides a presbyter and deacon.1414    Wiltsch, Handbuch der Kirchl. Geogr. und StatistikI. 42 and 238, Mansi, Conc. II. 467, Haddan and Stubbs, l.c., I. 7. Haddan identifies Colonia Londinensium with Col. Legionensium, i.e. Caerleon-on-Usk. In the Arian controversy the British churches sided with Athanasius and the Nicene Creed, though hesitating about the term homoousios.1515    See Haddan and Stubbs, I. 7-10. A notorious heretic, Pelagius (Morgan), was from the same island; his abler, though less influential associate, Celestius, was probably an Irishman; but their doctrines were condemned (429), and the Catholic faith reëstablished with the assistance of two Gallic bishops.1616    Bede I. 21 ascribes the triumph of the Catholic faith over the Pelagian heresy to the miraculous healing of a lame youth by Germanus (St. Germain), Bishop of Auxerre. Comp. also Haddan and Stubbs, I. 15-17.

Monumental remains of the British church during the Roman period are recorded or still exist at Canterbury (St. Martin’s), Caerleon, Bangor, Glastonbury, Dover, Richborough (Kent), Reculver, Lyminge, Brixworth, and other places.1717    See Haddan and Stubbs, I. 36-40.

The Roman dominion in Britain ceased about a.d. 410; the troops were withdrawn, and the country left to govern itself. The result was a partial relapse into barbarism and a demoralization of the church. The intercourse with the Continent was cut off, and the barbarians of the North pressed heavily upon the Britons. For a century and a half we hear nothing of the British churches till the silence is broken by the querulous voice of Gildas, who informs us of the degeneracy of the clergy, the decay of religion, the introduction and suppression of the Pelagian heresy, and the mission of Palladius to the Scots in Ireland. This long isolation accounts in part for the trifling differences and the bitter antagonism between the remnant of the old British church and the new church imported from Rome among the hated Anglo-Saxons.

The difference was not doctrinal, but ritualistic and disciplinary. The British as well as the Irish and Scotch Christians of the sixth and seventh centuries kept Easter on the very day of the full moon in March when it was Sunday, or on the next Sunday following. They adhered to the older cycle of eighty-four years in opposition to the later Dionysian cycle of ninety-five years, which came into use on the Continent since the middle of the sixth century.1818    The British and Irish Christians were stigmatized by their Roman opponents as heretical Quartodecimans (Bede III. 4); but the Eastern Quartodecimans invariably celebrated Easter on the fourteenth day of the month (hence their designation), whether it fell on a Sunday or not; while the Britons and Irish celebrated it always on a Sunday between the 14th and the 20th of the month; the Romans between the 15th and 21st. Comp. Skene, l.c. II. 9 sq.; the elaborate discussion of Ebrard, Die, iro-schott. Missionskirche, 19-77, and Killen, Eccles. Hist. of Ireland, I. 57 sqq. They shaved the fore-part of their head from ear to ear in the form of a crescent, allowing the hair to grow behind, in imitation of the aureola, instead of shaving, like the Romans, the crown of the head in a circular form, and leaving a circle of hair, which was to represent the Saviour’s crown of thorns. They had, moreover—and this was the most important and most irritating difference—become practically independent of Rome, and transacted their business in councils without referring to the pope, who began to be regarded on the Continent as the righteous ruler and judge of all Christendom.

From these facts some historians have inferred the Eastern or Greek origin of the old British church. But there is no evidence whatever of any such connection, unless it be perhaps through the medium of the neighboring church of Gaul, which was partly planted or moulded by Irenaeus of Lyons, a pupil of St. Polycarp of Smyrna, and which always maintained a sort of independence of Rome.

But in the points of dispute just mentioned, the Gallican church at that time agreed with Rome. Consequently, the peculiarities of the British Christians must be traced to their insular isolation and long separation from Rome. The Western church on the Continent passed through some changes in the development of the authority of the papal see, and in the mode of calculating Easter, until the computation was finally fixed through Dionysius Exiguus in 525. The British, unacquainted with these changes, adhered to the older independence and to the older customs. They continued to keep Easter from the 14th of the moon to the 20th. This difference involved a difference in all the moveable festivals, and created great confusion in England after the conversion of the Saxons to the Roman rite.



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