Runnymede and Whitby

Whitby Abbey

The two excursions at the Durham symposium were a walk down to Palace Green to see the Cathedral and the Magna Carta exhibition, and a trip to Robin Hood’s Bay and Whitby (with a walk between the two).

This year is the 800th anniversary of the signing of Magna Carta, so there has been a lot of publicity. Durham holds the only surviving version of a 1216 issue of the document, and this was on show, together with a lot of material discussing the political and religious context and the subsequent history.

Magna Carta is widely regarded as the cornerstone of our liberties, but originally it was far from that; it was part of a power struggle between king and barons, and had little to say about the common people. Moreover, it seems to have been remarkably ineffective. As soon as King John escaped from the baron’s clutches, he asked the Pope to annul the document, which the pope did. The fact that it was re-enacted so many times during the following century shows how little observed it was. (If a law is strictly observed, it doesn’t need to be re-enacted.) It was later that it came to be seen in the way we now view it, in particular in the struggle between King and Parliament that preceded the English civil war of the seventeenth century.

So how come the king was able to appeal to the Pope as a higher authority? This is because of what was maybe a far more important event that happened 550 years earlier, the Synod of Whitby. (Our walk took us right past the ruins of the monastery where the synod took place, although they are of much later date. The monastery was then called Streonshalh, and was administered by St Hilda. The name Whitby was the result of the Viking invasion, which also precipitated the move of Cuthbert’s relics which ended in Durham – but that is another story.)

Christianity came to Northumberland from two directions: from Iona, where the missionaries had been brought up in the Celtic form of religion current in Ireland; and from Canterbury, founded by Augustine under the direction of Pope Gregory of Rome. There were many differences between the Celtic and Roman forms. The best known concerns the date of Easter: occasionally the rules adopted by the two sides led to Easter being celebrated a week earlier in the Celtic rite than in the Roman. But I think the most important differences were political. In Celtic Christianity, the bishop was often one of the monks of the local monastery, not always the most important. There was no contradiction between Cuthbert (whose remains are venerated in Durham cathedral) being bishop of Lindisfarne and his being a hermit on the remote Farne islands. By contrast, the Roman church was hierarchical, with bishops, priests and deacons like army officers and the laity the common soldiers.

Bede, the first English historian (whose remains are also in Durham cathedral), records in detail the debates at the Synod of Whitby in 664, called to resolve the differences between the two forms of religion. King Oswiu presided over the synod, and made the closing speech in which he decided in favour of the Roman view. In Bede’s account, the king was concerned to make the right choice so as not to risk the salvation of his soul. But it seems very likely that there was a big political element in the settlement. Wilfrid, the champion of the Roman cause, had already appealed to the pope in several disputes with his ecclesiastical colleagues. (As we saw, he was by no means the last to do so.) By choosing the Roman form of Christianity, Northumberland became firmly a part of Europe rather than of the Celtic fringe.

It could be said that 664 was when England (or at least an important part of England) joined Europe for the first time. Relevant for current debates, perhaps?

PS Why is there a pirate ship in the road outside the abbey? Don’t ask!

About Peter Cameron

I count all the things that need to be counted.
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