Celtic Christianities

Christianity reached Roman Britain during the third century at the latest. Traces of the new religion can be seen in archaeological finds from Roman times. In 314, three British bishops were signatories at the Council of Arles. In the late fourth century, the Christian layman and theologian Pelagius came from Britain to Rome, and in 429, after Roman rule had ended, Bishop Germanus of Auxerre made his way to Britain with the intention of fending off Pelagian tendencies. Although later hagiographical tradition claims that Germanus was influential in the development of the spiritual life of Celtic Christianity, there is no reason for associating both Patrick and the British abbot Illtud with him. Even as the time of the Romans was drawing to a close, the Christianisation of Britain was not yet complete; indeed, in remote Cornwall it may only just have got under way. In the second half of the fifth century, the invasion of the Anglo-Saxons caused the Britons to withdraw westwards, some of them even as far as Armorica on the mainland, which soon also came to be named Brittany. Writing in the sixth century, the Briton Gildas lamented the slide of both secular and religious leaders into moral decadence and called on them to repent. Gildas' lament, however, has to be read as part of his theological interpretation of the fate of Britain as a divine trial, and should therefore not be given too much significance.

British Christianity in fact even managed to gain ground during the period immediately after the end of Roman rule, crossing the former Roman frontier of Hadrian's Wall. The archaeological record provides at least sketchy indications that British Christianity spread to the Clyde and the Tay, but the density of its dissemination and the degree of church organisation it achieved remain unknown.

During the fifth century, the British bishop Ninian was active in Candida Casa (Whithorn [Galloway]). In the eighth century, it is recorded that he had been educated in Rome, erected a stone church in Whithorn (for which archaeological evidence exists)7 and was buried there in the episcopal church. No doubt his alleged Roman education did not enter the hagiographical tradition until Anglian times. It rendered him acceptable to the Anglian Church, in which British bishops were generally held to be non-canonical. Furthermore,

7 Peter Hill, Whithorn and St. Ninian.

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