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"King Arthur", the sixth century,
and the end of the Old Church
Celtic Christianity, part 2 of 3

 

Introduction

In the late sixth century, Gregory came to power in Rome, and turned his attention north and west. Through the highly effective Augustine, and eventually the Synod of Whitby, he ensured that Celtic Christianity was largely a memory.

The power was given to Rome.

When Gregory called the Angles "angels", he did not realize the tragic irony. By converting the Angles to Roman Christianity, he was possibly destroying the very last scrap of the heavenly truth.


AD 518: "King Arthur", Britain's last hope

The Battle of Badon Hill

Britain made one last heroic (in every sense of the word) effort to regain its former freedom. There was one last great victory over the Saxons, the battle of Badon hill in 518, led by a general whom legend has named Arthur. The great battle of Badon Hill gave the Britons some breathing space. According to legend, Arthur tried to bring back a land of good works and high standards, a land of Justice and peace.

Arthur's religion

Arthur was not a priest, but he did what little he could to reform the church. According to Gerald's 'Journey', he moved the Archiepiscopal See (the local church headquarters) further away from Saxon influence - from Caerlon to Menevia (in western Demetia by the Irish Sea). According to legend, he established an order of knights in order to defend the country, re-enthrone righteous behaviour, and recover the lost "Holy Grail" (discussed elsewhere).

Arthur was at heart closer to Pelagius than Germanus. As Sinclair puts it (p. 14, 18), "The heresy of salvation through good works was the inspiration of the knights on the quest for the grail".

The Holy Grail was never regained

Arthur did his best. But ultimately he failed to restore the golden age. He was killed. It has been argued that he succeeded long enough that the original barbarian invaders were replaced by a somewhat more civilized second and third generation, and thus some trace of the British way of life was able to survive. But his main aim was not achieved. The Angles and Saxons won. The Grail was not restored.


AD 570s: There was "no Arthur"

But there was "Merlin," and great interest in St George


Gordur "was no Arthur"

Arguably the earliest record of the name "Arthur" is from the late sixth century (some scholars believe it is a ninth century work). One of the most important sources for Arthurian history "is the collection of heroic death-songs known as Y Gododdin, relating to a battle fought in the late 6th-century. In recent years there has been considerable debate over the statement in Y Gododdin that Gordur 'fed black ravens on the rampart of a fort, although he was no Arthur' " - see the historiciy of Arthur. This seems to refer to the battles around AD 570 - especially the Battle of Dyrham in 577. The article goes on to discuss how Arthur, by this time, was known as the kind of hero who had gone forever.

N.B. the above article argues at great length that Arthur was not a literal person, but a symbol ofthe times. That is pretty much what I am saying here. The legends of Arthur are significant mainly because they show that something extraordinary and terrible was going on in Britain in the sixth century.

Merlin and the dragons

Although Arthur probably lived in the early sixth century, Merlin probably lived around the year 570. As Nikolai Tolstoy describes in "Quest for Merlin:"

...Merlin was indeed an historical figure, living in what are now the lowlands of Scotland at the end of the sixth century A.D...an authentic prophet, most likely a druid surviving in a pagan enclave of the north.

In the twelfth century, the depths of the Dark Ages, when the powers of the world controlled the church, Geoffrey of Monmouth published what he claimed were the prophecies of Merlin. (For a translation from the Latin, see "Merlin, the Prophetic Vision and Mystic Life," Penguin Arkana, 1994. A New Age commentary is at http://www.dreampower.com/.) Although much of may be doubtful there are indications that he claimed to be copying from an authentic earlier source. I am not claiming that hese are true prophecies, but at the least they do reflect how the medieval British saw their history.

According to Monmouth, Merlin spoke of the Celts (British) and the invading Saxons (Germanic tribes) as dragons battling eachother. The prophecies speak of Arthur defeating the Saxons, then several other kings maintaining his success, then final defeat, which is assumed to mean to the Battle of Dyrham in 577. The important point is that the date for Britain's final defeat is given as the 570s. (Monmouth goes on to describe the occasional success in later centuries, but the initial damage has been done. The unbroken line of British freedom was over.)

George and the dragon

In this context, it is significant that interest in St George (who later became England's patron saint) parallels the interest in Arthur. Like Arthur, it was about a chivalrous knight who rescues his land, it was popularized at the height of the Dark Ages (in the book "The Golden Legend" in 1265) and it looked back to an earlier, golden age. Like Arthur, the need for a hero came in the period around 570, although the historical George was from much earlier. "The origin of the legend of the dragon remains obscure. It is first recorded in the late sixth century." (source)

"St George's popularity flourished during the sixth century when his renown spread like wildfire throughout the east and travelled along the established routes of the Mediterranean waters and hinterland to the farthest Christian outpostsof the ancient Western world. Numerous legends, that is written accounts to be read in Christian assembly, of his sufferings and death started to appear and multiply during the sixth century." (source)

".... Legends about him as a warrior-saint, dating from the 6th century, became popular and increasingly extravagant. ... George's slaying of the dragon may be a Christian version of the legend of Perseus, who was said to have rescued Andromeda from a sea monster near Lydda....." - Britannica online.

A sea monster? This seems to draw on the legend of leviathan - the Beast who gained control in the sixth century.


AD 570: The death of Gildas, the triumph of the Saxons, the end of hope

With some decisive advances around the year 570, the Saxons were victorious. With the British culture submerged, there was nothing to stop the dominance of the Germanic tribes and the Roman church - the "little horn".

Most of what we know of this period comes from the great British historian Gildas. He charted the decline of Britain in the sixth century. Gildas may have been a keystone of the Celtic church. "The busy connections within the shrunken Celtic world are constantly referred to". (Lehane, p.96)

Gildas was anything but impartial when it came to Celtic culture, calling the invading Saxons "the scum of the earth" (Lehane, p.96).

While he did not make the direct connection between the new Roman religion, he seems to imply that the church had lost its spirit. As Bede puts it (book 1 chapter XXII),

"Among other most wicked actions not to be expressed, which their own historian Gildas mournfully takes notice of, they added this - that they never preached the faith to the Saxons, or English, who dwelt amongst them".


The "Watershed"

Gildas and the death of the English Celtic church

Concerning the dying Celtic church, Lehane writes (p.96):

"Flickers of glory there may have been. [but] The general scene was of dying embers. And Gildas was not of a sanguine disposition. He was of the mould of Job, and the name of his surviving work is 'Concerning the Destruction and Overthrow of Britain'."

Gildas died in 570. The previous few decades had seen the Angles and Saxons totally defeat the Britons. The Britons (the Celts) had been fighting a losing battle for some time, but this period signaled the end of all opposition. The great plague of 547 had affected the Britons far worse than the Angles and Saxons, who spent the remaining years mopping up the remnants and ensuring Anglo-Saxon supremacy in England.

"The years around 550 were the real watershed for Britain. . . . [The plague provided] the impetus for another surge against the weakened natives. . . . Many libraries may have been destroyed, and the shape of England's political and dynastic landscape for centuries to come was formed." (Magnusson p.33, emphasis added).

Why did the English church give up?

As the Angles and Saxons mixed with the Britons, we might expect that the cultures would mix - that some of the Britons' Celtic Christianity would be shared with the Saxons. But it did not. The British church, as its members died, made no attempt to share what they had. This is particularly surprising when we remember that early Christianity thrived on persecution.

As noted above, the Britons did not even attempt to preach the gospel to the invading Angles and Saxons. Something happened in this period that made the English church give up hope. The Irish church fought bravely, and with much success, but the English church just gave up. While the Irish were vigorously preaching their gospel across political borders, while the Roman church had turned its political oppressors (the Roman state) into its friends, the English church did not even try. It had had given up. Something had happened that made it decide that either (a) it no longer had the spirit for it, or (b) it had nothing to offer.

I will argue further on and on the page on the grail that the reason the English church was so defeatist, the reason they gave up, is that in the sixth century they lost the one thing that justified their existence: priesthood authority.


St Brendan

St Brendan, the last vain hope

Celtic culture had once flourished in England, Ireland, Cornwall, and Wales. Gildas had seen it entirely destroyed in England, and the kingdoms of Wales and Cornwall were being ruled by wicked men. His only hope was Ireland, and his contemporary, Saint Brendan.

Just before Gildas died, he was visited by the great St Brendan. He knew Brendan was coming because of a vision, and referred to Brendan as "a second Peter the apostle". But Brendan could not save Celtic Christianity. The Irish Celtic church had claimed many things, but it had never claimed the authority to run the church. Only England had claimed that authority (through Glastonbury). And somehow, whether by a continuing decline, the popularity of hiding their light in monasteries, or due to the violence of the Saxon invaders, English priesthood authority - its most precious possession - had been lost.

St Brendan, miracles, and America

Saint Brendan was a remarkable man, a great missionary, leader, and a man of miracles. There is evidence to suggest that he followed earlier seafarers in making a sea voyage to America. The accounts have been greatly exaggerated (as is normal for early medieval accounts of saints), but enough clues remain (such as descriptions of icebergs and volcanoes) to suggest that the accounts may be based on truths. Some scholars think the native American legends of Quetzalcoatl, the fair, bearded visitor from the east, may have been influenced by Brendan's visit. (Lehane, p.84)

Just seven years after Gildas, Brendan died too. And something irreplaceable died with him. Brendan, and the earlier Celtic saints, were known for their great signs and miracles (see Mark 16:17-18). But later Celtic saints, though great men in their way, were increasingly known for more earthly works. "It was the end of an era". (Lehane, p.99)

The modern day St Brendans

Latter-day Saints may be interested to note that Brendan died in 577 (according to Lehane). Precisely 1260 years later, in 1837, a new era began - proclaimed as a restoration of the ancient gospel. Missionaries with British ancestry came from the land that Brendan may have once visited - America - to bring the long-promised priesthood back to Britain and Ireland.

The first of these missionaries, Heber C. Kimball, experienced powerful spiritual manifestations (especially in the Ribble valley area near Preston). He was later told by the prophet Joseph that this area had been dedicated for the future preaching of the gospel by ancient prophets who had walked this land. For who these ancient prophets might have been, see the page on Joseph of Arimathea.



The Celtic church after 570

The Celtic church achieved many great things after 570, with missionaries from Iona, and the rise of scholarship. But missionaries and scholarship are not the same as authority. Ireland had the strength but not the apostolic authority. England had once claimed the authority, but everything worthwhile in England had (according to Gildas) been destroyed by the invading Saxons. The Celtic church after 570 was not characterised by heavenly miracles or ownership of the grail". That had been lost.

AD 570, Gregory, and Augustine

570 was the year that Gildas, the man who devoted his life to saying "something is dreadfully wrong", died. This was also the year that Gregory came to power - Gregory, the man who was to reverse the decline of Rome, and later create the medieval Papacy.

Gregory's attention had been turned to the north by the invading Lombards in 568-571. Long before he became Pope, Gregory he had seen people from Britain in a Roman slave market and asked to be sent as a missionary to convert them. He probably considered it his life's work, and had his success in converting them inscribed on his tomb. (For details, see Bede). Gregory was prevented from going himself as a missionary to Britain - he was too popular in Rome. But when he became Pope he sent Augustine to convert the British to the Roman way.

The case against Augustine

When Augustine arrived, he asked the Britons to submit to Rome. The Celtic church sent seven wise men to see if Augustine was from God. They asked a holy man for advice. The holy man told them that Jesus and been meek and humble, and gave them a simple test to see if Augustine was a humble man of God - would he rise to greet them, or would he stay seated on his throne? Augustine failed the test. (See Bede, book II chapter II)

When Augustine saw that the Britons would not obey him, he "prophesied" (other historians say "threatened") that the Britons would receive death at the hands of the invading Angles.

The seven wise Britons came from the town of Bangor of S. Dunod. By the time of Augustine's death, most of the nation, especially the invading Angles and Saxons, had embraced Roman Christianity. Soon after, an army of Angles invading Bangor. Their leader, Ethelfrid, sent some of his soldiers to massacre twelve hundred unarmed Celts who had come to pray. As one historian puts it, "Something more than suspicion rests upon the Anglican Roman Catholic Mission with respect to this massacre of Christian ministers." ( - The Pictish Nation, by Archibald B. Scott. Edinburgh: T.N.Foulis, 1918 p. 182-185. The entire chapter, entitled "Changes in the Sixth Century", is worth reading).

The synod of Whitby, confirming the death of Celtic Christianity.

Whitby Finally, as a result of the conflict between the Roman and Celtic churches, a synod was called at Whitby in Northumbria. This was officially to decide the date of Easter (the Celtic church insisted on the date that John, the last surviving apostle, had given, but the Roman church disagreed). But the actual significance of that synod was far greater.

The synod of Whitby saw the official defeat of the remains of the Celtic church at the hands of the Papacy. It also saw the reversal of the earlier success of the Irish Celtic church. It simply confirmed what had happened a few years earlier: the Celtic church was, to all intents and purposes, dead.

Concerning the synod of Whitby, Lehane writes (p.208-9):

. . . this is not to overstate the case, though the context and conduct of the trial seem modest and restricted. . . . In England, Whitby was a turning point, a necessary climax. It turned the scales in favour of Rome. From now on the city of Peter was to be the center of civilisation and the arbiter of religion. . . . The Irish had restored the faith in Britain and in a large part of the continent . . . and now they were reversed, banished for the felonies of tonsure and calendar by men who were newer to religion than they. . . . Nobody can calculate the loss to both parties."

The wrath of God

There was a sign in the heavens that something terrible was happening. Shortly before the great synod had reached its decision, there was a total eclipse of the sun. The zone of totality passed right over Whitby.

I have mentioned elsewhere that the changes of the late sixth century were accompanied by plagues of unprecedented scale. The tragedy of Whitby was no exception. How can we avoid concluding that this was the wrath of God, when we read (Lehane, p. 210, emphasis added):

"Almost immediately after the synod an epidemic of plague that had taxed the continent broke out in Britain and Ireland. It must have killed thousands, for all the English bishops save one were victims." Just as had happened during the abomination under Vortigern, the church leaders had chosen to forsake the true church and had again paid the price.

For how the Bible may have foreseen this, see the page on the number of the "Beast".



the bottom line

Celtic culture (and Celtic Christianity) is seeing something of a minor revival. Just look at the number of web sites devoted to it. They know they had something priceless, something unique. Once. A long, long time ago.


 

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