Conversion of England and Northern Scotland to Christianity

From A Smaller Social History of Ancient Ireland 1906

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CHAPTER VI....continued

Conversion of England and Northern Scotland.—Towards the end of the sixth century the great body of the Irish were Christians, so that the holy men of Ireland turned their attention to the conversion of other people. Then arose—almost suddenly—an extraordinary zeal for spreading the Gospel in foreign lands: and hundreds of devoted and determined missionaries left our shores. By a curious custom, not found elsewhere, each chief missionary going abroad brought with him twelve companions, but sometimes they went in much larger bodies.

On every side we meet with evidences of the activity of the Irish in Great Britain. Iona was founded in 568 by St. Columkille, a native of Donegal, and from this illustrious centre, he and his monks evangelised northern and western Scotland. The whole western coasts of England and Wales abound in memorials of Irish missionaries. Numbers of the most illustrious of the Irish saints studied and taught in the monastery of St. David in Wales; St. Dunstan was educated by Irish monks in Glastonbury, as his biographer, William of Malmesbury, testifies; and there is good reason to believe that Cuthbert of Lindisfarne, one of the most illustrious of the saints of Britain, was a native of Ireland. Lanigan, in his "Ecclesiastical History" (II. 174), writes:—

"The Irish clergy and monks undertook the duty [of preaching to the Anglo-Saxons] as soon as a fit opportunity occurred, and have been on that account praised by Bede. It can scarcely be doubted that they were the instruments used by the Almighty for the conversion of those early Anglo-Saxon Christians in Columba's time; and that, with regard to a part of that nation, they got the start of the Roman missionaries in the blessed work of bringing them over to the Christian faith."

The Roman missionaries, under St. Augustine, arrived in England in 597, and succeeded in converting the Anglo-Saxon people of the kingdom of Kent. But in the north of Britain, including the large kingdom of Northumbria, Christianity made little headway till St. Aidan began his labours in Lindisfarne in 634. Aidan was an Irishman descended from the same kingly race as St. Brigit; he was educated at home, and, like so many of his countrymen, entered the monastery of Iona. After some time he was commissioned by the abbot and monks to preach to the Northumbrian Saxons, at the request of their good King Oswald that a missionary might be sent, this king being himself a zealous Christian who had spent some years in exile in Ireland, where he had been converted and received his education. Aidan, who had been consecrated a bishop, chose as his place of residence the little island of Lindisfarne, where he founded the monastery that became so illustrious in after ages. For thirty years—from 634 to 664—this monastery was governed by him and by two other Irish bishops, Finan and Colman, in succession.

Aidan, assisted by a number of his fellow-countrymen, laboured zealously, and with wonderful success, among the rugged Northumbrian pagans. "Many of the Scots"—writes the Venerable Bede—"came daily into Britain, and with great devotion preached the Word to those provinces of the English over which King Oswald reigned." These earnest men had the hearty co-operation and support of the king, of which Bede has given an interesting illustration in a passage where he tells us that as Aidan, on his arrival in Northumbria, was only imperfectly acquainted with the language, King Oswald, who had learned the Irish tongue while in Ireland, often acted as his interpreter to the people.

Montalembert, in his account of this mission, writes:—

"Forty-eight years after Augustine and his Roman monks landed on the shores of pagan England, an Anglo-Saxon prince [Oswald] invoked the aid of the monks of Iona in the conversion of the Saxons of the north. . . . The spiritual conquest of the island [Britain], abandoned for a time by the Roman missionaries, was now about to be taken up by the Celtic monks. The Italians [under Augustine] had made the first step,* and the Irish now appeared to resume the uncompleted work. What the sons of St. Benedict could only begin, was to be completed by the sons of St. Columba."

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* But we know that the monks from Ireland were beforehand with St. Augustine: see Lanigan's observations above.