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The Christianisation of Britain

Celts had come to Britain and Ireland between 500 and 300 BC and settled throughout the islands. They were Christianised in the 4th century AD, probably first in Ireland, then in Scotland and the north of England. Many monasteries were found in these areas and testify to the vitality of the Celtic church. Because the Celtic church was already established in the north of Britain by the time the Germanic tribes were Christianised from the south, there was tension between the Celtic and the Roman church.

The English were formally Christianised in 597 when Augustine, who was sent by Pope Gregory I with a group of missionaries, arrived in England. He was made Archbishop of Canterbury in 601, establishing this city as the centre of British bishops before his death in 604, a tradition which has remained since. By the end of the seventh century, most of Germanic speaking England had become Christian.

St. Augustine

Canterbury Cathedral

Although the south of England is taken to have been christianised by St. Augustine of Canterbury, the north of England had already been largely christianised by Irish and Scottish monks. The island of Iona was an important centre of the early Celtic church in the north and is particularly associated with Saint Saint Columba (521-597), or Colmcille (Irish ‘Dove of the Church’), who was chief monk there and who gave the island its Irish name Oileán Cholm Cille ‘Island of Colmcille’.

Saint Columba, early leader
of the Celtic church

Iona in Western Scotland (location)

Iona in Western Scotland (detail)

Church on the island of Iona, western Scotland

The Synod of Whitby in 664 basically resolved the rivalry between the Celtic and the Roman Church in favour of the latter. The image below shows the ruins of St. Hilda’s abbey on the coast of Yorkshire.