A compelling account of the primitive Church in Romano-British society.
A few years ago I undertook the task of reading the 16 volume lives of the Saints by Sabine Baring-Gould (1834-1924). (The edition I read was published in 1898 by John C. Nimmo.) You might ask ‘why?’ which is understandable. There are several answers to this question, not the least being that my interest in the spiritual life of humanity meant that at some point in time I should at least take a look at it.
In volume 16, there are two essays concerning the history of the primitive Christian Church in Britain. In these essays Baring-Gould, the author, writes about a period of British history that to me, and to just about everyone I have ever spoken to about this subject, has always been shrouded in mystery. Like so many others I had resigned myself to accept that era to be the typical ‘dark-age’that would ever be veiled in the mists of time.
Because of this I have always been wary of the two currently accepted theories of the origins of Christianity in these islands. One being that there were but a handful of Christians in Britain until the mid-fourth century when St Patrick, bless him, spread the ‘word’ far and wide from Ireland.
The other being that Augustine, sent by the pope, arrived in Britain in 597, found very few Christians there, and, those he did find were deemed to be in error. In due course he converted them and the heathen Saxons to the true faith of Rome. Thus, happiness was established throughout the land. This depiction never worked for me.
The problem was, as far as I could see, having spent decades reading about such things, the state of affairs in this country was not as simple as many have supposed. Clearly the modern (post-Enlightenment) perception that the ancient Britons were merely a bunch of half-naked heathen savages covered in tattoos and painted blue (on special occasions), living in mud huts, and forever fighting their neighbours is more based on prejudice that reality.
Baring-Gould points out in his narrative that before the collapse of the Roman Empire; a collapse that precipitated the predatory raids of Irish and Scottish war bands, as well as the invasions of Angles, Jutes and Saxons, Britain was a civilised Romano-British Society which consisted of a mixture of different faiths. One of those faiths being Christianity.
In this context the ancient British Church existed, and typical of the Christian Church in the rest of the Empire, it consisted of established communities sharing the same beliefs and rites, the one difference being that Christian communities in Britain worked autonomously under the jurisdiction of independent bishops.This would have clearly been the case after the Great Persecution authorised by the Emperor Diocletian, which lasted eight year or so (303 – 311AD), and especially following the reforms of Constantine and his successors post 313, which granted religious freedom to Christians throughout the empire, and returned to them any properties previously confiscated by the state. In the late 4th century things changed as the Empire began to collapse. The legions were withdrawn from Britain to the continent and the people of Britain were left to fend for themselves unarmed and unaided.
Concerning this, Gildas, a Briton and a monastic who lived in the first half of the sixth century, relates in his work De Excidio Brittaniae (The oldest surviving record of post-Roman Britain), that following the withdrawal of the Roman legions in the late fourth century, Britain was left without appropriate military defences, and became subject to frequent predatory attacks and raids from the Picts in the North, who raided on land across the northern border and by sea along the East Coast, and from Irish raiders in the West.
At the same time internal civil conflicts that frequently turned into civil war, tore apart the fabric of the Romano-British society, resulting in a state of social anarchy which prevailed for much of the time throughout the fifth and sixth centuries.
This situation was further exacerbated by Anglo-Saxon invaders who from the mid-fifth century onwards accelerated their territorial expansion, and whose depredations upon the indigenous population destabilized the British Church to such an extent that the Church and many of its clergy were driven from eastern and central Britain into the West of Britain, the Highlands of both Scotland and Wales and across the sea to Ireland. Many fled to the region of Gaul we now know as Brittany.
How the ancient British Church (known today as the Celtic Church) and its people survived, against extraordinary and overwhelming odds, over many generations, is a story that Baring-Gould relates better than any writer I have ever come across, including modern ‘state of the art’ writers. He makes sense of a time of ‘myth and legend’, and reminds his audience that the Britons were a race of people struggling to survive against a relentless and merciless enemy hell-bent on genocide.
Baring-Gould’s narrative does challenge orthodox opinion, so much so, that he hid them in the Appendix Volume of The Lives of the Saints. Doubtless, avoiding the wrath of the Church Authorities of his time, who would not have approved of one of their priests (which he was) publishing a work that challenged orthodoxy.
How well-researched these essays may, or may not be, is matter for others to decide. But, I find no reason to doubt the integrity of his scholarship. In his life he was known and respected as a thorough and well-read researcher; indeed he still is in many quarters. What readers may discover for themselves is how few inaccuracies exist in his text when cross-referenced against the best of contemporary thinking on the subject.
Therefore, because I am a publisher of esoteric thought and radical spirituality, and Baring-Gould’s narrative most definitely fits into the latter, I have been moved to re-publish them because they have something to say, especially to the people of Britain.
I have published them under the title Ecclesiastica Celtia (of the Celtic Church). It consists of three books. The first explores the Celtic Church in Britain, the second explores the migration and development of the Celtic Church in Brittany, and the third consists of a glossary of pre-Augustinian Celtic Saints drawn from both The lives of the Saints (16 vols) and his The Lives of the British Saints (4 vols, published in 1913 by The Hon Society of Cymmrodorion).