The Celtic Church

The ancient Celts were not an ethnic unit but a conglomerate of different peoples of Indo/European extraction. Although they were known to have reached Spain and the Atlantic coast sometime in the 6th century BC, the first mention of them in classical literature (as ‘Celts’) comes in Herodotus’ The Histories (c. 440 BC) where he said that the Keltoi (Celts) lived on the Upper Danube and ‘’… beyond the Pillars of Heracles…’’ There was no such thing as a ‘typical’ Celt for they ranged from the small and dark to the tall and blond but what they held in common was their related languages, laws, history and religion. By the 3rd century BC, the Celtic world stretched from Ireland in the west to the Black Sea in the east, from where they traded with China.

They also held territory from the Baltic region of Scandinavia and Russia, down to the Mediterranean coast, and it was only with the advance of the Greek and the Roman world that the Celtic one began to shrink geographically. Although the Celts had kings, Caesar says that the real power lay in the hands of the Celtic priests who were called Druids. Caesar thought that this priesthood originated in Britain before it spread to the continent, and it was their great power over the tribes that the Romans tried to eradicate.

Christianity and the Christian Church began with Jesus Christ of Judea (d. c. AD 34), whose early followers differentiated from their Jewish countrymen in that they believed that the long-awaited Messiah (Saviour) had come to earth to redeem mankind from original sin. This movement spread gradually throughout the Roman Empire but was not officially recognised until the Emperors Constantine the Great and Galen agreed in AD 313 on a policy of religious freedom for all – pagans and Christians. It was only after Christianity became legal that the first purpose-built Christian church of St. John Lateran (c. AD 317) was erected in Rome, to be followed shortly by the Vatican c. AD 324.

Christianity would have entered Britain with the Romans although archaeological evidence is sparse, and is seen mainly in the form of the chi-rho, which is etched into walls, lamps and other artefacts. The earliest written reference to Christianity in Ireland and Britain comes from Origen of Alexandra (d. c. AD 254) who wrote that those parts of Britain which were not under Roman sway, had been subjected to Christianity i. e. Northwest Scotland, Ireland, Brigantia (parts of northern England), Wales and Cornwall. We also know that 3 British bishops were present at the Synod of Arles in AD 314 – which means that there must have been some sort of Christian organisation by that time. However, there was no such a thing as a ‘unified’ Celtic Church with set beliefs and practices, for it had no centralised authority or hierarchy to tell it what to do (as did the continental Church). Basically, it developed local rules to suit local conditions, and interpreted the Scriptures as it thought best.

This isolationism from mainstream Christianity could lead to disaster and in fact, when the Romano-Britain St. Patrick was sold as a slave in Ireland (c. AD 388), he found old Christian communities that were actually lapsing back into paganism.

The only known first-hand contemporary account of Early Celtic Christianity is the Confessio (Confession) of St. Patrick (see above), which he wrote c. AD 430. This has no aura of the ‘exotic’ and, apart from one ‘miracle’ (where pigs appeared from nowhere to feed Patrick and his 28 starving companions); this is a straightforward account of the times. In it he frankly admits his unpopularity with the natives and of how he often had to compromise his principles by making shady deals with his enemies (mainly other Christians) to save his own life. The saint comes across as defensive and lacking in self-esteem, but also as a visionary and a dreamer, and a man of intense spirituality.

One of the earliest Celtic churches in Britain was the ‘White House’ of St. Ninian (c. AD 370-432) at Whithorn in Galloway, which he built when founding the first known monastery in the British Isles. The saint is believed to have taken this system from St. Martin of Tours (c. AD 316-397) who is credited with starting the monastic system in the West. St. Ninian’s church was unusual in that it was rectangular and built from stone, unlike the majority of early churches and monasteries, which were roundhouses, built of wattle and daub or wood. An idea of what it looked like can be seen in the stone built Celtic Church at Kilmakedar, Co. Derry, in Ireland c. AD 700 (see plate 1).

This structure was built at the time when most churches were changing their forms, and we know this because the outside view shows us that it was cruck constructed while the interior tells us that the designers were more familiar with carpentry than stone. The pilasters of the internal sidewall arcading are set too far apart for stone arcading while the lintels appear to be tenoned into the pilasters instead of sitting on top of them – imitating the method of wood-constructed churches. Thus, giving us evidence of the transitional stage between wood-built churches and stone.

One of Ninian’s monks (Saint Enda) took the monastic system to Ireland in c. AD 484, from where it probably spread to Wales. A little later, another Celtic monk, St. Columba, established a Celtic Church on the island of Iona off the western coast of Scotland. He was born in Ireland (AD 521) and founded several monasteries before leaving and spending most of the rest of his life on Iona. The saint and his followers preached among the Picts and established about 30 churches in the islands and on the mainland. Like other contemporary missionaries, Columba made use of political contacts such as his cousin Conall who was the ruler of Dalriada in Scotland. After Columba’s death on Iona (AD 597), his monks created the famous Book of Kells (c. AD 620) for their own particular mediator while more of his followers established the Celtic Church at Lindisfarne, at the invitation of King Oswald of Northumbria.

Thus, when Pope Gregory the Great (AD 540-604) sent Benedictine monks to convert the heathen Anglo-Saxons (of west England), a different kind of monasticism was already flourishing in Britain among the Celts. The Celtic Church was already established and had incorporated many pagan deities into its beliefs while also converting a large number of non-Christians to the religion.

At that time, the major areas of the Church were in Scotland, Ireland, Wales and Cornwall (see plate 2). Its form of belief is perhaps best seen in the British monk Pelagius (c. AD 380-430) who was condemned in AD 418 for ‘heresy’. He was the prototype of the wandering missionary who travelled to far-away places to spread the Gospel. Among his beliefs was the denial of original or ‘inherited’ sin, and the tenet that everyone could find their own path to God.

Many of the earliest religious sites were built upon the same spot as Druidic colleges and sacred pagan places. Early Celtic monasteries had separate, beehive huts (for each of the monks) and a round church thatched with reeds, straw or sods. Larger monasteries had separate refectories were they eat communal meals and these were either built from wattle or planks of wood. Stone was rarely used and this is why there is little trace of these ancient communities today.

The care of travellers, the poor, the widow and the orphan was seen as the most important part of a being a Celtic Christian. Some of these monasteries were located in remote spots, which were difficult to access. One of them was Skellig Michael, which was 7 miles from the coast of Kerry in Ireland. The monks lived on this island from the 6th to the 11 centuries, in stone built corbelled beehive huts and met in two boat-shaped oratories. Perhaps the best example of the latter is the Gallarus Oratory in Co. Kerry, Ireland (see plate 2).

The decline of the Celtic Church could be said to have started at the ‘’Synod of Whitby’’ where the Celtic and the Roman Churches came into open conflict in AD 644. On the face of it, the issue was over different practices and beliefs such as the style of tonsure that monks should adopt, the date of Easter, and the Pelagasian ‘heresy’. The real differences here were not theological, but cultural. Where the Celtic mind was mystical, mythological and symbolic, the Roman mind-set was simpler, practical and sometimes literal. These latter mores appeared to offer King Oswy (who had called this meeting), more than the Celtic Church could, and so Oswy adopted the customs and practices of that Church. The Celtic monks of Lindisfarne immediately left for Iona while the continental Benedictines moved in, and gradually, the continental practices began their dominance in England.

20 years after the decision at Whitby, the then king of Northumbria, Ocgfrid, launched his army on a sudden invasion of Northern Ireland where he burned and pillaged the churches and the monasteries of the Celtic practice. Later, he tried the same thing with the Picts of Scotland however, unlike their Irish counterparts, the Picts were forewarned and in AD 685, Ocgfrid and his army were massacred in Scotland at the battle of Nechtansmere (Forfar).

Throughout the next 200 years the pagan Vikings attacked both establishments and although the Celtic Church survived, it began to fade while the continental style revived and grew stronger through its greater resources and superior organisation.

High, stone ‘Celtic’ crosses are found all over the British Isles. They were erected as boundary markers, indicators of sacred places, places of prayer, and so on. Some of them are 20 feet high and all are sculpted with Biblical scenes or some form of decoration (see plate 3). A distinctive feature of the crosses is the ring around the vertical and horizontal bars. This is partly to reinforce the point of intersection between the two beams, and might also be a representation of the sun – as a vestige of pagan worship.

The first record of Glasgow’s patron saint St. Kentigern or ‘Mungo’ (dear beloved) is a note on his death in AD 612. Although there are many myths and fabrications about his life, we do know that he founded a new Celtic church beside the Molindinar Burn in Glascu (‘the green hollow’), when he was asked to become the bishop of Glasgow c. AD 580. However, Glasgow was not a cult centre – this existed at Govan (a few miles downriver), which was the pre-eminent religious centre in the area during the 9th, 10th, and 11th centuries. Govan was the site of the royal palace and Celtic church of the Strathclyde kings.

The church that stands on the site today, Govan Old Parish Church, contains an extraordinary collection of 27 Celtic crosses and hogback memorial tombstones, which were all carved during c. AD 800-1000. The church also holds the stone sarcophagus of ‘St. Constantine’, which is thought to date from c. AD 550. However, Constantine’s identity is uncertain and he could be an early saint or (what is more likely) a dynastic saint of the Scottish royal house who took over the area from the Strathclyde Britons (c. AD 860) when the Vikings captured Dumbarton Rock and gave the area to their ally, Constantine 1.

The sarcophagus is more likely to be a cult reliquary for a royal burial for it depicts a helmet swordsman out hunting stags with his dog, which is well known symbolry for a Royal hunting scene (see plate 5). When King David 1 shifted cult patronage in the 12th century to St. Kentigern in Glasgow, he did so because Govan held too many memories of the old royal house, and Govan’s production of Celtic crosses ceased.

Many of the Celtic missionaries were Irish such as Columban (c. AD 615) and his followers who left behind them some 60 monasteries in Frankish territory before the end of the 7th century AD. He also travelled through modern day Austria and Switzerland before ending his days at Bobbio in north Italy where he established a Celtic church. The Irish monk Fursa introduced the cult of St. Patrick into Germany, and other Celtic monks travelled on into Slavonic lands where they left remains of their churches behind.

For instance, a rectangular, stone built church (c. AD 800) in the Irish style was discovered in the 1950’s at Modra in (old) Moravia. The wandering Celtic monks on the continent were always held in high regard because of their of their scholarship and their spirituality and their influence in these Slavic regions lived on until at least the 1100’s. Some monks even travelled as far as Iceland (AD 795) where they told of how they deloused their shirts by the light of the midnight sun during the summer solstice.

During the 11th century, John of Ireland planted the Celtic Church among the pagan, Slavic Wends who tortured him to death c. 1066, while other Celtic monks went further to Russia, travelling through Bohemia and Poland before reaching Kiev c. AD 1089. The Christianity that they inspired in Europe was orthodox but singularly lacking in preoccupation with doctrinal issues and with scant regard for the authority of any ecclesiastical hierarchy. It was inevitable that the stronger organised continental system (with its world-wide claims) would eventually absorb the genuine, but uncoordinated Celtic Church.

Finally, the Celtic Church, as a separate entity, came to an end in Scotland when King David 1 of Scotland joined with the continental Roman Church in 1151, and in Ireland the following year when she did likewise at the Synod of Kells. The last Celtic bastion to hold out was Wales, which finally capitulated when King Edward 1 incorporated the Church there in to the Church of England c. 1282.