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Whitby, Council of

Background

The Council of Whitby convened in 664 AD according to the Bible Timeline with World History. It was held in the Kingdom of Northumbria many years after Pope Gregory sent a successful mission to England back in 596 AD. From its initial base in Kent, the Christianity that the monk Augustine (later Archbishop of Canterbury) brought to the shores of England spread to Northumbria, Scotland, and well into Ireland. The doctrines of Christianity, however, evolved and became so complex over time that by 664 AD the Kingdom of Northumbria found itself in a debate over when they should celebrate Easter and other Christian holidays.

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Attempts to resolve the issue about the date started as early as 325 AD in the Council of Nicaea, but the debates continued for many years in Christian-dominated cities in Europe, Asia Minor, and North Africa. Another attempt was made 200 years later by Dionysius Exiguus to calculate and reconcile the date of the Easter which was later adopted by the Church of Rome. This was the date that the monk Augustine took with him to England. It was later used by the English converts for when they celebrated the Easter.

Whitby_council
“Location of Northumbria”

But the Celtic Christians (Breton and Irish) used another date which they inherited from the Romans. They received the date from the early Christians and practiced it before communication between the island and Rome was cut off by the invasion of the barbarian tribes. The date that they followed in observance of the Easter was a week earlier than the Roman Catholic one, but there were instances when the date fell much later than the Roman. This, in turn, also affected the celebrations of other Christian holidays.

A House Divided

The royal family of the Kingdom of Northumbria was also divided on this issue: the Kentish-born Queen Eanfleda and her son, King Alchfrid on the Roman side and her husband, the King Oswiu on the Celtic/Ionan side. To settle the issue once and for all, King Oswiu invited bishops, clerics, and members of his own family to a meeting in the Abbey of Whitby in Northumbria. Abbess Hilda of Whitby presided the council and church authorities from both sides attended the meeting.

Those who favored the Roman date for Easter included the Irish missionary Ronan, Wilifrid (Abbot of Ripon), King Alchfrid, James the Deacon, a priest named Agatho, and Bishop Agilbert of Wessex. Abbot Coleman of Lindisfarne, various clerics, Abbess Hilda, and Cedd, the Bishop of Sussex made up those who favored the Celtic/Ionan date. The speakers included Abbot Colman and Abbot Wilifrid, but the Roman side won over the course of the discussion. Colman and his followers initially refused to accept the ruling and retreated to the abbey in the island of Iona where they kept the Celtic/Ionan tradition for many years. Meanwhile, the rest of England followed the decision of the Council of Whitby and celebrated Easter on the Roman calculation.

References:
Picture By Finn Bjorklid – detail from Wikimedia Commons file, Northumbria 802, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=25766987
“Synod of Whitby.” Synod of Whitby. Accessed July 27, 2016. http://www.wilfrid.com/Wilfrid_pilgrimage/Whitby_synod.htm
“Whitby.” Whitby. Accessed July 27, 2016. http://penelope.uchicago.edu/~grout/encyclopaedia_romana/britannia/anglo-saxon/earlychurch/whitby.html.
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