Wilfrid – Synod of Whitby

Synod of Whitby Mural by Juliet MacMichael in the St. Hilda Room, St. Hilda's Priory Sneaton Castle, Whitby, Yorks.

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The spreading of Christianity to the pagan settlers in Northumbria was not made any easier by the differing traditions of the Celtic monks who evangelised from Scotland with Irish roots, and the separate Roman mission of Pope St Gregory I the Great who commissioned Augustine to establish a mission in Kent.

The problem was that the Celtic traditions were sealed in a ‘time capsule’ of religious traditions that emanated from Columba when he formed a monastery one hundred years earlier, and most of the rest of the world (including apparently Ireland!) had moved on to adopt customs following more up to date and different Roman ways. Two pressing conflicts were the setting the date of Easter and also the form of tonsure (haircut) of the monks.

In the Celtic tradition the king was all-powerful (which suited the reigning king Oswiu) but now he had as his second queen Eanfled, a devout Roman Christian, where the head of the church was not the king but the Pope. Things might have been easier but for the fact that due to the differences in the calculation of Easter in the thirteen month lunar calendar, there could exist a situation in some years where Oswiu wanted to celebrate Easter at exactly the same time that Queen Eanfled was still fasting in Lent! The next occasion when this would happen was going to be 665 and that might explain why the Synod was called in 664!

Wilfrid, fresh from all his experiences of customs in Rome and Gaul, was an enthusiastic supporter of Roman ways. Oswiu’s son Alhfrith, sub-king of Deira, and Wilfrid’s friend, also became an enthusiastic follower of Roman traditions, just like his step-mother1 Eanfled. Things started to get critical in 660/1when king Alhfrith removed the Celtic abbot Eata from the monastery at Ripon (one of the twelve grants of land made by Oswiu after his defeat of Penda in 655) and controversially installed Wilfrid in his place; furthermore it would appear that Alhfrith took the unilateral step of adopting the Roman ways in Deira, thus putting the kingdom out of kilter with Oswiu’s Bernician part of Northumbria.

In 661 Finnan was succeeded as bishop of Lindisfarne by Colman, another Celtic monk from Iona and in the same year a Scottish monk Rohan strongly urged Colman to change to Roman customs throughout the land.

Oswiu, now seriously concerned about the religious differences that were threatening to destabilize his family and his kingdom decided to call a meeting of church leaders in 664 to resolve things once and for all. This became known as The Synod of Whitby as it was held at Hilda’s monastery.

There are two known accounts of this great meeting, Bede’s Ecclesistical History (III 25) and Eddius Steppanus’s Life of Wilfrid. (C10). Bede did not start his Ecclesistical history until 731 whereas Eddius was with Wilfrid as his choir cantor and therefore his account should be fresher and not second hand. However the time differences are not so significant as Eddius did not write his account until many years later between 710 and 720 and often seemed to write through very rose tinted spectacles! In any event Bede’s account is a much more robust and interesting read and the Synod meeting rises from the pages as a real courtroom drama.

Bede first set the scene where Agilbert, bishop of the West Saxons and friend of Alhfrith king of Deira and Wilfrid (recently made abbot of Ripon) was staying with them and, at the request of Alhfrith, Agilbert ordained Wilfrid a priest in his own monastery.

When the council meeting was called at Whitby, Bishop Colman, his Irish clergy, and Hilda supported the Celtic view whilst the Roman side was represented by Agilbert, one of his priests Agatho, Wilfrid, James the Deacon (formerly of Paulinus) and Romanus. The two kings Oswiu and his son Ahlfrith were present and the venerable bishop Cedd acted as interpreter.

After Oswiu opened the proceedings he invited Colman to make his case for continuing with the Celtic customs. Colman replied that he observed Easter as he had been instructed at Iona and cited that the method was that used by the evangelist John.

The king then asked Agilbert to expound on his method for the calculation and Agilbert, a Gaul, wisely suggested that Wilfrid speak as they both agreed on the method and that this would save going through an interpreter. Wilfrid then named all the major places in the world that the Roman method was adopted and intimated that it was only the Picts and the British who obstinately did otherwise and were ‘foolishly attempting to fight against the whole world.’ Colman objected to Wilfrid saying that they were foolish citing that they followed the apostle reckoned worthy to recline on the breast of the Lord (John).

At this Wilfrid explained that actually John celebrated Easter according to the decrees of Mosaic law from the evening of the 14th day of the first month (Nisan) irrespective of whether it fell on the Sabbath or not, whereas the Celtic calculation made Easter the first Sunday between the 14th and 20th day of the first moon. Wilfrid explained that the Roman calculation was based on Peter’s preaching in Rome where he waited for the rising of the moon on the 14th day of the first moon and if in the morning it was the Lord’s day, then Easter was on that day, if not, he waited for the first Sunday up to the 21st and began the Easter ceremonies the night before so it came about that Easter Sunday was kept on the first Sunday between the 15th and the 21st day of the first moon. Wilfrid then faced Colman and said ‘in your calculation you follow neither John or Peter, neither the law nor the Gospel.’

Colman then said that Anatolius had decreed that the calculation should be between the 14th and 20th day of the first moon and that was what Columba had followed. Wilfrid then proceeded to show that actually the Celtic calculation did not follow the 19 year lunar cycle used by Anatolius and implied in effect that Colman did not know what he was talking about!

Wilfrid, by clever argument, was able to show that the Roman ways stemmed directly from St. Peter, holder to the keys of heaven, and a superior authority to the Irish Columba advocated by bishop Colman. Oswiu asked Colman if it was true that Peter held the keys to heaven to which Colman said it was true. Oswiu then asked Colman whether he had evidence that equal authority was given to Columba to which Colman could only reply ‘Nothing’. Oswiu, who hardly wished to offend St. Peter lest he be denied passage to heaven, decided in favour of the Wilfridian party.

Hilda accepted the change to Roman ways but bishop Colman resigned his see and left Lindisfarne with many of his monks and returned to Iona.

Oswiu then appointed Eata, one of Aidan’s ’12 English Boys’ as abbot and Tuda, another Irishman of the Celtic tradition but compliant with Roman ways, as bishop of Lindisfarne.

664 proved to be a cataclysmic year in more ways that one. Bede recalls that on 3 May there was an eclipse of the sun and later a plague that first ravished the south and then found its way up to Northumbria and led to the death of the newly installed bishop Tuda! Bede goes on to say that ‘king Alhfrith sent the priest Wilfrid to the king of Gaul to be consecrated bishop for himself and his people’. This is a different and possibly more accurate interpretation to that offered by Eddius Stephanus in his Life of Wilfrid where he indicates that it was agreed Wilfrid should be made bishop and that Wilfrid argued for and gained the agreement of both Oswiu and Alhfrith to travel to Gaul to be consecrated in the Roman tradition by Roman rather than Celtic monks.

There is evidence of a growing rift between Oswiu and his son king Alhfrith as in 664/5 Ahlfrith wanted to go with Benedict Biscop on his second journey to Rome whilst Wilfrid was in Gaul, but Oswiu would not let his son go [LAWJ 12]. Another telling reference to a rift is in Bede where it says ‘He (Oswiu) was attacked by the heathen people, the Mercians, who had slain his brother, and in addition, by his own son Alhfrith and his nephew Oethelwald, the son of his brother and predecessor.’ [EH 3,14]

Evidently by the time of Wilfrid’s return Alhfrith had disappeared from the history books and Oswiu had installed Chad into a newly restored see at York, but the ordination in Gaul and what happened on Wilfrid’s return is the next story.

Suffice to say that in 664 at the age of 30 Wilfrid had made his mark in a most impressive victory at the Synod of Whitby. However, he had clearly nailed his Roman colours to the mast and started to generate a great deal of hostility and resentment from those who were affected by the change from Celtic to Roman ways; something that would cost him dearly later in his amazing life.

Peter Green


  1. Alhfrith  (also known as Alchfrith or Ealhfrith) was a son of King Oswiu of Northumbria and Rieinmelth of Rheged.