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"And when discussion arose on the questions of Easter, the tonsure, and various other church matters, it was decided to hold a synod to put an end to this dispute at the monastery of Streanaeshalch [Whitby], which means The Bay of the Beacon, then ruled by the Abbess Hilda, a woman devoted to God."
Bede, Ecclesiastical History of the English People
In AD 664, adhering to Celtic custom, King Oswy (Oswiu) of Northumbria celebrated Easter on April 14. His wife, however, who had been brought up in Kent, followed Roman practice and fasted that day. For the queen, it was Palm Sunday and she would not celebrate Easter for another week. This had happened once before in AD 651 but this year, on May 1, there was a total eclipse of the sun, as well as the first signs of plague in the north. Clearly, the contentious disagreement between the Celtic and Roman churches as to the proper observance of the most holy day in the Christian calendar had become a source of divine displeasure. To resolve this, and other, matters a council was summoned by the king to convene at the recently founded abbey at Whitby. This synod is one of the most important ecclesiastical gathering in the history of the English church.
Bede records the debate.
"About this time there arose a great and recurrent controversy on the observance of Easter, those trained in Kent and Gaul maintaining that the Scottish [Irish] observance was contrary to that of the universal Church....King Oswy opened by observing that all who served the One God should observe one rule of life, and since they all hoped for one kingdom in heaven, they should not differ in celebrating the sacraments of heaven. The synod now had the task of determining which was the truest tradition, and this should be loyally accepted by all."
Originally, the early Christians had followed the Jewish calendar and celebrated the resurrection on the Passover, which was the fourteenth day of Nisan, the first month of the Jewish year (luna 14, the fourteenth day of the first lunar month of spring). In time, Easter became separated from the Jewish festival. The Council of Nicaea, convened by Constantine the Great in AD 325, declared that Easter was to be celebrated on the Sunday after Passover, that is, between Nisan fifteen and twenty-first. And, if Easter did fall on the fourteen, even though that day was a Sunday, the Roman church still celebrated the following week, on the twenty-first. The Celtic church, however, continued to celebrate Easter between the fourteen and twentieth. Whenever Easter Sunday fell on Nisan 14, as it did in AD 664, it was celebrated on that day, a full week earlier than the Roman church.
Bede reiterates the position of the Roman church on the observance of Easter: It was to be celebrated in the first month of the year, in the third week of that month, and on the first Sunday of that week, that is, the first Sunday after the first full moon (the Paschal Moon) on or after the vernal equinox, which was defined as March 21.
"Therefore, whatever moon is at the full before the equinox, when it falls on the fourteenth or fifteenth day, rightly belongs to the last month of the preceding year, and consequently is not suitable for keeping Easter. But the full moon falling either on or after the equinox itself certainly belongs to the first month; on it the ancients used to keep the Passover, and when Sunday comes, we should keep Easter....Whoever argues, therefore, that the Paschal full moon can occur before the equinox, disagrees with the teaching of the scriptures in the observance of our highest mysteries, and allies himself with those who believe that they can be saved without the assistance of Christ's grace."
The dispute between the Celtic and Roman churches was in determining when the third week of March occurred: whether between the fourteenth and twentieth of the month, as the Celtic church believed, or between the fifteenth and twenty first, as Bede insisted.
Both sides presented their argument, the Romans at times impolitic in the confidence of their position.
"The only people who are stupid enough to disagree with the whole world are these Scots and their obstinate adherents the Picts and Britons, who inhabit only a portion of these two islands in the remote ocean....But you and your colleagues are most certainly guilty of sin if you reject the decrees of the Apostolic See and the universal Church which are confirmed by these Letters. For although your Fathers were holy men, do you imagine that they, a few men in a corner of a remote island, are to be preferred before the universal Church of Christ throughout the world?"
After asking whether Peter truly had been given the keys of heaven, King Oswy made his decision. "Then, I tell you, Peter is guardian of the gates of heaven, and I shall not contradict him. I shall obey his commands in everything to the best of my knowledge and ability; otherwise, when I come to the gates of heaven, he who holds the keys may not be willing to open them." Withdrawing to Iona on Scotland's far western shore, the Celtic church continued to insist on reckoning its own date for Easter and abided by the older cycle, an adherence to custom and tradition that nevertheless continued to challenge the ecclesiastical discipline of Rome. It was this recalcitrance and deviation from orthodoxy that so incensed Bede. Indeed, the church at Iona did not follow the paschal calendar of Rome until AD 716 and the Welsh church not until AD 768.
There was another problem. Easter is a moveable feast, its date based on a lunar cycle. To correlate the lunar year with the solar year of the Roman calendar, a certain number of days have to be intercalated into a cycle of so many years. Easter was calculated based on these cycles. But, when Rome adopted the more accurate nineteen-year cycle followed by the church at Alexandria, the Celtic church continued to adhere to one based on an eighty-four year cycle.
A new Easter table was compiled by Dionysius Exiguus in AD 525. Rather than use the regnal year of the emperor Diocletian, who had introduced the nineteen-year cycle to Egypt (but also had persecuted the Christians), Dionysius reckoned the years from the Incarnation, which he identified as anno Domini. Accepted by the Roman church, this table was used, with revisions, including Bede's own, until the introduction of the Gregorian calendar in the sixteenth century. Bede's Ecclesiastical History, in fact, was the first major historical work to use anno Domini as the basis for its chronology.
(As well as providing the date for Easter, Easter annals have historical value. Often, they did not fill the whole page but left a margin in which events could be recorded next to the year in which they occurred. One of the earliest references to Vortigern, for instance, is in an Easter annal, where there also is mention of the battle at Badon and Arthur.
Although the derivation of "Easter" is uncertain, according to Bede in De Temporum Ratione, it is associated with Eostre, an Anglo-Saxon goddess of spring whose festival was celebrated in April, which was named after her.)
Situated on the headland above the harbor, Whitby Abbey was founded in AD 657 by Hilda. Just thirty years before, she and her great uncle, Edwin, king of Northumbria, had been baptized by Paulinus, Rome's first missionary to the north. Such was the reputation of the new community that it was chosen as the site of the church council that met there in AD 664. Whitby also was the home of Caedmon, whose hymn, which he is said to have composed in a dream, is regarded as the first poem in English.
The east front shown above was rebuilt in the 1220s.
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