All Saints of Great Britain and Ireland
First Christians in Great Britain and Ireland
by Michael Wilson
St. Aristobulus, first Bishop of the Britons
There are legends that say that Our Saviour Christ himself lived and walked in our land around the area of Glastonbury, Somerset and Cornwall. Most of us are familiar with Parry's setting of Blake's poem "Jerusalem". These legends are connected with the historical fact that the South West of England was one of the few sources of tin in the ancient world with which the Phoenicians traded. In 445 BC Herodotos spoke of Britain as "Cassiterides" the Tin Islands. Others mention the same trade and that Solomon's temple was ornamented with plates of tin from Britain. So, from early times, trade and cultural links existed between Britain and Phoenicia the area north and west of Galilee.
Glastonbury was itself a port at this time, the sea now having retreated back. Even as late as the reign of King John, Jews worked in the Cornish tin mines and some local place names reflect this. The link between trade and Christ is the Phoenician Joseph of Arimathea. Joseph was a wealthy merchant, a member of the Sanhedrin, and a secret follower of Christ, for it was he who saw to Christ's burial. There is also the mystery of Christ's "missing years". From the age of 12 to 30 when he took up his ministry there is absolutely no mention of him or his life in the gospels. It is surmised he was absent from the Holy Land, perhaps with Joseph on a trading mission. It must be stressed this only conjecture and it cannot be proven either way. The Celtic monastic chronicler Gildas (516-570) wrote "of Christ bringing his light to these islands at the height of the reign of Tiberius Caesar," (ie., no later than 37 AD). Although the legends cannot be proved or disproved the fact remains that they were and remain an inspiration to generations of British Christians
Historical evidence is not always available or reliable when available. The earliest positive evidence of Christianity in Britain is Roman. Following the exploratory raid by Julius Caesar in 55BC Britain was invaded by the Roman legions in 43 AD under the command of the Emperor Claudius. It was he who personally entered the Celtic settlement now known as London and later the much larger Celtic capital Camelodunum now known as Colchester. Over the following years more legions, merchants and land speculators arrived together with their servants, slaves and followers. Despite the brief set back caused by the Boudicca led revolt, the romanisation process continued. However it should not be thought that the Claudian legions waded ashore bearing Christian symbols, far from it. Paganism, with its plethora of gods and observances was very much the norm, Mithras being one of the main Roman deities, particularly popular with the army. Evidence shows that in the beginning Christianity was very much the religion of the poor, the servant, and the slave or lowly artisan. I would suggest that amongst these groups women would be very much in the majority. The Chi Rho, Alpha and Omega symbols have been found scratched on the remains of early Romano-British everyday earthenware articles, the possessions of the poor and on the walls of excavated Romano-British sites.
The spread of Christianity can be traced by the change in funerary rites. During the 1st and 2nd centuries AD cremation and internment of the ashes in urns was very much the norm. By the 3rd and 4th century AD burials of the person intact became increasingly common; what could be seen as "Orthodox burials". At Poundbury in Dorset a large Romano-British Christian community existed according to the evidence from the burials discovered there and similar evidence has been found at York. Also in Dorset remains of Roman villas have been unearthed at Frampton and Hinton-St Mary with the Chi Rho symbol in floor mosaics. At Lullingstone in Kent there are the remains of a private chapel in a villa. In the North West during the late 1970's much construction work was carried out in Manchester in the Castlefield area which is the site of Roman Mancunium. It was here that an earthenware tablet was unearthed inscribed with a seemingly incoherent jumble. This would have been displayed in a Roman Christian home. To an unbeliever just a tablet with letters, but any Christian entering the house would immediately be able to decipher the letters into the "pater nostra" or "Our Father." They would then know that they were safe to discuss their beliefs which was very important during that brutal period of persecution which took place before 313 AD. The significance of this find is clear when it is realised that this is only the second "pater nostra" acrostic to be found; a similar tablet having been unearthed in Turkey some years previously.
So from the archaeological evidence it appears Christianity had evidently moved ahead socially as well as geographically. When St. Alban was martyred at Verulanium, the present St. Albans in 209 AD under the Severian persecution, Tertullian of Carthage noted in his writings (as did Origen in the 3rd century) that Christians had been present in Britain for some hundred years. Parts once thought inaccessible to Romans have now been found with evidence of Christianity. In 313 AD the Emperor Constantine, (born at York of, it is believed, his a British mother St. Helen), issued the Edict of Milan giving Christians freedom of worship. At the Council of Churches in Arles in 314 AD it is recorded that the bishops of London, York and Lincoln attended. The British Church affirmed the Council of Nicaea in 325. British bishops were present at the Council of Rimini in 359 AD. Britons also made pilgrimages to Rome and Palestine. Some worked with St. Martin of Tours, among whom was St. Ninian who preached to the southern Picts and founded a stone church at Wigtown Bay in about 400 AD. St. Patrick, a Briton, preached and converted the Irish. The saints father is believed to have been a deacon. British refugees from Saxon invaders founded a British church in Western Amorica, which is now named Brittany and British monks preached in Ireland. The Scots, the dominant people of Northern Ireland (!), developed their church along similar British lines. About 565 St Columba founded the monastic community on Iona and spread the gospel to the Scots of Dalriada in southern Scotland and to the northern Picts. He later preached to the heathen Teutonic invaders.
The collapse of the Roman Empire economically and militarily left Britain isolated, but with its Christian legacy in tact. The tenacity of the Church, once adopted by the local population, was fiercely protected; laying down foundations, which helped it to withstand the later political upheavals of the 5th and 6th centuries. The successive waves of Anglo-Saxon invasions cut communications with Constantinople and Rome. Britain had little share in the progressive expansion of the Bishop of Rome's influence in western Christendom. The conversion of Britain fell to the Celtic heirs of the Roman Christians Saints Aidan, Chad and Cuthbert.
Finally and briefly, how did the British Christians worship? We only surmise an answer, but based on its founding principles and personalities we should look no further than Eastern Christendom from whence all Christianity flowed, (east and west). The early Christians would follow the practice of the Church Fathers. The rites would follow closely those of the Temples and Synagogues, in other words, what is now known as Orthodox worship. This was to remain the norm until the Great Schism of 1054 and the subsequent Latinisation of Western Christendom under the domination of the See of Rome and it's Frankish supporters.