K.V. Turley writes from London.
Whitby is a small seaside town on the Yorkshire coast. As with many such British towns, during the Easter bank holiday weekend it is thronged with day-trippers and holiday-makers. On a recent visit there I was struck that for all the usual stalls and shops selling food and drink to tourists, for all its ice cream and fish and chips, few people realize just how important this location was in giving them the holiday that today all — both believer and non-believer — enjoy.
In A.D. 664 what would become known as the Synod of Whitby was convened. Its purpose was to resolve a long-running and acrimonious dispute about the timing of Easter.
The beginning of the Christian presence in the British Isles remains shrouded in historical mist. What we do know, however, is that in 597 St. Augustine arrived in Kent. He had come at the behest of Pope St. Gregory to evangelize the natives of England. The pope had gazed upon the angelic features of some captive Angle children in the Roman slave-market exclaiming: “Non Angli sed Angeli,” (“No, not Angles, but Angels).
After Augustine of Canterbury’s death, his mission was carried on with varying success throughout the seventh century. But that missionary impulse was directed to and rooted in southern Britain. Ireland, Scotland and the northern English kingdom of Northumbria had had a different Christian beginning, the latter lands being largely evangelized by Irish monks such as St. Aidan of Lindisfarne.
Although the British Isles were Catholic, the Celts and the northern English in Northumbria were out of sync with the Roman dating of Easter. This division created a duality within the society and Church, which manifested itself, for example, in the court of the Northumbrian King Oswy. When Oswy was celebrating Easter, his southern English wife was still keeping her Lenten fast.
So the Synod of Whitby was held to resolve these matters. But the Synod was about more than just the date of Easter. It was about whether existing Celtic churches would move toward a closer alignment with Rome in all matters of external discipline.
It was decided that Whitby Abbey would host this potentially contentious meeting. The Prioress of Whitby was St. Hilda. Born into a royal household, Hilda had, by the age of 13, witnessed her father killed by poisoning while he was in exile. Subsequently, she renounced all royal trappings and became a contemplative nun before going on to establish a monastery at Whitby. Like many such Celtic monasteries throughout Ireland, Scotland and northern England, it became a center not just of Christian worship but also of education and culture, as well as the source of alms and good works for the sick and the poor.
At the council of Whitby, King Oswy, with Bishops Colman and Chad, represented the Celtic tradition; Alchfrid, son of Oswy, and Bishops Wilfrid and Agilbert that of Rome. The Venerable Bede has left us an account of what took place. On the Celtic side, Colman, appealing to those assembled, pointed out the practice of St. John in regard to Easter. Arguing for Rome, Wilfrid used St. Peter and the Council of Nicaea. In the end, the matter was settled by the intervention of King Oswy. He decided that, on balance, it was best not to offend St. Peter. “I dare not longer,” he said, “contradict the decrees of him who keeps the doors of the Kingdom of Heaven, lest he should refuse me admission.” The council held at Whitby effectively ended the controversy over the date of Easter. From then on, the Christians of the British Isles were drawn ever closer to the practices and external disciplines of the Church at Rome.
Whitby Abbey was soon after destroyed when, in the ninth century, it was sacked by marauding bands of Vikings. In 1078 Norman monks rebuilt it, however, and the new abbey became a Benedictine monastery. Five centuries later, that religious foundation, like so many others, was destroyed by the order of Henry VIII. To this day, the abbey buildings lie ruined upon the cliffs overlooking Whitby.
The ruined abbey at Whitby was to play a strange part in a curious literary sequel, however. Another type of pilgrimage takes place there today. It is estimated that 150,000 visitors per year visit the old abbey, but their pilgrimage is not on account of the joy of the Resurrection at Easter. Often it has a different type of “resurrection” at its center.
In 1890, Whitby had a visitor from London, Bram Stoker. Just a few years earlier the Irishman had left a comfortable but dull existence as a Dublin civil servant to become the business manager for one the English-speaking world’s most famous actors, Henry Irving. Stoker’s move had been a great success for all concerned, but he was exhausted from the excitement and glamour of London’s theater life and so, on the recommendation of a friend, he had come to spend a week’s break at Whitby.
Subsequently, Stoker stayed at Mrs. Veazey’s guesthouse at 6 Royal Crescent located on the West Cliff. From there he could look out to the East Cliff where the ruined Abbey and St. Mary’s Churchyard below it lay. Stoker started to take daily walks up to the ruined abbey. While doing so, Stoker spotted empty graves in the graveyard of the Church of St. Mary. These graves marked the death of sailors who had been lost at sea. On that vacation, Stoker also visited Whitby public library and, while looking through antiquarian books, came across one about Vlad the Impaler, also known as Vlad Dracula. The rest, as they say, is history — literary history. Whitby, both the town and the ruined abbey, feature in Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel, Dracula.
It tells us much about modern Britain that a town’s association with a fictional vampire has spawned many shops and hotels that cater for the multitudes who come for Gothic-themed events and festivals. One cannot but help wonder at a fascination that is rooted in the paucity of the fictional “undead” rather than in the very real glory offered at Easter. Furthermore, this pseudo form of afterlife is celebrated (if that is indeed the right word) in the very place where, by virtue of a local saint and the synod she hosted, the British Isles came into alignment with the rest of the Western Church on the timing of Easter.
But Whitby holds one more intriguing literary reference.
St. Caedmon was a monk of Whitby, and a contemporary of St. Hilda. He was a poet. The Venerable Bede describes Caedmon as “a certain brother particularly remarkable for the grace of God, who was wont to make religious verses, so that whatever was interpreted to him out of Scripture, he soon after put the same into poetical expressions of much sweetness and humility in Old English, which was his native language. By his verse the minds of many were often excited to despise the world, and to aspire to heaven.”
Fragments of Caedmon’s verse remain. One is as follows — and whom it may have influenced I’ll leave you to decide:
How he, the Lord of Glory everlasting,
Wrought first for the race of men Heaven as a roof-tree,
Then made he Middle Earth to be their mansion.