The Celtic Church — Myth and Reality II

[Click here for part one.]

Depending upon whom you read or speak to, the received modern narrative about “Celtic Spirituality” is roughly like this. Once upon a time, the Druids lived happily in green and misty Celtic lands, leading their smiling people in harmony with nature. Healers, vegetarians, and in touch with the rocks, plants, animals, stars, suns, planets, Moon, and of course Mother EarthGaia, as you might say — these non-judgemental sages wielded their knives only to cut mistletoe and holly for their unknown (to us) but doubtless uplifting rituals. When not composing obscure but enchanting and prophetic poetry, they could be seen guiding their folk in the construction of places like Stonehenge. Holding no dogmas, if they worshipped specific deities at all these were non-threatening and non-judgemental folk like the Holly King and the Oak Lord, who succeeded one another in consorting with the Earth Mother as they gamboled through calendar festivals like Samhain, Beltane, Lughnasa, Yule, Imbolc, and so on. Meanwhile the Druids also venerated trees and springs — in many ways they sound like the self-description of Shinto by various priests of that religion; but just as that oh-so-gentle-faith produced the Samurai and Bushido, so too did Celtic paganry beget such as the Fianna and the Red Branch Knights.

But into this paradise marched the Romans, who slaughtered the Druids and felled their Sacred Groves — according to some sources they even imposed their Patriarchy over the native Celtic Matriarchy, thus bringing darkness to the relationship between the sexes that would not abate until the 1970s. Worse yet, shortly after this conquest the Romans themselves threw over their own ancestral gods for the worship of Jesus Christ.

Yet the Celtic spirit worked its magic even on this oppressive new religion. For in Celtic lands the spirit — and perhaps the personnel — of the old Druid order somehow managed to illumine the monks of the new. These Culdees, as they were called, managed to be positively drenched in the harmony-with-nature of their pre-Christian predecessors. They were free from any taint of hierarchy, guilt-manufacturing-rules, patriarchy — in a word, of anything that would have annoyed or embarrassed right-thinking denizens of the 21st century. Depending upon whom you read, they might have believed in reincarnation, been in touch with the fairies, or treated animals as equals. Nor did they practise celibacy, preferring nurturing relationships of all kinds. They may well have been closer to Christ than any of the Continental Christians, because of their connection to Glastonbury and St. Joseph of Arimathea. The Kings under whom they lived might well have descended from King David himself.

Once again, however, disaster struck, as Roman missionaries came to Britain in 595 under the leadership of St. Augustine of Canterbury. First seducing the Anglo-Saxons away from their peaceful worship of Odin and Thor, these fanatics moved in on the peaceful Celtic Christians, at last forcing them to accept corrupt Roman ways at the Synod of Whitby in 664. Freedom from Roman oppression would only come to England, Cornwall, Wales, and Ireland (although, unhappily, the majority of the Irish deserted their ancestral Church to join the Italian Mission) in 1534, when Henry VIII re-established their ancient liberty; frustrated by the evil Queen Mary, this would at last be reasserted by good Queen Bess in 1558. Two years later, the Scots too would throw off the Roman yoke. So it is that at Armagh and Downpatrick, at Aberdeen and Edinburgh, at St. Davids and Llandaff, and at Glastonbury and St. Albans, pure Christian worship has survived in unbroken succession to the present. In recent years, more specifically “Celtic Christian” groups have developed. Surely only the very unkind would notice any differences between these folk.

Not content with these victories, however, some enlightened souls, as part of the 19th century Celtic Revival noticed in our last instalment, decided to resurrect not merely the languages of their ancestors, but their pre-Christian religions as well. One major impediment to this was that no one really knew anything substantive about them. But the gods were kind, and various folk imagined what Druidry had been like and acted accordingly. There was also, in 19th century Britain and elsewhere, a sort of Occult revival, giving rise to Theosophy and Spiritualism, among other groups. Then, in 1921, folklorist Margaret Murray revealed to an astonished world in her book The Witch-Cult in Western Europe the continuing existence of an age-old religion heretofore unknown to all.

According to Miss Murray, pre-Christian paganism had not been eradicated by Christianity, but had merely gone underground: its adherents were the so-called witches of the Middle Ages. Rather than being the devil-worshippers so feared in song and story, these folk were in truth peaceful lovers of nature and so forth. This was the “Old Religion” that had suffered so much from the evil adherents of Christianity.

This religion having been invented — that is to say, rediscovered — it was necessary to invest it with a ritual life as well. This was initially supplied by one Gerald Gardner, who claimed to have been initiated by hereditary witches in the New Forest. From him was generated the Neo-Pagan faith called “Wicca.” This in turn mixed and mingled with views of various would-be Druids. Not all Druids are Wiccans, not all Wiccans are Druids. But, in any case, rituals are held to-day on Primrose Hill and Arthur’s Seat, at Stonehenge and Newgrange that are supposed somehow to be in keeping with those of the ancient Celts.

Alas, interesting as all of this is, it has little basis in reality. What, then, was the Celtic Church, and what was it not? For starters, we can forget about the Druids being such nice folk. As Tacitus says in his account of the fight against Boudicca, “The religious groves, dedicated to superstition and barbarous rites, were levelled to the ground. In those recesses, the natives [stained] their altars with the blood of their prisoners, and in the entrails of men explored the will of the gods.” For the Romans to call rites “barbarous,” given what they were used to themselves, makes one happy not to know specifics. What is certain is that — as in the rest of the ancient world — when the Faith came to Britain, it was as liberation from a truly satanic yoke.

Roman Britain was indeed Christianised in fairly short order. But what was that Christian realm like? For one thing, it was an integral part of Christianity in the Roman Empire. The Mass was not in Gaelic or Briton, but in Latin — and this would be true for the Masses offered by all of the later saints of the British Isles, from Patrick to Augustine of Canterbury. The British heresiarch Pelagius travelled around the Empire. To combat his disciples, two Gaulish bishops, Ss. Germanus of Auxerre and Lupus of Troyes came to Britain; accepted as colleagues by the local prelates, they debated and defeated the Pelagians — afterwards giving thanks at the tomb of St. Alban. Subsequently, St. Germanus led the Britons to victory against Pictish and Saxon invaders. Note that while this happened in 429, shortly after the last legions left the island, there was no question but that they all belonged to the same Church.

Indeed, two years later, Pope St. Celestine I sent St. Palladius to Ireland to begin the evangelisation of that Celtic Isle; but meeting great opposition and at last being expelled, he went on to try his hand with the Scots. There some decades later he died, and at Auchenblae his chapel may yet be seen. Shortly after St. Palladius’ failure with them, St. Patrick came among the Irish, with what success the entire world knows. But among his maxims was: “O Church of the Scots— nay of the Romans—as ye are Christians, be ye also Romans.” There is no shred of a separate Church to be found in all of St. Patrick’s work or sayings.

Meanwhile, however, the now-denuded-of-Legions-Britain was now increasingly subjected to raids and the settlement by the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes — fierce pagan warriors who happily looted whatever they could find, and then began to carve out territories for themselves. In time, as the invaders pushed ever further west, the Province of Britannia shattered into pieces, most of which would be devoured at leisure by the invaders or their descendants.

But from that dark time emerges — as seemingly both a ray of light and a trumpet call — one name: Arthur! Layers of legend have wrapped around him; stories likely and improbable have been added to his fame; and to this day the tales of the Once and Future King and his Round Table stir the hearts of all who love adventure. In the popular mind he is the mysteriously-born man who, having pulled the sword from the stone and been crowned King of Britain, went on — Excalibur in hand — to form around that table in his fabled capital of Camelot a company of stalwart warriors who kept the darkness at bay. Of all that brave band — Gawain, Parsifal, Kay, Ector, Bedivere, and the rest — Lancelot stood out as the bravest and best; and yet his affair with beautiful Queen Guenivere would in time doom it all. By Arthur’s side, until falling victim to his own folly, was the wise and mysterious Merlin. Before that time though Sir Galahad would appear, and then the Holy Grail, the quest for which would end the fellowship on this side of the grave. Betrayal and corruption would end in the last battle against Arthur’s son Sir Mordred, and the great King’s death — or else his departure to Avalon, from whence, when his people need him most, he shall return (and the sooner the better, say I!).

All the length of Britain — and Brittany — various locales claim a connection with Arthurian legend: Broceliande, Tintagel, Slaughterbridge, Glastonbury (which claims his grave), Cadbury Castle (a noted candidate for Camelot), Winchester, Caerleon, Carlisle, Edinburgh, and on and on. So strong a hold does he have on the imagination that in time the English — descendants of those whom he fought — claimed Arthur as a national hero. In reference to the fleeting and doomed glitter of the Kennedy White House, that era has been dubbed “Camelot.”

But who was Arthur really? In all likelihood, he was the last Dux Bellorum (military commander) of post-Roman Britain, leading his mounted men up and down the coast to fight the invaders from across the sea. He was undoubtedly a Christian, and both religiously and politically (the latter in his own mind, at least) a Roman. A slightly later figure in post-Roman Gaul, Syagrius, comes across as an example of the type — though this later Dux would fall not to pagans but to Clovis, who himself would keep Gaul in the Faith. As for Arthur, in trying to maintain the standards of religion and civilisation that he had been given, in fighting for the True, the Good, and the Beautiful against gloom and horror, he deserves our admiration.

The darkness did indeed close in, however, and for a time the Faith was pushed westward with the Britons into Strathclyde, Wales, and Cornwall. In isolation, this “British Church” did develop some of its own customs — the kind of tonsure its monks wore, for example, and their accounting of the date of Easter. Above all, however, they fostered a deep and abiding hatred of those who had dispossessed them.

These latter, however, had settled down and carved up their conquests into seven small kingdoms — one of which was Kent, in the far southeast of the country. One Ethelbert became its King about 558; a pagan himself, he married the Catholic Frankish princess Bertha, great-granddaughter of that Clovis who had beaten Syagrius. As part of the marriage agreement, she was given a half-ruined Roman church, St. Martin’s in Canterbury, for her use at the Mass. Not surprisingly, it was to Kent that St. Augustine came in 597, when he began his work of converting the English. A few years later he made contact with the British bishops. These refused to accept his authority — partly because he failed to rise when they entered his tent, but more particularly because they wanted no part in converting the English, whom they deemed deserved Hell for all they and their fathers had done and continued to do. But within fifty years they and the Irish and Scottish Churches had conformed to Roman practices.

Long before that Synod of Whitby in 664 had done its work, however, Irish monks began coming to the Continent. Now the Church in Frankish realms was suffering from the laws of succession that saw Clovis’ descendants, the Merovingians, redividing the country whenever a King died among all his sons. The fighting and intrigue this engendered — reflected in the many unhappy episodes in the lives of saintly Frankish Queens like Clotilde, Radegonde, and Bathilde — also harmed the Church. The arrival of Celtic Saints like Columban, who would found a monastery, restore order in the local church, and move on, was generally welcomed — and there was no question at all of their belonging to another Church. Abbeys like Bobbio, Luxeuil, St. Gall, and the “Scottish Cloisters” in towns such as Wuerzburg, Regensburg, and Vienna stand in tribute even to this day to these much needed and largely successful efforts. But these monks were not the nature-loving demi-druids of modern legend. They were extremely penitential, punishing sin in themselves and others in ways that those of us used to comfort would be horrified by. Standing in water all night reciting the psalms was a common devotional practice among them — and real sin was often punished by being sent out to convert heathens. They also pioneered private confession — a custom which spread throughout the Latin Rite.

After the Viking raids began in the 800s, the Church everywhere in the West, but especially in Celtic lands, suffered as once again monasteries were burned and pillaged, monks slaughtered, and ordinary folk carried off into slavery. To escape them, Irish monks went very further west — to the Faeroes, Iceland, and perhaps — at least according to some who read such accounts as the story of St. Brendan the Navigator — even to America, where some see in the images of such “white gods” as Quetzalcoatl and Wirakocha Irish monks afield.

However that may be, the latest round of horrors lasted almost two centuries, until the Vikings themselves were converted. In the meantime, the Church in Ireland and elsewhere in the Celtic fringe had developed some unique disciplinary problems. One of these was a married clergy. Now, while some Anglicans and Presbyterians claim backing for their own practices in this fact, the truth is that it was an abuse that led to some frightful disorders. Even some dioceses became hereditary fiefs, with the bishop the younger brother of the local Irish King or Scottish chief — its boundaries being whatever the older brother could conquer or hold. The chaos this led to was a scandal crying to Heaven for vengeance. Several synods were held at Papal insistence, culminating in the 1152 Synod of Kells meeting under the presidency of St. Malachy (him of prophecy fame).

This gathering delineated the boundaries of the Irish dioceses and passed a number of disciplinary canons. But thanks to the kind of helpful elder brother of whom we just spoke, it remained a dead letter in much of the island. In 1155, the exasperated Pope Adrian IV invested English King Henry II with the Lordship of Ireland and a commission to sort out Church and State in the anarchic isle. This was the justification for the Norman invasion, and all subsequent attempts by the English to subjugate Ireland until the time of Henry VIII. What is remarkable is that never, at any time — however embattled they felt — did the Irish ever think of “throwing off the yoke of Rome.”

This would wait until Henry VIII and his successors did so instead — Henry cashing in the Papally-endowed “Lordship,” and naming himself “King of Ireland.” At this point, the ethnic cause was reinforced by religion. Indeed, if one wants to see “Celtic Christianity” after this date, it is not to be found in the foundations of the Presbyterian and Anglican churches who claim it to-day, but in their opponents: in the Prayerbook Rising, the Rising in the North, the struggles of Mary Queen of Scots, the Flight of the Earls, the Confederate War, the fight led by Montrose and his troops in Scotland, the Cavaliers in Wales and the West Country, Bonnie Dundee’s revolt in Scotland, the Williamite War in Ireland, and the Jacobite risings in 1715, 1719, and 1745 (to say nothing of the Breton Chouannerie during the French Revolution).

Indeed, the struggle of the Celtic nations to remain themselves and to hold on to their own religion poured entirely into the Jacobite cause — and the Stuarts reciprocated, quite consciously, emulating Arthur and the old Irish heroes:

Subsequently, it was to be “those who supported the Divine Right of Kings” who “upheld the historicity of Arthur;” whereas those who did not turned instead “to the laws and customs of the Anglo-Saxons.” Arthur remained a figure central to Stuart propaganda. Stuart iconography celebrated the habits and beliefs of the ancient Britons. In particular, the Royal Oak, still a central symbol of the dynasty, was closely related to ideas about Celtic fertility ritual, and the King’s power as an agent of renewal: “The oak, the largest and strongest tree in the North, was venerated by the Celts as a symbol of the supreme power.” It was thus fitting that an oak should protect Charles II from the Cromwellian troops who wished to strip the sacred new Arthur of his status. The story confirmed the King’s mystical authority, and also his close friendship with nature. Long after 1688, the Stuart dynasty was to be closely linked with images of fertility. In literature, Arthurian images of the Stuarts persisted into the nineteenth century. This “Welsh messiah, the warrior who will come to overthrow the Saxons and Normans,” was an icon of the Stuarts’ claim to be Kings of all Britain, both “Political Hero” and “National Messiah,” in Arthurian mould. Arthur’s status as a legendary huntsman (“the figure of the Wild Huntsman is sometimes identified with Arthur”) was also significant. The Stuarts made much of hunting: it helped to confirm their heroic status as stewards of nature and the land. In doing this, they identified themselves not only with Arthur, but with Fionn, the legendary Gaelic warlord who was in the eighteenth century to be the subject of James Macpherson’s pro-Stuart Ossian poems. Fionn, legends of whom abound in Scotland, was also, like Arthur, scheduled to wake and deliver the nation when danger threatened. In identifying with both figures, the Stuarts were able to simultaneously present themselves as Gaelic and British monarchs. This symbolism was used with peculiar adroitness in Ireland, where the Stuarts were almost never identified with Arthur, but rather with Fionn and heroes from Fionn’s own time. Charles Edward was compared to Fergus, Conall, Conroy, and Angus Oge, while his grandfather became for some a symbol of Ireland herself, a Fenian hero in the making, a foreshadower of the sacrificial politics of such as Pearse: “Righ Shemus, King James, represented the faith of Erin, and so became her comrade in martyrdom.” In famous eighteenth century songs like “the Blackbird,” Ireland was presented as an abandoned woman, waiting for the return of her hero-King. The same symbolism was used in Scotland. “The Gaelic messianic tradition” of Fionn suggested that the Stuart King would one day return to bring light and fecundity to the land. In the Highlands of Scotland, the events of Jacobitism themselves passed into folklore, like the older stories to which they were related. More educated Jacobite sympathisers compared the Stuarts to the heroes of the Roman Republic, to Aeneas, or to the saints. But the view of them as sacred monarchs of folkloric tradition and power was one which endured among all ranks (Murray G.H. Pittock, The Invention of Scotland, pp. 4-5).

As we remarked in our last instalment, all of that was defeated. Afterwards, it was subsumed into Romanticism and gave birth, as we saw, to the Celtic Nationalism of the last century. This in turn morphed into the quasi-Marxism-turned-to-secular-liberalism we have to-day. But what of the Celtic Church we have been chasing? Unlike her chiefs’ political power — for neither Elizabeth II, Francis II of Bavaria, nor the Scottish and Irish Chiefs have much — Celtdom’s religion remains, for all that so many Celts and others have left it. At every Mass, you may drink from the Holy Grail with King Arthur, St. Columban, and Bonnie Prince Charlie, and accept as ever they did the guidance of the Rich Fisherman — Peter in the Boat. It is there that you shall find it, and nowhere else. May that knowledge inspire us all to attempt to equal their feats of valour and Faith. Who knows? Perhaps Arthur might wake and lead us once more!