The Celtic Church — Myth and Reality


For many people — practicing, nominal, and non-Catholic alike — in the United States, Canada, Australia, and elsewhere, St. Patrick’s day is welcome relief from the rigours (if any) of Lent, or at the very least a mid-spring party. Shamrocks abound as do green clothes of all varieties; the Ancient Order of Hibernians, Friendly Sons of St. Patrick, Emerald Society, and suchlike bodies parade — these days not always without controversy — in New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Chicago, and the many other centres of the Irish diaspora. Even taco stands and Chinese restaurants sometimes feature variations on the omnipresent corned beef and cabbage. And there is booze. Oceans of booze. Jamesons, Bushmills, Guinness, and a hundred other brands of whiskey and beer are dispensed not only from Irish but Scots and English pubs across America to legions of thirsty revellers. You’ll see them waving Irish tricolours and Green Harp flags, but not the Cross of St. Patrick.

In the Emerald Isle itself, the day was primarily a strictly religious and civic one until about 20 years ago when Dublin and some other locales began putting on American style fiestas. Even Belfast has a large parade, although this is one occasion upon which both the Orange Order and the Royal Black Institution are not seen. Nevertheless, if such Patrician pilgrimage sites such as Lough Derg and Croagh Patrick are closed awaiting warmer weather, Catholics and Anglicans alike offer rites in St. Patrick’s memory at his grave in Downpatrick, his headquarters at Armagh, the Hill of Slane, and other places associated with him. If the now-defunct knightly Order of St. Patrick no longer attends services at St. Patrick’s Anglican Cathedral and waits upon the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland at his ball in Dublin Castle, the current republican authorities still mark the day in a dignified manner. The President attends Mass at St. Mary’s Pro-Cathedral, and offers a suitably uplifting speech at his residence. In England, the Royal Irish Regiment and the Irish Guards mount parades and celebrative dinners: in the latter case, members of the Royal Family — in days gone by, the Queen Mother, now either or both the Prince of Wales and the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge attend. This has been the case since long before the Queen and the President of Ireland made their mutual visits of reconciliation.

Now the Irish — Catholic or Protestant — think of themselves as a Celtic people. We’ll come back to what that may mean presently. But in addition to the Irish, there are five other peoples that also identify themselves as Celts. They are the Scots , the Manx, the Welsh, the Cornish, and the Bretons. In many ways, the month of March is THE Celtic Month. March 1 is the feast of the monk St. David, patron saint of Wales and is celebrated as the country’s national day. His shrine (destroyed at the Reformation) has recently been re-erected and his retrieved relics placed therein. Thus, as at St. Mungo’s tomb in Glasgow, you may venerate a Catholic saint in a Protestant Church — albeit one we once owned. Welshmen wear either or both leeks and daffodils on this day, and across the globe, their diaspora celebrates St. David as do Irishmen in foreign climes St. Patrick. Being far less widespread, of course, they don’t make the same splash as the Irish — but in particular locales from Philadelphia to Patagonia you will see the Red Dragon of Wales waving on the First of March. St. David Societies abound.

A few days later is the feast of St. Piran, patron of Cornwall. Now in the 20th Century Ireland went from being an integral part of the United Kingdom (having given up its nominal independence as a Kingdom in 1800) to being autonomous in the North, and first a Dominion and then an independent Republic in the South. Wales is a Principality (complete with its own regalia), and now has its own Assembly and Executive. Irish Gaelic and Welsh are holding their own to some degree against the onslaught of English. But poor Cornwall has only a County Council as an English shire (although the Prince of Wales is Duke of Cornwall) and the language became extinct in the 18th century. Nevertheless, the Cornish retain a great sense of cultural awareness; St. Piran’s day too has become a rallying point — not just in Cornwall but in places as far apart as Australia and California. His shrine is resorted to then. Cornish has been revived, and there is some call to bring back the old Stannary Parliament.

On St. Patrick’s Day itself there is another Saint celebrated — St. Joseph of Arimathea, he who donated his own tomb so that Jesus might have a fitting Sepulchre. Now that by itself would been enough to gain him undying fame, as it has given him the patronage of undertakers (I know of a French-Canadian in New England who wears black to work ever y St. Patrick’s day, smilingly informing his co-workers that he is celebrating St. Joseph of Arimathea, and blandly asking if there is some other celebration that day!). But legend — and I for one never discount legend unless it has been actually disproved — claims that his wealth was based on owning tin mines in Roman Britain; it has been further claimed by some that he was Jesus’ uncle, and took the boy to Britain once. This notion led to William Blake writing his hymn Jerusalem, which is incomprehensible without that background. This seems odd at first glance, but travel within the Empire was far commoner in those days than is usually realised. The belief that St. Paul visited Britain during his journeys led to the English delegation being given pride of place at the Council of Constance, London’s cathedral being named after the Apostle, and the Kings of England having very close relations with St. Paul Outside the Walls in Rome, among other things.

In any case, it is said St. Joseph gathered up some of the blood and water that flowed from Christ’s side — and possibly the cup Our Lord had used at the Last Supper — and fled to an island in the marshes of what is now Somerset; the Isle of Avalon, now Glastonbury. When he arrived at a place there called Wearyall Hill, he stuck his staff in the ground and it burst into flowers. The Glastonbury Thorn, as it is called, bloomed at Christmas; cut down by Cromwell’s Puritans, cuttings were saved and replanted. These continue their Yuletide blossoming, and every year at Christmas a few flowers are sent to the Queen at Sandringham — you can sometimes see them in her Christmas broadcasts. St. Joseph built there a church, said to be the oldest in Britain, which became the nucleus of Glastonbury Abbey. Both he and the Abbey figured largely in tales of King Arthur and the Holy Grail, and all sorts of local landmarks — the Tor, Chalice Well, the White Spring, and others — claim some link to him. As we shall see, Celtic Britain was overwhelmed by the invading Anglo-Saxons; but St. Joseph is a contender for patron of those of its bits and pieces that survived the wreck. Glastonbury also treasures tales of a visit by St. Patrick.

The Apostle of Ireland also holds a place on the Isle of Man, tucked away in the Irish Sea. St. Maughold, the patron of the Island, was sent there by St. Patrick expressly to evangelise the Manx; his feast day is April 27. While their language has become extinct, like Cornish, it has also been revived. As with Cornwall also, the Manx have retained their unique folkore. Unlike Cornwall, however, the Isle of Man is in a sense independent — it is not part of the UK, although Parliament does make some of its laws. The Queen is Lord of Man in her own right (represented by a Lieutenant Governor), and the island has its own Parliament, the Tynwald, and rather odd-looking flag. Their diaspora are scattered around the US and the Commonwealth, encompassed by such organisations as the North American Manx Society. Probably the best known Manxman, however, was Fletcher Christian of H.M.S. Bounty fame — his descendants live on at Pitcairn and Norfolk Islands in the South Pacific.

On May 19 is the feast of Brittany’s patron, St. Yves of Chartres or Kermartin. Unlike the other heavenly guardians of the Celtic lands we have already looked at, St. Yves — and unlike many other Breton saints — did not live in the misty past, but died in 1303. The first compiler of Canon Law, he was the sole patron of lawyers until St. Thomas More joined him on the Church’s calendar. At his shrine at Treguier, an annual pardon — that uniquely Breton combination of liturgy, procession, and party — takes place on his feast. To this day the Bretons have a national church of their own in Rome named after him. The Bretons descend from those who fled the wreck of Celtic Britain at the hands of the Anglo-Saxons by crossing the sea. Their language still survives in the western part of the land. While Brittany was an independent Kingdom and then Duchy for centuries, after Anne of Brittany married King Charles VIII of France in 1491 the King of France was also Duke of Brittany. But the province retained separate Estates and institutions. Whereas the various Celtic nations in the British Isles managed to maintain some of their identity by retaining or reviving Medieval institutions, these were all swept away on the other side of the Channel by the French Revolution. The Province of Brittany was divided into five Departments, all directed by Paris-appointed prefects. When the region of Brittany was re-assembled in 1956, the area around Nantes was left out — an omission that still rankles. A sea-faring people, Breton descendants are to be found amongst the French-Canadians, and especially the Acadians of the Maritimes and their Cajun cousins in Louisiana.

June 22 is the feast of another Saint of phantom Celtic Britain — St. Alban, protomartyr of England. Back in 209, AD, when Britain was firmly in the hands of the Roman Empire, St. Alban hid a priest and took his place to be executed. His relics were preserved, and eventually the great Abbey of St. Albans grew up around his shrine. Throughout the Middle Ages this monastery disputed with Glastonbury the role of senior abbey in the Kingdom — until Henry VIII solved the issue by suppressing both houses. St. Alban’s shrine was destroyed and most of his relics — save a portion given a church in Cologne that bore his name — were burned. But in the late 20th century, the pieces of that shrine were discovered and re-erected in the Abbey church, now an Anglican cathedral: the rededication was attended by the Queen Mother. Meanwhile, St. Pantaleon, Cologne, home to the shrine of St. Alban after the church that bore his name there was bombed, returned a fragment of the relics to the revived shrine. It is interesting that, as with St. Joseph of Arimathea, a definitely Celtic saintly devotion has been rewoven into English tradition on a par with St. George.

Scotland’s patron is St. Andrew the Apostle. While the brother of St. Peter is also patron of Greece, Constantinople, the Basque Country, Romania, and Russia — with most of his relics in the cathedral at Amalfi and his head (formerly at the Vatican) now at the place he was martyred, Patras, Greece, a goodly number of them came to rest at what became the Cathedral of St. Andrews, north of Edinburgh and near both the University of the same name and the first Golf Course. Scots around the world are very devoted to St. Andrew; their flag is named after him, St. Andrew’s Societies in various places keep the tartan flame ablaze, and his feast is zestfully kept wherever the sons of Scotia can be found. The latter is usually observed with a dinner featuring thistles, bagpipes, haggis, Scotch whisky and a band of kilt-wearers; these scenes generally repeat themselves on January 25, Burns’ Night. There are Scottish games held across the globe, and folk of Scottish descent everywhere in the world are happy to lay claim to clan membership and wear whatever tartan they can consider themselves entitled to. The Scots have a parliament again, and despite the 1707 Act of Union with England maintained their own legal system, while the Queen has a parallel court in Scotland. Holyrood Palace, the Honours of Scotland, the Queen’s Bodyguard for Scotland, the Court of the Lord Lyon (Scotland’s own heraldic authority, as opposed to England’s College of Arms) — all show the country’s unique identity, despite their recent refusal to secede from the United Kingdom. Scots regiments can be found in the armies of Great Britain, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa — and even, for a time, New York! Most of the St. Andrew’s night revellers may not have much religious devotion to St.Andrew — perhaps excusable since the destruction of his Scottish shrine at the Reformation. But to-day the Catholic cathedral in Edinburgh keeps some of his relics enshrined and easily venerated.

But the Scots themselves are not entirely Celtic. When the Romans came to Britain, southern Scotland (which they added for a time to their domains) was inhabited by Britons whom they swiftly conquered. The north was held by a mysterious people called the Picts. When the Saxons arrived, they pushed the natives ever westward; in the end, as we have seen some fled over the sea and became the Bretons; other were pushed south-west and became the Cornish; still others due west into “wild Wales.” But in the north, the Angles pushed up into what is now the area around Edinburgh, called “Lothian.” The local Britons were pushed west into what was called either or both Stratchlyde or Cumbria — roughly north-west England and south-west Scotland on to-day’s map. At the same time, Irish pirates followed by settlers spilled over into the Islands and Highlands of north-west Scotland; these folk were called Scoti by chroniclers writing in Latin. Eventually their King conquered or inherited the lands of the Picts, Angles and Cumbrians; the language of the north became a Gaelic originally — like Manx — derived from the language of Ireland. Thanks to various wars and the Highland clearances, there are now more native speakers of Scots Gaelic in Canada than in Scotland. In the south, the language of the Angles — one day to be called “English” — pushed the Briton speech (related to Breton, Cornish, and Welsh) westward to oblivion: from that sort of English came the dialect of the lowlands of to-day: Scots. The north and east of the country were evangelised by Irish monastic saints: Columba from Iona and Aidan from Lindisfarne.

A Christian high cross at Monasterboice in Ireland , by Sitomon (Flickr) [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Stratnclyde-Cumbria, however received the Faith from the patron of this now defunct realm, the earlier mentioned St. Mungo (or Kentigern, as some name him). His feast is January 13, and as mentioned, he may be venerated at his intact shrine in Glasgow cathedral. Except for the manner of counting sheep employed by local shepherds, however, the local Briton — Cumbric — dialect has been extinct for a thousand years. Yet buoyed up by the success of Cornish and Manx, recently enthusiasts have attempted to revive it.

Now these six (or seven, if you count Cumbria) countries are collectively called the “Celtic fringe.” Of course, this relatively small area only represents a small fragment of the lands occupied by the Celtic peoples at their zenith: all of modern France, Belgium, Switzerland, Austria, and southern Germany; parts of Spain, northern Italy, and even into the Balkans and Asia Minor (Galatia). At one time these warriors threatened even Rome — and might have taken the Eternal City, were it not for, quite literally, a gaggle of geese. But the subsequent Roman expansion and barbarian invasions submerged most of the Celts on the continent under two waves of assimilation. One major remnant of Celtic influence remains to-day in France, where the numbering system in French (soixante-dix for 70, quatre vingts — literally “four twenties” for 80, and quatre vingts-dix for 90, are used, rather than the septante, octante, and nonante one might suppose judging by the other Romance languages) echoes the old Gaulish method of counting. To this day, various areas on the Continent boast of Celtic heritage — Italy’s Piedmont, France’s Auvergne, and especially Spain’s Galicia, as examples. Despite certain haunting similarities in music and folklore, however, the term “Celtic” is usually reserved to the places we have looked at, where their languages continue to be spoken or else died out recently and have been revived.

But in addition to their linguistic connections, the six Celtic nations have much else in common — an Arthurian and fairy-ridden folklore; a deep love of music, dance and drink; and a combativeness born of millennia of resistance to outsiders — especially the English and (for Bretons) the French. As they were inevitably drawn in to the mainstream of the conquerors’ societies, their less assimilated populations tended historically to side with the more Conservative forces in the conflicts that engulfed their lands in the 17th and 18th centuries. In the British Civil Wars, the Catholic Irish, the Scottish Highlanders, the Welsh, the English West Country, and the Isle of Man all strongly backed the King against Cromwell. Later, the same areas were havens of support for the Jacobites in their various attempts to unseat the House of Hanover from the British thrones. The French Revolution found Brittany a hotbed of Chouans and Émigrés.

These political struggles were mirrored religiously; Ireland is of course famous for its tenacity in holding on to the old Faith, until modern native corruption did what English oppression could not. The Scottish Highlands supported the Catholic Mary Queen of Scots against John Knox, and the Highlands remained primarily Catholic until the Clearances — there are more Catholics of Scots descent in Canada than in the Mother country, but even today such places as some of the Southern Hebrides and Moidart, Morar, and the Enzie on the Mainland remain attached to the Faith. Wales had a similar tale to tell, and would probably have remained primarily Catholic had not the supply of Welsh-speaking priests failed in the late 17th Century, although even now there are native Catholics in places like the districts around Holywell and Llandeilo. Cornwall showed its attachment to the Old Religion in the Prayer Book Rising of 1549, but suffered a fate similar to that of Wales — though Lanherne House has remained a centre of the Faith in the county. Nevertheless, there were scores of Scots, Welsh, and Cornish martyrs to take their places beside those of Ireland.

Obviously, political and religious defeat in that era meant cultural assimilation in the early 19th century. But the rise of Romanticism, spearheaded by such as the Breton Chateaubriand and Sir Walter Scott led in turn to what is called the Celtic Revival in the mid-19th century and to Celtic Nationalism in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. These developments in turn led to the revival of the languages, and to the recreation of things like the Welsh Eisteddfodd, the Cornish Gorsedh, the Breton Goursez, the Irish Oireachtas na Gaeilge, and the Scots Royal National Mod. In Ireland, while Protestants such as William Butler Yeats, Lady Gregory, and George Russell were prominent in the revival, so too were Catholics such as Edward Martyn and Patrick Pearse, whose cultural activism led in time to their call for political independence. In Brittany, those in the forefront of Breton cultural recovery tended to be (with some exceptions) both devoutly Catholic and Royalist. But in the other countries, where Protestantism had triumphed in every sense, early nationalists like the Scot Ruairdh Erskine, the Cornish Henry Jenner, and the Welshmen Saunders Lewis and H.W.J. Edwards often came to see recovery of their countries’ Catholicism as inextricably linked with revival of both language, culture, and political independence — some of these assisted in launching Neo-Jacobitism. After World War II, however, the nationalist parties — Sinn Fein, Plaid Cyrmu, the SNP, Mebyon Kernow, etc., — swallowed varying amounts of Marxism, presently exchanged for the kind of secularist social capitalism that has destroyed both morality and birth-rates in every western country.

But out of this welter of rediscovery also emerged some myths. Perhaps the furthest from reality was that of the “Celtic Church” — a Christianity independent from and purer than that of the Catholic Church centred at Rome. This notion has allowed Anglicans, Presbyterians, and New Age Christians alike to justify their separation. As Wendy Davies puts it in, “The Myth of the Celtic Church”, Nancy Edwards and Alan Lane, eds. The Early Church in Wales and the West: Recent Work in Early Christian Archaeology, History and Place Names, (Oxford: Oxbrow Books, 1992), 12: “They imagine that there were common beliefs, common religious practices, and common religious institutions in Celtic countries, and that these were distinct from beliefs, practice and institutions in England and on the continent. They also imagine that the church in Celtic countries was distinctly saintly and monastic; moreover, it was individual, unorganised and the very opposite of Roman.”

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. It is there that you shall find it, and nowhere else.

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