Whitby Abbey is surely one of the most evocative and dramatic remains in British history. It would be doing a disservice to describe the abbey as simply perched over the town and coast; rather, it commands the place from its windy headland. You can see the ruins from several miles distant. Up close, they are even more impressive: the glorious stonework, mottled by the salty air, but still as richly detailed as it would have been in the 13th century, stands stark against the Yorkshire sky and North Sea waves.
What you’re looking at is the roofless remnant of a mighty medieval monastery, set up by a follower of William the Conqueror in the late 11th century, richly endowed and prosperous enough to embark on a major rebuilding in the 1220s, and then dissolved on the orders of Henry VIII in 1539. If this was all the place had going for it, a visit would still be worthwhile, but it’s what went on before those events that gives the abbey real historical significance.
Whitby was the site of an Anglo-Saxon monastery from AD 657. It was founded on the instructions of King Oswy of Northumbria, an Anglo-Saxon ruler and a Christian. He had defeated a pagan adversary, Penda, in battle two years prior to founding Whitby, and in thanks to God for his victory he had dedicated some of his money and his daughter Aelfled to a life of monastic service. Thus, Aelfled found herself in the new royal monastery at Whitby under the leadership of Abbess Hild.
Hild must have done a good job in building up her monastery (housing both monks and nuns), for less than a decade after its foundation it was important enough, and presumably had buildings large and grand enough, to play host to a major Northumbrian church council, the Synod of Whitby in 664.
By that point, most of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of England were nominally Christian. The religion that had first been state sanctioned in Roman times under Constantine but had then been rather overwhelmed in the years after the Roman withdrawal, was back and now growing firmer roots. However, as is often the case with religious matters, there was more than one sort of faith being followed. In Northumbria, Oswy was an adherent of what we now call Celtic Christianity, which had been brought over from Ireland via Iona. Other, more southerly, Anglo-Saxon kingdoms followed the Roman model of the faith, which had arrived with the mission of Augustine to Kent in 597. Oswy called the synod in 664 to decide on whether the Celtic or Roman strand was the right path to follow.
The great Anglo-Saxon historian Bede goes into some detail about the debate, which pitched leading churchmen against one another. There were two particular points of contention: one was the question of how monks should cut their hair (Celtic priests shaved the front of the head and let the back grow, while their Roman counterparts removed a circle on top of the pate) because then, as now, appearances were important. The second question was a rather more pressing personal concern for Oswy, as Sarah Foot explains.
‘The argument was over how to calculate the date of Easter. King Oswy was following the Irish tradition, but his [southern Anglo-Saxon] wife was doing it differently, the Roman way, as she had been brought up by Roman missionaries. There was one year when the king had finished marking Easter, and was in a position to exercise his conjugal rights, having given them up for the 40 days of Lent, while his wife was still on Palm Sunday and had a further week of the fast to go. So Bede presents marital strife as one of the things that drove the argument.’
I think many people today remain confused about how Easter is worked out, scratching their heads over that movable bank holiday, but for Oswy it was a matter of considerably more import than when to pencil the long weekend into the diary. He needed the best minds in the early Church to help him decide whether to be Celtic or Roman. Having heard the theological wrangling from those minds, he came down on the side of the Romans, surmising that the authority of St Peter should not be challenged, as it was St Peter who held the keys to heaven. Oswy did not want to run the risk of being locked out of that particular gate. The decision was something of a shock; most observers were probably not expecting the king to change his mind.
‘It put England into the European mainstream, so instead of being an aberrant sect at the corner of the world, by 665 the whole of England all the way up to Lothian and the Scottish borders was worshipping in the same way as they were in Western Europe,’ notes Foot. ‘The decision made at Whitby to ally the Church in England with the Church of Rome, and therefore Christian practice on the rest of the European mainland, made England very firmly part of European Christendom. If the decision had gone the other way and they’d decided to plump for the Irish, they would have isolated themselves from the mainstream of Christian culture and possibly left themselves out on a limb for many centuries to come.’
In purely English terms, you can make a case for the Synod of Whitby as a formative moment in the development of a single English state because it meant that all the Anglo-Saxon kings were following the same way of worshipping. If they had still been at odds over haircuts and Easter 250 years later, it would have been much more difficult for Athelstan to have brought together Northumbria with Wessex and Mercia to become the first King of England.
So Whitby’s Anglo-Saxon significance cannot be underestimated. Sadly, there is very little left of Hild’s monastery. The Anglo-Saxon foundation appears to have disappeared at some point in the mid 9th century due to the depredations of the Viking raids. The only evidence you’ll see on the headland today are some tomb markers on the seaward side of the medieval ruins, and some inscribed stones in the splendid and airily modern visitor centre. The neglected memory of the abbey’s past importance, though, was enough to convince the Normans that it should be refounded, so although you’re not looking directly at 7th-century stones in the ruins today, they are, I think, in the tradition of that earlier Anglo-Saxon story.
Nominated by Sarah Foot, Regius Professor of Ecclesiastical History, Oxford University
This is an extract from the BBC History Magazine book 100 Places that made Britain, by David Musgrove, published on 2 June 2011.