An Epistle to James

My dear James, On 24th February, 1979 my friend Tomás Ó Fiaich, Archbishop of Armagh, presented me with his book on Columbanus, wishing me God’s blessing now and always.In Chapter four of the book he explained that when Augustine of Canterbury was passing through Gaul on his way to Britain in 596AD, he must have heard from the local Frankish bishops of the awkward customer in their midst named Columbanus. Augustine’s companion Laurentius (Laurence) was later to mention Columbanus’s name as an example of uncompromising non-conformity in his letter to the Bishops and Abbots of Ireland.

The Frankish Bishops of Gaul were already preparing to make a public issue out of the Easter question when in the year 600 Columbanus took the bold course of appealing over their heads to Rome. It is unlikely that he went there in person for he mentioned in two of his letters that he was unable to go. He wrote his famous letter to Pope Gregory the Great strongly defending the Irish way of calculating Easter and enquiring with a nice touch of sarcasm if it was lawful for him to communicate with Bishops who were “buying orders for money and after secret adultery as deacons”.

Gregory seems to have deputed Conon , Abbot of Lérins, as intermediary, but in 603 a newly appointed Bishop of Lyons, summoned Columbanus to appear before the Council of Châlon-sur-Saone.. Columbanus had already sent his arguments to Rome in three volumes and forwarded a summary to the Bishop. He declined to attend the synod in person.

Pope Gregory died in 604 and Columbanus wrote to his successor even before he discovered the name the new Pope. Again, he requested that he and his monks would be permitted to follow the custom of their own country in the celebration of Easter. In his main argument he invoked the Council of Constantinople of 381 which decreed that churches set up amid pagan tribes should follow the customs they had received from their ancestors. “It was agreed,” he pointed out, ignoring completely the Frankish hierarchy,” that we are in our native land.”

When King Childebert died in 595 and his two sons became Kings of Austrasia and Burgundy, their grandmother Brunhilde acted as Regent on their behalf because both were minors. As Theuderich (French Thierry, German Dietrich) the young King of Burgundy came to manhood, he installed a number of concubines in the Royal household and soon he had four illegitimate children.

Jonas, Columbanus’s biographer, depicts dramatically the Saint’s reaction to the young King’s wayward life. He went to see Queen Brunhilde who led out the four Royal bastards to greet him. Columbanus asked who the children were. “They are the King’s sons,” she answered, “confirm them with your Blessing.” “You must know,” Columbanus thundered, “that these will never hold the Royal Sceptre because they were begotten in sin.” So marked the beginning of the Queen Mother’s undying hostility to Columbanus.

This is the background to the mission of Augustine of Canterbury, the Benedictine monk who became the first Archbishop of Canterbury in the year 598. Augustine is considered the apostle to the English and the founder of the English church. Unusually he was the Prior of a monastery in Rome when Pope Gregory the Great chose him in 595 to lead the Gregorian mission to Britain to convert the pagan Æthelberht of the Kingdom of Kent (Cant) to Christianity. Æthelberht was married to a Christian Princess, Bertha, daughter of Charibert I, a Frankish king.

Gregory sent more missionaries in 601 and, although attempts to persuade the British Bishops to submit to Augustine’s authority failed, Roman Bishops were established in London and Manchester in 604 and a school was founded to train Anglo-Saxon priests and missionaries. Augustine also arranged the consecration of his successor, Laurentius of Canterbury, before he died in 604.

There were serious problems between Augustine and the British church, not only concerning the observance of Easter and tonsure but deeply rooted differences in approach to asceticism, missionary endeavours and how the church was organised. One of the conditions of Æthelberht’s marriage to Bertha was that she was permitted to bring a Bishop named Liudhard with her to Kent. They restored together a church dated to Roman times which is possibly the current St. Martin’s Church, Canterbury. Trade between the Franks and Æthelberht’s Kingdom was well established and there is some evidence that the Franks claimed overlordship of the area.

Gregory had written to King Theuderich of Burgundy and King Theudebert of Austrasia, as well as their Grandmother, Brunhilde, seeking aid for the mission to South Britain. He also thanked King Chlothair of Neustria for aiding Augustine. The Franks themselves would have appreciated the chance to extend their influence in Kent. Such were the complexities of the Augustinian mission to Britain and the reason why the Romanising authority of the Frankish Bishops made sure that the Rule of St. Comgall’s disciple Columbanus in Gaul did not long survive his death.

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