Early Christianity in Northumbria

Christianity probably first came to what is now North East England and the Scottish Borders in late Roman times, during the 4th century AD. 

Bede recorded in his Ecclesiastical History of the English People that Saint Ninian established a monastery at Whithorn in south-west Scotland, in around AD 397. Ninian may have been born in what we now call Cumbria. From Whithorn he spread his missionary work throughout Scotland and probably influenced some of the inhabitants of the area that later became Northumbria, though paganism remained the dominant belief system.

In the 6th century, the Anglo-Saxons gained control in the region and created two kingdoms – Bernicia (modern Durham and Northumberland) and Deira (covering much of today’s Yorkshire). In about AD 600, King Aethelfrith of Bernicia united his kingdom with Deira to create Northumbria.   

The first king of Northumbria to be converted to Christianity was Edwin, a member of the Deiran royal house which had its base at York.  In AD 625, Edwin married Ethelburga, a Christian princess from Kent.   Ethelburga brought her chaplain from Kent, a monk called Paulinus who had been sent as a missionary to England from Rome by Pope Gregory the Great. Paulinus followed the tradition of the Roman Church. 

In 627, King Edwin was baptised by Bishop Paulinus at York.  In the same year, Bede tells us that Paulinus baptised thousands of Edwin’s Northumbrian subjects in the waters of the River Glen, close to one of Edwin’s royal palaces called Ad Gefrin (near the modern hamlet of Kirknewton).

After Edwin’s death in AD 632, many Northumbrians lapsed back to paganism as the kingdom was ravaged by is arch-enemies the Mercians.

Order was restored by King Oswald, of the Bernician royal house which had its base at Bamburgh.  During his period of exile, Oswald and his brother Oswiu had been brought up as Christians by Irish Celtic monks in the monastery on the island of Iona, off the west coast of Scotland. After regaining his throne, Oswald brought the Irish missionary Aidan from Iona to convert the Northumbrians. In AD 635, Aidan founded the first monastery in Northumbria on Lindisfarne.

During the next three centuries, Lindisfarne grew to be one of the most famous centres of Christian culture and learning in western Europe.

Aidan and other missionaries who came from Ireland and Scotland followed the Irish Celtic Christian tradition. In the 7th century there was rivalry between the Roman and Celtic churches.  In AD 664, King Oswiu attended a gathering of leaders of the Christian Church in England at Whitby Abbey.  At this famous Synod of Whitby, it was decided that Northumbria would abandon the Celtic tradition established in the kingdom by Saint Aidan in favour of the Roman Church. A crucial part in this decision was played by a Northumbrian monk named Wilfrid, whose argument on behalf of the Roman Church won the day.

These events were written down in the first history of the English Church and People by the scholar-monk, Bede of Jarrow.  Bede remains on of our primary sources of knowledge of the Anglo-Saxon period.

The period from the 7th to the mid-9th century is often referred to as the Golden Age of Northumbria, when many holy men and women from the region helped spread the Gospels and gained the status of saints of the Christian Church.