Before the Parting of the Ways
The embers of the Celtic Christianity of Cornwall and Devon
Terry Faull is a humble and self-effacing social historian, who has never knowingly been a King or Demi-god. If he had been such a mover or a shaker, maybe Christianity in the far south west of the UK might have taken a radically different journey. Terry is an erudite researcher, and a good friend of the TDs, who would dearly have liked to have taken the best of the strands from both the Celtic and the Roman traditions, and to have blended them together into a brighter and more harmonious tapestry. As it was, the latter came to completely dominate the constructional and canonical landscape, almost to the exclusion of the former. Just a few worn, etheric threads of the older ways linger on, like a ghost in the graveyard – and it’s just the sort of territory where we dowsers can come into our own.
While some of the earliest ‘British’ Christians may have established themselves in Exeter around AD313, the Celtic part of the story really starts with the theology of the ‘British’ Christian Pelagius, who was working in Rome around 409. His view of the church was radically different from that of some of his contemporaries, in that he felt it should be led locally and based on a local community, not dictated to by a distant Bishop. Following the ways of the indigenous people, it had a rural outlook and favoured the lunar calendar to determine significant holy days, rather than the solar calendar, which was preferred by the more urban-based church of Rome. His followers adopted a different form of head shaving to the Roman monks, and his teachings were influenced by the pre-Christian traditions that he had imbibed from his Celtic roots. Yet, perhaps his most important theological concept was to consider women church members to be equal with men. He also encouraged the process of ‘wandering for Christ’ – which appears to have been an activity more comparable to the Aboriginal walkabout than the mediaeval pilgrimage.
With the departure of the Roman legions from Britain in 410, and the progressive colonisation by pagan Anglo-Saxons from 429 onwards, the Christianity of the Celts (aka the British) had to work hard to hold its ground. Yet, it survived – and between 450 and 600 a Celtic version of the faith, much influenced by the work of Pelagius and the Eastern Church, held sway. Only when Augustine brought the Roman alternative to the south east of the land of the Angles, to convert the ‘heathen’ in 590, did the tide begin to turn. In 664, at the Synod of Whitby, it was formally decided to adopt Roman Catholicism as the state religion, and to progressively downplay its predecessor.
However, for centuries thereafter the Celtic tendency smouldered on, with The Venerable Bede mentioning it in 731. The authorities still felt sufficiently threatened by the old ways to formally ban the Celtic heresy at the Council of Chelsea in 816 – and yet it continued to be active enough to get a disparaging mention in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle of 891. Only as late as 1046 was the last whiff of the Celtic separation removed, with the amalgamation of Cornwall’s Christian community into the diocese of a Bishop based in Crediton, Devon, who later moved to Exeter, in 1050.
Precious little remains of the buildings of the Celtic Christian world, although Terry was able to show us several images of Christianised standing stones and ruined rural chapels. As many of the physical remnants, as well as the sites themselves, were subsequently reused by the New Religion – and many of the elements were reincorporated into other religious and/or secular buildings – there may yet be many more of these ancient artefacts waiting to be uncovered and rediscovered by the archaeologist and the dowser.
Terry described several good examples of old memorial stones, including those at Phillack, St Just, St Kew and even nearby South Hill. Some bore inscriptions in both European latin and Celtic ogham, while others had seen subsequent service as remodelled wayside crosses – or even as farmyard gateposts.
If the hard remains of the philosophy have all but faded from view, the social diaspora of this comet’s tail is still very much with us. A plethora of place names in Cornwall and Devon still bear the names of half-forgotten Cornish ‘saints’ (probably more akin to itinerant teachers than those formally canonised today). Terry’s list is both extensive and diverse, and it indicates how the influence of these early evangelists was deeply rooted in the former lands of the Dumnonii, stretching from the Isles of Scilly to the River Parrett, in modern-day Somerset.
One tantalising surviving artefact has both physical and social connotations. The ‘Bodmin Gospel’, dating from around 900, is believed to be a Breton copy of an Irish original. While not on a par with its hugely impressive counterparts from Lindisfarne or Kells , it nonetheless shows both the quality of academic theology in the westcountry at the time – and indicates the ongoing level of interaction between the various communities of the Celtic realm.
Another fascinating early Christian remnant is the reliquary of St Petroc. Despite being stolen twice, and emptied of its bones during the Civil War, it remains one of the region’s most remarkable pieces of early Christian history. Being of Arabic origin, and possibly ‘liberated’ during the crusades, it now resides once again in the church of St Petroc in Bodmin.
Terry indicated some of the dowsable earth energy and water lines to be found in typical early sites and encouraged us all to get out and find them. We certainly intend to do so, and if Terry is available to provide us with a bit of practical guidance next year, so much the better!
He finished his talk with a description of some of the features that flag up the presence of a Celtic Christian site – most notably, the round or oval shaped churchyard known as a llan (best seen from the air!). Terry’s showed several examples from Cornwall and Devon, together with a few from Wales and Ireland, but especially that of his own local church in North Petherwin.
Many thanks indeed to Terry for a wonderful insight into an almost eradicated heritage – and also for standing in as our guest speaker at such short notice.
Nigel Twinn, Tamar Dowsers, December 2013