Whitby Abbey and the celebration of Easter in England have a long, shared history. However, in the 6th and 7th century, England was a spiritually divided country.
Christianity was spreading quickly, ousting the English peoples’ original pagan beliefs and arrived here by two separate routes, representing different traditions like the observance of Easter.
One came via a group of missionaries who originally came from Ireland and settled in Iona on the west coast of Scotland, initially led by St Columba, later led by St Paulinus, and then by Bishop Aidan (590-651); they are usually known as the Celtic church or tradition. Meanwhile, a group of missionaries led by St Augustine had been sent directly by the Pope in Rome to convert the English people, they first landed in Kent in AD 597, representing the Roman Church or tradition; they established the line of archbishops at Canterbury which has continued without interruption to the present day.
Tensions over the observance of Easter grew until the 660s when it was decided that the issue needed to come to the attention of the King, his court, and the church leaders of the day.
A great Synod was called in 664 to settle the issue of when Easter should be observed with the double monastery of Whitby being chosen as the location. It was headed by a royal descendant, Abbess Hild who founded the monastery by royal charter in 657. The current King, King Oswiu (ruled 642-670), would act as judge and grant his royal authority to the winning side.
The argument centred on Columba’s calculations (the Celtic churches choice) and those laid down by St Peter and St Paul (the Roman churches choice). The king ruled, that as St Peter received his direction straight from God, that “since he is the doorkeeper (to heaven) I will not contradict him…otherwise when I come to the gates of the kingdom of heaven, there may be no one to open them because the one who on your own showing holds the keys has turned his back on me.”
The Roman church emerged triumphant and started the long process of unifying the church in England (bar the odd Viking incursion).
The double Abbey of Whitby flourished under the rule of Abbess Hild (later to become the famous St Hild) until her death in 680 and continued under her successors. The Saxon minster or monastic community then disappeared from the written record in the 9th century; almost certainly it was sacked and destroyed during the Viking invasions and settlements of that age.
In 1078 a new abbey was founded here, on the old site, which developed into a great Benedictine monastery.
It continued to grow in wealth and power, climaxing in the stunning abbey ruins left today, built between the 13th and 15th centuries. The dissolution, the sea breeze and the wars may have all left their marks on these once grand buildings, but the site remains an inspirational place which can be enjoyed by visitors today.
l Whitby Abbey is open to visitors from Wednesday to Sunday from 10am to 4pm until Friday 31 March and then Monday to Sunday from 10am to 6pm from Saturday 1 April.
Visit www.english-heritage.org.uk/visit/places/whitby-abbey/ for more details, admission prices and information on other English Heritage sites in the area including Scarborough Castle, Pickering Castle and Helmsley Castle.