From our December issue: A Remarkable find sheds light on post-Roman worship and belief
In August, between lockdowns, archaeologists announced a remarkable discovery at the Roman fort of Vindolanda (Chesterholm) on Hadrian’s Wall. Until now the fort was best known for its remarkably well-preserved examples of Roman leather and an extraordinary collection of letters written on thin slips of bark, the Vindolanda Tablets. This time, instead of invitations to Roman birthday parties and letters from miserable Roman soldiers asking for warmer socks, the soil of Vindolanda gave up an unprecedented Christian artefact. It was the fragments of a crude lead chalice from a period immediately after the Roman army abandoned Hadrian’s Wall in 410.
The chalice was covered in graffiti, including Greek and Latin letters, the Chi Rho symbol for Christ, crosses, a figure holding a crozier and inscriptions in the early Irish Ogham writing system. The fragments were recovered from a building with a semicircular apse built on top of an earlier Roman barracks, which archaeologists had already tentatively identified as a church.
While a set of Christian altar silver already survives from Roman Britain (the Water Newton Treasure), the chalice found at Vindolanda is the first object of its kind recovered from the mysterious period shortly after the Romans left Britain. It has the potential to transform how we view Vindolanda’s, and Britain’s, post-Roman history.
It is easy to forget that when St Augustine and his companions landed at Ebbsfleet in 597, Christianity in Britain was already old. Bishops from London and York attended the Council of Arles in 314. In the 5th century the British-born St Patrick became one of the greatest missionary saints of that or any other age. In 2016 archaeologists excavated the bodies of 5th-century monks at Beckery near Glastonbury, showing that monasticism reached Britain early. Britain even produced its very own homegrown heresy, Pelagianism – surely a sign that Christianity was being debated and contested within British society.
Post-Roman Britain” (the still Romanised Britain of the 5th century, abandoned by Rome but not yet culturally transformed by Germanic influences) was a divided and chaotic place, but it was at least united by Christianity – even if the British writer Gildas was uncomplimentary about its clergy. In around 429 St Germanus of Auxerre arrived in Britain to lead a campaign against the Pelagian heretics – which famously culminated in a bloodless battle at which the Catholics simply shouted “Alleluia!” and the Pelagians fled. Germanus found a well organised Church, with a shrine of the protomartyr St Alban in Verulamium (the future St Albans). While the pagan Anglo-Saxons attacked Britain’s southern and eastern coasts, the threat to the west and north came from Irish warlords who (thanks to Patrick) were themselves newly Christian – as the Irish Ogham graffiti on the Vindolanda chalice reminds us.
Another Briton, St Ninian, travelled north beyond Hadrian’s Wall and evangelised the southern Picts, establishing a monastery at Whithorn in Galloway (according to tradition) in around 397. The early Welsh poem “Y Gododdin”, written in around 600 from the perspective of the Votadini tribe living in today’s West Lothian, portrays a Christianised warrior society. The early conversion of people north of Hadrian’s Wall supports the idea that there were thriving centres of Christianity on the Wall itself. Archaeologists have long considered a building with an apse at Vindolanda to be a small Christian church, and found there the corner of what was apparently a portable altar inscribed with the Chi Rho monogram.
However, as excavations continue at Vindolanda, multiple late Roman or post-Roman “church-like” buildings have emerged, including the one where the fragments of the chalice were found. It looks increasingly as though Vindolanda was the centre of intense Christian activity in the 5th century – perhaps even a monastic or missionary site.
Such a transformation of a military into a religious site may seem surprising, but this happened to several Roman forts of the Saxon Shore in a slightly later period: in the 7th century, the Anglo-Saxon missionary St Cedd used the stones of the Roman fort of Othona (Bradwell-on-Sea) to build a church, while St Felix and St Fursey may have done something similar at Walton Castle and Burgh Castle respectively. It may be that Vindolanda, as well as being a key part of Britain’s Roman heritage, is central to understanding this island’s Christian heritage too.