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Why is there an Ireland-shaped hole in recent histories of England?

St Aidan

The influence of St Aidan and his fellow Irish monks is too enormous to ignore

At my elbow, as I write, is a small tower of books, all volumes of English history, stacked up in order of age. At the top of the pile are the three published most recently: from 2011, the first volume of Peter Ackroyd’s History of England; then Daniel Hannan’s How We Invented Freedom and Why It Matters from 2013; and finally Robert Tomb’s The English and Their History (2015). Each in its turn has been lavished with publicity and praise. The Tombs volume, for example, was described by reviewers as ‘definitive’ and ‘magisterial’, the new standard work.

I’ve enjoyed reading all of these books, but they have irked me too on account of a common glaring omission. They either barely register or completely ignore the enormous influence on the early history of England of Saint Aidan and his fellow Irish monks who descended from the monastery of Iona in Scotland in the seventh century; an influence over education, literacy, religion and charity that stretched onwards and outwards through time and place, thanks to the efforts of successive generations of companions, students and followers.

The conversion of England was therefore far from simply an Italian job, initiated by Saint Augustine of Canterbury. However, I don’t need to lay out that story for Herald readers: Ed West has already done so in fine style (Catholic Herald, 22 December, 2017). Enough for now to quote the eminent Sir Frank Stenton from his magnum opus, The Anglo-Saxon World: “The strands of Irish and continental influence were interwoven in every kingdom, and at every stage of the process by which England became Christian.”

Sir Frank’s book was first published way back in 1943, however. Why the gap in more recent tomes? Well, English history is, for one thing, a long race. Anyone constructing a record of that race must, in order to reach the Anglo-Saxon era, peer back over one Becher’s Brook of historical import after another: the wars of the twentieth century, the Industrial Revolution, the Glorious Revolution, the Reformation, the Norman Conquest, to name but some.

I imagine, therefore, that, when it comes to the furthest and mistiest horizons, concentrating on one or two obvious markers, such as Augustine’s mission at the behest of Pope Gregory the Great, will seem a reasonable course of action. The bust-up between Ionan monks and the rest over the correct dating of Easter at the Synod of Whitby in 664 perhaps adds another reason for grand narrative historians to allow the Irish to slip from sight.

In the case of Daniel Hannan’s book, however, there is, as the title suggests, a particular case to press. This involves leaving out both Augustine and Aidan, favouring a national story based around a primal genius for liberty transported from the forests of pagan Germany. Christianity makes barely a ripple until after the Reformation when the English finally realized they had actually been Protestants all along. There is no room for Irish or Italian monks in this version of the tale.

For all their many strengths, then, the books by Hannan, Ackroyd and Tombs dig an Ireland-shaped hole in popular understanding of the origins of England. So much has the traffic run in the other direction for the last 800 years that claims for an Irish hold over English history can, as I have written elsewhere for the Herald, sound like the product of an underdog’s desperate search for small, imaginary moral victories. But the labours of the Irish in the deepest mines of English identity were enormous.

Thankfully, we will always have the Venerable Bede. His makes no bones about the scale of the Irish contribution.  I laugh a little every time I think of his story of the monk who preceded Aidan in coming south from Iona to convert the English, but who gave up on getting through to “an ungovernable people of an obstinate and barbarous temperament”. This first-millennium barb sounds for all the world like the accusations hurled across the Irish Sea for much of the second millennium, though in the opposite direction.

Closer to our own time, though masked by the modern blockbusters I mention above, we can still turn to Stenton; or to Arthur Bryant and his moving evocation of Celtic monks leaving “an image of the Good Shepherd giving his life for his sheep that was to run like a silver thread through the English tradition”; or to Sir Keith Feiling’s stirring account of King Oswald and Saint Aidan showing forth “the perfection of Christian life on the large stage of power”, and of the northern saints who by dint of miracles, preaching and example “stamped Christianity on the souls of the people”.

Three cheers too for Max Adams who meticulously recounts the Aidan story in The King of the North, first published in 2013. There is hope!