God’s own country

Back in the 19th-century Whitby famously inspired Bram Stoker’s Dracula. However, rewind a few centuries earlier to 664 and a grand true-life drama was being played out at the Abbey.

It was the Synod of Whitby, the meeting where a King of Northumbria, bishops and future saints would thrash out when these important isles would celebrate Easter. The bone of contention at Whitby was, according to the monk and historian Bede, whether the Ionian Scottish or true Catholic date of Easter would be adopted.

Bede wasn’t an eyewitness to the synod but his account suggests some pretty tense exchanges: the Scots, with the powerful St Hilda and Bishop (later Saint) Cedd on one side, claiming St John, the evangelist and disciple whom Jesus loved best, as their authority.

The Roman tradition and Church, represented by Bishop Wilfrid, crushed the Scots with arguments in favour of the dates set by the Council of Nicaea in 325, dates which divorced the infant but growing Christianity from its Jewish roots. Their arguments hinted that a charge of heresy could not be far behind if the Scots – and St Hilda – failed to conform.

Looking at the ruins of Whitby Abbey now, it is hard to imagine the power of the place in those days: Hilda had rapidly established it as a spiritual and intellectual powerhouse and the Roman Church could not allow it to become a focus for a contradictory view of something as crucial and potentially divisive as what Bishop Wilfrid called “the greatest festival”.

Wilfrid prevailed by calling on the authority of St Peter. King Oswy of Northumbria folded and Bede reports: “all who were seated there or standing by, both great and small, gave their assent, and renouncing the less perfect custom, hastened to conform to that which they had found to be better.”

The Synod of Whitby was not Yorkshire’s first, or even its most significant contribution to the history of Christianity and the celebration of Easter.

The date is July 25, 306, Constantine Chlorus, one of the two Roman Emperors dies in York, having spent some time driving the uppity Scots back across Hadrian’s wall. His son Constantine is acclaimed Roman emperor on the spot. York is not a promising power base from which to take Rome, but Constantine did it and from there he made two significant decisions for the future of the world.

The first was, the Edict of Milan issued in 313 which ended the persecution of Christianity. The second was to uproot himself and his court and transfer the capital of the Empire to the city of Byzantium. The Emperor modestly renamed the place Constantinople in his own honour.

The religious, civil and military madness that followed is a subject in itself, but the Orthodox Christians, descendants of Constantine, also decided to set their own date for Easter.

So in 2013, western Christians will celebrate Easter Sunday this weekend as according to the Whitby synod. While in the east, it will be on May 5.

When Yorkshire is offhandedly called God’s own county there is some historical validity to the claim. Occasionally, as in 2014 the two traditions throw up the same dates for Easter Sunday, and congregations all over the world can, on the same day proclaim: “He is risen!”

They should say it with a slight Yorkshire accent, for the sake of history.