‘St Chad’, by Aloysius Atkinson

From the Editor: On the occasion of a rather odd event, here’s a piece about one of this country’s first saints. Enjoy!

An unusual – perhaps unique – liturgy took place this week: a relic of St Chad was transferred from the Catholic cathedral in Birmingham to Lichfield, where it will reside on the site of his medieval shrine, destroyed at the Reformation. Chad is patron of Birmingham archdiocese, covering a vast swathe of central England, from Henley-on-Thames, near London, to Stoke-on-Trent and west to Worcester. Most of Oxford, including the university, is within its bounds. But almost no-one has heard of him, except maybe as the cathedral’s obscure dedicatee.

Chad held two great bishoprics during his lifetime: York, which covered the superpower of Northumbria, stretching from the Humber to the Firth of Forth; then later that of Mercia, the kingdom of the English Midlands. But he was known for his goodness rather than his greatness, despite living in a time when powerful prince-bishops including St Theodore and St Wilfrid dominated the church in England. 

He stemmed from the Irish missionary movement which established Christianity in most of England in the mid-seventh century. He was educated by St Aidan, the monk-missionary who was brought from Iona to Northumbria by St Oswald, a devout warrior-king, after he took the throne in 634. Aidan was based on the tidal island of Lindisfarne, close to Oswald’s citadel at Bamburgh but cut off by the tide, to preserve sufficient seclusion for the strict Irish monastic life. Chad seems to have been schooled there alongside his three brothers, Cedd, Cynibil and Caelin (alliterative names were normal for élite Anglo-Saxons), who all also became priests. Chad travelled to Ireland, the most renowned centre of monastic life and theological scholarship in Europe, where he lived as a monk, probably at Rath Melsigi in County Carlow. He returned to England and became abbot of Lastingham, in Yorkshire. 

At this point, a hurricane tore through the Irish mission in England. No uniform system existed for calculating the date of Easter: one system was used in Rome and the East; another in Gaul; still another in Ireland and the Celtic churches in Britain. Oswiu, Oswald’s brother and successor, celebrated Easter on a different day from his wife Eanflaed, resulting in the bizarre situation of half the royal court fasting while the other half feasted. In 664, Oswiu resolved this by rejecting the Irish Easter, which he had himself followed. This bitterly divided the Irish mission. Colmán, Aidan’s successor, left for Ireland with many of his English followers and some of Aidan’s relics. Tuda was chosen to replace him but died of plague almost immediately. Wilfrid, then a stridently anti-Irish abbot, was sent to Gaul to be consecrated bishop. Having been ordained by twelve Frankish bishops gathered at a royal assembly, who then carried him around on a golden throne, Wilfrid tarried on the continent. Needing a bishop, perhaps without Wilfrid’s panache and far-flung interests, Oswiu turned to Chad.

Being chosen as bishop was one thing, being consecrated quite another. Chad travelled to Canterbury, only to find the archbishop had died in the plague, which had all-but wiped the episcopate out. He went on to Winchester, where he found Bishop Wine (whose name did have the same meaning in Old English). Coincidentally, Wine had usurped the diocese from Agilbert, one of the Frankish bishops who consecrated Wilfrid. Due to the plague, Wine called on two Cornish bishops to consecrate Chad with him. The Cornish and Welsh observed Easter on the same day as the Irish, so Wilfrid and the hardliners anathematised them. Wine may have been a fairly dubious character himself: not only did he intrude into Agilbert’s diocese; he later proved to be a simoniac by purchasing the bishopric of London. 

Still, having become a bishop Chad returned to Northumbria, where he modelled his life on the apostles and St Aidan. He lived humbly, travelling his vast diocese – some 250 miles north-to-south – on foot to preach the Gospel. Walking, rather than riding, was a characteristic of the Irish missionaries, who placed a premium on authentic humility and personal holiness, rather than splendour and ceremony. Most of the ordinary people had quite a shaky grasp of what Christianity actually involved: they may well have been baptised in a mass ceremony, in a river perhaps; but the number of priests available to teach and to initiate sacramental life was pitifully inadequate. Until the crucial battle of the Winwaed, in 655, England’s most powerful monarch was a pagan: Penda of Mercia. So Chad’s task was enormous. 

When, at length, Wilfrid returned from Gaul, Oswiu preferred to keep Chad as bishop. But when a new archbishop of Canterbury arrived in 669, the position changed. Theodore had been sent from Rome to restore the English church, which had almost totally collapsed due to the plague. He was a Greek Catholic, from Tarsus in Asia Minor, which had been overrun by the Islamic invasions of the Byzantine Empire, although a minder was sent with him to prevent the introduction of Greek customs in England. Theodore was horrified to discover that Chad had been consecrated by bishops who observed the Irish Easter, because he deemed them heretical and schismatic. He declared that he had not been canonically consecrated and appears to have deposed him as bishop in Northumbria. 

This might have provoked another crisis, like 664, for those whose faith derived from the Irish mission, or at least been a crushing blow to Chad himself. But it was his finest hour. He greeted Theodore with humility: If you know I have not duly received episcopal ordination, I willingly resign the office, for I never thought myself worthy of it; but, though unworthy, in obedience submitted to undertake it. Theodore was so moved by Chad’s grace and utter lack of pride that he validated his episcopal orders; whether by re-consecration or some form of reconciliatory blessing is unclear. Having surrendered his bishopric to Wilfrid, Chad retired to Lastingham, where he resumed living as a monk.

His humble holiness had made such a mark on Theodore, the archbishop’s hostility to the ecclesiastical tradition from which he derived notwithstanding, that he found a way to restore him as an active bishop. When Jaruman, bishop of Mercia, died, Theodore replaced him with Chad. In one respect, however, he forbade him to follow Irish practice. Discovering that Chad did his pastoral work on foot, the archbishop bodily lifted him on to a horse, commanding him to ride, in future. This was not unreasonable: Chad’s diocese spanned the whole of central England; and Christianity there was even weaker than in Northumbria. In other respects Chad followed Aidan’s example. He set aside a hermitage, close to his episcopal see, where he could pray and read the scriptures with a small group of monks. Sadly, he lasted less than three years as bishop in Mercia, but the church community he led continues to this day. 

Chad based his diocese at Lichfield, where his relic returned this week. The site was not accidental. It was near the ruined Romano-British town of Letocetum, from which it takes its name, where there were reputedly early Christian martyrdoms. Once again, Chad had the humility to follow in the footsteps of those who had gone before. He was also trying, again, to reconcile divergent church traditions, separated by culture and the date of Easter. After the Norman Conquest, Lichfield became the diocese of Coventry and Lichfield. At the Reformation, the Catholic dioceses of England collapsed and were replaced by missionary priests. In 1688, during the reign of the last Catholic king, James II, Chad’s see was provisionally restored: the pope made Bishop Bonaventure Giffard apostolic vicar for the midland district. Following Catholic emancipation, in 1829, and the end of the penal laws, dioceses could be created again. One of the first was the diocese of Birmingham, with its seat at St Chad’s cathedral, where most of his surviving relics reside. 

Today, a more relevant patron of ecumenism could not be imagined. Chad also should inspire students and teachers: one of his pupils, Trumhere, taught St Bede the Venerable; the greatest medieval biblical scholar and England’s only doctor of the church. 

Sancte Ceadda, ora pro nobis!

Aloysius Atkinson, DPhil candidate in Medieval History, St John’s and President of the Society