Question: You have a couple of novel series set in this time period, right? One is about King Arthur who’s Christian, and one has a lot of Welsh mythology. So were they Christian or pagan at this time?
They were a little bit of both, actually. While many fictional accounts (though not mine) set in this time period focus on the conflict between pagan religions and Christianity, that seems to be a product of the creative mind, rather than an accurate analysis of religion in Britain in the post-Roman era. For there to be conflict there must be a power relationship as well as a degree of hierarchy and organization, and for both the pagans and the Christians in Wales after the Romans left, there were neither.
As I talked about a few weeks ago, when the Romans conquered Wales in 43 AD, the legions systematically wiped out the reigning religion of Britain at the time, because the druids formed the backbone of a nationalist movement in Britain. That left the Britons to meld what was left of their religion with the Roman pantheon and the cult of the emperor.
Christianity first came to Britain in the first century AD, not long after the death of Christ, but was viewed as one of many cults that were popular at the time, much like the Mithras cult we talked about last week. Although Christians were occasionally persecuted for their beliefs during the first two centuries AD, the Roman government’s official position was to ignore Christians unless they challenged imperial authority. Once Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity in 311 AD, it became an official religion of the Roman empire, and thus Christians were free to worship openly.
Over the next century, Christianity became more formalized, first through the Council of Nicaea in 325 AD that laid out official doctrine, and then in 388 when all other religions within the Empire were banned. That said, Britain was located at the end of the Roman Empire, as far from Rome and the seats of learning as it was possible to be. Whatever changes were going on in Rome were felt in something of a delayed fashion in Britain. While Romans were officially Christian, along with the conquered Britons, what that meant wasn’t the same in Britain as in Rome, and once the Roman legions left in 410 AD, the religion was cut off from its roots.
Without an organized church, Christianity in Britain developed around small cells of believers, led by inspired leaders who came to be known as saints. In fact, this period in Wales has been called ‘the age of Saints’ because there were so many of them and so many stories told about them. Men and women formed monasteries and convents, but with little to none of the hierarchy and oversight that came later.
As had happened when the Roman religion encountered the Celtic belief system, Christianity also allowed for syncretization in order to accommodate and incorporate pagan beliefs. To give an example, in a poem called The Spoils of Annwn, Taliesin, a Christian bard writing in the 6th century, rails against dissolute monks, comparing them to wolves or wild dogs and ends his tale with a prayer to the Lord Christ. Meanwhile, the bulk of the poem relates the story of King Arthur’s descent to the Underworld and his encounter with Annwn, a god from Welsh mythology. This blend of pagan and Christian is one of the hallmarks of early Christianity in Britain.
Through the subsequent centuries, Wales maintained its own take on Christianity and put up significant resistance to the authority of the Roman Church, with which it did not reconcile until 763 AD.
We are going to talk more about these early Christians next week, with a visit to Llanrhychwyn, the oldest church in Wales.