The little that is known about Saint Eata suggests that he was a holy man who played a significant part in the consolidation of the English Church in the latter part of the seventh century following the Synod of Whitby. It is thought that he was a native of Northumbria and was probably born in the reign of King Oswald.
It was in its Celtic form that Christianity had been introduced – or re-introduced – into Northumbria in the seventh century. This owed much to the initiative of King Oswald of Northumbria who, in 634, sent to Saint Columba’s monastery on Iona for a bishop for his kingdom. Aidan, one of the monks, was ordained and sent in response and he, in characteristic Celtic monastic fashion, founded his monastery on an island off the Northumbrian coast. It was here at Lindisfarne that he started a school in which Eata was one of its earliest pupils.
Celtic Christianity, which had probably been introduced into Britain in the third and fourth centuries by missionaries from Gaul, differed in many forms from that introduced into England by Saint Augustine and his followers towards the end of the sixth century. There were technical differences over the dating of Easter and the shape of the tonsure but, more importantly, it was a tribally based religion and advocated a type of monasticism, eremitical in character, derived from that followed in the Egyptian deserts by the earliest Christian monks. This had come, either by trading routes or it had percolated through Gaul into Britain by the late fourth century. It was an extremely austere form of monasticism, often involving great physical deprivation, long fasts, prolonged immersion in cold water, self-imposed exile and missionary work in the remotest part of eastern and northern Europe. The scanty evidence we have suggests that both its liturgy and chant resembled the Eastern practice far more than the Roman innovations of Saint Augustine. Saint Columba had set up his monastery on the island of Iona in the year 563 and it became the centre of Celtic missionary endeavour in mainland Britain. It is, however, worth noting that the largest Celtic monastery on the British mainland, until its destruction in 616, was that at Bangor Isycoed on the frontiers of Mercia and Powys, which Bede described as a house of more than two thousand monks.
Around the year 640 Saint Aidan founded a monastery on a tongue of land almost enclosed in a loop of the River Tweed, which today is known as Old Melrose. At that time it must have almost been an island similar to other Celtic monastic settlements and, like Bangor Isycoed, no trace of it remains to be seen today.
In 651 Eata was made the first Abbot of Melrose and it was here that he admitted Cuthbert into the community at the instigation of a saintly monk called Boisil Around 658 he founded a new monastery at Ripon in Yorkshire, at the invitation of King Alchfirth, taking Cuthbert with him. Celtic monastic and liturgical practices were followed until, because he was unable to accept the Roman practices promoted by Wilfred, Eata and his monks were expelled from Ripon. According to Bede they returned to Melrose and, significantly omitting any mention of Eata, Wilfred’s biographer, Eddus Stephanus informs us that the king appointed Wilfred as Abbot at Ripon.
The much-celebrated conflict between Celtic and Roman forms of Christianity came to a head in 663/4 at the Synod of Whitby where Wilfred forcefully argued the Roman position. Here it was decided that henceforth Roman usage would be followed in the English Church and that the Celtic forms in such matters as the dating of Easter, the shape of the tonsure and the authority of bishops would have to be abandoned. This decision clearly presented problems for those parts of England which adhered to the Celtic rite but it concerned only local customs: the fundamental doctrines of Orthodoxy were never in dispute. It did however require submission to the growing authority of Rome that much later would be the cause of the Great Schism. This proved to be too much for Colman, Aidan’s successor as Abbot of Lindisfarne, and he returned to Iona taking thirty monks with him before travelling to Ireland. The oversight of Lindisfarne was reconstituted into two distinct posts. Tuda, another of Aidan’s pupils, was made Bishop of Lindisfarne while Eata was moved from Melrose to become the Abbot. Eata then appointed Cuthbert as Prior. However, the later 660’s was a time of tribulation for the Celtic Christians because of the visitations of plague, which carried off Tuda after just a few months as Bishop, Eata’s fellow pupil at Lindisfarne, Cedd, Bishop of the East Saxons, and also Wigheard the Archbishop-elect of Canterbury.
The centralized re-organization of the English Church was the work of Theodore of Tarsus, a native of Asia Minor and a monk in Rome, who was sent to Canterbury in 669. Anxious to achieve Pope Gregory’s wish for twenty-four English sees his immediate plan was to redefine the territorial boundaries of the dioceses and to restructure them internally. When Theodore became Archbishop he found that there were only three bishops still active in England. He divided the vast diocese of Northumbria in 678 and consecrated Eata as Bishop of Bernicia, its northern half. Three years later this too was divided into the dioceses of Hexham and Lindisfarne. Thus it was that Trombert, a former pupil of Saint Chad and teacher of the Ven. Bede, became Bishop of Hexham and Eata became Bishop of Lindisfarne. In 685 Archbishop Theodore removed Trombert from Hexham, apparently for disobedience, and Cuthbert, whose saintly qualities were now famous, was chosen to succeed him. Finally, by mutual agreement, Cuthbert became Bishop of Lindisfarne and Eata returned to Hexham. In less than a year Eata had succumbed to dysentery and was buried at Hexham where a chapel was later built over his grave. His relics were translated inside the church in the eleventh century. In 1113 the Archbishop of York went to Hexham and tried to have the relics brought to York because his town had no shrine of a local saint. During the night Eata appeared saying angrily, “Why will you not let me rest in the church I governed?” He then struck the Archbishop on the shoulder with his pastoral staff causing him to wake in pain and return to York without the relics.
Like his teacher, Aidan, Eata was a man of peace and saintly simplicity, a true son of the Celtic tradition. His obedience to the decisions of Whitby and Archbishop Theodore must have contributed much to the unity of the Northumbrian Church. No doubt Theodore, himself a monk from the Eastern tradition, would have had some affinity with Eata’s Celtic background.
Atcham, between the Roman city of Wroxeter (Viroconium) and Shrewsbury is the only church dedicated to Saint Eata and, because of the considerable distance from the location of his ministry, much doubt has been cast on its authenticity. For instance, it has been suggested that there is confusion between the saint and someone of the same or similar name such as Abbot Edelheg who is mentioned in one of the charters of Wenlock. However, some evidence has emerged to support the observation, made a century and a half ago by the Rev. Robert Eyton in his monumental Antiquities of Shropshire, that Atingeham as it appears in the Domesday survey is derived from Ettingham and shortened to become Atcham which he interpreted to mean the Home of the Children of Eata. The impressive evidence given by Ordericus Vitalis in his Ecclesiastical History of England & Normandy overcomes the lack of any mention of a church there in the Domesday Book. Referring to a decade before Domesday he writes,“I was baptised on the Saturday of Easter, at Attingham (Atcham), a village which stands on the bank of the great river Severn. There by the ministry of Ordericus the priest….. thou gavest me the name borne by this priest, who was my godfather”. This piece of autobiographical information is interesting for more than one reason. Baptised by his namesake-godfather at St. Eata’s Church, Atcham on 16th February 1075, he was destined to become, as ‘Ordericus Vitalis’, one of the most famous of all the monkish chroniclers writing in that period. Not only does he record the first priest mentioned by name in any Shropshire record he clearly identifies Saint Eata’s church that stands on the bank of the Severn. Evidently Saint Eata’s church held the rights to baptise rather than the small wooden chapel lignea capella of Saint Peter that later became Shrewsbury Abbey, the site of which had been donated by his father, Odelirius. Furthermore fragments of re-used stone and tiles, almost certainly from the Roman city of Viroconium, and Saxon masonry in the structure indicate that it was founded sometime before 800. At the time of the Domesday Survey in 1089, Atcham was held by the royal foundation of Saint Alkmund’s, attributed to Queen Aethelflaeda of Mercia (d.918). It has been suggested that it was a re-foundation of an earlier church.
Aethelflaeda is credited with being the founder of churches at both Shrewsbury and Whitchurch both dedicated to the martyred Northumbrian prince, St. Alchmund. It is known that Aethelflaeda founded and built the Priory of Saint Peter at Gloucester from the stones of a Roman temple when her husband, Aethelred, became ill. During the Danish incursions she recovered the greater part of the relics of Saint Oswald and interred them in the crypt ‘with great ceremony’ from which the priory thereafter took its name. Furthermore the new Priory of Saint Oswald was closely associated with the Mercian royal palace at Kingsholm nearby and it was here, apparently at their request, that Aethelred andAethelflaeda were buried. At the same time a similar but less well-documented case is that of the removal of the relics of Saint Werberg from Hanley to Chester where she rededicated the former abbey of Saint Peter to the honour of Saints Werburgh and Oswald. When her husband Aethelred, Earl of Mercia, died in 911 A.D.
Aethelflaeda was at once accepted as the Myrcena hlaefdige ‘Lady of Mercia’. This was no nominal title: she was a formidable military leader and tactician. Her greatest victories were achieved in 917 when she captured Derby and its district from the Danes and shortly afterwards both Leicester and York. It has been suggested that Aethelflaeda’s capture of Derby might also have been the occasion when she removed the relics of Saint Alchmund from Derby to Shrewsbury for safety and there a church was dedicated to him. The plot thickens when the fact that Saint Alchmunds had held Atcham from preconquest times is considered. The link is, of course, Aethelflaeda, who, for safety, is known to have moved numerous relics of saints to boroughs she had fortified. The earliest written sources make it clear that Shrewsbury was a royal centre of considerable importance and the Saxon rendering of the name Scrobbesbyrig indicates that it had defences (O.E. burgh, ‘fortified place’). It was here that Ealdorman Aethelred and Aethelflaeda, together with numerous Mercian aristocrats, stayed in 901 to draw up a Charter bestowing property and gifts on Saint Milburga’s Monastery at Much Wenlock. A pattern of fortification, the reorganization of an ecclesiastical centre and the introduction of a Mercian cult associated with relics, is also discernable at Shrewsbury.
The finding of a coin of the third century in the riverbed of the Severn at this point gives some substance to the view that the present village of Atcham probably began as a settlement beside an ancient ford. At Frog Hall just over a mile north of Atcham an aerial survey in 1975 revealed crop marks indicating buildings similar in shape to timber halls excavated at the seventh-century royal site of Yeavering, Northumberland. Frog Hall then appears to be the kind of prestigious early Anglo-Saxon site that would have been inhabited by a powerful thegn. Then in 1998 archaeological investigation at Atcham uncovered evidence of occupation in the Saxon period. What all this shows is that there are both historical and archaeological links between Atcham and Northumbria giving good reason to suppose that the church on the bank of the Severn at Atcham is indeed uniquely dedicated to Saint Eata of Hexham and that it is part of one of Aethelflaeda’s royal foundations. The possibility that Atcham might have been the place of safety for the relics of Saint Eata during the Danish threat is but speculation, at least for now.
Christopher Jobson (on the Feast of Saint Eata, 26 October 2016)