New chapel found at site of 'Easter' abbey

20/4/14 .-

New chapel found at site of 'Easter' abbey

Archaeologists make new discoveries at the site where the date of Easter was settled

Archaeologists have located a hidden chapel at the site of an abbey where the date of the country’s Easter celebrations were first set.

A team from English Heritage discovered the remains at Whitby Abbey, in North Yorkshire, as part of a 20 year research project.

In 664 it was the venue for the Synod of Whitby, at which a ruling – still in place – was made that Easter at the time marked in the Roman tradition, rather than the Celtic one.

As well as establishing that the site at the time of the meeting was far larger than originally though, the new research also provides an archaeological link to the writings of the Venerable Bede, author of the first history of England.

In addition to the 32ft by 16ft chapel, which would have been in use at the time of the Synod, the team also found a deep ditch, probably originally accompanied by an earth bank, and running the entire width of Whitby’s headland.

On one side lay the monastery, on the other fields. This may well have marked the boundary of the 10 “hides” of land which the Bede says were given to St Hild, the monastery’s founder.

The ditch itself contained animal bones, metalworking debris and clay loom weights, showing that lay people were living and working within the monastery.

Tony Wilmott, the English Heritage archaeologist who led the research, said: “Determining the date of Easter was a major religious and political achievement which has shaped our calendars for the last 1,350 years. You have to go all the way the Henry VIII to find a single event in ecclesiastical life which has had such an influence on us today.

“So to get any new information about the place where such decisions were made is extremely exciting. Until now we’ve been guessing how big Whitby Abbey was in the seventh century, but now we can be sure.

“It was enormous – a large landholding containing the monastic establishment with the Abbey and a lay settlement, all on one of England’s most dramatic coastlines. But the story of those seventh century buildings is difficult to unravel because of the 13th century monastery which was built over the top of it. We are understanding the layout of the monastery for the first time.”

Whitby Abbey played a vital part in the life of early Christian Britain. In the seventh century, when Christianity was struggling to get established in the British Isles, different orders of isolated monks calculated different dates for Easter.

This disagreement – a result of clash between Irish and Roman Christianity – came to a head in the kingdom of Northumbria, where King Oswiu celebrated the feast on a different week to his wife, Queen Eanfled. Whilst one Royal court was fasting as part of Lent, the other would be feasting and celebrating. The Northumbrian princess Hild, later to become St Hilda, called a Synod at the abbey she had founded at Whitby.

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