And how it relates to the date for Easter!

Grid Ref: NZ 904 113
Dates: 22 September 2009 & 25 March 2011

From my school days I cannot think of Whitby without associating it with the Synod of Whitby. It is only in recent years that I have appreciated fully the significance of this event in 664 AD, as a result of going on a course about Anglo-Saxon England. So I take this opportunity to share not only my photographs but the arcane knowledge of how the early church calculated when Easter Sunday should fall.


Whitby Abbey, March 2011
Whitby Abbey, September 2009


a   Abbey
View from the courtyard of the English Heritage Centre   Remains of transept with rose window visible on the left
Abbey   Abbey
Iconic East End   East end on the right and surviving transept on the left
Abbey   The Town
The rose window in the transept   View from the North Cliff area of the abbey, 2011


There was a monastery at Whitby founded in 657 AD by Oswiu, King of Northumbria. He appointed Hilda the abbess of Hartlepool as the new abbess. She was the grand-niece of Edwin, the first Christian king of the Northumbrians. The monastery was called Streanshalh, a name thought to mean fort bay or tower bay. It may have been the site of a Roman signal station. It was a monastery for both monks and nuns and was the home of the poet Caedmon. This abbey was destroyed by Viking raids in 867 and 870 and appears to have been ruined for two hundred years. By the time of the Domesday Survey of 1085, there is mention of prestebi, meaning the dwellings of priest.

The monastic remains were given to Reinfrid who had fought for the Normans at the Conquest. He went to Whitby or "Hwitebi" which means the white settlement in Old Norse. William de Percy gave him the ruined monastery of St. Peter and land to found a new monastery for Benedictine monks. Also included was the town and port and the parish church of St. Mary, with six dependent chapelries. The new abbey was started in about 1078. Whitby Abbey was dissolved in 1540 and fell into ruin. It was damaged in December 1914, during the Great War when shelled by German naval vessels.

The ruins are now owned and maintained by English Heritage and there is a visitor centre with a museum. Whitby has achieved fame in recent years as the venue for Goth weekends at Halloween and in March. This is because Bram Stoker the author of Dracula, published in 1897, lived in Whitby for a time and was inspired by the local scenery. In the book, Dracula first comes ashore at Whitby.


The Synod of Whitby and the Easter Controversy between Roman and Gaelic/Ionian Churches

(A baffling tale)

Very Brief Introduction

When the Romans left Britain in 410 AD, Christianity continued, particularly in Ireland and the Western Isles of Scotland. We think of St. Columba (521-597) who spread Christianity into SW Scotland in the land then known as Dal Riata or Dalriada. This was a colony of a part of Ulster with the same name and was founded at the end of the Roman period in the 5th century. The people were known to the Romans as Scotti. Saint Columba was an Irish abbot and he founded the abbey of Iona which became an important centre of Christianity in the region. It was from Iona that missionaries set out to convert the natives of Southern Scotland and Northern England. At this point, Ireland had no towns; its population was spread thinly across the land in small settlements. The first town was Dublin, founded by the Vikings in 988 but there had been an earlier Viking settlement nearby from about 841 known as Dyflin. The Irish Church was a similarly diffuse organisation at this time.

Constantine (272-337) was the first Roman Emperor to be a Christian. He called the First Council of Nicaea in 325 AD at which the Nicene Creed was formulated. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre was built on his orders in Jerusalem. By comparison with the Irish Church, the Roman Church was monolithic with a supreme head in the Pope and a hierarchy similar to the feudal system. It was the ecclesiastical equivalent of the Empire itself. In 595 AD, Pope Gregory the Great chose Augustine to travel to Britain to convert the population. Gregory must have had access to documents relating to the end of the Roman Empire as towns are mentioned in his papers that had been settlements in Roman Britain but which had been abandoned by 595. Augustine became the Archbishop of Canterbury in 597. He may have been sent to Kent not just because it was close to the continent but because King Aethelberht of Kent had married a Christian princess, Bertha, the daughter of Charibert I, King of Paris.

So by the early 7th century, two separate strands of Christianity were being espoused in Britain, the Gaelic or Ionian version in the North and the Roman version spreading north from Kent.

When is Easter?

Rome wanted a single practice of Easter but changed the way it was calculated more than once. The Jews had a lunar calendar and the Romans a solar calendar.  There are 354 days in the lunar year but 365.25 in the solar year.  This meant that the Jewish month of Nissan, which is supposed to occur in Spring, would occur 11 days earlier in the season each year. To compensate for this drift, the Jewish calendar uses a 12-month lunar calendar with an extra month occasionally added every two or three years to balance out the drift. In ancient times, this month was added by observation: the Sanhedrin observed the conditions of the weather, the crops and the livestock, and if these were not sufficiently advanced to be considered "spring," then an additional month was inserted into the calendar to make sure that Passover would occur in the Spring.

The crucifixion was held to take place at the Feast of the Passover, which was the 14th day of the Jewish month of Nissan.  The first day of Nissan was the first of the Jewish New Year and the day of a new moon whereas Passover was the day of a full moon.  As a result Passover could occur on any day of the week.  Some Christians wanted to break the connection to Passover and wanted Easter to fall on a Sunday but never on Passover itself.  If 14 Nissan fell on a Sunday, Easter would be the following Sunday. Those who felt Easter should fall on 14 Nissan were called Quartodecimans.

The council of Nicea in 325 AD decided that the Easter full moon could not fall before the Spring Equinox. Easter depended on a full moon falling on or after the Equinox.  The calculations made by different churches were as follows. 

Celts: Easter falls on the Sunday in the range 14-20 Nissan
Greeks: Easter falls on the Sunday in the range 15-21 Nissan
Romans: Easter falls on the Sunday in the range 16-22 Nissan but later moved to 15-21 in the early 7th century.

So the Celts could celebrate Easter on 14 Nissan which was Passover.   To add further complexity, the Spring Equinox in Rome was held to be on 21 March but on 25 March for the Celtic Church. These differences resulted in bitter disputes.

In Rome, the earliest Easter could be was 22 March if the full moon fell on the equinox on Saturday 21 March.  The Celtic church would have to wait for almost a month for the next full moon to fall after 25 March.  As a result of these differences, in 631 AD the Roman Easter fell on 24 March and the Celtic on 21 April.  Rome became increasingly hard line with a strong anti-Jewish lobby against having Easter Sunday on the day of Passover.

Southern Ireland changed first among the British Churches to using the 15-21st of Nissan but Iona and Lindisfarne stuck to the Celtic model as did Wales and the West Country.

The Synod of Whitby in 664

All came to a head for the future of the church in Britain at the so-called Synod of Whitby in 664.  Strictly speaking it was not a Synod as that is a meeting called by the Church. This conclave was called by Oswiu (612-670), the King of Bernicia. He was of the Gaelic or Ionian tradition, whereas his wife was of the Roman tradition being Eanflæd daughter of Edwin.  Oswiu’s son Alchfrid also supported Rome so there was a split within the family.

There are two accounts of the Synod of Whitby, one being the Life of Wilfrid relating to Wilfrid (633-709) Bishop of Ripon, the other being The Venerable Bede's The Ecclesiastical History of the English People, Book III chapter 25, produced about 731 AD.  Of the factions present, Oswiu was for the Gaelic tradition along with Aidan’s successor, Colman, the priest Cedd and Abbess Hilda.  Alchfrid, Wilfrid, Agilbert, Agatho, James and Romanus were for Rome. Also present were Agatho, a priest, Wilfrid the abbot of Ripon and Agilbert a bishop.

Hilda, Abbess of Whitby, (613-680) was the daughter of a nephew of King Edwin (586-632/3) who had been King of Deira and Bernicia. Whitby was in Deira, a kingdom that existed from 599 to 664 in north eastern England and which combined with Bernicia to form Northumbria. Hilda had been baptised by Paulinus, the first bishop of York, who died in 644. She initially entered a monastery in Gaul.  Bishop Aidan of Lindisfarne, who died in 651, asked her to found a monastery in Hartlepool so this gave her a connection to the Gaelic tradition. 

Oswiu could have chosen Lindisfarne or Hexham for the venue.  At the synod, Oswiu decided to support the Roman position. Those in disagreement went back to Iona and its dependencies.  Oswiu made York the main centre instead of Lindisfarne and Iona’s influence declined. Thus the Synod decided not only the date of Easter but the eventual dominance of the Roman Church over Britain.


For Western Christian churches, Easter falls on the first Sunday after the first full moon that falls on or after the Spring Equinox. This does not apply to the Eastern Orthodox churches, who still use the older Julian Calendar instead of the Gregorian Calendar.

It has been proposed that Easter should be set, perhaps as the second Sunday in April, so as to equalize the Spring and Summer terms of the school year. This would fairer for pupils preparing for their GCSE and A level examinations in that each successive year would have the same preparation time after Easter. Moreover we would all be able to calculate it for ourselves without reference to the equinox or the phases of the moon.


Course on the Venerable Bede and his writings held at Alston Hall College, 9 to 11 March 2012, given by Philip Holdsworth

Wikipedia on St. Columba, Emperor Constantine, St. Augustine of Canterbury, Whitby Abbey,


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