Green politics, philosophy, history, paganism and a lot of self righteous grandstanding.

Monday, 12 October 2009

How Sex Set The Date For Easter

For a notoriously prudish nation sex seems to crop up quite a lot in British history.

How different things might have been if Edward the Confessor had been a bit less pious and spent a bit more time making babies with his Queen; possibly no crisis of succession on his death and no Norman invasion. Then there was Edward II whose preference for young men over his French wife led to an unfortunate encounter with a red hot poker. The illegitimacy of another Edward, Edward IV, may well have been covered up. If it hadn't been our King today might be an Australian republican.

The Georgians were a notoriously randy lot, and sometimes even elevated the offspring of their mistresses to the aristocracy. The current leader of the Conservatives owes his poshness to being the descendant of an Irish actress who was the mistress of the young William IV.

In more modern times Edward VIII's amour for the American divorcee Mrs Simpson led to an abdication which fortunately meant we went through the Second World War with a Head of State who was willing to eat spam off his gold plates, and defend Buckingham Palace to the death with his trusty revolver, rather than a Hitler admirer who preferred to spend the war in the Bahamas laundering money.

Sex too, it seems, may have been the main reason why we ended up with the Church of Rome in these islands and not our own home grown Celtic Christianity. The Celtic Church has almost become a mythical entity amongst modern druids and the like. Professor Ronald Hutton may claim it never actually existed as a coherent entity, but we certainly did have a Christianity, based on the teachings of Patrick and Columba, that appeared rather closer to Nature and rather less likely to go off and commit genocide. Certainly pagans feel more at home in places like Iona than amongst the columns of Rome, and have rather more sympathy for Saints like Kevin of Glendalough, who charmed wild boars and turned water into beer, than Cyril of Alexandria, who murdered Jews, pagans and Hypatia, head of the city's great library.

Whitby Abbey
The demise of the Celtic Church came at the Synod of Whitby in 664 and the casus belli was the innocuous subject of the dating of Easter. The patron of the synod was King Oswy of Northumberia.

The death of Penda of Mercia a few years earlier had left Oswy the most powerful king in England, so what he did mattered. The conflict between two Churches may have had its origins in Oswy's domestic arrangements.

Oswy spoke Irish and was of the Celtic Church, who celebrated Easter on the date of the Jewish Passover. However he'd married Eanfled who, coming from Kent, was of the Roman Church and used the new Augustan calendar. The result was, according to the Venerable Bede "that Easter was kept twice in one year, so that when the King had ended Lent and was keeping Easter, the Queen and her attendants were still fasting and keeping Palm Sunday"

To us this would just be a good laugh and a chance to eat twice as many Easter eggs, but for devout Christians like Oswy and Eanfled it could be very frustrating. This was because the Church forbade carnal relations during Lent.

High Cross at Jarrow
Saxon Kings were expected to be fight like demons on the battlefield, drink like fish in the mead hall and perform like stallions in the marital bed and Oswy appears to have been no exception. So every Easter when, after 40 day of abstinence, the King was hoping for what the Celts euphemistically called "the friendship of the thighs" it must have been a tad frustrating for him to find the Queen's legs still locked together for up to another four weeks.

As ever when a man has this sort of problem, he turns to a woman to sort it out. That woman was Hilda, the Abbess of Whitby, who convened a Synod to sort out once and for all when the King could have his oats, although that wasn't given as the reason publicly. As we know, the Church of Rome won the argument. Marital harmony was restored in Bamburgh Castle and the representatives of the Celtic Church went off back to their islands in a huff.

England became part of the Church of Rome and so we stayed for another 869 years, until another king with marital problems came along, but that is another story.

That it was sex that set the date for a festival which Bede tells us is named after the pagan deity Eostre, who was almost certainly a goddess of fertility, is though extremely apt. So perhaps this Easter you might celebrate, in addition to the chocolate eggs of course, in the way Oswy and Eanfled did. 

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Or copy the Jews and celebrate every Shabbat the same way...and doubly so on Passover.