Easter date brings matrimonial harmony

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The Independent Online
A thought for Easter: Had it not been for King Oswy of Northumbria and the need for harmony in his domestic arrangements, Britain might be celebrating the most important event in the Christian calendar on a different date.

It was King Oswy who convened the Synod of Whitby in 664 at which the date of Easter was thrashed out. Whitby Abbey, then under St Hilda, was a great centre of Christian learning, though the stone shell which stands gaunt on the Yorkshire clifftop today is of later, Norman, origins.

Within years of St Augustine bringing Christianity to Anglo-Saxon England in 597, early converts were in dispute with the older, northern Celtic church over when to celebrate Easter.

Celtic Christians followed practices laid down by St Patrick and preserved at Iona and other Celtic monasteries. Their Easter fell on the same day as the Jewish Passover, which this year is on 22 April.

But Rome, citing the authority of St Peter, had introduced changes in 525 and it was these that St Augustine sought to impose on the orders of Pope Saint Gregory the Great.

Not only was the fledgling faith put at risk, but for King Oswy there were matrimonial problems. He was of the Celtic persuasion but his wife, Eanfled of Kent, followed Rome. While the king was celebrating Easter, his queen could be marking Palm Sunday. The wrangling at Whitby ended with a decree that the English Church should recognise the authority of Rome and the successors of St Peter. Since then Easter has always been celebrated on the Sunday following the first full moon after the vernal equinox (21 March).

Directing the synod, Oswy had a care for his hereafter. "Peter is the guardian of the gates of heaven and I shall not contradict him."

Whitby Abbey was founded by St Hilda in 657. It was destroyed by Vikings in 867 and then revived by the Normans in the 1070s. Dismantled by Henry VIII, the ruins are now in the care of English Heritage.