As Colman, Bishop of Lindisfarne, looked out over the North Sea from the cliff top where Whitby Abbey stood, the familiar verses from the Apocalypse may well have leaped to mind: "And the dragon stood on the shore of the sea. And I saw a beast coming out of the sea."

By the middle of the 7th century, England had felt the wrath of more than one beast from across the sea, and to Colman, the traditions practiced by the Church of Rome must have seemed no less threatening to his cherished Celtic way of life.

Several waves of missionaries had evangelized England during the church's early centuries. According to tradition, Joseph of Arimathea himself had introduced the Gospel to British shores at present-day Glastonbury.

Christianity's early gains in the south were reversed, however, when pagan Jutes, Saxons, and Angles (from whom Angle-land eventually took its name) overran most of the island in the 5th and 6th centuries, pushing the native Britons into Wales and Cornwall.

But while the Britons fell before the pagan invaders, the pagan gods gave way to the gospel of Christ. In 597 AD, Pope Gregory the Great sent a missionary to England to promote the gospel among the heathen. His representative, Augustine, received a cordial if unenthusiastic welcome from the Saxon King Ethelbert, whose wife, fortuitously, was Christian. From the church Augustine founded at Canterbury, Roman Christianity began to spread across southern England.

Bumping heads in Northumbria

At about the same time, another missionary movement gathered momentum in the north, flowing outward from the Scottish island of Iona, where the Irish monk Columba had established a religious foundation based on the Celtic Christian traditions that still held sway in Ireland. Both ...

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