27 November, 2011

Roman York to Anglian York: documentary sources

In Late Roman Britain, York (Eboracum) was the base of the Sixth Legion and the civilian part of the city had the status of colonia, the highest rank of Roman city. It was clearly an important centre of Roman civil and military power. What happened to it after the end of Roman imperial administration in Britain?

Documentary sources refer to York in the fourth century and the early seventh, with a possible snippet or two in between. Archaeology also provides some possible clues. I’ll discuss the documentary sources in this post.


Death of Emperor Constantius and elevation of Emperor Constantine, 306 AD

"Constantius died at Eboracum in Britain in the thirteenth year of his reign, and was deified. ..."
"On the Death of Constantius, Constantine, his son by a somewhat undistinguished marriage, was made emperor in Britain, and succeeded to his father's position as a very popular ruler. ..."
--Eutropius, Breviarium, Book X Ch. 1 and 2, available online

These events occurred in July 306 AD.

Bishop of York attends Council of Arles, 314 AD

Eborius episcopus de civitate Eboracensi provincia Britanniae
Restitutus episcopus de civitate Londiniensi provincia suprascripta
Adelphius episcopus de civitate Colonia Londiniensium
Exinde Sacerdos presbyter Arminius diaconus
--Signatories to the acts of the Council of Arles, 314. Text quoted in Painter 1971, first page (with the relevant quote) available online.

The Council of Arles was held in 314 AD. The text translates roughly as follows:

Eborius bishop of the city of Eboracum in the province of the Britains
Restitutus bishop of the city of Londinium in the above province
Adelphius bishop of the city of Colonia Londiniensum
[?] Sacerdos the priest [and] Arminius the deacon
--My translation, very approximate.

I don’t know what ‘exinde’ means on the fourth line (if anyone would like to enlighten me, please feel free to comment), but it doesn’t matter for the purposes of this post. The two cities clearly identified are Eboracum (York) and Londinium (London). ‘Colonia Londiniensum’ is unclear. It might be a repeat of London, although two bishops from the same city seems a little extravagant, or a spelling mistake for Colonia Lindensium (Lincoln). Clearly, York had at least one bishop in 314 of sufficient standing to attend an important church council. Whether his name really was Eborius, or whether this was a mistake or a guess by a harassed scribe, or a title used instead of a name, is open to interpretation.


The next unequivocal mention of York in a documentary source is from Bede’s Ecclesiastical History, written in 731, which quotes a letter from Pope Gregory to St Augustine written in 601:

We wish you also to send a bishop of your own choice to the city of York, and if that city with the adjoining territory accepts the word of God, this bishop is to consecrate twelve other bishops and hold the dignity of Metropolitan. If we live to see this, we intend to grant him the pallium, but he is to remain subject to your authority. After your death, however, he is to preside over the bishops whom he has consecrated and to be wholly independent of the Bishop in London. Thenceforward, seniority of consecration is to determine whether the Bishop of London or of York takes precedence, but they are to consult one another and take united action...
--Bede, Ecclesiastical History Book I Ch. 29

Pope Gregory clearly envisaged two senior bishoprics at York and London with approximately equal status. It may be significant that these are also the two bishoprics clearly identifiable in the Council of Arles, with which Pope Gregory must surely have been familiar. Perhaps he looked up the records when deciding how he would like his new branch of the church to be organised. Or possibly he had heard of a bishopric at York in his own day or in the recent past.

In 627, York was the site of the baptism of King Edwin (Eadwine) of Northumbria and was established as a bishopric:

...King Edwin, with all the nobility of the kingdom and a large number of humbler folk, accepted the Faith [...] in the year of our Lord 627 [...] The king’s baptism took place at York on Easter Day, the 12th of April, in the church of St Peter the Apostle which he had hastily built of timber [...] and in this city he established the see of his teacher and bishop Paulinus.
-- Bede, Ecclesiastical History Book II Ch. 14

For a discussion on the possible location of the early church mentioned by Bede, see my earlier article ‘Location of the seventh-century church in York’.

It was another century before York formally acquired archbishopric status and Pope Gregory’s wish was fulfilled. (However, at least it was fulfilled eventually. Augustine’s southern archbishopric ended up being based in Canterbury rather than in London as Pope Gregory intended, a situation that persists to this day.)

Notitia Dignitatum

Dux Britanniarum.
Sub dispositione viri spectabilis ducis Britanniarum:
Praefectus legionis sextae.
--Notitia Dignitatum, Latin text, available online

This translates approximately as “Under the command of the honourable Duke of the Britains, Prefect of the Sixth Legion”. The base of the Sixth Legion is not named in the Notitia, but the Sixth was known to be based at York in earlier centuries and several inscriptions relating to the Sixth Legion are known from Roman York. Assuming that the Sixth hadn’t relocated, this would suggest that York was still a legionary base when the Notitia Dignitatum was compiled, which is usually placed in the early fifth century.

Where the Dux Britanniarum himself was based is not specified in the Notitia. York would seem a likely candidate, but somewhere closer to the frontier at Hadrian’s Wall might also be possible, or the Dux may have had several bases and moved between them as occasion demanded.

Annales Cambriae

501 Bishop Ebur rests in Christ, he was 350 years old.
--Annales Cambriae, available online

The similarity of the name ‘Ebur’ to the Roman name for York, Eboracum or Eburacum, and to the name of the bishop of York who attended the Council of Arles in 314, Bishop Eborius, is consistent with this ‘Bishop Ebur’ also being a bishop of York. If this is correct, it might indicate a long-running practice of referring to the bishop by the title of his see*. If this inference is correct, it implies that there was still a Christian bishop based in York in 501 or thereabouts. If so, this could also suggest a context for Pope Gregory’s desire to establish a bishopric at York; if he thought there had been one there in the comparatively recent past, he might have wished to revive it.

The rather enigmatic reference to the bishop’s age ‘he was 350 years old’ is a bit of a puzzle. The number could be a straightforward scribal error, and this is perhaps the simplest explanation. Another possibility may be that it referred to the office, rather than to the incumbent, i.e. that the bishopric of York was 350 years old. The Council of Arles shows that it was established by 314. Three hundred and fifty years before 501 takes us back to about 150 AD, which would be early but perhaps not impossibly so. York was a major army base and major city, and had a cosmopolitan population. Tombstones have been found in York commemorating people from Italy, Gaul, Sardinia, Bavaria and possibly Egypt, and eastern religions such as Isis and Mithras were present in the city (Ottaway 2004). Perhaps Christianity might have arrived in the city and established a church as early as 150 AD, which could have been remembered as the origin of the bishopric. Or possibly whoever compiled Annales Cambriae was familiar with the legend recounted by Bede of a British king requesting Christian conversion in 156 AD (Bede Book I Ch. 4), ascribed that (with or without cause) as the origin of the York bishopric and did the calculation.

If the entry refers to the bishopric, it could be interpreted to mean that the bishopric of York, i.e. the office, came to an end in 501 AD. Or it could refer to the death of the current bishop at the time, conflated with a separate record about the antiquity of his office.


York was clearly an important ecclesiastical centre in 314, as well as a military base and colonia. The military base may have persisted into the fifth century if the Sixth Legion mentioned in Notitia Dignitatum had not changed its location.

When York next appears clearly in the historical record, in the early seventh century, it is again as an ecclesiastical centre (intended in 601, realised in 627). Whether it also had political and/or military importance is not known. As the southern bishopric established by St Augustine ended up in the royal centre of the kingdom of Kent at Canterbury (rather than in London as specified by Pope Gregory), this may indicate that bishoprics tended to gravitate to royal centres, and this in turn may suggest that the northern bishopric was also established in a royal centre. If so, this suggests that York may also have been a royal and political centre for the kingdom of Deira/Northumbria by 627.

What happened in between? Apart from the enigmatic reference in Annales Cambriae, which is consistent with (but does not prove) York having retained some ecclesiastical significance up to (at least) 500 AD, the documentary sources are silent on the fifth and sixth centuries at York. Further clues to the post-Roman development of York may come from archaeology. I’ll discuss these in later posts.


Annales Cambriae, available online

Bede, Ecclesiastical history of the English people. Translated by Leo Sherley-Price. Penguin Classics, 1968, ISBN 0-14-044565-X.

Council of Arles, 314. Text quoted in Painter 1971, first page (with the relevant quote) available online.

Eutropius, Breviarium, Book X Ch. 1 and 2, available online

Notitia Dignitatum, Latin text, available online

Ottaway P. Roman York. Tempus, 2004. ISBN 0-7524-2916-7.

Painter KS. Villas and Christianity in Roman Britain. British Museum Quarterly 1971;35:156-175. First page available online

*The Archbishop of York still signs documents as ‘Ebor’, so this may be a very long-running tradition indeed.

Map links


Gabriele Campbell said...

My 'Mittellateinisches Glossar' gives exinde as conjunction, meaning: thereby, thereof, thereupon, following which, so that (you gotta love conjunctions; they're so damn elusive when trying to translate them). Most likely variant in this context would proabbly be something like: and next ...

Carla said...

Thanks, Gabriele - so it looks like it just indicates their position in the list, correct?

Rick said...

501 Bishop Ebur rests in Christ, he was 350 years old.

Did the Annales Cambriae attribute such an exaggerated lifespan to anyone else? That could bear on whether this was mere scribal error.

Other than that, my impulse is to think this was the duration of the see before it was (perhaps?) left vacant.

Circa AD 150 is early, but as you say not impossibly so. And how comprehensive was record keeping when Christianity was still more or less underground?

Carla said...

No, indeed Annales Cambriae doesn't give a lifespan or age at death for anyone else, which further suggests there was something odd about the Bishop Ebur entry. Like you, I would guess that if 350 isn't a scribal error it refers to something about the duration of the see. It's not necessary to postulate an 'official' bishopric in 150, just a record or tradition (accurate or otherwise) that the later bishopric of York traced its origins to a church founded in 150, perhaps attached to a story about a local saint or priest who was regarded as being in some way effectively the first bishop even if the official post didn't exist at the time. The Latin word for bishop is 'episcopus', meaning something like overseer. I don't know if it could have been used to refer to any leader of the early church regardless of formal status, or indeed when the church acquired a sufficiently formal adminsitrative hierarchy for titles to be strictly applied.

Dr. Theodore Homa said...

Dear Ms Nayland,

As a person, captivated by history and historical myth, I enjoyed your recent post on the very difficult matter of the transition of Roman York to Anglican York. The time period as you report, seems to be inadequately documented for researches to be able to truly understand the historical sequence of events. Although I am not anywhere near an expert on this subject I do recall from oral tradition repeated to the attendees of an Episcopalian Church in either Kenosia or Racine Wisconsin in the form of a homily, a story of travel from Jerusalem by Joseph of Arimathea Circa 15 to 40 AD. I believe the Romans formally invaded England about 40 AD . According to the priest, a man named Bill Miles, Joseph was one of the early Christian missionaries who brought teachings of Jesus Christ to England. I notice that the references you researched are from the Roman Catholic Church. Since the Anglican Church separated from Rome perhaps some clues might be found in their historical records as they assumed control of the bishoprics after the split and may have retained records . Father Miles is deceased now so I would not be able to contact him but he was a dedicated historian and collector of icons and other ancient Christian artifacts and he passionately believed his research. Perhaps you could find his heirs or some record of his research.The name of the church I believe was St.John's.
DrTheodore Morrison Homa

Gabriele Campbell said...

Carla, yes, that's my impression of the use of the word exinde in this context.

Maybe the 350 years are meant in some semi-mythological context, like the age of some Biblical patriarchs. Wasn't Abraham some 200or 250 years old?

Carla said...

Theodore Homa - hello and welcome. Julius Caesar had a try at invading Britain in 54 BC, and Claudius tried again, successfully this time, in 43 AD. The legends about Joseph of Arimathea tend to be associated with Glastonbury in the south-west of Britain. The early documentary sources mentioned here all predate the Anglican church by many centuries; York had been Anglian, then Anglo-Scandinavian, then Anglo-Norman long before the Anglican church came into being.

Gabriele - thanks, that's helpful. Maybe it does refer to some myth. Perhaps if the bishop was routinely referred to by the name of his see, someone noticed that Bishop Ebur was mentioned in contexts centuries apart and imagined a legend to suit.

Rick said...

The tradition about Joseph of Arimathea can (per Wikipedia) be traced back to the 8th century, and gets a mention in Blake's 'Jerusalem.' Protestants surely liked anything that made 'English' Christianity seem less tied to Rome!

Tertullian (155-222) apparently wrote that Christianity had reached Britain, which gets us fairly close to 150. My knowledge of early church history is fairly nonexistent, but the role of bishop probably emerged well before 150.

Carla said...

Likewise - my guess would be that there were probably lots of early church histories, plural, as communities of Christians developed and organised themselves in different ways in different places. Over time some of these merge to form a larger organisation with common doctrine, administration and hierarchy (and the inevitable disagreements, squabbles and schisms, so it stays churches, plural). Britain certainly had its share of disagreements; Bede is always complaining about heresies in Britain and Ireland and eminent orthodox churchmen having to trundle over from Gaul, not to mention the ongoing argument over the dating of Easter. As I mentioned in the post, Britain would have had constant traffic back and forth from the rest of the Empire, and ideas travel as readily as goods and soldiers, so it seems entirely possible, even likely, that Christianity could have arrived in Brtiain at an early date. If Britain did have a very early tradition of Christianity dating from way back, before the church got a central organisation together, that could be consistent with having distinctive local doctrines and customs - which, hallowed by antiquity (or a perception of antiquity), could be resistant to change from outside. Someone at the Synod of Whitby (the tone sounds like Wilfrid, though I haven't checked) complained "the only people who contend against the whole world are the Irish, the Picts and the Britons who live in only part of two islands at the uttermost ends of the earth." The Irish speakers at Whitby claimed their traditions derived from St John, the disciple whom Jesus loved. If there was a tradition that Britain and Ireland had been evangelised by an important early figure, such as one of the original disciples or a close associate, one can well imagine that they considered their traditions to be more right than those of Rome and were firmly inclined to stick to them. One side's determination to hold fast to the truth is the other side's stubbornness.

Rick said...

Not much changes under the sun ... as you were obviously thinking when you wrote the last bit!