Synod of Chester
The Synod of Chester (Medieval Latin: Sinodus Urbis Legion(um)) was an ecclesiastical council of bishops held in Chester in the late 6th or early 7th century. The period is known from only a few surviving sources, so dates and accounts vary, but it seems to have been a major event in the history of Wales and England, where the native British bishops rejected overtures of peace from Augustine's English mission. This led directly to the Battle of Chester, where Æthelfrith of Northumbria seems to have killed the kings of Powys and (possibly) Gwynedd during an attack on the ecclesiastical community at Bangor-on-Dee.
The laconic Welsh annals record the entry
- "The synod of Urbs Legionis [Chester]. Gregory died in Christ and also bishop David of Moni Iudeorum."
in the undated early 12th-century A text and
The Gregory mentioned is probably Pope Gregory I (d. 604). The David mentioned is Saint David, who was also responsible for the earlier Synod of Brefi and the Synod of Victory (over Pelagianism) which was held in the other Caerleon.
In his Ecclesiastical History, the English Bede devoted much of his account to the resistance of the British clergy to Victor of Aquitaine's revision of the Easter computus. The work describes two meetings between Archbishop Augustine of Canterbury and the native bishops, the first of which occurred at a place known to Bede as "Augustine's Oak". Bede locates this on the border of the Hwicci and West Saxons, which would place it just southeast of the Severn or Bristol Channel. Since he describes the men ("bishops or doctors") as coming from the "next province of the Britons" to Æthelberht[disambiguation needed], it appears that the territory of the later Hwicce had been recovered since Deorham. The Welsh may have been the Pengwern colony recorded as establishing itself in the Glastonbury by the Welsh genealogies.
Augustine admonished the bishops concerning practices which had diverged from Rome, particularly the dating of Easter, and their refusal to proselytise among the pagan Angles and Saxons. Although this passes unmentioned in Bede, he presumably also insisted on his own supremacy over the churches in Britain, which would have given his protector Æthelberht a great deal of authority over the British clergy. As Bede recounts the meeting, when the Britons rejected his appeals, arguments, and demands, Augustine "put an end to this troublesome and tedious contention" by saying "'Let some infirm person be brought, and let the faith and practice of those, by whose prayers he shall be healed, be looked – upon as acceptable to God, and be adopted by all.'" A blind Briton was brought forward and, once Augustine's prayers had restored his sight to him, the British clerics "confessed that it was the true way of righteousness which Augustine taught but ... they could not depart from their ancient customs without the consent and leave of their people".
Augustine's second meeting was a much larger affair. Bede's records clearly stated seven bishops and "many most learned men" from the monastery at Bangor-on-Dee attended. The only certain bishoprics at the time were St. Asaph's, Meneva, Bangor, and Llandaff, so the meeting would have included not only the majority of the leaders of the British church but also close successors to Saints David, Asaph, Deiniol, and Teilo.
The Ecclesiastical History gives no detail concerning the location of this meeting. If the meeting itself was not at Chester but somewhere further south, presumably the Chester synod was the conference among the Welsh prelates beforehand to discuss how to respond to Augustine's demands and who would attend. Bede discusses this assembly, saying the Britons sought out a "holy and discreet man" who lived as a hermit among them. The hermit advised them to test Augustine: they should arrive late to the meeting and see whether he displayed the humility to rise in greeting. If so, the hermit advised them to accept him as a man of God and trustworthy in his leadership.
As it happened, Augustine did not rise from his place to meet the late-comers and the synod fell apart completely, with Augustine calling down divine vengeance upon the natives. Bede, while sympathetic enough to record the reasons for their recalcitrance, goes on to take the subsequent battle of Chester – where the Welsh kings of kingdom of Powys and Gwynedd seem to have been killed with hundreds of monks from Bangor-on-Dee – as a fulfilment of Augustine's curse and punishment for the errors of the Celtic practice: "All... through the dispensation of the Divine judgment, fell out exactly as he had predicted". Similarly, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle does not record either the Welsh or Hwiccan gatherings of churchmen, but in its account of the battle of Chester repeats Augustine's curses and explains the battle as the fulfilment of his prophecy.
- From Ingram, James. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. Everyman (London), 1912.
- L. Sinodus urbis legion. Gregorius obiit in christo. Dauid episcopus moni iudeorum. (Harleian MS. 3859, 12th century)
- The Annals of Wales (B text), p. 8.
- L. Sinodus urbis legionum. Gregorius in Christo obiit. dauid meneuensis episcopus obiit. (Public Records Office MS. E.164/1, p. 8, 13th century)
- The 13th-century C text omits the synod and David, includes the death of Gregory (AD 604), and adds that it happened in the year of Cadfan's elevation as king of the Britons in the 35th year of Justinian's reign (AD 562). Cf. Gough-Cooper, Henry. "Annales Cambriae, from Saint Patrick to A.D. 682: Texts A, B, & C in Parallel". 2012. Accessed 8 February 2013. Gough-Cooper's reconstruction dates the
- Phillimore, Egerton (ed.), 1888 "The Annales Cambriae and Old Welsh Genealogies from Harleian MS. 3859", Y Cymmrodor; 9 (1888) pp. 141–183.
- The C text explicitly calls him Gregorius Papa, but is late. The sources for A and B may have intended someone more local.
- Bede. Ecclesiastical History of the English People, II.ii.
- Higham, N. J. The Convert Kings: Power and Religious Affiliation in Early Anglo-Saxon England. Manchester Univ. Press (Manchester), 1997. ISBN 0719048273.
- It is frequently said that Saint Dunod the Abbot was among them, but Bede simply mentions Dunod's leadership over the abbey during that period and says nothing about whether he was among the bishops and learned men.
- Other possibilities include a bishop mentioned residing at Caer Luitcoet (possibly Lichfield), stories of an early founding for the see at Whithorn, and the possibly ecclesiastic-related ruins at Wroxeter.
- In fact, the Welsh annals place Saint David's death after the synod; Teilo was popularly supposed to have survived St. David; and Bede's mention of an abbot Dunod who was considered by the Welsh to be identical with Deiniol's father would've allowed him to attend as well. That said, few scholars would place any of these saints so late, given other incidents in their lives such as Teilo's flight from Wales during the arrival of Justinian's Plague during the reign of Maelgwn Gwynedd (c. 547).
- Koch, John. Celtic Culture: A Historical Encyclopedia. "Battle of Caer (Chester)". ABC-CLIO, 2006. Accessed 8 February 2013.
- Ingram, James (trans.) s:Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (Ingram) The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, entry 607. Everyman, 1823.