ABSTRACT

The problems of the sixth-century church in Britain 1 and Ireland were by no means identical. The British church was an old-established institution, while the Irish church was still struggling towards maturity. In both countries the church represented Latin civilization, but while this had been naturalized in Britain, it was completely foreign to Ireland: thus, the church in Ireland found none of the administrative structure which was its normal foundation elsewhere in Europe. Moreover, although Irish political life was superficially troubled by frequent minor battles, her society was fundamentally secure and intensely conservative: Britain, on the other hand, had recently been almost overturned by a hostile invasion, for in the second half of the fifth century heathen Germanic barbarians had settled in the eastern half of the island, where they had massacred, expelled, or enslaved the civilian population. Under Aurelianus a British army had fought its way to victory, and at Badon Hill (led by Arthur, according to a tradition recorded by Nennius) it held the Saxon advance, so that after fifty years of fighting for survival the Britons experienced the relief of a respite. For the first two generations of the sixth century Britons and Saxons each occupied their own parts of the country. The majority of Britons alive in 550 had experienced only such conditions, and Gildas, the contemporary writer, implies that, lulled into a false security, they had given themselves up to relaxation. Yet there must have been many others, like himself, who understood how imminent was the danger.