Saint Cedd was an Englishman, living in the middle of the seventh century. He was the eldest of four brothers, who were sent by their family to be students at a Christian community based on Holy Island (Lindisfarne) in Northumbria.
Cedd’s family seems to have been well established: successfully rearing four sons to learning age suggests this. They came from the Anglo-Saxon tradition: Anglo-Saxon being a term generally used to encompass troupes of Angles, Saxons, Jutes and other associated continental emigrants who had come and occupied most parts of the country in the aftermath of Roman military withdrawal, from about AD 400 onwards. This invasion represented a major cultural challenge for the resident local population of Romanised Celtic Britons, and there is evidence of violent resistance as well as neighbourly tolerance.
Despite the departure of the Romans, who had officially sponsored it, Christianity began to establish itself across the country; but according to two different traditions. In southern England, based at Canterbury in Kent, was the mission led by Saint Augustine, sent by Pope Gregory the Great from Rome at the end of the sixth century. Meanwhile Ireland and Scotland, having avoided Roman administration, had accepted Christianity without the Roman Church. This Celtic form of Christianity was the tradition practised by the community at Lindisfarne.
This community was led by Saint Aidan, who worked according to the practice of similar groups established in the predominantly Celtic areas of Britain: in places such as Iona, an island where Saint Columba was based, or on the Scottish mainland at Whithorn, led by Saint Ninian, or across Ireland (inspired by Saint Patrick) and in Wales (under Saints such as Illtud and David). In chosen localities Christian monasteries were established, from which ambassadors went out with their message, and to which local people might come for more information.
The Anglo-Saxons were un-Romanised: unconquered continental barbarians with their own religious tradition. So the decision to send children for education to a Christian monastery is highly symbolic: it signals recognition of the technological wizardry represented by reading and writing and the use of Latin. The adoption of these generic skills and their eventual application to improvement of native conceptions is the origin of the English genius: perhaps more often mocked as muddling through than celebrated as improvisation.
After qualifying as a priest, Cedd embarked on a career as a missionary. Initially posted to the midlands Kingdom of Mercia, he later worked in Essex and Yorkshire as well as London. Thus he became a very experienced operator. As such he played a crucial part in proceedings at the Synod of Whitby (AD 664).
The synod was convened to resolve difficulties caused by differences in practice that had emerged between the two Christian traditions: Roman and Celtic. For example, different ways of setting the date for Easter meant not just celebrations of the day itself being out of sync but also uncoordinated periods of abstinence associated with Lent (food, drink, sex?). These inconveniences could become especially irksome in the context of a mixed Celtic-Roman marriage where the principals might be considerable figures (such as royalty), with entourages who might end up being expected to observe both separate periods of self-denial - thus creating a powerful lobby for religious harmonisation.
The synod had plenty of potential to degenerate from a quest for unity into a power struggle. Responsibility for managing the process of negotiation devolved upon Cedd because of his ability to see both sides and because both sides could tell he was talking their language. In the final analysis the King of Northumbria, who was chairing the event, summed up in favour of harmonisation on the basis of Roman practice. This was a pragmatic decision that reduced the scope for conflict within Britain and facilitated diplomatic engagement with continental European governments. Refusenik Celtic traditionalists sought refuge in Ireland.
Despite his own education being a product of Celtic Christianity, Cedd led the promotional campaign on behalf of British religious harmonisation according to the settlement established by the Synod of Whitby. Sadly, not long afterwards, he succumbed to plague and died at Lastingham, the last of his foundations.
Capable of commitment on the basis of compromise and consensus, Saint Cedd embodies English public spirit.