A note to my Sewanee-in-England students in Hexham, where we are all exhausted after climbing around Housesteads fort.
Alas, Hexham Abbey opens at 9:30 AM but we must be on the road by 9. What I had wanted to show you were some stones repurposed from Hadrian’s Wall in the Abbey. Most notable among these is the 9-foot high tombstone of Flavinus, a Roman cavalry man who is riding roughshod over a defeated Briton. (I do so love these particular tombstones). You can see the stone below, and watch a 20-second video at this link. Why should this stone, and others from the Wall, be here? There are a few possible answers.
The first one that occurs is that the builders of the Abbey simply needed worked stone and took it from the Wall. Undoubtedly, many of the stones of the Wall (which was once 15 feet high) ended up in other buildings for that very reason after the Romans left in the fifth century. On the other hand, Flavinus’ tombstone is from Corbridge, about 3.5 miles away. That’s a long way to carry a 9-foot high stone, when lots of other stones are available closer by.
Could it be a symbolic statement of sorts? In ancient Christian churches of Italy, for instance, many elements pillaged from Roman temples are deliberately introduced in order to demonstrate the victory of Christianity over paganism. Perhaps this is what’s going on? The Abbey began to be constructed in the 660s, however, and no Romans would have been around to gloat over. Again, it seems like a long way to bring a large stone for a virtually meaningless gesture.
Now, the person behind the Abbey’s construction was a guy named St. Wilfrid of York, and he lived in interesting times. Celtic Christianity, given its far remove from the continent and the center of the church in Rome, had developed a number of idiosyncrasies. Most prominent among these was the dating of Easter. It is almost impossible to describe how heated the debate over this issue became (and still is–the Eastern Orthodox Church uses a different system than the Western churches) but Christians in the British Isles felt very strongly about their tradition. The Synod of Whitby was called in 664 to resolve the matter. Wilfrid spoke very forcefully against the native tradition in favor of adhering to the pope’s position.
Wilfrid was a very unpopular man in this area afterward–there were several attempts on his life–but he was richly rewarded by the pope for his loyalty. In building Hexham Abbey, it may be that he wanted to demonstrate the need to obey Roman tradition and reject the native one. Most people in the area were illiterate, but the image of Flavinus, removed from Hadrian’s Wall (as they would all know), would take on new meaning in the immediate context of the Synod and its aftermath. This was a symbolic reimagining of victorious Rome.
It’s hard to believe anybody could get that worked up about the dating of Easter. But at the end of the day, it’s not about getting the date right; it’s about who gets to tell who what to do. That is, it’s about power. The issues of papal supremacy will arise again in Britain a millennium later when Henry VIII wants to get a divorce. Eventually, he will overthrow the Catholic church in England and install himself as the head of the Church of England. At that time, he will break up all the abbeys, Hexham included. And I like to think that the Briton getting trampled by Flavinus smiled when all that happened.
UPDATE. Well, it turns out the Abbey opens earlier than what’s posted online. My student Lydia and I went over and found Flavinus– it is indeed a huge memorial. We also got the Sexton to let us into the crypt to see the Geta stone, also taken from the Wall, with an inscription featuring damnatio memoriae (a topic I do love) of Caracalla’s brother.