I was looking at Bede’s description of Ninian and Whithorn (Candida Casa) for today’s feast of St Ninan. What strikes me today is Bede’s claim that Whithorn is exceptional because it was a stone church and that Britons didn’t build stone churches. Hence its name, Candida Casa, the White house. Well, that is just false. The Britons built stone churches and Bede even wrote about them elsewhere. There are remains of stone churches along Hadrian’s wall, though they may have been abandoned by English times.
Queen Bertha’s Church of St Martin in Canterbury was a Romano-British church. Its interesting that Bede claims that this church was built by the Romans before they left Britain. Now Martin died in 397 and it is exceedingly unlikely that a church was dedicated to him in Canterbury before the Romans left for good in c. 420. St Martin’s veneration grew very slowly and is unlikely to have reached Britain at all before the time of Patrick in the mid-5th century. Given the association between Bertha’s mother and Tours, it seem likely that the dedication to Martin came with Bertha in the 580s-590s. It is interesting that these two old stone churches to be discussed by Bede are by his time dedicated to St Martin. Anyway, it is most likely that Bishop Liudhard refurbished a British church and rededicated it to St Martin. British Christianity had survived to some degree in Kent. Bishop Augustine asked Pope Gregory the Great what he should do about their questionable saints and Gregory sent him relics of a Roman St Sixtus to replace a Romano-British cult to a saint of that name, to ensure that there was a proven saint at the site.
Another stone church likely built by the Britons is Bishop Paulinus’ church in Lincoln. Bede credits the church to Paulinus but it is hard to believe that Paulinus built a stone church in Lincoln before York, and the church of York was not done before King Edwin’s death. It is possible that Paulinus refurbished a Roman or Romano-British church in Lincoln. Lincoln had afterall been the capital of a Roman province within Britain.
It is part of Bede’s prejudice that anything great or even useful found in Britain from the past is credited to the Romans (and thus to Rome) but not the the Britons. It is hard to fathom how Bede doesn’t see the British in his midst as the descendents of the Romans. To be sure, most contemporary British churches would have been wooden or wattle, but then again, so were most English churches. Only royal monasteries and cathedrals had stone churches. It is a simple truth that it took royal patronage to build a stone church anywhere in Britain. Even Bishop Wilfrid, when holding the swollen diocese of York, needed royal patronage to build Ripon. Wilfrid seems to have built Hexham without royal help, but we don’t know how much wealth Queen Æthelthryth gave him when she took the veil along with the estate of Hexham.
Perhaps Whithorn’s stone church, which may date back to the fifth century, was a significant factor in it becoming the cathedral of a new bishop in a new Anglo-British see. For the English to find a stone church in their new territory without an obvious royal patron may have suggested that St Ninian was quite a powerful and ancient saint. English prejudice may also have necessitated pushing Ninian back to Roman times and giving him the obligatory trip and association with Rome. It is obvious English politics to claim that Ninian supported Roman rites because of course he lived in Roman times, necessary since the Britons at the time still hadn’t accepted Roman rites. Still, the veneration of Ninian must have been significant to induce the English to accept and endorce him.