Candida Casa, the White House

Book of Hours of the Virgin Mary and St. Ninian
Book of Hours of the Virgin Mary and St. Ninian

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.

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3 thoughts on “Candida Casa, the White House

  1. I wonder sometimes how widely Bede’s anti-British sentiments were shared outside his immediate circle. Lindsey and Bernicia both seem to have had substantial British influences in their formation, I wonder if it’s basically a Deiran “we’re not mongrels like them” thing?

    I think you have the right of it with Whithorn, anyway. I’m not with you on a few other points though. Stone churches of any side, like Wilfrid built at Ripon, certainly, royal patronage likely, though Wilfrid being quasi-royal raises questions in my mind about the political value of getting the king involved as well; I bet he could have done it himself if he’d had to. But in the far north, or in Syria, people are building their houses in stone because that’s what there is, and there are few enough trees that you don’t build your house out of what you can use to make fires and cook with. Stone building’s harder than building in wood, yes, but a little tabernacle (and they haven’t found a big church at Whithorn, just chapel-sized things, am I right?) should be doable for most populations working in cooperation.

    As for St Martin’s Canterbury, I’m sure I’ve somewhere seen a suggestion that either before or later (almost certainly later I guess) it was instead dedicated as St Thomas. Whatever the truth of that, I don’t see in Bede’s text where he says anything that means the Martinian dedication couldn’t be Liuthard’s work. It’s quite a likely dedication for him, and if the church was disused before he got there, he may well have wanted to reconsecrate, if only for the ceremony, and that may well have involved a rededication. But that could still be the case even if it were still in British use, I guess; the new order would have been worth marking, however ineffective it proved to be.

  2. I think you may have misunderstood me in a few places.

    First, I think Bede considered himself to be Bernician, not Deiran. Granted he was born on the border, a forever frontier zone, between Rome-barbarians and between Bericians-Deirans.

    Wilfrid is quasi-royal? Just because some scholars call him a prince bishop doesn’t mean that he was royal. I’m pretty sure that if he were royal, Stephan would have mentioned it.

    Anyway, other than the Britons, stone churches were only built with royal patronage. Coelfrith sent English stone masons to build a stone church in Pictland because they didn’t have the know-how. The British built plenty of buildings in stone. Afterall, they built most of the ruins that the English robbed for stone.

    I was arguing that Bishop Liudhard dedicated the church to St Martin… but that it has been built by the Romano-Britons.

  3. It appears that I have indeed misunderstood you on the last point, though if as it seems I’ve come up with the same idea as you by accident, that’s at least a vote of confidence 🙂

    With Wilfrid, no, admittedly, genuine qualifying royal blood I think we would have been told about, but his wealth and connections put him fairly firmly in the top drawer.

    I’m not so sure about Bede’s kingdom allegiance. Granted, he has other reasons for this, but when it comes down to Æthelfrith vs. Edwin, it’s pretty clear that he’s with Deira in that write-up…

    The stone building thing I continue to think is bogus. There had been loads of stone building in Pictland, especially in Orkney and what would be Caithness, and even if masons were hard to find, why English ones not British ones? The British were closer in many ways. I think Nechtan was after something deliberately Roman, in building as well as liturgy, breaking with such previous connections, and that’s what he sent to Jarrow for; Bede has given it the best possible spin.

    Who had Whithorn at this point? Had the bishopric evaporated by then? My chronology is sketchy, but this is post-Nechtanesmere, right? So there was a perfectly good British-controlled example of a stone church more Romanum right there if they’d wanted to stay clear of the English. It looks much more like a political choice than a technically necessary one to me.

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