The Story of Eoppa, the First Known Missionary on the Isle of Wight

Written by Peter Clarke for the 1350th Anniversary of the Arrival of Christianity on the Island

FOREWORD. From Canon Michael Weaver, Area Dean of West Wight.
 “On behalf of the Island Church Leaders Forum I would like to thank the Catholic History Society for their initiative in producing this edition to coincide with our Ecumenical Walking Pilgrimage (July, 2011) to celebrate the coming of Christianity to the Isle of Wight in AD 661.
I commend this booklet to you and am confident that it will be of great interest, not only to this year’s pilgrims, but also to others interested in our Christian history in years to come.”

2011 marks the 1350th anniversary of the first known Christian missionary on the Isle of Wight. Whilst we are aware of Saint Wilfrid’s visit to the Island in AD 686, the visit of one of his disciples some twenty-five years earlier is not so well known. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle states: ‘The priest – first to bring Christianity to the inhabitants of the Isle of Wight? AD 661 – In this year ……… Wulfhere, son of Penda, ravaged in the Isle of Wight, and gave the people of Wight to Aethelwald, King of Sussex, because Wulfhere had stood sponsor for him at baptism. Eoppa, the priest, at the command of Wilfred and king Wulfhere, was the first to bring Christianity to the inhabitants of the Isle of Wight’.

It is important to remember that Eoppa’s missionary journey to the Island was only the first recorded visit (Anglo-Saxon Chronicle) but it is likely that there would have been a Christian presence in Roman times, although we will never know who was the first Christian to set foot on the Isle of Wight.

We may never know who offered the first Christian prayer on the Island, but we can make a reasonable guess about what may have brought them here. Evidence of Roman settlements dating back to the 1st century AD, have been discovered at several places on the Island. There is no clear evidence to date that any of the early settlers might have been Christian. However, we do know from historical records that there were ‘secret Christians’ in the first two centuries throughout the Roman Empire including Britain. The Roman Officer, Vespasian, came to the Island in the 2nd century and it is known that there were ‘secret Christians’ in his army. Perhaps the first Christian prayer on the Island may have been by a soldier for his family in another part of the Roman Empire, many miles away from his home.

The Anglo-Saxons arrived in Britain at the end of four centuries of Roman occupation. Although many of the native Britons would still have kept to older pagan forms of worship, Christian practices would also have been evident – and would not entirely have been wiped out, even in the areas of heaviest Anglo-Saxon settlement.

It is recorded that the pagan Jutes arrived in A.D. 550 and that the Christian West Saxons annexed the Island in A.D. 625. Thus it is highly likely that there was a Christian presence on the Island when Eoppa arrived thirty years later. The first evangelists would have followed the practice of other parts of Europe. There was a familiar pattern in that they would arrive at a settlement carrying a cross and a copy of the Gospels, gather the leaders and others around them, and preach the Gospel. Those who were converted were required to learn the Our Father, the Ten Commandments and the Nicene Creed, before they could be baptised. The wooden crosses would often be left in the settlements and would become a focal point for Christians to gather around for worship. Later, these crosses would possibly have been replaced by stone ones. Later, Christians would meet in homes; then in barns; and finally they began to build churches as we now know them.

We are unaware how long Eoppa remained on the Island, as he is not mentioned again by Saint Bede. It was three years after his arrival that the Synod of Whitby was summoned in AD 664 at Saint Hilda’s monastery of Whitby. Christianity in Britain during the seventh century existed in two forms distinguished by differing liturgical traditions, labelled the ‘Ionian’ and ‘Roman’ traditions. The Celtic (Ionian) Christians derived their practices from the Apostolic tradition of Saint John, as in the Eastern Church, rather than the Apostolic tradition of Saint Peter in Rome. It was the Irish monks, residing in a monastery on the Isle of Iona, who adhered to the Celtic (Ionian) practices; whereas the ‘Roman’ tradition kept observances, such as the date of Easter, according to the customs of Rome. It is Saint Wilfrid who persuaded this Synod to adopt the Roman tradition. Thus the English and the Irish Christian church was gradually brought into the Universal Church linked to Rome. This gave the English church its template for centuries until the abrupt rupture of the Reformation.

Twenty-five years after Wilfrid sent Eoppa, it was the great missionary bishop himself who arrived on the Island in AD 686. According to Island legend, he arrived at Brading (which was then accessible from the sea). The present Church of Saint Mary the Virgin marks the spot where Wilfrid baptized the last of Britain’s pagans, making this the first post-empire place of Christian worship on the Isle of Wight. Legend tells us that it was Saint Michael the Archangel who appeared to Wilfrid in a dream and asked him to cross the Solent. To commemorate this event the Catholic Church at Bembridge is dedicated to Saint Michael and there is a stained glass window of the archangel in the Anglican Parish Church of the Holy Trinity.

Shalfleet Parish Church is also dedicated to Saint Michael the Archangel. This medieval church is significant in terms our early Christian history, for Dr. Ruth Waller records in ‘Archaeological Excavations in Shalfleet’, that in 2005 some Christian graves were excavated in advance of building work close to the church and were dated by radio active carbon tests as being from A.D. 660 (+ or – 50 years).

Before the arrival of Wilfrid, attempts to convert the people of the Island often resulted in either active resistance or in a false conversion, where the inhabitants would pretend to have adopted the Christian ways but would then revert to their former native religion.

There is a wonderful stained glass window in the south aisle of Saint Mary’s Church in Ryde, which depicts Saint Wilfrid. The lower glass panel shows him arriving on the Island with his Benedictine monks and asking King Cædwalla of Wessex for permission to evangelize the Island.

It was the Venerable Bede who first gave us this account of both Eoppa and Wilfrid. He derived his information from Daniel, Bishop of Winchester (AD 705-745). Bede was a very skilful and intelligent writer. We have few other written records from this time. His narrative focuses on what was, for him, the only significant issue: namely, the progress of Christianity among the English.

He constructed it from a very distinctive perspective: to show that his people, the English, and above all his own particular branch of that people, the Northumbrians, had been called by God to a special role in the history of salvation. They were a ‘New Israel’, charged with mission – to spread true faith and observance among their insular and continental neighbours. In Bede’s view, in his own day they had fallen away from that vocation and had to be recalled to the right path.

It was fitting that a Mass of Thanksgiving for this anniversary should have been offered on Friday, 27th May, the Feast of Saint Bede (old calendar) who recorded the account of Eoppa’s visit. It was also most appropriate that in the new Roman calendar, it is the Feast of Saint Augustine of Canterbury, another great missionary, who was sent by Pope Gregory to bring the Christian Faith to England. However, it is a mistake to regard Saint Augustine’s mission to England in 597 AD as being made to an entirely pagan country. Indeed, the speed at which the conversion to Christianity took place suggests that the Christian Faith retained strong roots in large parts of England – and not just in the west, where the British Church continued to thrive and provided the base for the eventual conversion of Northumbria, Wessex, Essex and Middle Anglia. Like Saint Wilfrid, Saint Aidan, Saint Cuthbert and Saint Theodore of Canterbury, both Bede and Augustine were two of the most prominent churchmen of their time. This Mass of Thanksgiving was offered at Saint Mary’s Church, Ryde. In his sermon during the Mass, the parish priest, Father Anthony Glaysher, referred to Eoppa’s visit and this anniversary as “a focal point of Christians on the Island. We give thanks to God for this event and for all those men and women who have promoted the Faith here on the Island over the years. We celebrate our Christian Faith today; that Faith founded by Christ himself; which we witness in many forms, through our devotional and prayer life and through the many acts of Christian charity that we see around us”.

Whilst some Christian churches will also have their own celebration of this anniversary, it is fitting that the ecumenical celebrations of this event in July, should give prominence not to any one person, group or denomination, but to the Book of the Gospels, which all Christian churches use as a basis for living their faith. The journey of this Gospel Book as it is carried across the Island whilst stopping for prayer and worship at some of our medieval churches, reminds us of the many pilgrimages (both short and long) that take place today. The earliest pilgrimages occurred soon after Our Lord’s Ascension, when the disciples and their converts travelled to Jerusalem to visit the scene of His Passion, Death and Resurrection. We remember also Mary’s pilgrimage to visit her cousin Elizabeth, before the birth of her Son, Jesus.

Pilgrimages, by their very nature, involve both a process of searching and of sacrifice. Traditionally, they have been journeys to holy places to pray for grace or to obtain spiritual or temporal favour from Almighty God. Occasionally they are to fulfil a promise, an act of thanksgiving, a penance for sins, or, as in this instance, a pilgrimage to celebrate an anniversary.

It is during pilgrimages that we give witness to our common Christian Faith, both as individuals and as a group. At the heart of any pilgrimage is the celebration of the Liturgy. This in itself is a means of bearing witness to Christianity; for the truths of our Faith (despite our theological differences) are all contained within, and flow from the Eucharist that we celebrate and share with others.

An ecumenical Walking Pilgrimage has been arranged from Saturday, 16th to Monday, 18th July, 2011 The pilgrimage begins at St. Helens, with the receiving of a Book of the Gospels, possibly by sea from West Sussex, from where the first evangelists came. The Gospels will be carried to Brading Church for a service and a picnic, and then on to Arreton Church for an act of worship and tea. On the Sunday, pilgrims will walk to Newport Minster for a service and then on to Carisbrooke Church. On the Monday, the walk continues along the Tennyson Way for worship at Calbourne, before taking the last lap to Freshwater Church for tea and a final act of worship.

On our pilgrimage across the Island, as on all pilgrimages, we will make new friends and learn a little more about ourselves, both as individuals and as Christians. ‘The most important part of any pilgrimage’, wrote G.K. Chesterton, ‘is going home afterwards’. This is not because we have reached our journey’s end, but because we have reached a new beginning. The purpose of any pilgrimage is to bring back something of what we have discovered to enrich our lives and the world in which we live. A pilgrimage also reminds us of the greater pilgrimage here on earth; that which takes us hopefully, to our eternal home. The future is necessarily unpredictable. We live in a world of not arriving, but of travelling. If we are concerned at the state of Christianity, society or our own personal life today, we can, nevertheless, be sure of our Faith; a living, Apostolic Faith, which assists us through life. Confidence in the future is based on the wonderful promise made by Our Lord to the first ministers of the Church, the Apostles: ‘Behold I am with you always, yes, even to the end of time’.

Here in England we are familiar with the tales of Chaucer’s pilgrims as they made their way to Canterbury in medieval times to worship at the Shrine of Saint Thomas of Canterbury. Some of the earliest pilgrimages went along the Pilgrim’s Way to visit the Mother-Church of England. Kings and princes made a pilgrimage to these holy places, as well as the poor, the weak and the humble; different characters from every walk of life, immortalised in Chaucer’s ‘Canterbury Tales’.

In England, it is Walsingham that has a special place in the hearts of many Christians. This year marks the 950th anniversary of the foundation of the shrine; the holy house, built to remind Christians of the holy house at Nazareth. Thus, exactly four-hundred years after Eoppa arrived on the Isle of Wight, the holy shrine at Walsingham emerged. The history of this wonderful Marian Shrine, reminds us of our past when piety and devotion were prominent in the Christian Church and the faithful found hope, inspiration and consolation in the Mother of Christ.

It was 1,200 years after Eoppa’s visit, when another prominent Christian churchman arrived on the Island. Cardinal John Henry Newman (beatified by Pope Benedict last year) came to visit Newport, Ryde and Ventnor in 1861. A common message in his writings and sermons was that the various Christian churches must recognise and celebrate their common Christian heritage. Our walking pilgrimage with the Book of the Gospels this summer will, hopefully, achieve that goal. Anniversaries such as this, inevitably, encourage us to look back and reflect on our history and maybe to reminisce on times gone by; but they should also encourage us to look to the present and the future and to realise that we, today, are the stewards of the Christian message. As the bible tells us:

“We have to keep the faith, to finish the course and to yearn for the prize that awaits us – the prize that God, as the just judge, will grant to us; but not only to us but to all those who have longed for His coming”. (Timothy 2. 4: 6 – 9).