When the news spread through the mountains of Wales and along the coasts of Cornwall that Roman Catholics had come to convert the heathen English, the British Christians sent messengers to meet them. They held a conference together under an oak beside the river Severn.
The Britons looked upon their Roman brethren as Robinson Crusoe looked upon the English sailors who landed on his island. They had been cut off from the rest of the civilized world for a hundred and fifty years. Much of that time had been spent in hard fighting, and most of the fighting had ended in defeat. They had been driven from their ancient cities into the wild hills. Stories were still told of the brave battles which their splendid heroes, the Knights of the Round Table, had fought against the invading Angles. But the book in which the stories are collected is called "The Death of Arthur." The knights are vanquished at the end, and the king is killed.
Two possessions the Britons had brought down through the long tragedy of the war, their language and their religion.
They still spoke that Celtic speech in which their ancestors had shouted war cries against Julius Cæsar, and which their descendants speak to this day in Wales.
And they still kept the Christian faith, and prayed the Christian prayers. It is true that they had not attempted to convert the English, but that was because the fighting had been so fierce, and their sufferings so great. One of them, however, a lad named Patrick, had been captured by Irish pirates in 411, the year after the withdrawal of the Roman legions, and had introduced the Christian religion into Ireland. Other missionaries of their race, from Ireland, had introduced it into Scotland. There were many British bishops. In a monastery at Bangor lived as many as two thousand monks, though not one of them had ever heard of Benedict or his famous Rule. One Briton, the good heretic Pelagius, had made such a stir, even in Rome, that Augustine of Carthage had heard of it in Africa.
Thus the Britons who met Augustine of Canterbury represented the Christianity, not only of Wales and Cornwall, but of Ireland and of Scotland. Augustine, however, fresh from Rome, regarded them with that curiosity and superiority with which people from the city sometimes regard the inhabitants of the backwoods. He asked them various questions and discovered various differences which had naturally arisen in consequence of their long separation from the rest of the Church. The most serious of these differences was a mistake in the almanac. They had lost count of the date of Easter. Augustine required them to correct these errors. And they went back to consult their brethren in the matter.
On the whole, there was a disposition to yield these unimportant things and to agree to what the Romans asked. The chief obstacle was the way in which the Romans asked it. Their manner was exceedingly superior and uncivil. As the Britons were on their way to a second conference, they asked the counsel of a holy hermit. He said, "Watch Augustine. If, when you approach, he rises to meet you, like a gentleman, do as he requests. If he remains seated, beware how you submit to his authority." So they came to the place of meeting, and there sat Augustine, and he continued sitting. Then they returned to their own place, and left the Romans to carry on their mission by themselves. And Augustine, having his residence at Canterbury, went forward with the conversion of Kent; and presently Paulinus, taking up his residence at York, began the conversion of Northumbria.
Now the same year in which Augustine came to Kent saw the end of the long and useful life of Columba. He was the pioneer of the missions in the North, as Augustine and Paulinus were the pioneers of the missions in the South.
The stories of the early life of Columba show that he was very fond of praying, of reading, and of fighting.
His Irish name was Colum of the Kil; Kil meaning cell, or church. Ireland was already full of churches, and Colum was famous, all the country round, for the frequency and enthusiasm with which he visited them.
The first adventure which is remembered of him was about a book. Of course, in those days, whoever wanted a book must either buy, or borrow, or copy one. And in Ireland they were very expert in the writing which preceded printing, with illuminated initials and a peculiarly intricate interlacing of lines to decorate the pages. So Colum of the Kil copied a gospel book which was the property of his neighbor Finnian, sitting up nights to do it after his day's work. But when the copy was completed Finnian claimed it as his own. Finnian said that "it was to himself belonged the Son-book which was written from his book." They referred the matter to King Dermot, and he decided against Columba, saying, "To every book belongs its Son-book, as to every cow belongs its calf."
According to one account, it was this unfair decision which led to the great fight between Columba and the king, but another story refers this battle to the Feast of Tara. The king lived at Tara, and there he made a feast, and minstrels sang to the music of their harps, and there was much eating and more drinking, and by-and-by the guests fell so merrily to fighting that one of them was killed. The chief whose sword had fallen so heavily on his neighbor's head fled from the vengeance of King Dermot to the protection of Columba, who was already famous as both a saint and a hero. But even there the avenging king laid hands upon him, and had his head. Then it was Columba's turn for vengeance. He gathered together all his kinsfolk, the clan of the northern Neills, and they attacked the king. They fought and Columba prayed. It was like the cursing of Tara, when all the clergy helped the chiefs who besieged the king in his hall; they rang their bells, and changed psalms, and "fasted on him." And he lost the battle.
Out of this wild Ireland, thus partly Christian but partly savage, Columba took his journey after these bloody doings, being expelled, some say, for his share in them. He set out in a little wicker boat, with a few companions. And they sailed and sailed. Once they were about to land upon an island, but when they looked back there was still a glimpse of Ireland on the far horizon, and they pushed forward. Thus they came at last to the island of Iona.
Iona is off the west coast of Scotland, south of Staffa which people visit to see the curious stone columns of Fingal's cave. It is a little island, not much more than three miles wide at its greatest width. There are ruins of an old cathedral, but not so old as the days of St. Columba; and there are stone crosses carved with the same complicated interlacing of lines which appears in the ancient Irish books. Only two things remained to recall the presence of the saint: one is the Gaelic language, akin to the Welsh of the old Britons, the other is the island itself, and particularly a little bay in the south whose beach is covered with shining pebbles, which the sun and the sea make to look like precious stones. There the little band of exiles landed.
They built upon the island some rude shelter for themselves, and a place in which to worship God. Then they set out upon a series of adventurous voyages to the mainland. The north of Scotland was inhabited by the Picts. Columba converted their king and the people followed his example. The south of Scotland was inhabited by the Scots. They had a new king, whom Columba blessed and crowned. The king's rude palace was at Scone, and some say that the king sat to be crowned upon the rough stone which the English, when they conquered Scotland, brought to London. Anyhow, there is the Stone of Scone in the coronation chair of England, to recall the fact that the first Christian king crowned in Great Britain was crowned by St. Columba.
Iona was the training place of all the missionaries who went on their wild adventurous journeys in the North. By-and-by, men from Iona founded a mission station on another little island off the east coast of England, and called it Lindisfarne, the Holy Island.
There is a glimpse of the labors of Columba in the story of another mission, where a Christian preacher brought the gospel to the Northumbrians. The king called a conference of his great men, and they all listened. And one said, "I have been faithful to the religion of our fathers and it has profited me nothing. The old gods have made me neither rich nor happy. I am willing to make trial of these new ones." And another said, "Our life is like the flight of a bird through our lighted hall. In comes the bird out of the dark, flies about a little while in the smoke and light of our fires and torches and then goes out into the dark. Thus we come and go. If these strangers can tell us anything about these mysteries of birth and death, let us attend to their teaching." Thus converts were made. The tragedy and the mystery of life impelled men to seek a better explanation of the world than their own religion gave.
The heart of all this journeying and preaching was Columba. He was a great broad-chested, stout-armed person; "not a gentle hero," an old record says. He loved to drive his little boat into the middle of the fiercest storms. His voice was like the bellow of a bull of Bashan. He slept on the bare ground, and was contented with rough fare. He carried his corn on his own back to the mill, ground it, and brought it home again. He prayed and studied; and fought, too, when there was occasion. His people loved him.
One day, in his old age, he climbed a little hill and looked out over the humble buildings of his monastery, and the fields in which his monks were working, and blessed them all. As he came down and sat to rest himself beside the barn, the old white work-horse came and laid his head against his breast. He had been copying the Psalms, as at the beginning he had copied Finnian's Gospel. "They who seek the Lord," he wrote, "shall want no manner of thing that is good." It seemed a fitting place to stop. He laid down his pen. Late that night he went alone into the little church, and in the morning there he was found dead, kneeling before the altar.
In "Macbeth," when one asks, after the murder of the king, "Where is Duncan's body?" the reply is
"Carried to Colme-Kill [Columba's Island],
The sacred storehouse of his predecessors,
And guardian of their bones."
In the little cemetery beside the church they buried kings, from Ireland, from Scotland, even from Norway, that in the Day of Judgment they might rise up in the good protecting company of St. Columba.