Council of Hatfield – 17 September 680 AD

An important meeting of the early Church took place at Hatfield reportedly in 680 AD. Exactly where and when is still the subject of debate.


Saint Bede the Venerable (672 / 673 - 735 AD) is one of Britain's earliest historians and theologians. He was sheltered by the Church from early childhood, and became a priest and scholar (mainly based at Jarrow, Northumbria). Best known for his work Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum (Ecclesiastical History of the English People), which documents early British history – including the raids (55-54 BC) of Julius Caesar and St Augustine's arrival in Kent in 597 AD – in five volumes. He remains a key source of information on Anglo-Saxon history, and the spread of Christianity in Britain. And is the key source of information on the 680 AD gathering. 

Theodore of Tarsus (later Saint Theodore of Tarsus), c.602-690 AD –  described as being an 'Asiatic Greek', he was consecrated as Archbishop of Canterbury by Pope Vitalian in 668 AD. Apparently on the recommendation of Hadrian – to whom the See was first offered, and who accompanied Archbishop Theodore (along with Benedict Biscop) to Britain.

Boon companions

St Benedict Biscop

A Benedictine monk reputedly of noble birth. He journeyed to Rome – and on the second occasion he became a monk (ironically in 666 AD). He accompanied St Theodore to Canterbury. Here he became the Abbott of the Monastery of St Peter and St Paul (later St Augustine's). He later founded the Monastery of St Peter at Wearmouth (674 AD) and St Paul at Jarrow (682 AD). He is also credited with introducing stone churches and the use of glass windows to England. St Bede, who later wrote about his life, was entrusted to his care as a seven-year-old.

He died in 689 or 690 AD.

St Hadrian the African (also known as St Adrian)

Reportedly born in a Greek-speaking part of Cyrenaica in Libya. His family fled to Italy following an Arab invasion when he was around ten. Here he joined the Church and later became Abbot at Nisida, near Naples. Reportedly a close friend of Pope Vitalian, he was offered the position of Archbishop of Canterbury but declined. He is believed to have influenced Theodore's selection, and although he set out with him for Canterbury in 668 AD he was held up in France and only arrived in 670 AD, and took over St Augustine's. He spent the next 40-years helping to harmonise the English Church with that of Rome, and established several schools.

The name Hadrian is said to be derived from the Latin for a man from Adria (which gave its name to the Adriatic Sea), and is considered to have introduced the name 'Adrian' to Britain. Indeed, the only English Pope, Nicholas Brakespear (a native of St Albans) took the name Adrian IV. Although described as 'the African' his image in stained glass windows suggests that he was of European descent (probably Greek which would help explain the link to Theodore).

He died in 709 AD.

Saint Theodore, after touring Britain, set to work reforming the Church. In 673 AD he famously held the first important synod (a meeting of Bishops) at Hertford. However, it is his 680 AD synod which is of particular interest (and debate).

Bede (as he is commonly referred to; also spelt as Baeda or Beda), quotes from a letter apparently written after the event by Theodore. According to a Penguin Books version of Bede's work – translation by Leo Sherley-Price, revised by R E Latham – he opens:


"In the Name of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. On the seventeenth of September in the eighth indiction; in the tenth year of the reign of our most devout lord Egfid, King of the Northumbrians; in the sixth year of King Ethelfrid of the Mercians; in the seventeenth year of King Aldwulf of the East Angles; and in the seventh year of King Hlothere of the Kentish people. Under the presidency of Theodore, by the grace of God Archbishop of the island of Britain and the City of Canterbury, we the venerable bishops of the island of Britain assembled in conclave at the place which is called in the Saxon language Haethfeld, having the most holy Gospels before us, hereby unite to proclaim the true and orthodox faith..."


A key outcome

The main result of the Council appears to be to confirm a decision on the Holy Spirit referred to as the Filioque (Latin for 'And the Son'). Basically, the Holy Spirit was confirmed as being of God the Father and the Son – what theologians refer to as a Double Procession. The results of the Council were reported to Rome and eventually adopted into the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed used by the Western Church.

Hetfelle meant pasture or open land (there have been a variety of spellings – Haethfeld, Haetfeld, Hetfelle, Hatfeud), so the name potentially fits a huge number of locations.

The Penguin Books version of Bede's work refers to the Synod as having taken place on the 'Plain of Haethfeld' (and Hertfordshire's Hatfield was shaped by a glacier that left a flat plain – which, several centuries later, was considered ideal for an aerodrome). While the book's index makes it clear that the authors of this 1955 edition thought it was Hatfield in Hertfordshire.

For his part Hatfield's original historian, Rev Antrobus, in the eighth edition (1955) of his work, 'Some Memories of Bishop's Hatfield and its Past', also mentions the 680 AD Church Council but acknowledges rival Yorkshire claims to having hosted it.

However, the notes in the Oxford World Press (1999 reprint of the 1969 – Judith McClure and Roger Collins) edition of Bede's work are quite categorical in their support for the Yorkshire claim: "Hatfield: contrary to the standard view that locates the synod of Hatfield in Hertfordshire, the meeting almost certainly took place in the region of the former small kingdom of Hatfield, bordered by Deira, Elmet, Mercia and Lindsey and centred on Hatfield Chase..."

The main arguments in favour of the Yorkshire claim appear to be on the basis that it was presided over by King Egfrid (sic) of Northumbria, and the location would have been easily accessible from East Anglia, Mercia and Northumberland. Hatfield Chase had been the scene of the Battle of the Idle in 616 AD. Plus, it was the meeting place of a number of rivers (rather like Hertford, where four rivers meet). So, in an age before A to Z and satellite navigation, it would have been easy to find (just follow the course of the river).

In the Hertfordshire Hatfield's favour is that the council / synod / meeting was actually presided over by Theodore, who most likely would have been travelling up from Canterbury, and who had held his first synod nearby at Hertford. So, it's not unreasonable to suggest they may have all met half way at a plain between two rivers – the Mimram and Lea ie. Hatfield.

Also, Hatfield has historically occupied a key spot on the road north from London. In his book 'Roman Roads in Britain', Ivan D Margay mentions two roads that ran through Hatfield – Cheshunt to Dunstable, and London to Stevenage.

Perhaps it was because of this meeting that Hatfield became the largest parish in Hertfordshire and the home of Bishops.

However, it is also worth remembering that not everyone agrees with Bede's version of events – in his Historical Commentary on Bede's work (published 1988) J M Wallace-Hadrill points out that other scholars argue that the Council actually met in 679 AD, the year in which Ecgfrith (sic) lost the Battle of the Trent and all his territories south of the Humber. But no one is apparently sure which happened first – the council or the fight.

It seems until such time fresh evidence comes to light – or someone invents a time machine – there will continue to be an element of doubt as to when and where this historic meeting took place.

Note (01.08.12): according to the online Catholic Encyclopaedia another outcome of the synod was the division of the great Mercian diocese into five Sees (leading to the creation of the Diocese of Worcester). At first sight this seems to strengthen the case for the synod having been held in Yorkshire. However, history is littered with cases where partitions have been agreed outside of the area/s affected (like after WWI and WWII), and – if it was a contentious issue – it may have helped the process to hold it on neutral ground. The situation is further complicated by other sources indicating that the division took place over several years and that only the Diocese of Worcester was created in 680 AD. Perhaps the recent discovery of the Higgs Boson particle may help with the development of a time machine.

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