St Ninian, St Mungo, St Patrick, St Brigit, St Oswald, St Cuthbert and St Bega all feature in the story of Cumbria – but all were in some way from outside it. St Ninian might indeed have come from Cumbria, even St Patrick might have. St Herbert would appear to be the only true local. Cumbria was always having new waves of people come, some to fight, some to live and settle. But they always seeem to have kept out of the way of others in clusters. There was no unified authority, and England most certainly did not reach this far.
The presence of Christians was known from Roman times. A stone at Maryport, of which a drawing was made before it mysteriously disappeared had the Chi-rho symbol on it. A recent find at Manchester had the Rotas Opera square, usually thought to be a cryptic Christian phenomenon, upon it. Christian graves may have been found as recently as this year (2012) at Maryport. Besides these stray finds, Carlisle may well have become the 5th diocese in Britain before the Romans left. When they left, Christian communities took possession, vividly illustrated by the building of a church in the military headquarters of Vindolanda. With the Romans gone the north became the ‘Old North’ sung by the Welsh bards. The Britons and Welsh were seen as one people. The language they spoke was ‘cumbric’, closely related to Old Welsh.
In tribal society whose chief activity is warfare there was an inherent lack of stability. Britons fought Picts and Angles as well as Britons. One of the leaders in the early 5C was King Cole (Coel) feted in the song, ‘Old king Cole was a merry old soul.’) Urien Rheged followed him as king after 550 when the kingdom of Rheged actually managed to hold together large swathes of country between Strathclyde and the Mersey and the Humber.
The history of the area is therefore quite complex; and history didn’t exist because no one was interested in recording it. Life was short and people sang of their ancestors with a great deal of romance. The local tribes were those who had lived before and through the ‘Roman’ era. They were at least nominally Christian. The next wave of migrants were the Irish who nibbled away along the western seaboard from the 4 century on and within a century or two became explicitly Christian. When the Northumbrians took control sometime before 730 their role as overlords seems to have left plenty of room. When they in turn were conquered by the Vikings, the old British kingdom based on Strathclyde was able to surface again. When the Norse came, like the Vikings before them, they settled, became Christian, and married the local girls.
Dedications of churches and holy wells to St Ninian, St Patrick, St Brigit and St Mungo are frequently not supported by hard evidence as to the time they took place. For example St Patrick’s chapel at Heysham in Lancashire, which has been the only one excavated cannot, on evidence, be taken back before 800. This does not mean there were no early dedications, but the flowering of churches under the Northumbrians between 7-9C largely obliterated the evidence of early Irish and British churches. The reason was the decision of the Synod of Whitby in 664 which in effect made for two classes of Christina, superior and inferior. The saints of the latter were regarded as tainted because they did not observe the’ proper’ (Roman that is) customs.