There is evidence of early Christian activities at a number of Roman sites along the Wall. Following the Roman withdrawal, cemeteries and churches were built within the forts at Maryport, Newcastle, and Vindolanda. Christianity slowly spread across Britain.
Edwin, King of Northumbria, was baptised in around AD 627. On his death the kingdom was divided in two but both new kings were killed by the pagan ruler Cadwallon of Gwynedd. Oswald then claimed the crown and raised an army. In around AD 634, a decisive victory at the Battle of Heavenfield, close to Hadrian’s Wall, restored Christianity to a reunited Northumbria. In the historian Bede’s account of the event, Oswald had a vision of Saint Columba who foretold the victory. He raised a cross, and prayed alongside his troops. Bede often related the physical remains of Rome to the establishment of Christianity in Northern England. It is possible that Oswald was aware of early interpretations by Gildas of the decline and fall of Roman power in Britain, and that he did connect the Wall with the Christian communities of late Roman times. But whether he raised his cross close to the Wall for this reason or for purely strategic advantage is unclear. The siting of the 18th century church at Heavenfield with its Roman altar, the erection of the modern wooden cross, and the development of the pilgrimage trail all draw upon the memory of this symbolic place.
In the late 7th century the North East became the focus of intense ecclesiastical debate at the Synod of Whitby (AD 663) and there was a flurry of church-building in the Tyne Valley. Two influential figures, Wilfrid (later Bishop of York) and Benedict Biscop, who had both travelled extensively, introduced Christian worship on a grand scale. In what must have remained an impressive, if neglected, landscape of Roman monuments, temples, and fortifications, they set about re-creating the architecture they had witnessed in continental Europe. Wilfrid founded the abbey at Hexham and church at Corbridge, while Biscop built St Peter’s at Wearmouth and St Paul’s at Jarrow, later the home of Bede.
Italian and Gaulish architecture inspired the form of these early Anglo-Saxon churches, built close to old Roman sites which had both Imperial and Christian associations. Re use of Roman stones in the fabric of the buildings reinforced these links. Altars and monumental stones with carvings and inscriptions were also appropriated, the lettering perhaps further legitimising the Latin texts of the new faith. At the western end of the Wall, the 7th century cross shaft at Bewcastle may indicate the presence of a third significant religious establishment on the site of the Roman fort there, many centuries before the surviving 13th century church.