St Augustine and the Arrival of Christianity in England
by Jessica Brain
In 597, a monk from Rome was about to embark on a vitally important journey to England. Also known as the Gregorian Mission, Augustine with around forty other religious figures arrived on the shores of the Kent coast to convert King Ethelbert and his kingdom to Christianity. Such was his success that by the seventh century, the Christianisation of Britain was complete.
The precedence for such a mammoth task lay in the roots of the people of Britain which had been under Roman rule until 410. Under the control of the Romans and serving as a province in its vast and sprawling empire, the island people had adopted Christian practises after the spread of Christianity replaced their original druid worshipping ways.
With a unique blend of Celtic, Roman and Christian traditions developing, the inhabitants of the island were about to be dealt a blow when the arrival of the Saxons changed the state of play and ended not only Roman control but Christian worship in many communities in Britain.
For those that did hold onto their beliefs, they were forced westwards, taking up positions in Wales, Cornwall, north-western England and Ireland. This would result in the Age of Saints and a time of seclusion and monastic life, holding onto belief systems, worship and culture through the work of Celtic Saints.
In the meantime, the Saxons embedded themselves in the east of the country, bringing with them new ways of life, culture and religion. The paganism brought with them would influence communities whilst the last vestiges of Romano-Celtic Christian traditions were held onto by a minority living in relative isolation to this growing presence.
Now with the Anglo-Saxons firmly rooted in Britain, it was up to the likes of Augustine to change their spiritual path towards Christianity and this he did with much success.
Augustine had been chosen by Pope Gregory I, who against the backdrop of Saxon power and a native British Church operating in isolation, decided to proceed with such a bold mission.
It was thought that the decision to approach the Kingdom of Kent ruled by Ethelbert, was perhaps motivated by the fact that the Saxon king’s wife was a Frankish princess called Bertha who also happened to be a practising Christian herself. With this in mind, the pope believed that Ethelbert would be more susceptible to the spiritual persuasions of Augustine and his accompanying missionaries, having already been exposed to the faith via his wife.
Such a predisposition to Christianity was well-calculated on the Roman Catholic Church’s part as the papal mission, despite some expected setbacks, would prove highly successful not only for Augustine but for his successors and the broader mission of spreading the Word of God.
In 595, Augustine was taken from his position as a prior at the Abbey of St Andrew in Rome and selected by the pope to embark on the mission to southeast England. Whilst the exact reasons for choosing Augustine in particular for such a task have not been documented, it was said that Pope Gregory had admired Augustine’s administrative day-to-day running of the abbey as prior and moreover was impressed by his knowledge of the Bible.
Pope Gregory also selected the other monks who were to accompany Augustine on his mission including Laurence of Canterbury who would become Augustine’s successor to the archbishopric of Canterbury. In addition, the pope guaranteed support from Frankish royalty who provided interpreters and priests for the mission.
This was a shrewd move as King Ethelbert was likely to be more receptive to receiving the missionaries when they included Franks from his wife’s kingdom.
Subsequently, with all the plans and provisions arranged, Pope Gregory’s mission proceeded and Augustine, with forty companions, left Rome for the Kingdom of Kent.
Initially, the journey did not get off to the best start as not long after leaving, doubts began to creep in and the missionaries requested permission to return. After allaying their fears, Pope Gregory gave the group the confidence and reassurance they needed to resume their trip.
St. Gregory and St Augustine
In 597, Augustine and his fellow missionaries arrived in Kent on the Isle of Thanet and proceeded to Canterbury.
The meeting that followed would later take on legendary status and was recounted by the historian and monk Bede around 150 years after the event.
King Ethelbert was said to have agreed to meet Augustine and his companions in an outdoor setting, feeling that it would be a safer environment as the pagan king remained wary of the newcomers. He was not alone however as his Frankish wife Bertha, who had been in contact with the pope, accompanied him to the meeting.
It was said that the monks met with the king and held up a silver cross and explained their mission.
Although not immediately won over by their persuasions, the king welcomed them with great hospitality and gave them freedom to preach as well as the privilege of using the church of St Martin for their services.
Whilst the exact timing of King Ethelbert’s conversion remains undetermined, a later chronicler from the fifteenth century puts the date as Whit Sunday 597.
King Ethelbert would eventually convert, most likely baptised in Canterbury, whilst others in his kingdom followed suit, as was the protocol in this medieval period.
Augustine would successfully convert many of the king’s subjects and was said to have baptised thousands on Christmas Day in 597.
As a result of his success, Augustine would become the first Archbishop of Canterbury, the most senior cleric in the Church of England. Moreover, the abbey of St Peter and Paul (which was later dedicated to Augustine) was founded in Canterbury around 590 on land donated by the king.
By 601, Pope Gregory sent out more missionaries as Roman bishops were established in London and Rochester.
St Augustine and King Ethelbert
Whilst Augustine achieved much success, he could not have done it without the support of King Ethelbert whose royal approval ensured not only investment and land for the church but also protection. The king went as far as to make new laws which protected church property and introduced punishments against those who aimed any wrongdoings towards the Church.
Despite these achievements, the mission was not without its setbacks, particularly as Augustine’s arrival in England did little to effect those Christian worshippers who had already been well-established in communities such as Wales, Cumbria and Cornwall.
Whilst his arrival as a fellow Christian would not be seen as untoward by the Celtic Christians in the west, he represented the papal-appointed authority, something which they did not recognise as their faith had naturally evolved separately from Rome.
When Augustine thus arrived expecting compliance from Welsh bishops he was dismayed to find their resistance to many elements of the Christianity he had brought with him. One such example includes the calculation of the date for Easter with the Welsh refusing to obey Roman practises.
In time, most Celtic speaking communities would accept the Roman Easter but much resistance continued from the Welsh as noted by the Venerable Bede in his account.
With vast swathes of converts in the east, unity had not been achieved on all fronts as had been expected by Augustine.
The fundamental differences between the native British Church that had emerged and Augustine’s Christianity at times appeared irreconcilable. At two separate meetings arranged by Augustine, his efforts to settle their differences were declined.
Such a process would prove complex as not only faith but also politics had a role to play, particularly as much of Augustine’s endeavours were now with the support of the Kentish king whilst the kingdoms of Mercia and Wessex were going westwards.
It would take several generations before unity of some kind could be achieved. In the eighth century the arrival of the pagan Vikings, a common enemy, achieved some forced alliance between the English and the Welsh Christians and paved the way for finding common ground.
In the meantime, Augustine continued to follow the guidance of Pope Gregory who legislated on all issues pertaining to the clergy and matters of worship.
Whilst still facing a few setbacks, namely the compliance of Welsh Christians, as well as the extension of Christianity beyond the Kingdom of Kent, Augustine could rest assured that his mission had been largely achieved. His extraordinary trip had changed the religion and culture of Britain permanently.
Just before his death, he arranged for the consecration of his successor, Laurence of Canterbury as the second Archbishop of Canterbury. He subsequently passed away in May 604 and was revered as a saint for his contribution to spreading the Word of God.
Augustine however was just one small component of a much larger process. As he kick-started the process of Christianisation in the country, his missionary precedent would continue long after his death.
The Christianisation of the formerly pagan Anglo-Saxons took time. It was started by Augustine, aided by King Ethelbert and continued by others in their wake.
Eventually by the seventh century, the last pagan king, Arwald died on the Isle of Wight, signalling the Christian faith had become the dominant religion of Britain.
This success however could not be celebrated for long as a new threat loomed on the horizon, in ships bearing men from the north with pagan customs and a mission to conquer. The Vikings were on their way….
Jessica Brain is a freelance writer specialising in history. Based in Kent and a lover of all things historical.
Published: 19th May 2022