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In the seventh century the pagan Anglo-Saxons were converted to Christianity mainly by missionaries sent from Rome. Irish missionaries from Iona, who were proponents of Insular Christianity, were influential in the conversion of Northumbria, but after the Synod of Whitby in 664 the English church gave its allegiance to the Pope.
Christianity was present in Roman Britain from at least the third century, introduced by tradesman, immigrants and legionaries, although most of the latter probably followed Mithraism. The Diocletian's edicts of presecution, of 303 were not rigorously enforced by Constantius Chlorus. In 313, his son, Constantine, issued the "Edict of Milan" allowing the practice of Christianity in the Empire. The following year three bishops from Britain attended the Council of Arles. They were Eborius from the city of Eboracum (York); Restitutus from the city of Londinium (London); and Adelfius, the location of whose see is uncertain. The presence of these three bishops indicates that by the early fourth century, the British Christian community was already both organised on a regional basis, and had a distinct episcopal hierarchy. Around 429, the bishops of Britain requested assistance from their colleagues in Gaul in dealing with Pelagianism. Germanus of Auxerre and Lupus, Bishop of Troyes were sent. During his sojourn in Britain, Germanus, a former government official, is reported to have led the native Britons to a victory against Pictish and Saxon raiders. In 396, Victricius of Rouen was asked to go to Britain to resolve some doctrinal matters. In his De Laude Sanctorum (On the Praise of the Saints), he describes Britain as a wild and hostile place dealing with heresy and paganism.
The Anglo-Saxons were a mix of invaders, migrants and acculturated indigenous people. Even before the withdrawal of the Romans, there were Germanic people in Britain who had been stationed there as foederati. The migration continued with the departure of the Roman army, when Anglo-Saxons were recruited to defend Britain; and also during the period of the Anglo-Saxon first rebellion of 442. They settled in small groups covering a handful of widely dispersed local communities, and brought from their homelands the traditions of their ancestors. There are references in Anglo-Saxon poetry, including Beowulf, that show some interaction between pagan and Christian practices and values. There is enough evidence from Gildas and elsewhere that it is safe to assume some continuing form of Christianity survived. The Anglo-Saxons took control of Sussex, Kent, East Anglia and part of Yorkshire; while the West Saxons founded a kingdom in Hampshire under Cerdic, around 520.
At the end of the 6th century the most powerful ruler in England was Æthelberht of Kent, whose lands extended north to the River Humber. He married a Frankish princess, Bertha of Paris, daughter of Charibert I and his wife Ingoberga. There were strong trade connections between Kent and the Franks. The marriage was agreed to on the condition that she be allowed to practice her religion. She brought her chaplain, Liudhard, with her to England. A former Roman church was restored for Bertha just outside the City of Canterbury. Dedicated to Saint Martin of Tours, it served as her private chapel.
In 595, Pope Gregory I dispatched Augustine, prior of Gregory's own monastery of St Andrew in Rome, to head the mission to Kent. The pope wrote to the Frankish bishops and kings introducing the mission and requesting assistance for Augustine and his companions. This helped to ensure a friendly reception for Augustine in Kent, as a mission which enjoyed the support of his wife's relatives. in 597, Augustine arrived on the Isle of Thanet in 597 and established his base at the main town of Canterbury. The town's new importance led to its revival, and trades developed in pottery, textiles, and leather.
Æthelberht converted to Christianity sometime before 601, although whether before or after Augustine's arrival is uncertain. Other conversions then followed. The following year, the king gave Augustine and his monks land to the east of the city, just outside the walls, and they established the Monastery of SS. Peter and Paul. Augustine sent a report of his success to Pope Gregory concerning his work. After Augustine's death in 604, he was buried inn the Church of SS. Peter and Paul. The monastery was named for him and eventually became a missionary school.
Through the influence of Æthelberht, his nephew Sæberht of Essex also converted, as did Rædwald of East Anglia, although Rædwald also retained an altar to the old gods. A church was established near Ely inn 605.
In 601 Pope Gregory sent additional missioners to assist Augustine. Among them was the monk Mellitus. Gregory wrote the Epistola ad Mellitum advising him that local temples be Christianized and asked Augustine to Christianize pagan practices, so far as possible, into dedication ceremonies or feasts of martyrs in order to ease the transition to Christianity. In 604 Augustine consecrated Mellitus as Bishop of the East Saxons. He established his see at London at a church probably founded by Æthelberht, rather than Sæberht. Another of Augustine's associates was Justus for whom Æthelberht built a church near Rochester, Kent.
Æthelberht died in 616 and was succeeded by his son, Eadbald of Kent who was not a Christian. Sæberht of Essex also died around that time. In the absence of strong patrons a reaction set in. Mellitus and Justus both withdrew temporarily to Gaul. Upon Augustine's death around 604, he was succeeded as archbishop by Laurence of Canterbury, a member of the original mission. It was some time before Eadbald, whose second wife was a Frank, converted to Christianity. His decision may have been influenced by Kent's strong connections with Francia.
After the departure of the Romans, the church in Britain continued in isolation from that on the continent and developed some differences in approach. Their version of tradition is often called "Celtic Christianity". It tended to be more monastic-centered than the Roman, which favored a diocesan administration, and differed on the style of tonsure, and dating of Easter. The southern and east coasts were the areas settled first and in greatest numbers by the settlers and so were the earliest to pass from Romano-British to Anglo-Saxon control. The British clergy continued to remain active in the north and west. After meeting with Augustine, around 603, the British bishops refused to recognize him as their archbishop. His successor, Laurence of Canterbury, said Bishop Dagán had refused to either share a roof with the Roman missionaries or to eat with them. There is no indication that the British clergy made any attempts to convert the Anglo-Saxons.
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When Æthelfrith of Bernicia seized the neighboring kingdom of Deira, Edwin, son of Ælla of Deira fled into exile. Around 616, at the Battle of Chester, Æthelfrith ordered his forces to attack a body of monks from the Abbey of Bangor-on-Dee, "If then they cry to their God against us, in truth, though they do not bear arms, yet they fight against us, because they oppose us by their prayers." Shortly after, Æthelfrith was killed in battle against Edwin, who with the support of Rædwald of East Anglia claimed the throne. Edwin married the Christian Æthelburh of Kent, daughter of Æthelberht, and sister of King Eadbald of Kent. A condition of their marriage was that she be allowed to continue the practice of her religion. When Æthelburh traveled north to Edwin's court, she was accompanied by the missioner Paulinus of York. Edwin eventually became a Christian, as did members of his court. When Edwin was killed in 633 at the Battle of Hatfield Chase, Æthelburh and her children returned to her brother's court in Kent, along with Paulinus. James the Deacon remained behind to serve as a missioner in the Kingdom of Lindsey, but Bernicia and Deira reverted to heathenism.
The introduction of Christianity to Ireland dates to sometime before the 5th century, presumably in interactions with Roman Britain. In 431, Pope Celestine I consecrated Palladius a bishop and sent him to Ireland to minister to the "Scots believing in Christ". Monks from Ireland, such as Finnian of Clonard, studied in Britain at the monastery of Cadoc the Wise, at Llancarfan and other places. Later, as monastic institutions were founded in Ireland, monks from Britain, such as Ecgberht of Ripon and Chad of Mercia, went to Ireland. In 563 Columba arrived in Dál Riata from his homeland of Ireland and was granted land on Iona. This became the centre of his evangelising mission to the Picts.
When Æthelfrith of Northumbria was killed in battle against Edwin and Rædwald at the River Idle in 616, his sons fled into exile. Some of that time was spent in the kingdom of Dál Riata, where Oswald of Northumbria became Christian. At the death of Edwin's successors at the hand of Cadwallon ap Cadfan of Gwynedd, Oswald returned from exile and laid claim to the throne. He defeated the combined forces of Cadwallon and Penda of Mercia at the Battle of Heavenfield. In 634, Oswald, who had spent time in exile at Iona, asked abbot Ségéne mac Fiachnaí to send missioners to Northumbria. At first, a bishop named Cormán was sent, but he alienated many people by his harshness, and returned in failure to Iona reporting that the Northumbrians were too stubborn to be converted. Aidan criticised Cormán's methods and was soon sent as his replacement. Oswald gave Aidan the island of Lindisfarne, near the royal court at Bamburgh Castle. Since Oswald was fluent in both English and Irish, he often served as interpreter for Aidan. Aidan built churches, monasteries and schools throughout Northumbria. Lindisfarne became an important centre of Insular Christianity under Aidan, Cuthbert, Eadfrith and Eadberht. Cuthbert's tomb became a center for pilgrimage.
Columbanus was active in the Frankish Empire from 590, establishing monasteries until his death at Bobbio in 615. During the 7th century the disciples of Columbanus founded several monasteries in what are now France, Germany, Belgium, and Switzerland.
William of Malmesbury says Rædwald had a step-son, Sigeberht of East Anglia, who spent some time in exile in Gaul, where he became a Christian. After his step-brother Eorpwald was killed, Sigeberht returned and became ruler of the East Angles. Sigeberht's conversion may have been a factor in his achieving royal power, since at that time Edwin of Northumbria and Eadbald of Kent were Christian. Around 631, Felix of Burgundy arrived in Canterbury and Archbishop Honorius sent him to Sigeberht. Alban Butler says Sigeberht met Felix during his time in Gaul and was behind Felix's coming to England. Felix established his episcopal see at Dommoc and a monastery at Soham Abbey. Although Felix's early training may have been influenced by the Irish tradition of Luxeuil Abbey, his loyalty to Canterbury ensured that the church in East Anglia adhered to Roman norms. Around 633, Sigeberht welcomed from Ireland, Fursey and his brothers Foillan and Ultan and gave them land to establish an abbey at Cnobheresburg. Felix and Fursey effected a number of conversions and established many churches in Sigeberht's kingdom. Around the same time Sigeberht established a monastery at Beodricesworth.
Hilda of Whitby was the grand-niece of Edwin of Northumbria. In 627 Edwin and his household were baptized Christian. When Edwin was killed in the Battle of Hatfield Chase, the widowed Queen Æthelburh, her children, and Hilda returned to Kent, now ruled by Æthelburh's brother, Eadbald of Kent. Æthelburh established Lyminge Abbey, one of the first religious houses to be founded in England. It was a double monastery, built on Roman ruins. Æthelburh was the first abbess. It is assumed that Hilda remained with the Queen-Abbess. Nothing further is known of Hild until around 647 when having decided not to join her older sister Hereswith at Chelles Abbey in Gaul, Hild returned north. (Chelles had been founded by Bathild, the Anglo-Saxon queen consort of Clovis II.) Hild settled on a small parcel of land near the mouth of the river Ware, where under the direction of Aidan of Lindisfarne, she took up religious life. In 649, he appointed her abbess of the double monastery of Hartlepool Abbey, previously founded by the Irish recluse Hieu. In 655, in thanksgiving for his victory over Penda of Mercia at the Battle of the Winwæd, King Oswiu brought his year old daughter Ælfflæd to his kinswoman Hilda to be brought up at the abbey. (Hild was the grand-niece of Edwin of Northumbria; Oswiu was the son of Edwin's sister Acha.) Two years later, Oswiu established a double monastery at Streoneshalh, (later known as Whitby), and appointed Hild abbess. Ælfflæd then grew up there. The abbey became the leading royal nunnery of the kingdom of Deira, a centre of learning, and burial-place of the royal family.
By the early 660s, Insular Christianity received from the monks of Iona was standard in the north and west, while the Roman tradition brought by Augustine was the practice in the south. In the Northumbrian court King Oswiu followed the tradition of the missionary monks from Iona, while Queen Eanflæd, who had been brought up in Kent followed the Roman tradition. The result was that one portion of the court would be celebrating Easter, while the other was still observing the Lenten fast.
At that time, Kent, Essex, and East Anglia were following Roman practice. Oswiu's eldest son, Alhfrith, son of Rhiainfellt of Rheged, seems to have supported the Roman position. Cenwalh of Wessex recommended Wilfrid, a Northumbrian churchman who had recently returned from Rome, to Alhfrith as a cleric well-versed in Roman customs and liturgy. Alhfrith gave Wilfrid a monastery he had recently founded at Ripon, with Eata, abbot of Melrose Abbey and former student of Aidan of Lindisfarne. Wilfrid ejected Abbot Eata, because he would not conform to Roman customs; and Eata returned to Melrose. Cuthbert, the guest-master was also expelled. Wilfrid introduced a form of the Rule of Saint Benedict into Ripon.
In 664, King Oswiu convened a meeting at Hild's monastery to discuss the matter. The Celtic party was led by Abbess Hilda, and bishops Colmán of Lindisfarne and Cedd of Læstingau. (In 653, upon the occasion of the marriage of Oswiu's daughter Alchflaed with Peada of Mercia, Oswiu had sent Cedd to evangelize the Middle Angles of Mercia.) The Roman party was led by Wilfrid and Agilbert.
The meeting did not proceed entirely smoothly due to variety of languages spoken, which probably included Old Irish, Old English, Frankish and Old Welsh, as well as Latin. Bede recounted that Cedd interpreted for both sides. Cedd's facility with the languages, together with his status as a trusted royal emissary, likely made him a key figure in the negotiations. His skills were seen as an eschatological sign of the presence of the Holy Spirit, in contrast to the Biblical account of the Tower of Babel. Colman appealed to the practice of St. John; Wilfrid to St. Peter. Oswiu decided to follow Roman rather than Celtic rite, saying ""I dare not longer contradict the decrees of him who keeps the doors of the Kingdom of Heaven, lest he should refuse me admission". Some time after the conference Colman resigned the see of Lindisfarne and returned to Ireland.
In 644, the twenty-five year old Ecgberht of Ripon was a student at the monastery of Rath Melsigi when he and many others fell ill of the plague. He vowed that if he recovered, he would become a perpetual pilgrimage from his homeland of Britain and would lead a life of penitential prayer and fasting.He began to organize a mission to the Frisians, but was dissuaded from going by a vision related to him by a monk who had been a disciple of Saint Boisil, prior of Melrose. Ecgberht then recruited others.
Around 677, Wilfrid, bishop of York quarreled with King Ecgfrith of Northumbria and was expelled from his see. Wilfrid went to Rome to appeal Ecgfrith's decision. On the way he stopped in Utrecht at the court of Aldgisl, the rulers of the Frisians, for most of 678. Wilfrid may have been blown off course on his trip from England to the continent, and ended up in Frisia; or he may have intended to journey via Frisia to avoid Neustria, whose Mayor of the Palace, Ebroin, disliked Wilfrid. While Wilfrid was at Aldgisl's court, Ebroin offered a bushel of gold coins in return for Wilfrid, alive or dead. Aldgisl's hospitality to Wilfrid was in defiance of Frankish domination.
The first missioner was Wihtberht who went to Frisia about 680 and labored for two years with the permission of Aldgisl; but being unsuccessful, Wihtberht returned to England. Willibrord grew up under the influence of Wilfrid, studied under Ecgberht of Ripon, and spent twelve years at the Abbey of Rath Melsigi. Around 690, Ecgberht sent him and eleven companions to Christianise the Frisians. In 695 Willibrord was consecrated in Rome, Bishop of Utrecht. In 698 he established the Abbey of Echternach on the site of a Roman villa donated by the Austrasian noblewoman Irmina of Oeren. Aldgisl's successor Redbad was less supportive than his father, likely because the missionaries were favored by Pepin of Herstal, who sought to expand his territory into Frisia.
In 716, Boniface joined Willibrord in Utrecht. Their efforts were frustrated by the war between Charles Martel and Redbad, King of the Frisians. Willibrord fled to the abbey he had founded in Echternach, while Boniface returned to the Benedictine monastery at Nhutscelle. The following year he traveled to Rome, where he was commissioned by Pope Gregory II as a traveling missionary bishop for Germania.
The Benedictine reform was led by St. Dunstan over the latter half of the 10th century. It sought to revive church piety by replacing secular canons- often under the direct influence of local landowners, and often their relatives- with celibate monks, answerable to the ecclesiastical hierarchy and ultimately to the Pope. This deeply split England, bringing it to the point of civil war, with the East Anglian nobility (such as Athelstan Half-King, Byrhtnoth) supporting Dunstan and the Wessex aristocracy (Ordgar, Æthelmær the Stout) supporting the secularists. These factions mobilised around King Eadwig (anti-Dunstan) and his brother King Edgar (pro). On the death of Edgar, his son Edward the Martyr was assassinated by the anti-Dunstan faction and their candidate, the young king Æthelred was placed on the throne. However this "most terrible deed since the English came from over the sea" provoked such a revulsion that the secularists climbed down, although Dunstan was effectively retired.
This split fatally weakened the country in the face of renewed Viking attacks.