Anglo-Saxon Christianity

History of Christianity
in the British Isles
General
Early
Medieval
Early Modern
Eighteenth century to present

The history of Christianity in England from the Roman departure to the Norman Conquest is often told as one of conflict between the Celtic Christianity spread by the Irish mission, and Roman Christianity brought across by Augustine of Canterbury.

Gregorian mission[]

Christianisation of the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms began in AD 597, influenced by Celtic Christianity from the north-west and by the Roman church from the south-east, gradually replacing Anglo-Saxon polytheism which had been introduced to what is now England over the course of the 5th and 6th centuries with the arrival of the Anglo-Saxons. The first Archbishop of Canterbury, Augustine took office in 597 AD. In 601, he baptized the first Christian Anglo-Saxon king, Æthelberht of Kent. The last pagan Anglo-Saxon/Jutish king, Arwald, died in 686.

Æthelberht of Kent's wife Bertha, daughter of Charibert, one of the Merovingian kings of the Franks, had brought a chaplain (Liudhard) with her. Bertha had restored a church from Roman times to the east of Canterbury and dedicated it to Saint Martin of Tours, the patronal saint for the Merovingian royal family. Æthelberht himself, though a pagan, allowed his wife to worship her God. Probably under influence of his wife, Æthelberht asked Pope Gregory I to send missionaries, and in 596 the Pope dispatched Augustine, together with a party of monks.

Typical Saxon altar as seen in Escomb Church.

Augustine had served as praepositus (prior) of the monastery of Saint Andrew in Rome, founded by Gregory. His party lost heart on the way and Augustine went back to Rome from Provence and asked his superiors to abandon the mission project. The pope, however, commanded and encouraged continuation, and Augustine and his followers landed on the Island of Thanet in the spring of 597.

Æthelberht permitted the missionaries to settle and preach in his town of Canterbury. By the end of the year he himself had converted, and Augustine received consecration as a bishop at Arles. At Christmas 10,000 of the king's subjects underwent baptism.

Augustine sent a report of his success to Pope Gregory with certain questions concerning his work. In 601 Mellitus, Justus and others brought the pope's replies, with the pallium for Augustine and a present of sacred vessels, vestments, relics, books, and the like. Gregory directed the new archbishop to ordain as soon as possible twelve suffragan bishops and to send a bishop to York, who should also have twelve suffragans. Augustine did not carry out this papal plan, nor did he establish the primatial see at London as Gregory intended, as the Londoners remained heathen. Augustine did consecrate Mellitus as bishop of London and Justus as bishop of Rochester.

Pope Gregory issued more practicable mandates concerning heathen temples and usages: he desired that native temples be Christianized and asked Augustine to Christianize pagan practices, so far as possible, into dedication ceremonies or feasts of martyrs, since "he who would climb to a lofty height must go up by steps, not leaps" (letter of Gregory to Mellitus, in Bede, i, 30).

Augustine reconsecrated and rebuilt an old church at Canterbury as his cathedral and founded a monastery in connection with it. He also restored a church and founded the monastery of St. Peter and St. Paul outside the walls. He died before completing the monastery, but now lies buried in the Church of St. Peter and St. Paul.

In 616 Æthelberht of Kent died. The kingdom of Kent and the associated Anglo-Saxon kingdoms which Kent had had influence over relapsed into heathenism for several decades.

Synod of Whitby (664)[]

The Synod of Whitby in 664 forms a significant watershed in that King Oswiu of Northumbria decided to follow Roman rather than Celtic practices. The spokesman of the dominant faction was St. Wilfrid, who had been much impressed by the power and lavish life style of the Roman Church in comparison with the austerity and subservience to local rulers of the Celtic Church. Using subsidiary arguments about Easter and the tonsure, Wilfrid established the model of the Church as not ultimately answerable to the local king but to the Archbishop and to the Pope. It became a tradition for each Archbishop of Canterbury to receive the pallium from the Pope in Rome. This issue was to be frequently revisited until the Reformation.

Anglo-Saxon mission on the Continent[]

The Anglo-Saxon mission on the continent took off in the 8th century, assisting the Christianisation of practically all of the Frankish Empire by AD 800.

The Benedictine Movement[]

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 mobilsed 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.

Diocesan organisation[]

England diocese map pre-925
850—925
England diocese map post 950
950—1035
The dioceses of Anglo-Saxon England 850—1035

See also[]

Bibliography[]

Further reading[]