Augustine – preaching to the converted.
This is very much a work in progress and probably biased by the fact that I don’t believe in the idea of the mass migration of Germanic people into Britain in the 5th and 6th centuries. Obviously not a novel idea but I thought I’d put my ramblings down in print to see how they stack up. To this end I will put down my thoughts about Christianity in Britain at this period.
I believe that just as the terms Scot and Welsh would be invented by outsiders and then come to be what those people regarded as themselves so the term Saxon would be used by outsiders, namely the Roman Catholic Church, to describe a mixture of people living in Britain.
On the face of it the names of the Heptarchy make no sense. If westward moving Angles had arrived in what came to be known as East Anglia surely they would have called the place West Anglia. Whereas the Kingdom of Kent and Canterbury, named before the Roman Church arrived, suggests a continuation of occupancy and a link with the aboriginal British tribe of the Cantiaci.
So what’s the official story? Bede writes that what came to be known as England was taken over by pagan Angles, Saxons and Jutes after the original inhabitants had up sticks and left. Then in 597 Augustine arrives, with a forty-man team, in Kent sent by Pope Gregory in Rome to convert the heathen. He converts King Æthelberht of Kent, probably about 601, helped by the fact that Æthelberht had been married already for eight years to a Frankish Christian Princess called Bertha. Augustine dies in 604 and apart from some minor backsliding the whole thing is wrapped up in the year of 664 at the Synod of Whitby, in Rome’s favour, and England becomes a Roman Catholic country.
That’s some going by Augustine, barely in the country seven years but starts a process that converts a whole supposedly pagan country. Compared to Charlemagne’s thirty-year struggle to convert the continental Saxons starting in 772 the English transformation seems like a walk in the park. There are no religious wars as often “pagan” and “Christian” forces fought along side each other. There is no equivalent of a Celtic Anglesey to crush. As to what kind of man Augustine was Justine Davis Randers-Pehrson in her book “Barbarians and Romans” described Augustine as an “ obnoxious, small-minded individual taken up with such earth-shaking matters as the propriety of administering the Eucharist to a menstruating woman”.
Augustine doesn’t sound much of missionary so perhaps a good proportion of the population of Britain was already Christian, although just not the type of Christians suitable for Rome’s purpose. There are parallels with Ireland, as Nora Chadwick believed that both Palladius and Patrick were less concerned to convert heathens than in getting the already converted into the Roman Church.
It is suggested that Augustine helped King Æthelberht’s write, in Old English, his Law Codes as in them Church property gets special protection and the various church positions of bishop, priest, deacon' and clerk are legally recognised. With such a large team this suggests that Augustine already had places to fill in established positions, perhaps in the so-called pagan temples Augustine commandeered. As for the locals if they wanted the protection of the Law they better start learning Old English.
On the other hand what if Bede is mistaken and King Æthelberht of Kent was already a Christian. Augustine had no understanding of Old English; he had brought Frankish interpreters with him. Are we to believe King Æthelberht resisted the persuasive bedtime conversation of his Christian wife for eight years yet is convinced by an Italian monk who didn’t really want to be there? King Æthelberht’s Law Codes are written in Old English so who would be better placed to make Old English a written language than an educated Latin speaking Christian already residing at court. The Franks had no interest in helping improve Old English whereas an existing aboriginal elite would.
Dismissing the fable of Anglian slaves what was Pope Gregory’s purpose in sending Augustine’s large party to Britain. Rome at this time had no control over the Gallic Church operating in the Frankish lands, one of its Bishops, Liudhard, had been in Kent for eight years previous to Augustine arrival. Liudhard, bishop to Queen Bertha, was a power in his own right even minting his own coins or medalets. The Franks virtually controlled Kent around this time with many Frankish nobles living there.
Procopius, writing about 560, says that the king of the Franks sent an embassy to Justinian claiming overlordship of Britain. Britain, he goes on, is a country so populous that every year people migrate from the island to settle in Gaul. Were these refugees or Christians going on pilgrimage? The Franks had been nominally Christian since the time of Clovis’s conversion about 500. Either way there is plenty of cultural flow between Gaul and Kent and King Æthelberht needed to keep in with the Franks.
To add to Pope Gregory’s concerns a new monastic order was rapidly attracting adherents in the Frankish lands. It came from Ireland and was headed by the monk Columban. It could be argued that Gregory hoped to stifle this new monastic order by attacking it in Britain. Also stamping his brand of Christianity on Kent might bring the Franks onside.
So what was the state of Christianity in Britain? For the sake of simplicity lets call the inhabitants of this Roman province Romano-British and their religion the Romano-British Christian Church. At the end of the Roman period in Britain Christianity had been the official religion yet it had been touched by the ideas of Pelagianism and Gnosticism. If it had continued in this state then it would for Bede have been far worse than Paganism and he could simply have chosen to expunge it from his Ecclesiastical History. When he does refer to the Romano-British he calls them heretics and rejoices at their slaughter. In one of his last entries he writes of their “inbred hated” and their “incorrect Easter and their evil customs”. There is archaeological evidence that the Romano-British remained where they lived and no evidence, as far as I am aware, of the kind of mass burials prevalent in Viking times. Christian religious sites seem to have continued from the Roman period to the High Middle Ages.
St Pancras Church in London, founded in 314 dedicated to St Pancras and known by that name through out the medieval period. Augustine brought relics of St Pancras to Kent because Pope Gregory knew of the regional links to that saint, there was also a
Church at Canterbury dedicated to St Pancras The cult of Saint Alban also traverses the whole period. In Old English the word eccles is used to describe these Christian communities as the late Professor Kenneth Cameron demonstrated in his book “English Place-names”. Even Bede's acknowledges that Augustine met with Romano-British Bishops in a vain attempt to bring them under his authority. It is now thought that the meeting was held at Kemble, Gloucestershire, at the limit of Æthelberht’s control but still well within modern England.
If the Romano-British kept their religion then they would have been organised and could have simply fit in with the New Order. The Romano-British elite would have continued to speak and write in Latin and have easily used Old English for everyday use. It’s doubtful whether the Romano-British “lower orders” had a written language so they would have gone with the flow. They had adapted when the Romans came so adapting to the customs of a few amiable potbellied drunks would have been child’s play.