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Early Britain - Anglo-Saxon Britain
The Conversion Of The English
by Allen, Grant (B.A.)


It was impossible that a country lying within sight of the orthodox Frankish kingdom, and enclosed between two Christian Churches on either side, should long remain in such a state of isolated heathendom. For to be cut off from Christendom was to be cut off from the whole social, political, intellectual, and commercial life of the civilised world. In Britain, as distinctly as in the Pacific Islands in our own day, the missionary was the pioneer of civilisation. The change which Christianity wrought in England in a few generations was almost as enormous as the change which it has wrought in Hawaii at the present time. Before the arrival of the missionary, there was no written literature, no industrial arts, no peace, no social intercourse between district and district. The church came as a teacher and civiliser, and in a few years the barbarous heathen English warrior had settled down into a toilsome agriculturist, an eager scholar, a peaceful law-giver, or an earnest priest. The change was not merely a change of religion, it was a revolution from a life of barbarism to a life of incipient culture, and slow but progressive civilisation.

So inevitable was the Christianisation of England, that even while the flood of paganism was pouring westward, the east was beginning to receive the faith of Rome from the Frankish kingdom and from Italy. It has been necessary, indeed, to anticipate a little, in order to show the story of the conquest in its true light. Ten years before the heathen Æthelfrith of Northumbria massacred the Welsh monks at Chester, Augustine had brought Christianity to the people of Kent.

In 596, Gregory the Great determined to send a mission to England. Even before that time, Kent had been in closer union with the Continent than any other part of the country. Trade went on with the kindred Saxon coast of the Frankish kingdom, and Æthelberht, the ambitious Kentish king, and over-lord of all England south of the Humber, had even married Bercta, a daughter of the Frankish king of Paris. Bercta was of course a Christian, and she brought her own Frankish chaplain, who officiated in the old Roman church of St. Martin, at Canterbury. But Gregory's mission was on a far larger scale. Augustine, prior of the monastery on the Cœlian Hill, was sent with forty monks to convert the heathen English. They landed in Thanet, in 597, with all the pomp of Roman civilisation and ecclesiastical symbolism. Gregory had rightly determined to try by ritual and show to impress the barbarian mind. Æthelberht, already predisposed to accept the Continental culture, and to assimilate his rude kingdom to the Roman model, met them in the open air at a solemn meeting; for he feared, says Bæda, to meet them within four walls, lest they should practice incantations upon him. The foreign monks advanced in procession to the king's presence, chanting their litanies, and displaying a silver cross. Æthelberht yielded almost at once. He and all his court became Christians; and the people, as is usual amongst barbarous tribes, quickly conformed to the faith of their rulers. Æthelberht gave the missionaries leave to build new churches, or to repair the old ones erected by the Welsh Christians. Augustine returned to Gaul, where he was consecrated as Archbishop of the English nation, at Arles. Kent became thenceforth a part of the great Continental system. Canterbury has ever since remained the metropolis of the English Church; and the modern archbishops trace back their succession directly to St. Augustine.

For awhile, the young Church seemed to make vigorous progress. Augustine built a monastery at Canterbury, where Æthelberht founded a new church to SS. Peter and Paul, to be a sort of Westminster Abbey for the tombs of all future Kentish kings and archbishops. He also restored an old Roman church in the city. The pope sent him sacramental vessels, altar cloths, ornaments, relics, and, above all, many books. Ten years later, Augustine enlarged his missionary field by ordaining two new bishops—Mellitus, to preach to the East Saxons, "whose metropolis," says Bæda, "is the city of London, which is the mart of many nations, resorting to it by sea and land;" and Justus to the episcopal see of West Kent, with his bishop-stool at Rochester. The East Saxons nominally accepted the faith at the bidding of their over-lord, Æthelberht; but the people of London long remained pagans at heart. On Augustine's death, however, all life seemed again to die out of the struggling mission. Laurentius, who succeeded him, found the labour too great for his weaker hands. In 613 Æthelberht died, and his son Eadbald at once apostatised, returning to the worship of Woden and the ancestral gods. The East Saxons drove out Mellitus, who, with Justus, retired to Gaul; and Archbishop Laurentius himself was minded to follow them. Then the Kentish king, admonished by a dream of the archbishop's, made submission, recalled the truant bishops, and restored Justus to Rochester. The Londoners, however, would not receive back Mellitus, "choosing rather to be under their idolatrous high-priests." Soon Laurentius died too, and Mellitus was called to take his place, and consecrated at last a church in London in the monastery of St. Peter. In 624, the third archbishop was carried off by gout, and Justus of Rochester succeeded to the primacy of the struggling church. Up to this point little had been gained, except the conversion of Kent itself, with its dependent kingdom of Essex—the two parts of England in closest union with the Continent, through the mercantile intercourse by way of London and Richborough.

Under the new primate, however, an unexpected opening occurred for the conversion of the North. The Northumbrian kings had now risen to the first place in Britain. Æthelfrith had done much to establish their supremacy; under Eadwine it rose to a height of acknowledged over-lordship. "As an earnest of this king's future conversion and translation to the kingdom of heaven," says Bæda, with pardonable Northumbrian patriotic pride, "even his temporal power was allowed to increase greatly, so that he did what no Englishman had done before—that is to say, he united under his own over-lordship all the provinces of Britain, whether inhabited by English or by Welsh." Eadwine now took in marriage Æthelburh, daughter of Æthelberht, and sister of the reigning Kentish king. Justus seized the opportunity to introduce the Church into Northumbria. He ordained one Paulinus as bishop, to accompany the Christian lady, to watch over her faith, and if possible to convert her husband and his people.

Gregory had planned his scheme with systematic completeness; he had decided that there should be two metropolitan provinces, of York and London (which he knew as the old Roman capitals of Britain), and that each should consist of twelve episcopal sees. Paulinus now went to York in furtherance of this comprehensive but abortive scheme. A miraculous escape from assassination, or what was reputed one, gave the Roman monk a hold over Eadwine's mind; but the king decided to put off his conversion till he had tried the efficacy of the new faith by a practical appeal. He went on an expedition against the treacherous king of the West Saxons, who had endeavoured to assassinate him, and determined to abide by the result. Having overthrown his enemy with great slaughter, he returned to his royal city of Coningsborough (the king's town), and put himself as a catechumen under the care of Paulinus. The pope himself was induced to interest himself in so promising a convert; and he wrote a couple of briefs to Eadwine and his queen. These letters, the originals of which were carefully preserved at Rome, are copied out in full by Bæda. No doubt, the honour of receiving such an epistle from the pontiff of the Eternal City was not without its effect upon the semi-barbaric mind of Eadwine, who seems in some respects to have inherited the old Roman traditions of Eboracum.

Still the king held back. To change his own faith was to change the faith of the whole nation, and he thought it well to consult his witan. The old English assembly was always aristocratic in character, despite its ostensible democracy, for it consisted only of the heads of families; and as the kingdoms grew larger, their aristocratic character necessarily became more pronounced, as only the wealthier persons could be in attendance upon the king. The folk-moot had grown into the witena-gemot, or assembly of wise men. Eadwine assembled such a meeting on the banks of the Derwent—for moots were always held in the open air at some sacred spot—and there the priests and thegns declared their willingness to accept the new religion. Coifi, chief priest of the heathen gods, himself led the way, and flung a lance in derision at the temple of his own deities. To the surprise of all, the gods did not avenge the insult. Thereupon "King Æduin, with all the nobles and most of the common folk of his nation, received the faith and the font of holy regeneration, in the eleventh year of his reign, which is the year of our Lord's incarnation the six hundred and twenty-seventh, and about the hundred and eightieth after the arrival of the English in Britain. He was baptized at York on Easter-day, the first before the Ides of April (April 12), in the church of St. Peter the Apostle, which he himself had hastily built of wood, while he was being catechised and prepared for Baptism; and in the same city he gave the bishopric to his prelate and sponsor Paulinus. But after his Baptism he took care, by Paulinus's direction, to build a larger and finer church of stone, in the midst whereof his original chapel should be enclosed." To this day, York Minster, the lineal descendant of Eadwine's wooden church, remains dedicated to St. Peter; and the archbishops still sit in the bishop-stool of Paulinus. Part of Eadwine's later stone cathedral was discovered under the existing choir during the repairs rendered necessary by the incendiary Martin. As to the heathen temple, its traces still remained even in Bæda's day. "That place, formerly the abode of idols, is now pointed out not far from York to the westward, beyond the river Dornuentio, and is to-day called Godmundingaham, where the priest himself, through the inspiration of the true God, polluted and destroyed the altars which he himself had consecrated." So close did Bæda live to these early heathen English times. From the date of St. Augustine's arrival, indeed, Bæda stands upon the surer ground of almost contemporary narrative.

Still the greater part of English Britain remained heathen. Kent, Essex, and Northumbria were converted, or at least their kings and nobles had been baptised: but East Anglia, Mercia, Sussex, Wessex, and the minor interior principalities were as yet wholly heathen. Indeed, the various Teutonic colonies seemed to have received Christianity in the exact order of their settlement: the older and more civilised first, the newer and ruder last. Paulinus, however, made another conquest for the church in Lindsey (Lincolnshire), "where the first who believed," says the Chronicle, "was a certain great man who hight Blecca, with all his clan." In the very same year with these successes, Justus died, and Honorius received the See of Canterbury from Paulinus at the old Roman city of Lincoln. So far the Roman missionaries remained the only Christian teachers in England: no English convert seems as yet to have taken holy orders.

Again, however, the church received a severe check. Mercia, the youngest and roughest principality, stood out for heathendom. The western colony was beginning to raise itself into a great power, under its fierce and strong old king Penda, who seems to have consolidated all the petty chieftainships of the Midlands into a single fairly coherent kingdom. Penda hated Northumbria, which, under Eadwine, had made itself the chief English state: and he also hated Christianity, which he knew only as a religion fit for Welsh slaves, not for English warriors. For twenty-two years, therefore, the old heathen king waged an untiring war against Christian Northumbria. In 633, he allied himself with Cadwalla, the Christian Welsh king of Gwynedd, or North Wales, in a war against Eadwine; an alliance which supplies one more proof that the gulf between Welsh and English was not so wide as it is sometimes represented to be. The Welsh and Mercian host met the Northumbrians at Heathfield (perhaps Hatfield Chase) and utterly destroyed them. Eadwine himself and his son Osfrith were slain. Penda and Cadwalla "fared thence, and undid all Northumbria." The country was once more divided into Deira and Bernicia, and two heathen rulers succeeded to the northern kingdom. Paulinus, taking Æthelburh, the widow of Eadwine, went by sea to Kent, where Honorius, whom he had himself consecrated, received him cordially, and gave him the vacant see of Rochester. There he remained till his death, and so for a time ended the Christian mission to York. Penda made the best of his victory by annexing the Southumbrians, the Middle English, and the Lindiswaras, as well as by conquering the Severn Valley from the West Saxons. Henceforth, Mercia stands forth as one of the three leading Teutonic states in Britain.

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