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Early Britain - Anglo-Saxon Britain
Christian England
by Allen, Grant (B.A.)


The change wrought in England by the introduction of the new faith was immense and sudden at the moment, as well as deep-reaching in its after consequences. The isolated heathen barbaric communities became at once an integral part of the great Roman and Christian civilisation. Even before the arrival of Augustine, some slight tincture of Roman influence had filtered through into the English world. The Welsh serfs had preserved some traditional knowledge of Roman agriculture; Kent had kept up some intercourse with the Continent; and even in York, Eadwine affected a certain imitation of Roman pomp. But after the introduction of Christianity, Roman civilisation began to produce marked results over the whole country. Writing, before almost unknown, or confined to the engraving of runic characters on metal objects, grew rapidly into a common art. The Latin language was introduced, and with it the key to the Latin literature and Latin science, the heirlooms of Greece and the East. Roman influences affected the little courts of the English kings; and the customary laws began to be written down in regular codes. Before the conversion we have not a single written document upon which to base our history; from the moment of Augustine's landing we have the invaluable works of Bæda, and a host of lesser writings (chiefly lives of saints), besides an immense number of charters or royal grants of land to monasteries and private persons. These grants, written at first in Latin, but afterwards in Anglo-Saxon, were preserved in the monasteries down to the date of their dissolution, and then became the property of various collectors. They have been transcribed and published by Mr. Kemble and Mr. Thorpe, and they form some of our most useful materials for the early history of Christian England.

It was mainly by means of the monasteries that Christianity became a great civilising and teaching agency in England. Those who judge monastic institutions only by their later and worst days, when they had, perhaps, ceased to perform any useful function, are apt to forget the benefits which they conferred upon the people in the earlier stages of their existence. The state of England during this first Christian period was one of chronic and bloody warfare. There was no regular army, but every freeman was a soldier, and raids of one English tribe upon another were everyday occurrences; while pillaging frays on the part of the Welsh, followed by savage reprisals on the part of the English, were still more frequent. During the heathen period, even the Picts seem often to have made piractical expeditions far into the south of England. In 597, for example, we read in the Chronicle that Ceolwulf, king of the West Saxons, constantly fought "either against the English, or against the Welsh, or against the Picts." But in 603, the Argyllshire Scots made a raid against Northumbria, and were so completely crushed by Æthelfrith, that "since then no king of Scots durst lead a host against this folk"; while the southern Picts of Galloway became tributaries of the Northumbrian kings. But war between Saxons and English, or between Teutons and Welsh, still remained chronic; and Christianity did little to prevent these perpetual border wars and raids. In 633, Cadwalla and Penda wasted Northumbria; in 644, Penda drove out King Kenwealh, of the West Saxons, from his possessions along the Severn; in 671, Wulfhere, the Mercian, ravaged Wessex and the south as far as Ashdown, and conquered Wight, which he gave to the South Saxons; and so, from time to time, we catch glimpses of the unceasing strife between each folk and its neighbours, besides many hints of intestine struggles between prince and prince, or of rivalries between one petty shire and others of the same kingdom, far too numerous and unimportant to be detailed here in full.

With such a state of affairs as this, it became a matter of deep importance that there should be some one institution where the arts of peace might be carried on in safety; where agriculture might be sure of its reward; where literature and science might be studied; and where civilising influences might be safe from interruption or rapine. The monasteries gave an opportunity for such an ameliorating influence to spring up. They were spared even in war by the reverence of the people for the Church; and they became places where peaceful minds might retire for honest work, and learning, and thinking, away from the fierce turmoil of a still essentially barbaric and predatory community. At the same time, they encouraged the development of this very type of mind by turning the reproach of cowardice, which it would have carried with it in heathen times, into an honour and a mark of holiness. Every monastery became a centre of light and of struggling culture for the surrounding district. They were at once, to the early English recluse, universities and refuges, places of education, of retirement, and of peace, in the midst of a jarring and discordant world.

Hence, almost the first act of every newly-converted prince was to found a monastery in his dominions. That of Canterbury dates from the arrival of Augustine. In 643, Kenwealh of Wessex "bade timber the old minster at Winchester." In 654, shortly after the conversion of East Anglia, "Botulf began to build a monastery at Icanho," since called after his name Botulf's tun, or Boston. In 657, Peada of Mercia and Oswiu of Northumbria "said that they would rear a monastery to the glory of Christ and the honour of St. Peter; and they did so, and gave it the name of Medeshamstede"; but it is now known as Peterborough.[1]

Before the battle of Winwidfield, Oswiu had vowed to build twelve minsters in his kingdom, and he redeemed his vow by founding six in Bernicia and six in Deira. In 669, Ecgberht of Kent "gave Reculver to Bass, the mass-priest, to build a monastery thereon." In 663, Æthelthryth, a lady of royal blood, better known by the Latinised name of St. Etheldreda, "began the monastery at Ely." Before Bæda's death, in 735, religious houses already existed at Lastingham, Melrose, Lindisfarne, Whithern, Bardney, Gilling, Bury, Ripon, Chertsey, Barking, Abercorn, Selsey, Redbridge, Coldingham, Towcester, Hackness, and several other places. So the whole of England was soon covered with monastic establishments, each liberally endowed with land, and each engaged in tilling the soil without, and cultivating peaceful arts within, like little islands of southern civilisation, dotted about in the wide sea of Teutonic barbarism.

In the Roman south, many, if not all, of the monasteries seem to have been planned on the regular models; but in the north, where the Irish missionaries had borne the largest share in the work of conversion, the monasteries were irregular bodies on the Irish plan, where an abbot or abbess ruled over a mixed community of monks and nuns. Hild, a member of the Northumbrian princely family, founded such an abbey at Streoneshalch (Whitby), made memorable by numbering amongst its members the first known English poet, Cædmon. St. John of Beverley, Bishop of Hexham, set up a similar monastery at the place with which his name is so closely associated. The Irish monks themselves founded others at Lindisfarne and elsewhere. Even in the south, some Irish abbeys existed. An Irish monk had set up one at Bosham, in Sussex, even before Wilfrith converted that kingdom; and one of his countrymen, Maidulf (or Maeldubh?) was the original head of Malmesbury. In process of time, however, as the union with Rome grew stronger, all these houses conformed to the more regular usage, and became monasteries of the ordinary Benedictine type.

The civilising value of the monasteries can hardly be over-rated. Secure in the peace conferred upon them by a religious sanction, the monks became the builders of schools, the drainers of marshland, the clearers of forest, the tillers of heath. Many of the earliest religious houses rose in the midst of what had previously been trackless wilds. Peterborough and Ely grew up on islands of the Fen country. Crowland gathered round the cell of Guthlac in the midst of a desolate mere. Evesham occupied a glade in the wild forests of the western march. Glastonbury, an old Welsh foundation, stood on a solitary islet, where the abrupt knoll of the Tor looks down upon the broad waste of the Somersetshire marshes. Beverley, as its name imports, had been a haunt of beavers before the monks began to till its fruitful dingles. In every case agriculture soon turned the wild lands into orchards and cornfields, or drove drains through the fens which converted their marshes into meadows and pastures for the long-horned English cattle. Roman architecture, too, came with the Roman church. We hear nothing before of stone buildings; but Eadwine erected a church of stone at York, under the direction of Paulinus; and Bishop Wilfrith, a generation later, restored and decorated it, covering the roof with lead and filling the windows with panes of glass. Masons had already been settled in Kent, though Benedict, the founder of Wearmouth and Jarrow, found it desirable to bring over others from the Franks. Metal-working had always been a special gift of the English, and their gold jewellery was well made even before the conversion, but it became still more noticeable after the monks took the craft into their own hands. Bæda mentions mines of copper, iron, lead, silver, and jet. Abbot Benedict not only brought manuscripts and pictures from Rome, which were copied and imitated in his monasteries at Wearmouth and Jarrow, but he also brought over glass-blowers, who introduced the art of glass-making into England. Cuthberht, Bæda's scholar, writes to Lull, asking for workmen who can make glass vessels. Bells appear to have been equally early introductions. Roman music of course accompanied the Roman liturgy. The connection established with the clergy of the continent favoured the dispersion of European goods throughout England. We constantly hear of presents, consisting of skilled handicraft, passing from the civilised south to the rude and barbaric north. Wilfrith and Benedict journeyed several times to and from Rome, enlarging their own minds by intercourse with Roman society, and returning laden with works of art or manuscripts of value. Bæda was acquainted with the writings of all the chief classical poets and philosophers, whom he often quotes. We can only liken the results of such intercourse to those which in our own time have proceeded from the opening of Japan to western ideas, or of the Hawaiian Islands to European civilisation and European missionaries. The English school which soon sprang up at Rome, and the Latin schools which soon sprang up at York and Canterbury, are precise equivalents of the educational movements in both those countries which we see in our own day. The monks were to learn Latin and Greek "as well as they learned their own tongue," and were so to be given the key of all the literature and all the science that the world then possessed.

The monasteries thus became real manufacturing, agricultural, and literary centres on a small scale. The monks boiled down the salt of the brine-pits; they copied and illuminated manuscripts in the library; they painted pictures not without rude merit of their own; they ran rhines through the marshy moorland; they tilled the soil with vigour and success. A new culture began to occupy the land—the culture whose fully-developed form we now see around us. But it must never be forgotten that in its origin it is wholly Roman, and not at all Anglo-Saxon. Our people showed themselves singularly apt at embracing it, like the modern Polynesians, and unlike the American Indians; but they did not invent it for themselves. Our existing culture is not home-bred at all; it is simply the inherited and widened culture of Greece and Italy.

The most perfect picture of the monastic life and of early English Christianity which we possess is that drawn for us in the life and works of Bæda. Before giving any account, however, of the sketch which he has left us, it will be necessary to follow briefly the course of events in the English church during the few intervening years.

The Church of England in its existing form owes its organisation to a Greek monk. In 667, Oswiu of Northumbria and Ecgberht of Kent, in order to bring their dominions into closer connection with Rome, united in sending Wigheard the priest to the pope, that he might be hallowed Archbishop of Canterbury. No Englishman had yet held that office, and the choice may be regarded as a symptom of growth in the native Church. But Wigheard died at Rome, and the pope seized the opportunity to consecrate an archbishop in the Roman interest. His choice fell upon one Theodore, a monk of Tarsus in Cilicia, who was in the orders of the Eastern church. The pope was particular, however, that Theodore should not "introduce anything contrary to the verity of the faith into the Church over which he was to preside." Theodore accepted Roman orders and the Roman tonsure, and set out for his province, where he arrived after various adventures on the way. His re-organisation of the young Church was thorough and systematic. Originally England had been divided into seven great dioceses, corresponding to the principal kingdoms (save only still heathen Sussex), and having their sees in their chief towns—East and West Kent, at Canterbury and Rochester; Essex, at London; Wessex, at Dorchester or Winchester; Northumbria, at York; East Anglia, at Dunwich; and Mercia, at Lichfield. The Scottish bishopric of Lindisfarne coincided with Bernicia. Theodore divided these great dioceses into smaller ones; East Anglia had two, for its north and south folk, at Elmham and Dunwich; Bernicia was divided between Lindisfarne and Hexham; Lincolnshire had its see placed at Sidnacester; and the sub-kingdoms of Mercia were also made into dioceses, the Huiccii having their bishop-stool at Worcester; the Hecans, at Hereford; and the Middle English, at Leicester. But Theodore's great work was the establishment of the national synod, in which all the clergy of the various English kingdoms met together as a single people. This was the first step ever taken towards the unification of England; and the ecclesiastical unity thus preceded and paved the way for the political unity which was to follow it. Theodore's organisation brought the whole Church into connection with Rome. The bishops owing their orders to the Scots conformed or withdrew, and henceforward Rome held undisputed sway. Before Theodore, all the archbishops of Canterbury and all the bishops of the southern kingdoms had been Roman missionaries; those of the north had been Scots or in Scottish orders. After Theodore they were all Englishmen in Roman orders. The native church became thenceforward wholly self-supporting.

Theodore was much aided in his projects by Wilfrith of York, a man of fiery energy and a devoted adherent of the Roman see, who had carried the Roman supremacy at the Synod of Whitby, and who spent a large part of his time in journeys between England and Italy. His life, by Æddi, forms one of the most important documents for early English history. In 681 he completed the conversion of England by his preaching to the South Saxons, whom he endeavoured to civilise as well as Christianise. His monastery of Selsey was built on land granted by the under-king (now a tributary of Wessex), and his first act was to emancipate the slaves whom he found upon the soil. Equally devoted to Rome was the young Northumbrian noble, who took the religious name of Benedict Biscop. Benedict became at first an inmate of the Abbey of Lérins, near Cannes. He afterwards founded two regular Benedictine abbeys on the same model at Wearmouth and Jarrow, and made at least four visits to the papal court, whence he returned laden with manuscripts to introduce Roman learning among his wild Northumbrian countrymen. He likewise carried over silk robes for sale to the kings in exchange for grants of land; and he brought glaziers from Gaul for his churches. Jarrow alone contained 500 monks, and possessed endowments of 15,000 acres.

It was under the walls of Jarrow that Bæda himself was born, in the year 672. Only fifty years had passed since his native Northumbria was still a heathen land. Not more than forty years had gone since the conversion of Wessex, and Sussex was still given over to the worship of Thunor and Woden. But Bæda's own life was one which brought him wholly into connection with Christian teachers and Roman culture. Left an orphan at the age of seven years, he was handed over to the care of Abbot Benedict, after whose death Abbot Ceolfrid took charge of the young aspirant. "Thenceforth," says the aged monk, fifty years later, "I passed all my lifetime in the building of that monastery [Jarrow], and gave all my days to meditating on Scripture. In the intervals of my regular monastic discipline, and of my daily task of chanting in chapel, I have always amused myself either by learning, teaching, or writing. In the nineteenth year of my life I received ordination as deacon; in my thirtieth year I attained to the priesthood; both functions being administered by the most reverend bishop John [afterwards known as St. John of Beverley], at the request of Abbot Ceolfrid. From the time of my ordination as priest to the fifty-ninth year of my life, I have occupied myself in briefly commenting upon Holy Scripture, for the use of myself and my brethren, from the works of the venerable fathers, and in some cases I have added interpretations of my own to aid in their comprehension."

The variety of Bæda's works, the large knowledge of science and of classical literature which he displays (when judged by the continental standard of the eighth century), and his familiar acquaintance with the Latin language, which he writes easily and correctly, show that the library of Jarrow must have been extensive and valuable. Besides his Scriptural commentaries, he wrote a treatise De Natura Rerum, Letters on the Reason of Leap-Year, a Life of St. Anastasius, and a History of his Own Abbey, all in Latin. In verse, he composed many pieces, both in hexameters and elegiacs, together with a treatise on prosody. But his greatest work is his "Ecclesiastical History of the English People," the authority from which we derive almost all our knowledge of early Christian England. It was doubtless suggested by the Frankish history of Gregory of Tours, and it consists of five books, divided into short chapters, making up about 400 pages of a modern octavo. Five manuscripts, one of them transcribed only two years after Bæda's death, and now deposited in the Cambridge library, preserve for us the text of this priceless document. The work itself should be read in the original, or in one of the many excellent translations, by every person who takes any intelligent interest in our early history.

Bæda's accomplishments included even a knowledge of Greek—then a rare acquisition in the west—which he probably derived from Archbishop Theodore's school at Canterbury. He was likewise an English author, for he translated the Gospel of St. John into his native Northumbrian; and the task proved the last of his useful life. Several manuscripts have preserved to us the letter of Cuthberht, afterwards Abbot of Jarrow, to his friend Cuthwine, giving us the very date of his death, May 27, A.D. 735, and also narrating the pathetic but somewhat overdrawn picture, with which we are all familiar, of how he died just as he had completed his translation of the last chapter. "Thus saying, he passed the day in peace till eventide. The boy [his scribe] said to him, 'Still one sentence, beloved master, is yet unwritten.' He answered, 'Write it quickly.' After a while the boy said, 'Now the sentence is written.' Then he replied, 'It is well,' quoth he, 'thou hast said the truth: it is finished.'... And so he passed away to the kingdom of heaven."

It is impossible to overrate the importance of the change which made such a life of earnest study and intellectual labour as Bæda's possible amongst the rough and barbaric English. Nor was it only in producing thinkers and readers from a people who could not spell a word half a century before, that the monastic system did good to England. The monasteries owned large tracts of land which they could cultivate on a co-operative plan, as cultivation was impossible elsewhere. Laborare est orare was the true monastic motto: and the documents of the religious houses, relating to lands and leases, show us the other or material side of the picture, which was not less important in its way than the spiritual and intellectual side. Everywhere the monks settled in the woodland by the rivers, cut down the forests, drove out the wolves and the beavers, cultivated the soil with the aid of their tenants and serfs, and became colonisers and civilisers at the same time that they were teachers and preachers. The reclamation of waste land throughout the marshes of England was due almost entirely to the monastic bodies.

The value of the civilising influence thus exerted is seen especially in the written laws, and it affected even the actions of the fierce English princes. The dooms of Æthelberht of Kent are the earliest English documents which we possess, and they were reduced to writing shortly after the conversion of the first English Christian king: while Bæda expressly mentions that they were compiled after Roman models. The Church was not able to hold the warlike princes really in check; but it imposed penances, and encouraged many of them to make pilgrimages to Rome, and to end their days in a cloister. The importance of such pilgrimages was doubtless immense. They induced the rude insular nobility to pay a visit to what was still, after all, the most civilised country of the world, and so to gain some knowledge of a foreign culture, which they afterwards endeavoured to introduce into their own homes. In 688, Ceadwalla, the ferocious king of the West Saxons, whose brother Mul had been burnt alive by the men of Kent, and who harried the Jutish kingdom in return, and who also murdered two princes of Wight, with all their people, in cold blood, went on a pilgrimage to Rome, where he was baptised, and died immediately after.[2] Ine, who succeeded him, re-endowed the old British monastery of Glastonbury, in territory just conquered from the West Welsh, and reduced the laws of the West Saxons to writing. He, too, retired to Rome, where he died. In 704, Æthelred, son of Penda, king of the Mercians, "assumed monkhood." In 709, Cenred, his successor, and Offa of Essex, went to Rome. And so on for many years, king after king resigned his kingship, and submitted, in his latter days, to the Church. Within two centuries, no less than thirty kings and queens are recorded to have embraced a conventual life: and far more probably did so, but were passed over in silence. Bæda tells us that many Englishmen went into monasteries in Gaul.

On the other hand, it cannot be denied that while Christianity made great progress, many marks of heathendom were still left among the people. Well-worship and stone-worship, devil-craft and sacrifices to idols, are mentioned in every Anglo-Saxon code of laws, and had to be provided against even as late as the time of Eadgar. The belief in elves and other semi-heathen beings, and the reverence for heathen memorials, was rife, and shows itself in such names as Ælfred, elf-counsel; Ælfstan, elf-stone; Ælfgifu, elf-given; Æthelstan, noble-stone; and Wulfstan, wolf-stone. Heathendom was banished from high places, but it lingered on among the lower classes, and affected the nomenclature even of the later West Saxon kings themselves. Indeed, it was closely interwoven with all the life and thought of the people, and entered, in altered forms, even into the conceptions of Christianity current amongst them. The Christian poem of Cædmon is tinctured on every page with ideas derived from the legends of the old heathen mythology. And it will probably surprise many to learn that even at this late date, tattooing continued to be practised by the English chieftains.
[1] The charter is a late forgery, but there is no reason to doubt that it represents the correct tradition.

[2] He was buried at St. Peter's, and his tomb still exists in the remodelled building. Bæda quotes the inscription in full, and quotes it correctly; a fact which may be taken as an excellent test of his historical accuracy, and the care with which he collected his materials.


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