Vol. 4, Chapter II. Conversion of the Northern and Western Barbarians

Fourth Period: The Church Among the Barbarians

or, The Missionary Period of the Middle Ages,

From Gregory I. to Gregory VII. a.d. 590 to 1049

6. Character of Medieval Missions

The conversion of the new and savage races which enter the theatre of history at the threshold of the middle ages, was the great work of the Christian church from the sixth to the tenth century. Already in the second or third century, Christianity was carried to the Gauls, the Britons and the Germans on the borders of the Rhine. But these were sporadic efforts with transient results. The work did not begin in earnest till the sixth century, and then it went vigorously forward to the tenth and twelfth, though with many checks and temporary relapses caused by civil wars and foreign invasions.

The Christianization of the Kelts, Teutons, and Slavonians was at the same time a process of civilization, and differed in this respect entirely from the conversion of the Jews, Greeks, and Romans in the preceding age. Christian missionaries laid the foundation for the alphabet, literature, agriculture, laws, and arts of the nations of Northern and Western Europe, as they now do among the heathen nations in Asia and Africa. “The science of language,” says a competent judge, “owes more than its first impulse to Christianity. The pioneers of our science were those very apostles who were commanded to go into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature; and their true successors, the missionaries of the whole Christian church.” The same may be said of every branch of knowledge and art of peace. The missionaries, in aiming at piety and the salvation of souls, incidentally promoted mental culture and temporal prosperity. The feeling of brotherhood inspired by Christianity broke down the partition walls between race and race, and created a brotherhood of nations.

The medieval Christianization was a wholesale conversion, or a conversion of nations under the command of their leaders. It was carried on not only by missionaries and by spiritual means, but also by political influence, alliances of heathen princes with Christian wives, and in some cases (as the baptism of the Saxons under Charlemagne) by military force. It was a conversion not to the primary Christianity of inspired apostles, as laid down in the New Testament, but to the secondary Christianity of ecclesiastical tradition, as taught by the fathers, monks and popes. It was a baptism by water, rather than by fire and the Holy Spirit. The preceding instruction amounted to little or nothing; even the baptismal formula, mechanically recited in Latin, was scarcely understood. The rude barbarians, owing to the weakness of their heathen religion, readily submitted to the new religion; but some tribes yielded only to the sword of the conqueror.

This superficial, wholesale conversion to a nominal Christianity must be regarded in the light of a national infant-baptism. It furnished the basis for a long process of Christian education. The barbarians were children in knowledge, and had to be treated like children. Christianity assumed the form of a new law leading them, as a schoolmaster, to the manhood of Christ.

The missionaries of the middle ages were nearly all monks. They were generally men of limited education and narrow views, but devoted zeal and heroic self-denial. Accustomed to primitive simplicity of life, detached from all earthly ties, trained to all sorts of privations, ready for any amount of labor, and commanding attention and veneration by their unusual habits, their celibacy, fastings and constant devotions, they were upon the whole the best pioneers of Christianity and civilization among the savage races of Northern and Western Europe. The lives of these missionaries are surrounded by their biographers with such a halo of legends and miracles, that it is almost impossible to sift fact from fiction. Many of these miracles no doubt were products of fancy or fraud; but it would be rash to deny them all.

The same reason which made miracles necessary in the first introduction of Christianity, may have demanded them among barbarians before they were capable of appreciating the higher moral evidences.

I. The Conversion of England, Ireland, and Scotland


7. Literature

I. Sources

Gildas (Abbot of Bangor in Wales, the oldest British historian, in the sixth cent.): De excidio Britanniae conquestus, etc. A picture of the evils of Britain at the time. Best ed. by Joseph Stevenson, Lond., 1838. (English Historical Society’s publications.)

Nennius (Abbot of Bangor about 620): Eulogium Britanniae, sive Historia Britonum. Ed. Stevenson, 1838.

The Works of Gildas and Nennius transl. from the Latin by J. A. Giles, London, 1841.

*Beda Venerabilis (d. 734): Historia Ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum; in the sixth vol. of Migne’s ed. of Bedae Opera Omnia, also often separately published and translated into English. Best ed. by Stevenson, Lond., 1838; and by Giles, Lond., 1849. It is the only reliable church-history of the Anglo-Saxon period.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, from the time of Caesar to 1154. A work of several successive hands, ed. by Gibson with an Engl. translation, 1823, and by Giles, 1849 (in one vol. with Bede’s Eccles. History).

See the Six Old English Chronicles, in Bohn’s Antiquarian Library (1848); and Church Historians of England trans. by Jos. Stevenson, Lond. 1852-’56, 6 vols.

Sir. Henry Spelman (d. 1641): Concilia, decreta, leges, constitutiones in re ecclesiarum orbis Britannici, etc. Lond., 1639-’64, 2 vols. fol. (Vol. I. reaches to the Norman conquest; vol. ii. to Henry VIII).

David Wilkins (d. 1745): Concilia Magnae Britanniae et Hiberniae (from 446 to 1717), Lond., 1737, 4 vols. fol. (Vol. I. from 446 to 1265).

*Arthur West Haddan and William Stubbs: Councils and Ecclesiastical Documents relating to Great Britain and Ireland: edited after Spelman and Wilkins. Oxford (Clarendon Press), 1869 to ‘78. So far 3 vols. To be continued down to the Reformation.

The Penitentials of the Irish and Anglo-Saxon Churches are collected and edited by F. Kunstmann (Die Lat. Poenitentialbuecher der Angelsachsen, 1844); Wasserschleben (Die Bussordnungen der abendlaend. Kirche, 1851); Schmitz (Die Bussbuecher u. d. Bussdisciplin d. Kirche, 1883).


II. Historical Works

(a) The Christianization of England.

*J. Ussher. (d. 1655): Britannicarum Eccles. Antiquitates. Dublin, 1639; London, 1687; Works ed. by Elrington, 1847, Vols. V. and VI.

E. Stillingfleet (d. 1699): Origenes Britannicae; or, the Antiqu. of the British Churches. London, 1710; Oxford, 1842; 2 vols.

J. Lingard (R.C., d. 1851): The History and Antiquities of the Anglo-Saxon Church. London, 1806, new ed., 1845.

Karl Schroedl (R.C.): Das erste Jahrhundert der englischen Kirche. Passau & Wien, 1840.

Edward Churton (Rector of Crayke, Durham): The Early English Church. London, 1841 (new ed. unchanged, 1878).

James Yeowell: Chronicles of the Ancient British Church anterior to the Saxon era. London, 1846.

Francis Thackeray (Episcop.): Researches into the Eccles. and Political State of Ancient Britain under the Roman Emperors. London, 1843, 2 vols.

*Count De Montalembert (R.C., d. 1870): The Monks of the West. Edinburgh and London, 1861-’79, 7 vols. (Authorized transl. from the French). The third vol. treats of the British Isles.

Reinhold Pauli: Bilder aus Alt-England. Gotha, 1860.

W F. Hook: Lives of the Archbishops of Canterbury. London, 2nd ed., 1861 sqq.

G. F. Maclear. (D. D., Head-master of King’s College School): Conversion of the West. The English. London, 1878. By the same: The Kelts, 1878. (Popular.)

William Bright (Dr. and Prof, of Eccles. Hist., Oxford): Chapters on Early English Church History Oxford, 1878 (460 pages).

John Pryce: History of the Ancient British Church. Oxford, 1878.

Edward L. Cutts: Turning Points of English Church-History. London, 1878.

Dugald MacColl: Early British Church. The Arthurian Legends. In “The Catholic Presbyterian,” London and New York, for 1880, No. 3, pp. 176 sqq.

(b) The Christianization of Ireland, Wales, and Scotland.

Dr. Lanigan (R.C.): Ecclesiastical History of Ireland. Dublin, 1829.

William G. Todd (Episc., Trinity Coll., Dublin): The Church of St. Patrick: An Historical Inquiry into the Independence of the Ancient Church of Ireland. London, 1844. By the same: A History of the Ancient Church of Ireland. London, 1845. By the same: Book of Hymns of the Ancient Church of Ireland. Dublin, 1855.

Ferdinand Walter: Das alte Wales. Bonn, 1859.

John Cunningham (Presbyterian): The Church History of Scotland from the Commencement of the Christian Era to the Present Day. Edinburgh, 1859, 2 vols. (Vol. I., chs. 1-6).

C. Innes: Sketches of Early Scotch History, and Social Progress. Edinb., 1861. (Refers to the history of local churches, the university and home-life in the medieval period.)

Thomas McLauchan (Presbyt.): The Early Scottish Church: the Ecclesiastical History of Scotland from the First to the Twelfth Century. Edinburgh, 1865.

*DR. J. H. A. Ebrard: Die iroschottische Missionskirche des 6, 7 und 8 ten Jahrh., und ihre Verbreitung auf dem Festland. Guetersloh, 1873.

Comp. Ebrard’s articles Die culdeische Kirche des 6, 7 und 8ten Jahrh., in Niedner’s “Zeitschrift für Hist. Theologie” for 1862 and 1863.

Ebrard and McLauchan are the ablest advocates of the anti-Romish and alleged semi-Protestant character of the old Keltic church of Ireland and Scotland; but they present it in a more favorable light than the facts warrant.

*Dr. W. D. Killen (Presbyt.): The Ecclesiastical History of Ireland from the Earliest Period to the Present Times. London, 1875, 2 vols.

*Alex. Penrose Forbes (Bishop of Brechin, d. 1875): Kalendars of Scottish Saints. With Personal Notices of those of Alba, Laudonia and Stratchclyde. Edinburgh (Edmonston & Douglas), 1872. By the same: Lives of S. Ninian and S. Kentigern. Compiled in the twelfth century. Ed. from the best MSS. Edinburgh, 1874.

*William Reeves (Canon of Armagh): Life of St. Columba, Founder of Hy. Written by Adamnan, ninth Abbot of that monastery. Edinburgh, 1874.

*William F. Skene: Keltic Scotland. Edinburgh, 2 vols., 1876, 1877.

*F. E. Warren (Fellow of St. John’s Coll., Oxford): The Liturgy and Ritual of the Celtic Church. Oxford 1881 (291 pp.).

F. Loofs: Antiquae Britonum Scotorumque ecclesiae moves, ratio credendi, vivendi, etc. Lips., 1882.

Comp. also the relevant sections in the Histories of England, Scotland, and Ireland, by Hume, (Ch. I-III.), Lingard (Ch. I. VIII.), Lappenberg (Vol. I.), Green (Vol. I.), Hill Burton (Hist. of Scotland, Vol. I.); Milman’s Latin Christianity (Book IV., Ch. 3-5); Maclear’s Apostles of Medieval Europe (Lond. 1869), Thomas Smith’s Medieval Missions ( Edinb. 1880).


8. The Britons

Literature: The works of Bede, Gildas, Nennius, Ussher, Bright, Pryce, quoted in § 7.

Britain made its first appearance in secular history half a century before the Christian era, when Julius Caesar, the conqueror of Gaul, sailed with a Roman army from Calais across the channel, and added the British island to the dominion of the eternal city, though it was not fully subdued till the reign of Claudius (a.d. 41-54). It figures in ecclesiastical history from the conversion of the Britons in the second century. Its missionary history is divided into two periods, the Keltic and the Anglo-Saxon, both catholic in doctrine, as far as developed at that time, slightly differing in discipline, yet bitterly hostile under the influence of the antagonism of race, which was ultimately overcome in England and Scotland but is still burning in Ireland, the proper home of the Kelts. The Norman conquest made both races better Romanists than they were before.

The oldest inhabitants of Britain, like the Irish, the Scots, and the Gauls, were of Keltic origin, half naked and painted barbarians, quarrelsome, rapacious, revengeful, torn by intestine factions, which facilitated their conquest. They had adopted, under different appellations, the gods of the Greeks and Romans, and worshipped a multitude of local deities, the genii of the woods, rivers, and mountains; they paid special homage to the oak, the king of the forest. They offered the fruits of the earth, the spoils of the enemy, and, in the hour of danger, human lives. Their priests, called druids, dwelt in huts or caverns, amid the silence and gloom of the forest, were in possession of all education and spiritual power, professed to know the secrets of nature, medicine and astrology, and practised the arts of divination. They taught, as the three principles of wisdom: “obedience to the laws of God, concern for the good of man, and fortitude under the accidents of life.” They also taught the immortality of the soul and the fiction of metempsychosis. One class of the druids, who delivered their instructions in verse, were distinguished by the title of bards, who as poets and musicians accompanied the chieftain to the battle-field, and enlivened the feasts of peace by the sound of the harp. There are still remains of druidical temples — the most remarkable at Stonehenge on Salisbury Plain, and at Stennis in the Orkney Islands — that is, circles of huge stones standing in some cases twenty feet above the earth, and near them large mounds supposed to be ancient burial-places; for men desire to be buried near a place of worship.

The first introduction of Christianity into Britain is involved in obscurity. The legendary history ascribes it at least to ten different agencies, namely, 1) Bran, a British prince, and his son Caradog, who is said to have become acquainted with St. Paul in Rome, a.d. 51 to 58, and to have introduced the gospel into his native country on his return. 2) St. Paul. 3) St. Peter. 4) St. Simon Zelotes. 5) St. Philip. 6) St. James the Great. 7) St. John. 8) Aristobulus (Rom_16:10). 9) Joseph of Arimathaea, who figures largely in the post-Norman legends of Glastonbury Abbey, and is said to have brought the holy Graal — the vessel or platter of the Lord’s Supper — containing the blood of Christ, to England. 10) Missionaries of Pope Eleutherus from Rome to King Lucius of Britain.

But these legends cannot be traced beyond the sixth century, and are therefore destitute of all historic value. A visit of St. Paul to Britain between a.d. 63 and 67 is indeed in itself not impossible (on the assumption of a second Roman captivity), and has been advocated even by such scholars as Ussher and Stillingfleet, but is intrinsically improbable, and destitute of all evidence.

The conversion of King Lucius in the second century through correspondence with the Roman bishop Eleutherus (176 to 190), is related by Bede, in connection with several errors, and is a legend rather than an established fact. Irenaeus of Lyons, who enumerates all the churches one by one, knows of none in Britain. Yet the connection of Britain with Rome and with Gaul must have brought it early into contact with Christianity. About a.d. 208 Tertullian exultingly declared “that places in Britain not yet visited by Romans were subject to Christ.” St. Alban, probably a Roman soldier, died as the British proto-martyr in the Diocletian persecution (303), and left the impress of his name on English history. Constantine, the first Christian emperor, was born in Britain, and his mother, St. Helena, was probably a native of the country. In the Council of Arles, a.d. 314, which condemned the Donatists, we meet with three British bishops, Eborius of York (Eboracum), Restitutus of London (Londinum), and Adelfius of Lincoln (Colonia Londinensium), or Caerleon in Wales, besides a presbyter and deacon. In the Arian controversy the British churches sided with Athanasius and the Nicene Creed, though hesitating about the term homoousios. A notorious heretic, Pelagius (Morgan), was from the same island; his abler, though less influential associate, Celestius, was probably an Irishman; but their doctrines were condemned (429), and the Catholic faith reëstablished with the assistance of two Gallic bishops.

Monumental remains of the British church during the Roman period are recorded or still exist at Canterbury (St. Martin’s), Caerleon, Bangor, Glastonbury, Dover, Richborough (Kent), Reculver, Lyminge, Brixworth, and other places.

The Roman dominion in Britain ceased about a.d. 410; the troops were withdrawn, and the country left to govern itself. The result was a partial relapse into barbarism and a demoralization of the church. The intercourse with the Continent was cut off, and the barbarians of the North pressed heavily upon the Britons. For a century and a half we hear nothing of the British churches till the silence is broken by the querulous voice of Gildas, who informs us of the degeneracy of the clergy, the decay of religion, the introduction and suppression of the Pelagian heresy, and the mission of Palladius to the Scots in Ireland. This long isolation accounts in part for the trifling differences and the bitter antagonism between the remnant of the old British church and the new church imported from Rome among the hated Anglo-Saxons.

The difference was not doctrinal, but ritualistic and disciplinary. The British as well as the Irish and Scotch Christians of the sixth and seventh centuries kept Easter on the very day of the full moon in March when it was Sunday, or on the next Sunday following. They adhered to the older cycle of eighty-four years in opposition to the later Dionysian cycle of ninety-five years, which came into use on the Continent since the middle of the sixth century. They shaved the fore-part of their head from ear to ear in the form of a crescent, allowing the hair to grow behind, in imitation of the aureola, instead of shaving, like the Romans, the crown of the head in a circular form, and leaving a circle of hair, which was to represent the Saviour’s crown of thorns. They had, moreover — and this was the most important and most irritating difference — become practically independent of Rome, and transacted their business in councils without referring to the pope, who began to be regarded on the Continent as the righteous ruler and judge of all Christendom.

From these facts some historians have inferred the Eastern or Greek origin of the old British church. But there is no evidence whatever of any such connection, unless it be perhaps through the medium of the neighboring church of Gaul, which was partly planted or moulded by Irenaeus of Lyons, a pupil of St. Polycarp of Smyrna, and which always maintained a sort of independence of Rome.

But in the points of dispute just mentioned, the Gallican church at that time agreed with Rome. Consequently, the peculiarities of the British Christians must be traced to their insular isolation and long separation from Rome. The Western church on the Continent passed through some changes in the development of the authority of the papal see, and in the mode of calculating Easter, until the computation was finally fixed through Dionysius Exiguus in 525. The British, unacquainted with these changes, adhered to the older independence and to the older customs. They continued to keep Easter from the 14th of the moon to the 20th. This difference involved a difference in all the moveable festivals, and created great confusion in England after the conversion of the Saxons to the Roman rite.


9. The Anglo-Saxons

Literature. I. The sources for the planting of Roman Christianity among the Anglo-Saxons are several Letters of Pope Gregory I. (Epp., Lib. VI. 7, 51, 53, 54, 55, 56, 57, 58, 59; IX. 11, 108; XI. 28, 29, 64, 65, 66, 76; in Migne’s ed. of Gregory’s Opera, Vol. III.; also in Haddan and Stubbs, III. 5 sqq.); the first and second books of Bede’s Eccles. Hist.; Goscelin’s Life of St. Augustin, written in the 11th century, and contained in the Acta Sanctorum of May 26th; and Thorne’s Chronicles of St. Augustine’s Abbey. See also Haddan and Stubbs, Councils, etc., the 3d vol., which comes down to a.d. 840.

II. Of modern lives of St. Augustin, we mention Montalembert, Monks of the West, Vol. III.; Dean Hook, Archbishops of Canterbury, Vol. I., and Dean Stanley, Memorials of Canterbury, 1st ed., 1855, 9th ed. 1880. Comp. Lit. in Sec. 7.

British Christianity was always a feeble plant, and suffered greatly from the Anglo-Saxon conquest and the devastating wars which followed it. With the decline of the Roman power, the Britons, weakened by the vices of Roman civilization, and unable to resist the aggressions of the wild Picts and Scots from the North, called Hengist and Horsa, two brother-princes and reputed descendants of Wodan, the god of war, from Germany to their aid, a.d. 449.

From this time begins the emigration of Saxons, Angles or Anglians, Jutes, and Frisians to Britain. They gave to it a new nationality and a new language, the Anglo-Saxon, which forms the base and trunk of the present people and language of England (Angle-land). They belonged to the great Teutonic race, and came from the Western and Northern parts of Germany, from the districts North of the Elbe, the Weser, and the Eyder, especially from Holstein, Schleswig, and Jutland. They could never be subdued by the Romans, and the emperor Julian pronounced them the most formidable of all the nations that dwelt beyond the Rhine on the shores of the Western ocean. They were tall and handsome, with blue eyes and fair skin, strong and enduring, given to pillage by land, and piracy by sea, leaving the cultivation of the soil, with the care of their flocks, to women and slaves. They were the fiercest among the Germans. They sacrificed a tenth of their chief captives on the altars of their gods. They used the spear, the sword, and the battle-axe with terrible effect. “We have not,” says Sidonius, bishop of Clermont, “a more cruel and more dangerous enemy than the Saxons. They overcome all who have the courage to oppose them …. When they pursue, they infallibly overtake; when they are pursued, their escape is certain. They despise danger; they are inured to shipwreck; they are eager to purchase booty with the peril of their lives. Tempests, which to others are so dreadful, to them are subjects of joy. The storm is their protection when they are pressed by the enemy, and a cover for their operations when they meditate an attack.” Like the Bedouins in the East, and the Indians of America, they were divided in tribes, each with a chieftain. In times of danger, they selected a supreme commander under the name of Konyng or King, but only for a period.

These strangers from the Continent successfully repelled the Northern invaders; but being well pleased with the fertility and climate of the country, and reinforced by frequent accessions from their countrymen, they turned upon the confederate Britons, drove them to the mountains of Wales and the borders of Scotland, or reduced them to slavery, and within a century and a half they made themselves masters of England. From invaders they became settlers, and established an octarchy or eight independent kingdoms, Kent, Sussex, Wessex, Essex, Northumbria, Mercia, Bernicia, and Deira. The last two were often united under the same head; hence we generally speak of but seven kingdoms or the Anglo-Saxon heptarchy.

From this period of the conflict between the two races dates the Keltic form of the Arthurian legends, which afterwards underwent a radical telescopic transformation in France. They have no historical value except in connection with the romantic poetry of medieval religion.


10. The Mission of Gregory and Augustin. Conversion of Kent, a.d. 595-604

With the conquest of the Anglo-Saxons, who were heathen barbarians, Christianity was nearly extirpated in Britain. Priests were cruelly massacred, churches and monasteries were destroyed, together with the vestiges of a weak Roman civilization. The hatred and weakness of the Britons prevented them from offering the gospel to the conquerors, who in turn would have rejected it from contempt of the conquered.

But fortunately Christianity was re-introduced from a remote country, and by persons who had nothing to do with the quarrels of the two races. To Rome, aided by the influence of France, belongs the credit of reclaiming England to Christianity and civilization. In England the first, and, we may say, the only purely national church in the West was founded, but in close union with the papacy. “The English church,” says Freeman, “reverencing Rome, but not slavishly bowing down to her, grew up with a distinctly national character, and gradually infused its influence into all the feelings and habits of the English people. By the end of the seventh century, the independent, insular, Teutonic church had become one of the brightest lights of the Christian firmament. In short, the introduction of Christianity completely changed the position of the English nation, both within its own island and towards the rest of the world.”

The origin of the Anglo-Saxon mission reads like a beautiful romance. Pope Gregory I., when abbot of a Benedictine convent, saw in the slave-market of Rome three Anglo-Saxon boys offered for sale. He was impressed with their fine appearance, fair complexion, sweet faces and light flaxen hair; and learning, to his grief, that they were idolaters, he asked the name of their nation, their country, and their king. When he heard that they were Angles, he said: “Right, for they have angelic faces, and are worthy to be fellow-heirs with angels in heaven.” They were from the province Deira. “Truly,” he replied, “are they De-ira-ns, that is, plucked from the ire of God, and called to the mercy of Christ.” He asked the name of their king, which was Aella or Ella (who reigned from 559 to 588). “Hallelujah,” he exclaimed, “the praise of God the Creator must be sung in those parts.” He proceeded at once from the slave market to the pope, and entreated him to send missionaries to England, offering himself for this noble work. He actually started for the spiritual conquest of the distant island. But the Romans would not part with him, called him back, and shortly afterwards elected him pope (590). What he could not do in person, he carried out through others.

In the year 596, Gregory, remembering his interview with the sweet-faced and fair-haired Anglo-Saxon slave-boys, and hearing of a favorable opportunity for a mission, sent the Benedictine abbot Augustin (Austin), thirty other monks, and a priest, Laurentius, with instructions, letters of recommendation to the Frank kings and several bishops of Gaul, and a few books, to England. The missionaries, accompanied by some interpreters from France, landed on the isle of Thanet in Kent, near the mouth of the Thames. King Ethelbert, by his marriage to Bertha, a Christian princess from Paris, who had brought a bishop with her, was already prepared for a change of religion. He went to meet the strangers and received them in the open air; being afraid of some magic if he were to see them under roof. They bore a silver cross for their banner, and the image of Christ painted on a board; and after singing the litany and offering prayers for themselves and the people whom they had come to convert, they preached the gospel through their Frank interpreters. The king was pleased with the ritualistic and oratorical display of the new religion from distant, mighty Rome, and said: “Your words and promises are very fair; but as they are new to us and of uncertain import, I cannot forsake the religion I have so long followed with the whole English nation. Yet as you are come from far, and are desirous to benefit us, I will supply you with the necessary sustenance, and not forbid you to preach and to convert as many as you can to your religion.” Accordingly, he allowed them to reside in the City of Canterbury (Dorovern, Durovernum), which was the metropolis of his kingdom, and was soon to become the metropolis of the Church of England. They preached and led a severe monastic life. Several believed and were baptized, “admiring,” as Bede says, “the simplicity of their innocent life, and the sweetness of their heavenly doctrine.” He also mentions miracles. Gregory warned Augustin not to be puffed up by miracles, but to rejoice with fear, and to tremble in rejoicing, remembering what the Lord said to his disciples when they boasted that even the devils were subject to them. For not all the elect work miracles, and yet the names of all are written in heaven.

King Ethelbert was converted and baptized (probably June 2, 597), and drew gradually his whole nation after him, though he was taught by the missionaries not to use compulsion, since the service of Christ ought to be voluntary.

Augustin, by order of pope Gregory, was ordained archbishop of the English nation by Vergilius, archbishop of Arles, Nov. 16, 597, and became the first primate of England, with a long line of successors even to this day. On his return, at Christmas, he baptized more than ten thousand English. His talents and character did not rise above mediocrity, and he bears no comparison whatever with his great namesake, the theologian and bishop of Hippo; but he was, upon the whole, well fitted for his missionary work, and his permanent success lends to his name the halo of a borrowed greatness. He built a church and monastery at Canterbury, the mother-church of Anglo-Saxon Christendom. He sent the priest Laurentius to Rome to inform the pope of his progress and to ask an answer to a number of questions concerning the conduct of bishops towards their clergy, the ritualistic differences between the Roman and the Gallican churches, the marriage of two brothers to two sisters, the marriage of relations, whether a bishop may be ordained without other bishops being present, whether a woman with child ought to be baptized, how long after the birth of an infant carnal intercourse of married people should be delayed, etc. Gregory answered these questions very fully in the legalistic and ascetic spirit of the age, yet, upon the whole, with much good sense and pastoral wisdom.

It is remarkable that this pope, unlike his successors, did not insist on absolute conformity to the Roman church, but advises Augustin, who thought that the different customs of the Gallican church were inconsistent with the unity of faith, “to choose from every church those things that are pious, religious and upright;” for “things are not to be loved for the sake of places, but places for the sake of good things.” In other respects, the advice falls in with the papal system and practice. He directs the missionaries not to destroy the heathen temples, but to convert them into Christian churches, to substitute the worship of relics for the worship of idols, and to allow the new converts, on the day of dedication and other festivities, to kill cattle according to their ancient custom, yet no more to the devils, but to the praise of God; for it is impossible, he thought, to efface everything at once from their obdurate minds; and he who endeavors to ascend to the highest place, must rise by degrees or steps, and not by leaps. This method was faithfully followed by his missionaries. It no doubt facilitated the nominal conversion of England, but swept a vast amount of heathenism into the Christian church, which it took centuries to eradicate.

Gregory sent to Augustin, June 22, 601, the metropolitan pall (pallium), several priests (Mellitus, Justus, Paulinus, and others), many books, sacred vessels and vestments, and relics of apostles and martyrs. He directed him to ordain twelve bishops in the archiepiscopal diocese of Canterbury, and to appoint an archbishop for York, who was also to ordain twelve bishops, if the country adjoining should receive the word of God. Mellitus was consecrated the first bishop of London; Justus, bishop of Rochester, both in 604 by Augustin (without assistants); Paulinus, the first archbishop of York, 625, after the death of Gregory and Augustin. The pope sent also letters and presents to king Ethelbert, “his most excellent son,” exhorting him to persevere in the faith, to commend it by good works among his subjects, to suppress the worship of idols, and to follow the instructions of Augustin.


11. Antagonism of the Saxon and British Clergy

Bede, II. 2; Haddan and Stubbs, III. 38-41.

Augustin, with the aid of king Ethelbert, arranged (in 602 or 603) a conference with the British bishops, at a place in Sussex near the banks of the Severn under an oak, called “Augustin’s Oak.” He admonished them to conform to the Roman ceremonial in the observance of Easter Sunday, and the mode of administering baptism, and to unite with their Saxon brethren in converting the Gentiles. Augustin had neither wisdom nor charity enough to sacrifice even the most trifling ceremonies on the altar of peace. He was a pedantic and contracted churchman. He met the Britons, who represented at all events an older and native Christianity, with the haughty spirit of Rome, which is willing to compromise with heathen customs, but demands absolute submission from all other forms of Christianity, and hates independence as the worst of heresies.

The Britons preferred their own traditions. After much useless contention, Augustin proposed, and the Britons reluctantly accepted, an appeal to the miraculous interposition of God. A blind man of the Saxon race was brought forward and restored to sight by his prayer. The Britons still refused to give up their ancient customs without the consent of their people, and demanded a second and larger synod.

At the second Conference, seven bishops of the Britons, with a number of learned men from the Convent of Bangor, appeared, and were advised by a venerated hermit to submit the Saxon archbishop to the moral test of meekness and humility as required by Christ from his followers. If Augustin, at the meeting, shall rise before them, they should hear him submissively; but if he shall not rise, they should despise him as a proud man. As they drew near, the Roman dignitary remained seated in his chair. He demanded of them three things, viz. compliance with the Roman observance of the time of Easter, the Roman form of baptism, and aid in efforts to convert the English nation; and then he would readily tolerate their other peculiarities. They refused, reasoning among themselves, if he will not rise up before us now, how much more will he despise us when we shall be subject to his authority? Augustin indignantly rebuked them and threatened the divine vengeance by the arms of the Saxons. “All which,” adds Bede, “through the dispensation of the divine judgment, fell out exactly as he had predicted.” For, a few years afterwards (613), Ethelfrith the Wild, the pagan King of Northumbria, attacked the Britons at Chester, and destroyed not only their army, but slaughtered several hundred priests and monks, who accompanied the soldiers to aid them with their prayers. The massacre was followed by the destruction of the flourishing monastery of Bangor, where more than two thousand monks lived by the labor of their hands.

This is a sad picture of the fierce animosity of the two races and rival forms of Christianity. Unhappily, it continues to the present day, but with a remarkable difference: the Keltic Irish who, like the Britons, once represented a more independent type of Catholicism, have, since the Norman conquest, and still more since the Reformation, become intense Romanists; while the English, once the dutiful subjects of Rome, have broken with that foreign power altogether, and have vainly endeavored to force Protestantism upon the conquered race. The Irish problem will not be solved until the double curse of national and religious antagonism is removed.


12. Conversion of the Other Kingdoms of the Heptarchy

Augustin, the apostle of the Anglo-Saxons, died a.d. 604, and lies buried, with many of his successors, in the venerable cathedral of Canterbury. On his tomb was written this epitaph: “Here rests the Lord Augustin, first archbishop of Canterbury, who being formerly sent hither by the blessed Gregory, bishop of the city of Rome, and by God’s assistance supported with miracles, reduced king Ethelbert and his nation from the worship of idols to the faith of Christ, and having ended the days of his office in peace, died on the 26th day of May, in the reign of the same king.”

He was not a great man; but he did a great work in laying the foundations of English Christianity and civilization.

Laurentius (604-619), and afterwards Mellitus (619-624) succeeded him in his office.

Other priests and monks were sent from Italy, and brought with them books and such culture as remained after the irruption of the barbarians. The first archbishops of Canterbury and York, and the bishops of most of the Southern sees were foreigners, if not consecrated, at least commissioned by the pope, and kept up a constant correspondence with Rome. Gradually a native clergy arose in England.

The work of Christianization went on among the other kingdom of the heptarchy, and was aided by the marriage of kings with Christian wives, but was more than once interrupted by relapse into heathenism. Northumbria was converted chiefly through the labors of the sainted Aidan (d. Aug. 31, 651), a monk from the island Iona or Hii, and the first bishop of Lindisfarne, who is even lauded by Bede for his zeal, piety and good works, although he differed from him on the Easter question. Sussex was the last part of the Heptarchy which renounced paganism. It took nearly a hundred years before England was nominally converted to the Christian religion.

To this conversion England owes her national unity and the best elements of her civilization.

The Anglo-Saxon Christianity was and continued to be till the Reformation, the Christianity of Rome, with its excellences and faults. It included the Latin mass, the worship of saints, images and relics, monastic virtues and vices, pilgrimages to the holy city, and much credulity and superstition. Even kings abdicated their crown to show their profound reverence for the supreme pontiff and to secure from him a passport to heaven. Chapels, churches and cathedrals were erected in the towns; convents founded in the country by the bank of the river or under the shelter of a hill, and became rich by pious donations of land. The lofty cathedrals and ivy-clad ruins of old abbeys and cloisters in England and Scotland still remain to testify in solemn silence to the power of medieval Catholicism.


13. Conformity to Rome Established. Wilfrid, Theodore, Bede

The dispute between the Anglo-Saxon or Roman, and the British ritual was renewed in the middle of the seventh century, but ended with the triumph of the former in England proper. The spirit of independence had to take refuge in Ireland and Scotland till the time of the Norman conquest, which crushed it out also in Ireland.

Wilfrid, afterwards bishop of York, the first distinguished native prelate who combined clerical habits with haughty magnificence, acquired celebrity by expelling “the quartodeciman heresy and schism,” as it was improperly called, from Northumbria, where the Scots had introduced it through St. Aidan. The controversy was decided in a Synod held at Whitby in 664 in the presence of King Oswy or Oswio and his son Alfrid. Colman, the second success or of Aidan, defended the Scottish observance of Easter by the authority of St. Columba and the apostle John. Wilfrid rested the Roman observance on the authority of Peter, who had introduced it in Rome, and on the universal custom of Christendom. When he mentioned, that to Peter were intrusted the keys of the kingdom of heaven, the king said: “I will not contradict the door-keeper, lest when I come to the gates of the kingdom of heaven, there should be none to open them.” By this irresistible argument the opposition was broken, and conformity to the Roman observance established. The Scottish semi-circular tonsure also, which was ascribed to Simon Magus, gave way to the circular, which was derived from St. Peter. Colman, being worsted, returned with his sympathizers to Scotland, where he built two monasteries. Tuda was made bishop in his place.

Soon afterwards, a dreadful pestilence raged through England and Ireland, while Caledonia was saved, as the pious inhabitants believed, by the intercession of St. Columba.

The fusion of English Christians was completed in the age of Theodorus, archbishop of Canterbury (669 to 690), and Beda Venerabilis ( b. 673, d. 735), presbyter and monk of Wearmouth. About the same time Anglo-Saxon literature was born, and laid the foundation for the development of the national genius which ultimately broke loose from Rome.

Theodore was a native of Tarsus, where Paul was born, educated in Athens, and, of course, acquainted with Greek and Latin learning. He received his appointment and consecration to the primacy of England from Pope Vitalian. He arrived at Canterbury May 27, 669, visited the whole of England, established the Roman rule of Easter, and settled bishops in all the sees except London. He unjustly deposed bishop Wilfrid of York, who was equally devoted to Rome, but in his later years became involved in sacerdotal jealousies and strifes. He introduced order into the distracted church and some degree of education among the clergy. He was a man of autocratic temper, great executive ability, and, having been directly sent from Rome, he carried with him double authority. “He was the first archbishop,” says Bede, “to whom the whole church of England submitted.” During his administration the first Anglo-Saxon mission to the mother-country of the Saxons and Friesians was attempted by Egbert, Victberet, and Willibrord (689 to 692). His chief work is a “Penitential” with minute directions for a moral and religious life, and punishments for drunkenness, licentiousness, and other prevalent vices.

The Venerable Bede was the first native English scholar, the father of English theology and church history. He spent his humble and peaceful life in the acquisition and cultivation of ecclesiastical and secular learning, wrote Latin in prose and verse, and translated portions of the Bible into Anglo-Saxon. His chief work is his — the only reliable — Church History of old England. He guides us with a gentle hand and in truly Christian spirit, though colored by Roman views, from court to court, from monastery to monastery, and bishopric to bishopric, through the missionary labyrinth of the miniature kingdoms of his native island. He takes the Roman side in the controversies with the British churches.

Before Bede cultivated Saxon prose, Caedmon (about 680), first a swine-herd, then a monk at Whitby, sung, as by inspiration, the wonders of creation and redemption, and became the father of Saxon (and Christian German) poetry. His poetry brought the Bible history home to the imagination of the Saxon people, and was a faint prophecy of the “Divina Comedia” and the “Paradise Lost.” We have a remarkable parallel to this association of Bede and Caedmon in the association of Wiclif, the first translator of the whole Bible into English (1380), and the contemporary of Chaucer, the father of English poetry, both forerunners of the British Reformation, and sustaining a relation to Protestant England somewhat similar to the relation which Bede and Caedmon sustain to medieval Catholic England.

The conversion of England was nominal and ritual, rather than intellectual and moral. Education was confined to the clergy and monks, and consisted in the knowledge of the Decalogue, the Creed and the Pater Noster, a little Latin without any Greek or Hebrew. The Anglo-Saxon clergy were only less ignorant than the British. The ultimate triumph of the Roman church was due chiefly to her superior organization, her direct apostolic descent, and the prestige of the Roman empire. It made the Christianity of England independent of politics and court-intrigues, and kept it in close contact with the Christianity of the Continent. The advantages of this connection were greater than the dangers and evils of insular isolation. Among all the subjects of Teutonic tribes, the English became the most devoted to the Pope. They sent more pilgrims to Rome and more money into the papal treasury than any other nation. They invented the Peter’s Pence. At least thirty of their kings and queens, and an innumerable army of nobles ended their days in cloistral retreats. Nearly all of the public lands were deeded to churches and monasteries. But the exuberance of monasticism weakened the military and physical forces of the nation, and facilitated the Danish and the Norman conquests. The power and riches of the church secularized the clergy, and necessitated in due time a reformation. Wealth always tends to vice, and vice to decay. The Norman conquest did not change the ecclesiastical relations of England, but infused new blood and vigor into the Saxon race, which is all the better for its mixed character.

We add a list of the early archbishops and bishops of the four principal English sees, in the order of their foundation:




Canterbury London Rochester York   

Augustin 597 Mellitus 604 Justus 604 Paulinus 625   

Laurentius 604 [Cedd in Essex 654] Romanus 624 Chad 665   

Mellitus 619 Wini 666 Paulinus 633 Wilfrid, — conse-   

Justus 624 Erconwald 675 Ithamar 644 crated 665, in   

Honorius 627 Waldhere 693 Damian 655 possession 669   

Deusdedit 655 Ingwald 704 Putta 669 Bosa 678   

Theodore 668 Cwichelm 676 Wilfrid again 686   

Brihtwald 693 Gebmund 678 Bosa again 691   

Tatwin 731 Tobias 693 John 706