Nipissing University

History 2425 -- Medieval England

The Conversion of Britain

Steve Muhlberger

The classic story of the conversion of the English is the one told by Bede in his 8th century book, the  History of the English Church.

Bede focuses on the activities of Pope Gregory the Great and the mission of Augustine (usually called Augustine of Canterbury to distinguish him from the more famous African Augustine). Augustine came to the Kingdom of Kent, ruled by the Bretwalda Aethelbert, and converted him and his court soon after 597. The missionaries from Rome then fanned out and converted the king of the East Saxons, who controlled London, and the king of Northumbria.

This much took a generation, and there were setbacks. After the first Christian kings died, their successors went back to paganism, forcing some of the bishops to flee Britain for a while. Irish reinforcements saved the mission based in Kent: Bede tells us quite a bit about the rebuilding of the church in his own land of Northumbria by the Irish bishop Aidan.

But there was a controversy between the Irish missionaries and the successors of the Roman mission over what customs, should be used: the proper date of Easter was an important point. Fortunately, says Bede, King Oswy of Northumbria saw the light, opted for the Roman rule, and the rest of the English kingdoms, and parts of Ireland and Pictland eventually followed suit.

This is Bede's story. It is well told and well documented, and there is no reason to think that it is not substantially true. But it tends to isolate the mission to the English from the development of Christianity elsewhere in Britain.

I'm going to begin the lecture by putting the conversion of the English into a wider perspective. You will recall that Roman Britain was officially Christian long before the imperial withdrawal and the coming of the English.  Gildas never accuses them of idolatry. The Britons and their descendents the Welsh were well and truly Christianized.

Around A.D. 400, long before Gildas, Britons had already begun to Christianize their neighbors. Patrick, who waskidnapped from Britain into Irish slavery, felt compelled in later life to return to Ireland and preach the Gospel. Around the same time, a more obscure Briton named Ninian began to convert the southern Picts.

The Irish took to Christianity with enthusiasm. Aside from purely religious motives, Christianity was the Irish entree to the civilized world, a way of sharing in Roman culture without submitting to political control. Irish culture had a great respect for learning, and Irish scholars soon were absorbing as much Christian theology and classical literature as they could get their hands on. A vital Irish church developed in the course of the fifth century. It was characterized not only by its learning but by its heroic monastic idealism.

Once the church was well founded in Ireland, the Irish began to preach to others. Indeed, taking on missionary work was seen as the ultimate sacrifice a Christian could make.  It was a challenge that the most dedicated Irish monks took up. One of the earliest missionaries was St. Columba, who around 565 A.D., more than thirty years before Augustine went to Kent, went to the island of Iona off the west coast of Scotland to found a monastery. It looks remote on the map, but it was strategically sited to bring the Gospel to the Scots who were settled in the area and especially to the northern Picts. Columba's monastery became the ecclesiastical center of northern Britain, the mother house of a whole family of monasteries.

A second Irish saint, Columban, set out from Ulster in the 590s to preach not in Scotland, but in France and even Italy. These countries had long been Christian of course, but Columban was, like many of the Irish, concerned to spread his heroic and austere style of monasticism whereever he could.  Columban's activities in France were exactly contemporaneous with Augustine's in Kent.

Around the year 600, the English kings were in the eye of a storm-center of Christian activity. As pagan kings in an increasingly Christian world, they were becoming isolated. One can well imagine that Aethelbert of Kent, for instance, was aware of that isolation.  Aethelbert, as Bede tells us but does not emphasize, had married Bertha, a Christian Frankish princess, who insisted on bringing her pet bishop with her to say mass for her and her attendants.  We can imagine Aethelbert  feeling just a little bit like a hick among his fellow monarchs in the wider world beyond England.

The remarkable thing about the conversion of the English is not that it took place, but that Rome had such direct role in it. Rome and Britain were far apart, and the bishop of Rome had problems much closer to home.  The bishop of Rome, in theory the chief bishop of the world, had his hands full running the city, feeding its population, taking care of refugees from the Lombards, and trying to hold the Italian church together.

So why the interest in far away England? The answer lies in the personality of Gregory the Great, bishop of Rome in the 590s.  Gregory had become convinced that the world was  coming up against an important deadline: the End of Time, when his efforts to do God's will would be reviewed by a stern Judge. As the successor of St. Peter, he felt a special responsibility to convert as many as possible before the end. Thus his interest in a far-away pagan people.

Gregory  is comparable in some ways to Columban, the Irishman who went to Gaul. He was a convinced monk, stirring things up, not content to restrict himself to ordinary methods. The measure of his determination was the English mission, the largest mission sent from Rome to anywhere during the Early Middle Ages.

Why was Aethelbert receptive, and what motivated him to abandon his ancestral religion?

We do know quite a bit about what Christian missionaries said to pagan kings in this period.

Once Aethelbert was converted, his influence promoted the spread of Christianity. The favor he showed to others who accepted baptism convinced many of his subjects to get on the bandwagon. And because Aethelbert was the overlord of Britain, his support moved anoher king to follow his lead.

Conversion from the top down was the normal early medieval method, but it had its weaknesses. When Aethelbert died his son and the king of the East Saxons went back to paganism.  The same thing happened in other newly converted kingdoms.  The Roman mission, which seems to have depended for its vitality almost entirely on foreigners, was fragile. In the 630s, it was not making any great progress.

Fortunately for the church, the second generation apostate rulers were followed by a third generation more interested in Christianity. These new Christian rulers were men who had learned about Christianity when they were exiles in Christian courts. Oswald, king of Northumbria, had fled to the Scots when his enemy had threatened him. There he was baptized. He came back to Northumbria using the cross as his banner, and when he succeeded in taking power, he asked the monks at Iona to send him a bishop.

This second wave of conversion had its weaknesses, too. One was the controversy between the Irish missionaries on one hand and the successors of the Roman missionaries on the other. Augustine had been sent to Britain as archbishop of the whole British area -- not just of the pagan English, but of the already existing Christian churches in the island.  But the British, Irish, and Pictish churches needed much persuasion to accept the overlordship of Canterbury and Rome. These ancient churches had their own customs of long-standing, and didn't see why they should abandon them on the say-so of some far-away foreigners.

The Roman party, if I can call it that, believed that the Roman customs had a special validity because they came from Peter, who held the keys to heaven. Eventually they got their way. The council at Whitby in 667 assured their victory in Northumbria and eventually all of England. Southern Ireland had already adopted the Roman Easter, and the Picts would soon after.

Another weakness of the English church in the third generation was that it was still too undermanned and disorganized to do more than a superficial job of converting the countryside. This was remedied by several factors. In the third generation, after about 650, we find Christianity catching the imagination of a large number of native born English.  At the same time, monasticism really caught on in England. Up to this time there had been monasteries in Kent, but elsewhere there had been only a few isolated bishops to represent the church. When organized monastic communities were introduced in the other kingdoms, the church suddenly acquired some substance. These communities did the real work of bringing Christian belief to the ordinary people: they were the teachers and the examples of Christianity.

A final challenge to the church in England was the erection of permanent over-all organization. This was the accomplishment of a most unlikely archbishop of Canterbury, Theodore of Tarsus. He was sent to England in the 660s when the English candidate, who had come to Rome for consecration, died there. Theodore was from Asia Minor, modern Turkey, a Greek refugee from the Arabs. He was already 66 years old. But Theodore turned out to be a powerhouse of a bishop. With the help of Hadrian, a Roman sent to be abbot of the monastery at Canterbury, He rebuilt the English church, concentrating on defining church laws (very simple ones) and holding church councils for the whole English church, which among other things, showed the church's independence from any one ruler.  Theodore and Hadrian were energetic and inspiring teachers, who helped to create an educated clergy to carry on after they were gone.

Theodore died in 690, at the age of 88. He left behind him a church of England that was a vigorous, sustainable enterprise. By the end of the 7th century, England was becoming Christian in more than name. Indeed, the introduction of Christianity to England, like its introduction in Ireland, sparked an amazing cultural flowering.

This site has been visited times since September 1, 1998.

Copyright (C) 1998, Steven Muhlberger.