Anglo-Saxon England III

The spread of Christianity


The Missions of Conversion

bulletChristianity, like Roman culture, largely disappeared during the Anglo-Saxon invasions. Early Anglo-Saxon place names indicate only pagan worship - Tiw in Great Tew; Wodin in Wednesbury; Thursley was Thor's glade and Frigedene was Frigg's meadow.
bulletIn the course of the 7th Century, virtually all of England was converted to Christianity by Christian missionaries from Rome and Ireland. The Roman missionaries were sent by Pope Gregory the Great who had earlier encountered English pagans in Rome.

"Gregory himself went with the rest, and, among other things, some boys were set to sale, their bodies white, their countenances beautiful, and their hair very fine.… He therefore … asked, what was the name of that nation? and was answered, that they were called Angles. "Right," said he, "for they have an Angelic face, and it becomes such to be co-heirs with the Angels in heaven."

(Bede, History of the English people II.1)

This story is better known through the Latin pun -  "Non Angli, sed Angeli si forent Christiani"

bullet Bede's story is also found in another, earlier version. Certainly, Pope Gregory I (590-604) did send Augustine as a missionary to the English in 597.

"…for while the nation of the Angli, placed in a corner of the world, remained up to this time misbelieving in the worship of stocks and stones, I determined, through the aid of your prayers for me, to send to it, God granting it, a monk of my monastery for the purpose of preaching."

(Gregory to Eulogius of Alexandria).

A Saxon baptismal font


bullet The Christian missionaries first landed in Kent, whose king - Ethelbert (= Æthelberht) had married a Christian wife (Bertha, daughter of the Frankish king, Charibert).
bullet Gregory hoped Augustine would convert the whole of England to Christianity, but Augustine's mission made progress only in Kent and Essex. He established the first Archbishopric in Canterbury.
bullet Ethelbert was converted but his son, Eadbald renounced Christianity when he succeeded in 616. The second Archbishop of Canterbury (Laurentius) managed to reconvert him.
bullet Eadbald's sister, Ethelburh ( = Æthelberg) was also a Christian. In about 618 she married Edwin of Northumberland - a pagan - who conceded freedom of worship as part of the marriage agreement. Influenced by her, Edwin (ruled 616-633) was converted in 627 and allowed her spiritual advisor Paulinus to establish an Bishopric (later Archbishopric) at York.
bullet Paulinus was an Italian, but there were also Celtic influences on Northumbrian Christianity, for Oswald of Northumbria (635-43) had spent some time on the Isle of Iona, where an Irish monastery had been established.



Irish Christianity

bullet Saint Patrick had preached Christianity in Ireland probably some time between 450 and 500. By the early 500's Ireland was largely Christian, and was particularly rich in monasteries.
bullet During the 6th and 7th centuries the Irish sent missionaries to Gaul, Germany, Scotland and England. One of these was Saint Columba (521-597) who established the monastery on Iona in 563.


Early Christian Pictish stone

Columba converted the Northern Pictish King Bridei (Brude) in about 565.

King Oswald turned to the monks at Iona for help in converting the Northumbrians. The most important missionary was Aidan, who established a bishopric at Lindisfarne in 635.


bullet Oswald put pressure on King Cynegils of Wessex to convert to Christianity, and to allow Birinus (sent from Rome) and others to preach in Wessex. Cynegils was flexible in part because he was eager for Oswald's support against the Mercians.
bullet King Penda of the Mercians (626-55) himself tolerated Christianity and his son Peada became a Christian in 653. Mercia was ruled by the Northumbrians in 657-8 but then reasserted its independence under the zealous Christian Wulfhere. Wulfhere was a patron of Saint Chad (Ceadda), another alumnus of Lindisfarne.
bullet The last part of England to become Christian was Sussex. Its conversion was led by Saint Wilfrid (634-709) from 681. Wilfrid had been educated at Lindisfarne but had also been influenced by a visit to Rome.

The Synod of Whitby


bulletCeltic Christianity had developed many of its own traditions after the fall of Rome and they brought these with them to the North of England. The South and East - converted by Roman missionaries - deferred to papal authority.
bulletOne difference between the Celts and Rome was in the formula for calculating the date of Easter. In 664 King Oswy of Northumbria convened a Synod at Whitby to resolve the dispute and achieve uniformity.
bulletKing Oswy decided in favor of the Roman system for calculating Easter. He also approved the clerical tonsure (which involved shaving almost all the hair from a cleric's head except for a small circle) - a Roman, but not a Celtic habit. Colman - the main opponent of Roman practices - went and sulked on Iona.
bulletThe decision at Whitby was important because it tied the English Church firmly to the Catholic Church on the Continent as a whole, and ended the possibility of an autonomous Celtic church.

The Organization of the English Church


The Saxon crypt of Ripon Cathedral,
dedicated by Wilfrid in 672


bullet One of the most prominent English clerics was Wilfrid, who was Abbot of the Benedictine monastery at Ripon and who was appointed Bishop of York. He refused to accept consecration at the hands of the northern bishops and traveled to France. (He only returned in 666, having been away so long that Chad had been appointed in his place. Oswy ordered Chad to stand aside).
bulletIn 669, the Pope appointed a new Archbishop of Canterbury - Theodore of Tarsus (603-699). An energetic administrator, as well as an accomplished scholar, Theodore set about organizing the English Church. In 673 he convened the Synod of Hertford: all England was confederated into one Province under the Archbishop of Canterbury, meaning  that ecclesiastical unity preceded political unity by almost two centuries.

Theodore thought that English dioceses were too large to be manageable and divided them. Wilfrid's see was (much to his annoyance) divided into four - York, Hexham, Lindisfarne and Lindsey. Wilfrid and Theodore squabbled continually thereafter, which increased the authority of the pope as the only arbiter between the two.


The episcopal sees of England by c. 850


bulletBoth Theodore and Wilfred encouraged the establishment and endowment of monasteries. Some monasteries were isolated contemplative communities, but many acted as centers of local religion, providing church services and educating the local population.


The English word "minster" is a contraction of monasterium. It survives in various English place names - Westminster, Upminister, Wimborne Minster &c.


bullet Monasteries were also centers of learning. Benedict Biscop, for example, brought many books from Rome to the monasteries founded at Wearmouth (c.674) and at Jarrow in 681. Bede used these books in compiling his histories.

The dedication stone from the church of Saint Paul at Jarrow

"Dedicatio basilicae sci Pauli VIIII KL Mai Anno XV Ecfridi Reg Ceolfrdi Abb eiusdem Q eccles do auctore conditoris Anno IIII."

The dedication of the church of St. Paul on the 9th of the Kalends of May in the fifteenth year of King Egfrith and the fourth year of Ceolfrith, abbot, and with God's help, founder of this church.

bullet Bede's most important work of historical scholarship was his Ecclesiastical History of the English People, completed in 731. England was now religiously unified, but politically divided - it was to be many years before the Anglo-Saxons had one government.



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