by Richard Denning
In 597 AD Pope Gregory sent a mission to Kent under the leadership of Augustine. King Aethelberht of Kent converted and allowed the establishment of the See of Canterbury as well as offering his help with expanding the mission further inland. The missionary efforts continued into neighbouring Saxon kingdoms with varied but ongoing success.
Meanwhile, of course, the Christian church had actually never left the lands of the Celtic Britons or Welsh. It came here in Roman times and the Welsh church continued to thrive through the centuries after Rome left. Gregory had ordered that the Celtic church which had survived in isolation be brought back to the fold and should place itself under the authority of Canterbury.
By 603 Augustine was ready to make contact with the Welsh. The mission is described by Bede the great historian and chronicler of the church.
In the meantime, Augustine, with the help of King Ethelbert, drew together to a conference the bishops and doctors of the nearest province of the Britons, at a place which is to this day called, in the English language, Augustine's Ac, that is, Augustine's Oak, on the borders of the Hwiccas and West Saxons; and began by brotherly admonitions to persuade them to preserve Catholic peace with him, and undertake the common labour of preaching the Gospel to the heathen for the Lord's sake. For they did not keep Easter Sunday at the proper time, but from the fourteenth to the twentieth moon; which computation is contained in a cycle of eighty-four years. Besides, they did many other things which were opposed to the unity of the church.
Where was the meeting?
So then a meeting was arranged at the place that later would be called Augustine's Oak. Where was this?
Traditionally the Seven valley is the area associated with the meeting. Several places have been suggested.
A) Aust Cleeve in Gloucestershire. It is on the bank of the Seven and its name could be an abbreviation of Augustine. However historians have disputed this claim.
B) Martin Hussingtree (anciently Aussuntree) again has that 'Augustine's tree' possibility in its name.
C) Mitre Oak, Hartlebury was the place specially chosen in 1575 for the Bishop and the clergy of Worcester to meet Queen Elizabeth on her historic visit to the county because of the claim to be Augustine's Oak. This site is on the east side of the Seven which would fit the tradition that the British Bishops crossed the Severn. A great Oak Tree stands today, perhaps a sapling from the original, at the side of the Worcester to Kidderminster road.
D) Rock. Of all the claimants Rock near Kidderminster has the superior claim according to historians. In Saxon days the village was called Ther Ac (The Oak) whilst in the Domesday Survey it is given as Halac (Holy Oak). There also a famous oak of great antiquity stood. Alas one winter's night in 1757 the owner of the land lit a fire inside the tree when taking shelter from the rain and it burnt down.
What were the areas of discussion?
The main areas of dispute at this meeting between Augustine and the Welsh were:
1. The dating of Easter. The Welsh calculated Easter in a different manner and based their calculations on an older method to the official Roman method.
2. The method of baptism. It is unclear how the 2 churches differed but there was some element of the way the Welsh did it that the Roman church would not accept.
3. The approach of the Welsh to evangelism. Augustine's mission was to convert the pagan English. To the Welsh though this was abhorrent. The English were the invaders who had slaughtered them and driven them west into the mountains. How could they be expected to preach to them?
4. There are other areas Bede is vague on but may well have included a dispute of the tonsure. In other words how the monks and priests cut their hair.
Despite Augustine healing a blind man - showing by this miracle that he was God's man - the Welsh were uncertain how to respond and asked leave to consult with their own people before returning for another meeting at a later date (probably some time later). Unsure how to respond to Augustine, Bede says that they took:
"themselves first to a certain holy and discreet man, who was wont to lead the life of a hermit among them, to consult with him, whether they ought, at the preaching of Augustine, to forsake their traditions. He answered, "If he is a man of God, follow him."— "How shall we know that?" said they. He replied, "Our Lord saith, Take My yoke upon you, and learn of Me, for I am meek and lowly in heart; if therefore, Augustine is meek and lowly of heart, it is to be believed that he bears the yoke of Christ himself, and offers it to you to bear. But, if he is harsh and proud, it is plain that he is not of God, nor are we to regard his words." They said again, "And how shall we discern even this?" – "Do you contrive," said the anchorite, "that he first arrive with his company at the place where the synod is to be held; and if at your approach he rises tip to you, hear him submissively, being assured that he is the servant of Christ; but if he despises you, and does not rise up to you, whereas you are more in number, let him also be despised by you."
"They did as he directed; and it happened, that as they approached, Augustine was sitting on a chair. When they perceived it, they were angry, and charging him with pride, set themselves to contradict all he said. He said to them, "Many things ye do which are contrary to our custom, or rather the custom of the universal Church, and yet, if you will comply with me in these three matters, to wit, to keep Easter at the due time; to fulfil the ministry of Baptism, by which we are born again to God, according to the custom of the holy Roman Apostolic Church; and to join with us in preaching the Word of God to the English nation, we will gladly suffer all the other things you do, though contrary to our customs." They answered that they would do none of those things, nor receive him as their archbishop; for they said among themselves, "if he would not rise up to us now, how much more will he despise us, as of no account, if we begin to be under his subjection?" Then the man of God, Augustine, is said to have threatened them, that if they would not accept peace with their brethren, they should have war from their enemies; and, if they would not preach the way of life to the English nation, they should suffer at their hands the vengeance of death. All which, through the dispensation of the Divine judgement, fell out exactly as he had predicted."
What Bede is referring to here is that some years later the Welsh of Powys and Gwynedd were destroyed at the Battle of Chester in c 612. They were defeated by a pagan king - Aethelfrith of Bernicia. To Bede this slaughter of fellow Christians by a pagan king was basically divine Punishment for refusing to fall into line with Augustine.
This failed meeting was the only significant attempt at a meeting and agreement with the Celtic/British Church before the Council of Whitby in 664 AD. The Celtic and Roman churches went their separate ways and it does not appear that the Welsh bishops altered their approach to preaching to the English, Easter, baptism or for that matter the way they cut their hair!
Richard Denning is the author of the Northern Crown Series of Historical novels set in the late 6th and early 7th centuries. He also visits schools and local historical societies giving lectures on the Early Anglo-Saxon Era.