Monday, November 12, 2012

The Mission of St Augustine

by Richard Denning

Christianity had come to Britain in Roman times but following the Roman withdrawal in about 416 AD and the steady conquest of what would one day be England by the Anglo-Saxon immigrants it was confined mostly to the lands under the control of the Romano-British Welsh (increasingly confined to  the west) , the Irish and the Scots. The vast bulk of the land under the rule of the Saxons was pagan.

Pope Gregory I
The church in Rome was certainly aware of the reversal of its fortunes in the former province of Britannia. According to legend Pope Gregory I (Pope 590 to 604) once saw fair haired Anglo -Saxon boy slaves in the forum in Rome. He enquired who these were and was told they were Angles to which he poetically was said to reply Non Angli, sed Angeli. ("Not Angles, but Angels.") and determined that this race should be converted to Christianity.  When he became pope he set about just this task. But he needed a man for the job.


In the 580s Gregory had founded and been the Abbot of the Monastery of St Andrews on the Caelian Hill in Rome. One of his former monks had now risen to become Prior of St Andrews and it was to this man, Augustine and forty of his monks that Gregory now turned. Now in the year 595 Gregory asked Augustine to go to Britain and convert the English.

We know little about Augustine prior to his appointment. He was probably the son of a wealthy Roman but beyond that there is a scarcity of information. This is NOT St Augustine of Hippo who wrote many of the religious essays that shaped medieval Christianity but a totally different man.

The Mission
There is uncertainty over where the idea of this mission originated. The official version is as we have seen that it was the idea of the pope. There has been a suggestion that Gregory was approached by Bertha the queen of Kent. Bertha was the daughter of a king of the Franks and a Christian. Her husband, Aethelberht of Kent was pagan but tolerated his wife's religion.  Possibly Aethelberht saw political advantage in requesting ties with Rome. 

In any event Kent was the logical choice for a mission. It's ruler would not oppose their presence and moreover Kent's alliance with Burgundy and the Franks would allow safe passage for Augustine especially after Gregory wrote to their rulers requesting assistance. Augustine's route was laid out but after departing from Rome he and his party almost turned back in France. It needed another push from Gregory to finally get them to England in 597 AD.

Kent and it ruler was receptive to the message. Baptisms and the establishment of a monastery soon followed and Aethelburht himself converted after some months. In Canterbury at the same spot where an old Roman church stood (St Martins) the foundations were laid for what would one day be the cathedral that today is the  senior cathedral of the church of England.

In 601 AD Gregory confirmed Augustine as Archbishop of Canterbury and sent more missionaries with instructions to appoint bishops, a plan to have an Archbishop at York (this would not occur for 25 more years) and also encouragement to spread out and incorporate other kingdoms under his authority.

What to do about Pagan Temples and Traditions?
As the Augustine mission expanded it was faced with the issue of the pre-existing pagan culture of the English and their temples and traditions. Should the Roman Christians ban the festivals and destroy the temples. The Pope sent instructions to Augustine on this matter via one of the new Abbots.

'Tell Augustine that he should be no means destroy the temples of the gods but rather the idols within those temples. Let him, after he has purified them with holy water, place altars and relics of the saints in them. For, if those temples are well built, they should be converted from the worship of demons to the service of the true God. Thus, seeing that their places of worship are not destroyed, the people will banish error from their hearts and come to places familiar and dear to them in acknowledgement and worship of the true God. Further, since it has been their custom to slaughter oxen in sacrifice, they should receive some solemnity in exchange. Let them therefore, on the day of the dedication of their churches, or on the feast of the martyrs whose relics are preserved in them, build themselves huts around their one-time temples and celebrate the occasion with religious feasting. They will sacrifice and eat the animals not any more as an offering to the devil, but for the glory of God to whom, as the giver of all things, they will give thanks for having been satiated. Thus, if they are not deprived of all exterior joys, they will more easily taste the interior ones. For surely it is impossible to efface all at once everything from their strong minds, just as, when one wishes to reach the top of a mountain, he must climb by stages and step by step, not by leaps and bounds.... Mention this to our brother the bishop, that he may dispose of the matter as he sees fit according to the conditions of time and place.'

So the church was to be pragmatic. It would re-use pagan temples as the people were already used to worshipping in them. They would not ban pagan festivals but adapt them. Saints days and holy days would often fit in which pre-existing pagan dates and so rather than expect the people to lay aside their parties and festivals they would be taken over as time of joy and celebration.

The Mission gets harder

Britain was not one nation. It was divided into Anglo-Saxon eastern kingdoms and Romano-British welsh western kingdoms as well as Irish, Picts and Scots. There were dozens of kingdoms and each of the Saxon lands were pagan. Some were receptive. Some very resistant. Some kingdoms would convert only to revert to paganism when a new king came along. Mercia would not become Christian until as late as the 8th century in parts. Never the less gradually Augustine was able to penetrate other lands and the Augustine mission was deemed a success.

That was until he came across the Welsh.

Meeting the Welsh
In around 603 Augustine requested a meeting with the Welsh bishops at a place known as Augustine's oak - somewhere around the border of Mercia, Hwicee and the Welsh lands. From the start there was trouble. The Welsh bishops had maintained a Christian church in the land for 300 years. Forcefully separated from Rome by the English lands the church had evolved independently after Rome abandoned Britannia. This led to several differences. The method of appointing bishops, the timing of Easter, the approach to converting the pagan English and even the tonsure (the style of monks hair cut) was now different.

Augustine insisted that the Welsh abandon their traditions and conform to Rome's teachings. His attitude was so arrogant that the meeting broke up.

A later meeting some months later was arranged. The Welsh bishops were uncertain how to approach it and sought advice from a wise man who suggested that they allow Augustine to arrive first and then go in. If he rose (as if greeting equals) then they should try and reach accommodation. In the event he did not rise and they realised then that he looked down on them and treated them as inferior. To Augustine's mind HE was the Archbishop and these WERE inferior. The Welsh did not see it that way and left. It would take many years to reach accommodation after this failure.
The end of his mission
It is believed that Augustine died between 604 and 609 AD. In those brief few years he had re-established the Christian church in the land ruled by the English and set the foundation of the structure that would last until Henry VIII separated from Rome. Canterbury is still the seat of the Archbishop. So in that regard he was a success. His failings were arrogance as witnessed by his dealings with the Welsh. He is venerated as a saint in the Roman Catholic church and accepted as the father of the Church in England.  Certainly his mission had a powerful effect on the evolving land that would one day become England.

The Augustine mission will feature in the third book of my Northern Crown series Princes in Exile


  1. This is an interesting insight into the reChristianising of Britain in the aftermath of the fall of the Roman Empire and the so called barbarian invasions which ushered in Europe’s Dark Ages; a time when the culture and learning of Western civilisation was at serious risk of being lost to the world forever.
    St Patrick, a Welshman, is credited with the establishment of Christianity in Ireland during his life’s mission which began with Papal sanction in the year 432. The Irish Church established by him was isolated from much of the anarchy and destruction of the European mainland, and ensured that Ireland served as a repository which fed European renewal. Over the next 3 centuries, missionary Irish monks were major players in reChristianising the neighbouring island as well as Western Europe.
    The Roman Church was badly positioned to coordinate much less control the Irish church focused as it was on mere survival through difficult times. Also, by contrast, the Welsh Christian church, which was the first target of Augustine’s mission; did not have a vigorous missionary programme.
    The monastery of Holy Island at Lindisfarne in NE England was founded by St Aidan in 635, who was sent there by his community of monks at Iona in the west of Scotland; and embarked on a mission to the central English kingdom of Mercia. This probably brought him into contact (conflict?) with Augustine who was by then well established in Canterbury. The Lindisfarne monastery continued to exert a strong influence on Christian life in Britain until the Vikings invasions began in 793. The settlement was vacated and remained so until 1093 when the Benedictine Order reoccupied it. (They remained until they were expelled by Henry VIII in the 16th century).
    From its establishment as the chief religious centre for Britain, Canterbury sought to extend its influence not just over the Welsh Church, but in time, also to Ireland; so Augustine was only the first to attempt extending Canterbury’s power in the Medieval Church. The vexed issue of standardizing religious practice of the Celtic Church with that of Rome played a large part in justifying the Papal letter granting overlordship of Ireland to Henry II in 1152, directing the Plantaganet monarch to enter Ireland to “strive to imbue that people with good morals –etc, etc--“, (in the process giving him Papal approval to take control of whatever territory he could grab as due “reward” for his moral enhancing efforts).

    This was the prelude to a rather long and complicated story, some consequences of which still endure in the western islands of Europe.

  2. Thanks for this post on a period of history that often gets far too little attention! I tend to put a different interpretation on Augustine's behavior with regards to the Welsh. As you note, between the Roman Church and the British Church, "The method of appointing bishops, the timing of Easter, the approach to converting the pagan English and even the tonsure (the style of monks hair cut) was now different."

    In regards to things like the timing of Easter, Augustine saw it as an essential point of church unity that the Easter dates coincide. After all, it was very troubling to have a king and his queen (adherents of different churches) celebrating the Holy Day on different Sunday--to have half the court fasting for Lent while the other half was rejoicing in the Resurrection. I don't see it as arrogance on Augustine's part--just a drive for unity in what the church at that time considered to be a very important matter. And he considered the Roman method of selecting Easter's date to be the most Biblically accurate--hence, he argued for it.

    Bede's perspective on the conversion of the pagans was that the British Church was holding a grudge against the Anglo-Saxons. They wanted their conquerors to go to hell and so they refused to evangelize them. I'm not certain whether Augustine's disgust at the British Church's "approach to converting pagans" (aka NOT converting pagans) was the same as Bede's. But if so, that's another instance where I wouldn't interpret Augustine's actions as arrogance per se.

  3. well it is more a question of perception. The Welsh saw him as arrogant and who is to say who is right and wrong. After all there where OTHER churches - the Eastern Church, the Coptic etc. with different dating systems.

    Probably he could have been more sensitive and respectful of the welsh traditions and had he done so it may have had a better response.

  4. I've always wondered whether the many Anglo Saxons receptive to conversion were primarily motivated by political/economic reasons or were truly persuaded to believe in the Christian faith. In King Æthelberht's case, one could infer that his conversion was motivated by his political ties with the Franks.

    It always makes me sad to picture the Anglo-Saxons being pressured to abandon their ancestral beliefs, but at least some of their traditions live on during the Christmas season.

    It would be interesting to read a novel in which the central character is a 6th or 7th century Saxon wrestling with a choice between his ancestral beliefs and Christianity.

  5. Well I hope I can provide that :-)
    But to answer the question what i think went on is a mix.
    SOME "conversions" were definitely political - Aethelberht seems very obviously to have backed the Christian horse as it was being ridden by the Franks his biggest ally.
    Some nations converted across and then back again to pagan.
    Some folk clearly seemed pretty convinced. Others went along with the popularist move.


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