Great Britain and the Reintroduction of Christianity


Great Britain and the Reintroduction of Christianity

A number of people would like to give credit for the reintroduction of Christianity to Gregory. It is said that one day the Catholic monk spotted two fair-haired, blue-eyed boys being auctioned in the Roman slave market. He quickly inquired who they were. “They are Angles” was the answer (since they came from Angleland later called England). Gregory alleged, Not Angles, but angels and they should be joint-heirs with the archangels in heaven. When Gregory became pope he recognized the boys he had seen in the slave market and in 596 AD he bespoke Augustine and forty monks to bring Roman Catholicism to Britain. Augustine and company came to Kent in 597 AD only a few months prior to Colum Cille died in Scotland. Before long, King Ethelbert gave them access to an old Romano-British church in Canterbury as a mission foundation. At the same time as Augustine did have significant influence in Britain, he was not the first to reintroduce Christianity into Britain (Bradley, 1999). Thitry-four years prior to Augustine came in Kent, England, Colum Cille or Saint Columba and company set up a college and church on a Scottiah island. It was this man and his friends, not Augustine, that were first successful in reintroducing Christianity to the Scots and Britons. Nevertheless, it is not possible to properly appreciate the person and work of Colum Cille unless you are familiar with a little something about a different person who laid the foundation for biblical Christianity in Ireland. That person was Maewyn Succat.

Our general picture of monastic Christianity in early Anglo-Saxon England is well informed primarily thanks to Bede’s Ecclesiastical History, ?nished in 731. This is supplemented by Bede’s other writings and some eighth-century saints’ lives. For the latter part of the seventh century we have Aldhelm’s writings and the penitential ascribed to Theodore. There is no contemporary witness prior to Aldhelm, who began writing in the 670s, and very little between the later eighth century, when Alcuin’s early writings can be used to shed light on England, and the Benedictine Reform of the tenth century, with which we shall not be concerned (Bettenson, 1972).

Christianity came to England almost simultaneously from two divergent sources, both of them monasticised. Almost like two wings of an army engaged in a ‘pincer movement’, soldiers of Christ dispatched from Rome invaded Kent from the sea, while about a generation later another legion of missionaries headquartered at Iona marched southwards into Northumbria. A smaller contingent of monks coming perhaps directly from Ireland made forays into Wessex and parts of southern England (Bradley, 1999).

Augustine and his colleagues, who had been sent by Pope Gregory I, who was himself a monk, established a monastery at Thanet on lands granted by King AEthelbehrt. As Bede notes:

As soon as they had entered the dwelling-place allotted to them, they began to imitate the way of life of the apostles and of the primitive Church. They were constantly

England had monks and missionaries from the beginning, but it did not yet have a bishop. Therefore,

… Augustine, the man of God, went to Arles and, in accordance with the command of the Holy Father Gregory, was consecrated archbishop of the English race by Etherius, the archbishop of that city (Carey, 2000).

On returning to England Augustine wrote to Gregory a series of requests for advice regarding various problems that arose in the infant Church. The ?rst question was: how should bishops live with the clergy? Gregory’s answer, preserved by Bede, was as follows:

But because you, brother, are conversant with monastic rules, and ought not to live apart from your clergy in the English Church, which, by the guidance of God, has lately been converted to the faith, you ought to institute that manner of life which our fathers followed in the earliest beginnings of the Church: none of them said that anything he possessed was his own, but they had all things in common.

Thus the document that might be described as ‘the constitution of the English Church’ sets forth the ideal of a bishop living a monastic life in community with his clergy. There can be no doubt that Augustine himself was trained as a monk for Pope Gregory states in a letter to King AEthelbehrt:

Our most reverend brother Bishop Augustine, who was brought up under a monastic Rule (in monasterii regula edoctus), is ?lled with the knowledge of the holy scripture and endowed with good works through the grace of God.

Augustine established his episcopal church, dedicated to the Holy Savior, in the royal city of Canterbury. This church, according to Bede, was extant from Roman times. King AEthelbehrt, at Augustine’s behest, built a monastery ‘not far from the city’, dedicated to SS Peter and Paul.

This monastery had its own abbot, a priest named Peter, who was sent on a mission to Gaul, where he drowned. We thereby learn at a stroke that monasteries could exist separately from a bishop’s church, that they were ruled by abbots who were in orders, and that abbots could be engaged in missionary work away from their monasteries (Bradley, 1999).

The great bishops known to us from early English history (Bettenson, 1972) Augustine, Mellitus, Aldhelm, Wilfrid, Theodore ? were monks. Aldhelm and Wilfrid were abbots before they became bishops. Augustine doubtless served vice abbatis in his own household. In his Life of Cuthbert, Bede accords approval to the form of organization in which a monastery can hold both a bishop and an abbot with his monks:

And let no one be surprised that, though we have said above that in this island of Lindisfarne, small as it is, there is found the seat of a bishop, now we say also that it is the home of an abbot and monks; for it is actually so. For one and the same dwelling- place of the servants of God holds both; and indeed all are monks. Aidan, who was the ?rst bishop of this place, was a monk and always lived according to the monastic rule together with his followers (Higgitt, 2004). Hence all the bishops of that place up to the present time exercise their episcopal functions in such a way that the abbot, whom they themselves have chosen by the advice of the brethren, rules the monastery; and all the priests, deacons, singers and readers, and the other ecclesiastical grades, together with the bishop himself, keep the monastic rule in all things (Carey, 2000). The blessed Pope Gregory showed that he greatly approved of this mode of life, when Augustine, the ?rst bishop he had sent to the English, asked him in his letters how bishops ought to live with their clergy …

Bede seems actually pleased to report that the model established by the holy Irish monk and bishop Aidan agrees in the essentials with the recommendations of Pope Gregory to Augustine, founder of the English Church (Henry, 2001). We learn from the same passage that Cuthbert, while serving as prior of the community at Lindisfarne, was engaged in teaching both monks and laymen:

So the man of the Lord came to the church or monastery of Lindisfarne, and soon equally by his life and his doctrine taught the monastic rule to the brethren. Moreover in accordance with his custom he also by frequent visits aroused the common people (uulgi multitudinem) round about to seek and earn heavenly rewards.

It is likely that for England, just as for Ireland, there was no single model of monastic organization. Bede’s Lindisfarne was one type, but there were others. As noted, Augustine established a separate monastery under an abbot, whom he appointed. This early situation persisted at least down to Theodore’s time, when ?rst Benedict Bishop, then Hadrian, were appointed

Just as there was a variety of organizational types, there was a diversity of monastic rules. The rule introduced by Aidan in Lindisfarne was doubtless based on the rule of the ‘mother house’ at Iona. The same may be assumed of Melrose. The Benedictine Rule, which was apparently unknown in Ireland, had its advocates in England, particularly the in-uential Benedict Bishop. Benedict trained at Lerins and professed there, but this may have occurred during or after the period of reform when the mixed Columbanian- Benedictine Rule was introduced. It is probably this mixed rule that was commonly used in Benedict Biscop’s monasteries in Northumbria. Given Pope Gregory’s expressed preference for bishops living in community with their monks, it is unlikely that a pure Benedictine Rule, with its distrust of priests living in monasteries, would have been widely observed. Furthermore, a strict Benedictinism would not have been consistent with episcopal appointments of abbots, such as we see not only in Bede’s Lindisfarne but also in Wessex, where Aldhelm owed his appointment as abbot of Malmesbury to Bishop Leuthere.

Legislation governing monastic organization was introduced in two prominent places: in the canons of the Council of Hertford, held in September of 673, and in the penitential attributed to Theodore, compiled by a disciple, but re-ecting his teaching on many points. The two documents agree with each other in preserving monasteries from episcopal interference, and thus are in sympathy with the Benedictine spirit (Bettenson, 1972). Chapter III of the Council is sweeping in its prohibition: ‘That no bishop shall in any way interfere with any monasteries dedicated to God nor take away forcibly any part of their property’. Canons of the penitential grant to the monastic community the right of selecting its own abbot (canons I and III). Moreover, the sins or errors of abbots do not give grounds to a bishop to seize monastic property (canon V). Also consistent with Benedictinism is the disapproval expressed against double monasteries in canon VIII:


All the way through the next two centuries, Britain experienced the reintroduction of Christianity and the political amalgamation of England. Christianity was reintroduced to Britain from two fronts: Ireland and Rome. The Irish Celtic church which had been pressed back into Wales, Cornwall, and Ireland to be precise, made moves ahead among the Anglo-?

Saxons in the north from a premature base on Lindisfarne Island. Guided by St. Augustine of Canterbury, the Roman Catholic Church moved forward upon the Anglo-?

Saxons from the south (Carey, 2000).

In 596, Pope Gregory I (Gregory the Great) sent an army of missionaries to England under the management of Augustine (of Canterbury, not Hippo). Augustine and his revered monks came at the court of Ethelbert, King of Kent (at Canterbury in Kent), a foremost monarch in the middle of the other Anglo-?

Saxon monarchs, in 597. Ethelbert wedded Bertha, a Christian Frankish princess, and being influenced by Bertha and Augustine, Ethelbert accepted Christianity and was baptized in 603. Augustine was christened archbishop by Pope Gregory and got a citadel in Canterbury from King Ethelbert. For these grounds, Canterbury turned out to be the middle of the life of the English Church (Higgitt, 2004).

In Northumbria, Celtic Christianity melted with the Christianity of Rome. Celtic Christianity had been introduced from Ireland to Scotland by Saint Columba and then to Northumbria by Saint Aidan. In gradual progression, Northumbria came to be revered as the dominant kingdom amongst all the kingdoms of Britain. Rome was victorious in its bid to control the spiritual life of Britain when Northumbria’s King Oswy formally established Roman Christianity as the state religion at the Synod of Whitby. Four years afterward (668), Theodore of Tarsus turned out to be archbishop of Canterbury, fashioned dioceses, and gave the English church its fundamental structure.

The gathering of Celtic and Roman Christianity in Northumbria formed a swell up of scholarship unsurpassed in Western Europe:

The Venerable Bede, a Northumbrian monk, was the most exceptional European scholar of his epoch He is revered for his Ecclesiastical History of the English People. Alcuin of York, a different Northumbrian, was selected by Charlemagne.


Bettenson, H. (Tr.) St. Augustine Concerning the City of God Against the Pagans (London 1972)

Bradley, I. Celtic Christianity: Making Myths and Chasing Dreams (Edinburgh 1999)

Carey, J. King of Mysteries: Early Irish Religious Writings (Dublin 2000)

Cook, a.S. The Anglo-Saxon Cross (Hamdon Ct 1977)

Higgitt, John. Vision and Image in Early Christian England. The Catholic Historical Review, April 2004

Henry, Patrick. Remembering for the Future. The Virginia Quarterly Review, Winter 2001

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