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Augustine of Canterbury |
A mission to the

Augustine of Canterbury is drawn from Chapter Eight, beginning on page 222, of Volume Five, The Sword of Islam of the twelve-volume historical series The Christians: Their First Two Thousand Years. If you would like to order this book please visit

Touched by the sight of a group of tall, fair-haired captives in Rome’s slave market, Pope Gregory dispatches Augustine to bring the light of God to the heathen English

Augustine of Canterbury - A mission to the ‘angels’

Augustine of Canterbury - A mission to the ‘angels’
A tenth-century German ivory (above), from Vienna’s Kunsthistorisches Museum, showing Gregory the Great and three scribes busy writing. A prolific letter writer, Gregory wrote a number of introductions to ease the passage of Augustine’s mission through Frankish kingdoms often embroiled in civil war.

In the early summer of 597, a lumbering Frankish merchant vessel coasted along the towering chalk cliffs that mark the shores of southeast England. Entering the broad reach of Sandwich Bay, it negotiated its way through treacherous sandbars and into a mile-wide arm of muddy water separating the island of Thanet from the mainland. In the prow of the vessel stood a tall, broad-shouldered cleric in a russet-colored robe, and behind him crowded a hushed and somber group of more than thirty similarly garbed monks. The silence was broken only by the cries of circling gulls and the shouts of crewmen as they eased the ship alongside a crude mooring. After an absence of more than a century and a half, the Romans had returned to Britain.

The man leading this mission was no general and his troops were armed with nothing more than hope and conviction, yet they were destined to have a more lasting impact than the legions disembarked not far away by Julius Caesar in 54 b.c. In charge of this new Roman invasion was Augustine, prior of St. Andrew’s Monastery in Rome. He had led his company of monks more than eleven hundred miles across Europe, through potentially hostile lands, with a mandate from his mentor, Pope Gregory, to bring the light of God to the heathen English. It was no small undertaking, but Augustine shared at least one trait with the conquering Julius: a powerful determination to succeed.

Augustine landed in what is now the county of Kent, and was then the kingdom of the same name (in the local language, it was called Cantware). It had been the first area of Britain conquered and settled by the pagan north German invaders after the departure of the Roman legions in the early fifth century. Among the first to land had been a party led by the warrior brothers Horst and Hengest, who initially were welcomed by the local Britons, and given Thanet in payment for their aid in holding off later arrivals. Yet nothing had delayed for long the onslaught of the Saxons, their cousins the Jutes, and the even more ferocious Angles (after whom the conquered lands would eventually be named).

The process of conquest had been slow but unrelenting, and by the time of Augustine’s arrival, the Saxons and Jutes were in possession of most of southern and central England, while the Angles ruled the eastern half of the island. After 150 years of intermittent warfare, the Celtic Britons had been pushed into the rugged southwest peninsula of Cornwall, the mountains of Wales, and western England from the estuary of the river Severn to southern Scotland.

In the late-sixth century, the outside world knew little about Britain or its people. There was some trade between the island and the nearby European mainland, but to all intents and purposes, it had become a land of myth and legend.1 So, with the Lombards at the gates of Rome, the Frankish kings mangling Gaul with endless, bloody civil wars, and Christianity fighting for its very survival in so many parts of the former western empire, why did Gregory choose this moment to send a party of monks on a mission to a distant and almost forgotten corner of the old empire? After all, the conversion of the invaders, up to this point, had been of concern only to Irish missionaries based on the island of Iona on the west coast of Scotland. (See Darkness Descends, chapter 9.)

Perhaps because Gregory was one of the few in Rome who had not forgotten it. There is a story, possibly legendary, but known to generations of English schoolchildren, which tells of Gregory walking through the slave market in the Roman Forum and noticing a group of tall, fair-haired captives. When informed that they were Angles from Britain, he noted that this seemed appropriate, “for they have angel faces, and it becomes such to be coheirs with the angels in heaven.” The incident is said to have made such an impression on Gregory, then an abbot, that he asked for and was granted permission to lead a mission to these people. That mission was aborted (with Gregory being recalled after three days on the road), but it seems likely that he never quite forgot about his barbarian angels.

So, seven years after being consecrated bishop of Rome, Gregory called upon the energetic and reliable Augustine, a veteran church administrator and monk much like himself, to reestablish a Roman presence in Britain. The middle-aged Augustine was prior of the monastery Gregory had founded on the site of his family’s estate in Rome, and as such, was bound to Gregory as his abbot as well as his pope. It was this man who was tasked to lead a group of monks to convert the English, who Gregory imagined “placed in the corner of the world, and until this time worshiping sticks and stones.”

Augustine’s original destination was the eastern part of the island populated by Gregory’s Angles, but by the time the party had reached southern Gaul, the monks were stricken with serious second thoughts about the whole mission. It is not known whether this change of heart was caused by news of strife between the Franks, who were embroiled in yet another civil war, or a clearer picture of the barbarous English gained from merchants who had been to Britain, but Augustine traveled back to Rome to report to Gregory on a serious crisis of confidence among his followers.

Gregory gave Augustine a letter to the monks, urging them to stiffen their resolve, and strengthened Augustine’s authority by making him their abbot. In his letter, the pope urged, “Let not the toil of the journey nor the tongues of men predicting evil deter you; but with all earnestness and zeal finish what, by God’s direction, you have begun, knowing that a great labor is followed by a greater glory of eternal reward.”

The mission’s destination was also changed. It would now proceed to Kent and the kingdom of Ethelbert, who some thirty years earlier had married Bertha, a Christian Frankish princess and daughter of a king of Paris. Augustine had undoubtedly learned that Kent was the oldest and currently most powerful of the English kingdoms, and that Ethelbert had allowed his queen to practice her religion, and even to bring with her a Frankish bishop, Luidhard. So there were some Christians in Kent, and Augustine might reasonably have surmised that the chances of a friendly reception would be greater. In that fateful decision lay both the success and limitations of Augustine’s mission.

Ethelbert, in his little capital of Durovernum (Canterbury), was probably unaware that he was the target of a Roman mission, but converting a king was the surest way of converting his people. Yet why would a pagan king, already well into middle age, consider changing his beliefs? If he were at all inclined to Christianity (a reasonable possibility after three decades of marriage to a Christian queen), why had Bishop Luidhard not convinced Ethelbert?

The most likely answer is politics. Ethelbert’s marriage suggests good connections to the powerful Franks, but conversion by his wife’s bishop might have suggested too much foreign influence.

Augustine’s arrival in Kent is recorded in detail by the most gifted chronicler of the early history of the English church, the Venerable Bede, in his Ecclesiastical History of the English People. Written around 731, the Northumbrian monk’s meticulously researched history has been recognized as a monument of scholarship for over twelve centuries.

Bede says that Augustine and his party were asked to wait at Thanet while the king considered what to do about them. They did not have to wait long. After a few days, Ethelbert and his court arrived and the monks were summoned to an audience with the king. An ancient oak tree in a clearing on the island was for centuries believed by locals to mark the place of the encounter. Bede says it took place in the open because of Ethelbert’s superstitious reluctance to meet the Romans indoors “if they had any witchcraft, they might on their entrance get the better of him.”

It must have been a striking scene. The grizzled warrior Ethelbert, fully armed and in his kingly regalia, seated with Queen Bertha and surrounded by sharp-eyed nobles, ready to defend their king from these peculiar newcomers. Bede tells us that the monks entered the clearing behind a tall cross and bearing a painting of Christ. They sang a litany as they walked towards the king, praying for the salvation of his people. The tall and dignified Augustine was invited to sit while he spoke to Ethelbert of the purpose of his mission.

Ethelbert’s response to this overture was canny. According to Bede, the king told Augustine, “Your words and promises are plausible, but since they are new and doubtful, I cannot at once assent to them, and leave the customs which I have long observed with the whole English race.” In other words, “I’ll think about it.” But he welcomed the Romans to his capital at Canterbury, and allowed them to begin their missionary work.

For Ethelbert, conversion by an emissary of fabled Rome would, no doubt, have seemed flattering, and perhaps more politically advantageous than conversion by a Frankish bishop. He would also have been aware of the success in battle of the Christian Frankish kings, and no doubt been impressed by it. Success on the battlefield was a Saxon king’s major responsibility (and only guarantee of longevity), and the idea of having Christ in his corner would have had a practical appeal.

The exact timing of Ethelbert’s conversion is not known, but he may have been baptized before the end of 597, and thousands of the king’s subjects were baptized during the mission’s first Christmas in England. For Augustine, this was a crucial first step. Ethelbert was the overlord (in Saxon, the bretwalda), of a large piece of southeast and central England, extending from the Channel coast northwards to the river Humber. The patronage of this powerful chieftain allowed Augustine to quickly establish churches in the old Roman town of Durobrevis (Rochester), twenty-five miles northwest of Canterbury, and then in London. In 601, a second party of monks arrived from Rome to reinforce Augustine’s mission, which was busy building a monastery at Canterbury.

But having secured the conversion of Ethelbert and much of southeast England, Augustine was now faced with the challenge of extending his mission northwards and westwards. To the west of the Saxon lands were the original inhabitants of the island, the Celtic Britons, who presented Augustine with an interesting problem. Many were already Christian.

The Celtic church in mainland Britain, reinforced by the Celtic Irish missions from Iona, had survived during the Saxon onslaught and a century and a half of, at best, sporadic contact with Rome. It is clear from Gregory’s instructions to Augustine, which gave him authority over “all the bishops of Britain,” that he was aware of the existence of Celtic bishops, but in Rome, little was known of the state of Celtic Christianity; which may help explain Augustine’s behavior when he attempted to reestablish Roman authority over these little-known provincials.

There was no central church government among the Celts, and Bede informs us that “Augustine, using the help of King Ethelbert, summoned to a conference the bishops and doctors of the nearest province of the Britons.” It took place somewhere on the western borders of English territory, likely a few miles from the Severn estuary. According to Bede, this first meeting was cordial, with a disagreement over the dating of Easter the only significant issue.

It is not, however, difficult to imagine Celtic misgivings. It was not that they failed to recognize the prestige of Rome. They always had, in theory at least. As historian Margaret Deanesly (Augustine of Canterbury) puts it: “Rome was very distant, but certainly very holy.” The problem was that these Roman newcomers had arrived under the protection of enemies with whom the Celts had been locked in a life and death struggle for a century and a half. In fact, only thirty years earlier, one of the few Celtic ecclesiastical documents of the period to survive (the Synod of Lucus Victoriae) imposed a heavy penance on any Christian who acted as a guide to the English “barbarians,” or in any way aided them.

It is also likely that the Celtic bishops felt deserving of a certain amount of respect for keeping Christianity alive in Britain in the face of invasion and slaughter. The Anglo-Saxon tribes were, in the opinion of many historians, more fearsome than the Goths or Franks, yet the Celtic Britons had withstood them for generations, while at the same time successfully preserving their faith. In fact, the sixth century had produced a number of very holy Celtic fathers who had done much to strengthen the church, among them the saintly Dewy or David (patron saint of the Welsh). Now along came this Roman demanding to know why they had not been busy converting the invaders!

By the time of a second meeting with Augustine, Bede says the Celtic bishops had taken the advice of a wise hermit on how they should respond to the emissary of Rome. The hermit suggested that if Augustine were “meek and lowly of heart” they ought to listen to him. If, however, “he is not meek, but proud, it is clear that he is not of God, nor should you give heed to his word.” The hermit suggested a disarmingly simple test of Augustine’s humility: If he stood to greet the Britons, they should listen to him. If he remained seated, “Let him in turn be scorned by you.”

Augustine, of course, knew nothing of this, and his demeanor at the second conference was beyond unfortunate. He remained seated, and when the Celts did not quickly fall into line, Augustine resorted to threats. He warned the Celts “that if they would not receive peace with their brethren, they would get war from their enemies, and that if they would not preach the way of life to the English people, they would in revenge find death at their hands.”2

As Britain’s preeminent twentieth-century leader, Winston Churchill notes, in his History Of The English-Speaking Peoples, an opportunity had been lost for “a general and lasting peace for both races, reconciled in the name of Christ.” Churchill identifies two reasons for this historic lapse: “First, the sullen and jealous temper of the British bishops, and secondly, the tactless arrogance of Augustine.”

The sad failure to make any inroads with the Celtic British Christians effectively marked the limit of Augustine’s mission. He consolidated the foothold made in Kent, but was unable to spread the gospel much beyond Ethelbert’s sphere of influence. He died in Canterbury in 604, and was later buried in the monastery church of St. Peter and St. Paul. The Roman mission continued, but it remained dependent upon royal support and developed into a stop-and-go affair of conversion and relapse–even in Kent.

Old King Ethelbert died in 616 and was succeeded by his impetuous and pagan son Eadbald. Despite the protests of Lawrence, Augustine’s successor as bishop of Canterbury, Eadbald married his stepmother (Ethelbert’s much younger, second wife). Farther north, in the kingdom of the Middle Saxons, it was much the same story. The Christian chieftain Sabert died, and his three pagan sons demanded the sacrament from Augustine’s appointee as bishop of London, Mellitus. When Mellitus refused, they ran him out of town, and he fled to his fellow bishop, Justus, in Rochester. Seriously unnerved, the pair then decided to retreat to Christian Gaul, and urged Lawrence to join them.

Augustine’s foothold in England stood in peril of complete collapse, but Lawrence was made of sterner stuff than his colleagues. He had his bed moved into the church of the monastery at Canterbury in search of divine inspiration. It is said that as he slept, St. Peter appeared to him, and scourged him for daring to think of abandoning his flock. In the morning, Lawrence, his courage restored, showed the welts on his back to Eadbald, who was suitably impressed, and shortly renounced both his paganism and his new wife.

Mellitus and Justus eventually returned to England, and both, in turn, served as bishop in Canterbury. It would be forty years before London had another bishop, but Justus was able to take advantage of a favorable political development and extend the Christian mission to northern England, to the distant kingdom of Northumbria.

Edwin, Northumbria’s energetic young ruler, had become the new overlord of the English, and had married the Kentish princess Ethelberga (Eadbald’s sister). Like her mother, Bertha, she was a Christian who insisted on practicing her religion and bringing with her as spiritual adviser the monk Paulinus. In 625, Paulinus, ordained a bishop, was given the critical task of converting Edwin.

The Northumbrian king dragged his feet for two years, but eventually called a meeting of his nobles and advisers to decide the issue. In one of the most evocative passages in Bede’s history, he recounts a story told at this council by one of Edwin’s warriors:

Man’s present life on earth seems to me, compared with that time beyond which we know nothing, to be as if, when you are sitting at supper with your aldermen and nobles in the winter time, and a fire is lighted in the middle and the hall is warmed, while outside storms of wintry rain and snow are raging, some sparrow were to fly very quickly through the house, in at one door and out another. During the time that he is inside, he is untouched by the storm, but when that little moment of calm has run out, he passes again from the warmth into the winter, and you lose sight of him. So this life of men appears for a little while, but what follows it, and what went before it, we do not know at all. So if this new teaching has brought us anything sure, we should do well, I think, to follow it.

Edwin’s head priest, Coifi, also admitted the futility of his paganism. “I saw long ago that what we worshiped was nothing at all; because the more carefully I sought the truth in that worship, the less I found it.” He even volunteered to tear down the kingdom’s pagan altars. This was enough for Edwin, who was baptized at York, and began construction of a church there.

Sadly, after half a dozen years, a pagan revival swept away most of what Paulinus had achieved, but Christianity stubbornly retained its foothold in Northumbria. The Christian prince Oswald prevented what might have become the complete extinction of the faith in northern England, and as king built a permanent Northumbrian base for the Celtic monks of Iona, the western Scottish island where Columcille had established a mission in 564.3

The monk Aidan arrived as bishop to Oswald’s kingdom, and he proved to be as influential in the conversion of the English as had Augustine. The monastery Aidan founded at Lindisfarne (an island a short distance off the northeast coast of England, near Oswald’s stronghold of Bamburgh) became the spiritual center of the north. Around the same time, Felix, a Burgundian monk from Canterbury, converted many in eastern England, and by 634, the monk Birinus had begun a successful mission in the central area of the island. By the time of Aidan’s death in 651, Christianity appeared firmly established from Northumbria to Kent.

But the patchwork of conversion–Irish monks in the north and midlands, sporadic missions on the east coast–left Canterbury with clear influence only over Kent and part of eastern England. The result was an English church that still lacked the central authority envisaged by Gregory, and in which the Celtic monks of Iona had great influence. Rome undoubtedly saw this as a challenge, for as Margaret Deanesly put it, the Celts held dear “the rugged tradition of monastic holiness that had come to them ultimately from Egypt.” The Celtic calendar and liturgy were from Gaul rather than Rome, and isolation had left Celtic Christianity essentially tribal and rural in nature.

To the Romans, there was probably a dangerous whiff of Pelagianism about the independent-minded Celts. (See Darkness Descends, chapter 5.) Celtic monks even cut their hair differently. The monks of Rome shaved only the tops of their heads, while the Celts are thought to have imitated an earlier form of tonsure borrowed from the pagan Druids that left only a fringe of hair on the forehead. It was, says Churchill, “a choice of the grotesque.”

These issues were resolved at the Synod of Whitby in 664, when Oswald’s son, Oswy, called together Celtic and Roman clerics from around his kingdom to reconcile their differences.4 Whitby traditionally was seen as a “high noon” showdown between Celtic and Roman Christianity, but in recent years, historians have increasingly accepted that the divisions were less pronounced than once thought. There had been notable cooperation between the monks of Iona and Canterbury, and the Celtic church had never seriously disputed the prestige of Rome, viewing its bishop as Peter’s successor. In the view of historian D. J. V. Fisher (The Anglo-Saxon Age), “The divergent practices of the Celtic church were the result not of opposition to Rome, but isolation from it.”

The central dispute, over the dating of Easter, was an ancient one revolving around the method used in calculating the Paschal full moon in relation to the spring equinox. It had once divided Rome from Alexandria and the eastern churches, and more recently had been a point of contention between Columbanus, the Irish missionary to the Burgundians, and Rome. (See Darkness Descends, chapter 9.) In fact, until 525, the Celtic and Roman churches had used the same method to fix Easter, but in that year, most of the Christian world adopted the eastern system. The isolated Celts, who may not even have been aware of the change, continued to date Easter in the manner of their respected saints and church fathers.

At Whitby, Colman, the abbot of Lindisfarne, put the case for the traditional Celtic dating of Easter, while the young cleric Wilfrid, destined to become a major figure in the English Church, argued the Roman cause. King Oswy took little time in deciding in favor of Wilfrid, who had become a close spiritual adviser. For Oswy, governing a kingdom in which some celebrated Easter at one time and some another, Whitby may have seemed nothing more than a sensible housekeeping measure. He was clearly the driving force behind the synod, and it was his authority that now backed the adoption of Roman observances throughout northern and central England.5

Colman relinquished Lindisfarne and took many of its monks back to Iona (and then to Ireland where he founded a monastery at Mayo), but the general impact of Whitby was to further the consolidation of the English church and bind it to the wider Roman world. Within five years of the synod, that process would find a powerful champion in a new archbishop of Canterbury: Theodore, a sixty-seven-year-old Greek monk from St. Paul’s home town of Tarsus in Asia Minor.

Theodore was a controversial choice. Rome was suspicious of Greek clergy, and Pope Vitalian (657—672) was originally reluctant to appoint a Greek to Canterbury. Theodore was also far from youthful, yet during his twenty-one-year episcopate, he did much to transform the English church. He held the first national councils of English bishops, to promote unity, define the limits of jurisdiction, and place some authority over the wandering monks who were still at work in the remaining pockets of paganism. He traveled the length and breadth of England, consecrating bishops and organizing dioceses. Historian Fisher calls Theodore “one of the greatest, if not the greatest of all medieval bishops of Canterbury.”6 Most importantly, Bede says, he was the first archbishop whom the whole of the English church willingly followed.

In nine decades, the mission begun by Augustine had made enormous strides, and the vision of Gregory had to a large extent been realized. The island that had drifted into myth and legend had rejoined the wider world, and the foundations of Anglo-Saxon Christianity had been soundly laid. Bede, writing about forty years after Theodore, was able to describe a Christian England with strong cultural links to the outside world: a country in which paganism was already a fading memory.

“Nor were there ever happier times since the English first came to Britain,” wrote Bede. “For they had strong and Christian kings who were a terror to barbarian peoples; the desires of all were bent on the joys of the heavenly kingdom about which they had recently heard; and whoever wanted to study sacred learning had masters ready to teach him.”

This is the end of the Augustine of Canterbury category article drawn from Chapter Eight, beginning on page 222, of Volume Five, The Sword of Islam. To continue reading more about Augustine of Canterbury from The Christians, Their First Two Thousand Years we suggest experiencing the rest of the book, complete with hundreds of magnificent illustrations, by ordering it at