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Anglo-Saxons, Conversion of the
ANGLO-SAXONS, CONVERSION OF THE: The Angles, Saxons, and kindred peoples who by the end of the sixth century were established in the east of Britain from the Forth southward and in the greater part of the south, in their Continental homes were all worshipers of Woden, whom they considered their ancestor. They dispossessed in England a fully Christianized people, but did not adopt their religion (see Celtic Church In Britain and Ireland). The first Christian church among them was Frankish in origin and was established in Kent, whose king, Ethelbert (c. 560-616), married a Christian Princess, Bertha, daughter of Charibert, king of Paris. She was granted full freedom of religion in her new home, and brought with her to England a Christian chaplain, Liudhard by name. A ruined church near Canterbury, dating from Roman times (St. Martin’s, three quarters of a mile east of the present cathedral), was repaired for her use.
Gregory the Great Sends a Mission to Kent.
The real conversion of the Anglo-Saxons, however, is properly regarded as begun by Pope Gregory the Great (590-604). As the story goes (Bede, Hist. eccl., ii. 1), while Gregory was still a deacon, either in 578 or 585, he saw one day in the slave-market at Rome certain boys whose fair complexion, bright faces, and golden hair excited his admiration. Inquiring about them, he was told that they were Angles; whereupon he exclaimed “No wonder, for they have the faces of angels.” Informed that they were heathen and from Deira, he remarked “From wrath [de ira] they must be saved and called to the mercy of Christ. Who is their king?” “Ælle,” was the reply; and the pun-loving Italian concluded, “Alleluia! the praises of God must be sung in those parts.” Betaking himself to the pope, Gregory asked that he be allowed to go in person as missionary to the land of the captives, but the Romans would not permit him at that time to leave their city. When he became pope, Gregory remembered the beautiful captives. He tried to find English boys whom he could instruct at Rome and then send to their people; and in 596 he despatched a mission of monks to England under the lead of Augustine (see Augustine, Saint, of Canterbury). When Augustine died (604 or 605) Kent had been converted and the gospel had found entrance into Essex. Justus and Mellitus had been established as bishops at Rochester (for West Kent) and London (for the East-Saxons), respectively. With the consent of his witan, Ethelbert promulgated laws recognizing the Church as an institution and Christian obligations. A heathen reaction followed Ethelbert’s death (616), which for a time checked further advances from Canterbury (see Justus; Laurence; Mellitus).
Northumbria and Wessex.
As in Kent, so in Northumbria the way for the introduction of Christianity was prepared by the marriage (625) of the king, Edwin, with a Christian Princess, Ethelburga, daughter of Ethelbert of Kent. She was accompanied to the North by Paulinus, who became first bishop of York and converted King Edwin and many of his people (see Edwin; Paulinus). The work was interrupted and many of its results destroyed in 633, when Penda, king of Mercia, a heathen champion, in alliance with the Britons of Wales, overthrew and slew Edwin. It was resumed in 635 by Aidan supported by King Oswald, and was completed by their successors (see Aidan, Saint; Oswald, Saint; Oswy). At the same time the West-Saxons were gained for Christianity by Birinus. The church of Aidan and Oswald, however, had no connection with Canterbury or Rome, but was organized as a part of the old British or Celtic Church, and continued such till the synod of Whitby in 664.180
Mercia and Essex.
A marriage between Peada, son of Penda and under-king of the Middle-Angles, with a Northumbrian princess, daughter of Oswy, led to his conversion. He was baptized by Finan, Aidan’s successor at Lindisfarne, in 653. Finan also baptized (probably at the same time) Sigbert, king of Essex, which had relapsed into heathenism after the time of Augustine. Peada’s conversion was followed by that of his people. Four priests of the Northumbrian Church, Cedd, Adda, Betti, and Diuma, settled in his kingdom, and even Penda did not restrict their preaching. Penda, the last powerful pagan ruler, was slain in battle with Oswy of Northumbria in 655, and the complete Christianization of Mercia soon followed. Diuma was consecrated bishop of Mercia by Finan, probably in 656. His see was at Lichfield. About ten years later Diuma’s third successor, Jaruman, supported by Wulfhere, king of Mercia, and Penda’s son, completed the conversion of Essex, a part of whose people had a second time relapsed into heathenism.
Christianity was introduced into East Anglia from Kent; but the only result was that the king, Redwald, set up Christian and heathen altars side by side. An obscure story connected with the conversion of Edwin of Northumbria (Bede, Hist. eccl., ii. 12) has led to the conjecture that Paulinus may have been sent on a mission to East Anglia before 616. Eorpwald, Redwald’s son, became a Christian through the influence of Edwin in 627 or 628, but in the same year he was killed by a heathen. After three years his brother, Sigbert, who had accepted Christianity in Gaul, gained the throne, and with the help of Felix, who became bishop of Dunwich in 631, evangelized the land.
Sussex received the Gospel through the labors of Wilfrid of York between 681 and 686, although its king, Ethelwalh, had been baptized earlier in Mercia and had made some unsuccessful efforts to introduce the Gospel. Its first bishop was Eadbert (709).
The Anglo-Saxon Church.
The Anglo-Saxon Church, like all churches of the early Middle Ages, had in many respects a national character. The wishes of the kings determined the appointment of bishops, if indeed the kings did not directly name them. Princes and rulers took part in synods, and bishops attended the councils of the rulers. Kings issued ecclesiastical orders. The Anglo-Saxon tongue was heard in divine service, and the baptismal formula also was Anglo-Saxon. The Old and New Testaments were read in Anglo-Saxon, and old homilies were translated into the vernacular. Dioceses were formed according to political divisions and were named after peoples rather than towns.
Bibliography: Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, ed. B. Thorpe, in Rolls Series, No. 23, 2 vols., 1861; also ed. C. Plummer, Oxford, 1892; Bede, historical works, particularly Hist. eccl., ed. C. Plummer, 2 vols., Oxford, 1896; Gildas, De excidio et conquestu Britanniæ, ed. T. Mommsen, in MGH, Chronica minora, iii. (1898) 1-85; also ed. H. Williams, with transl., London, 1899; the letters of Gregory the Great, ed. P. Ewald and L. M. Hartmann, in MGH, Epistolæ, i.-ii., 1887-93; those relating to the mission to England, with other material pertaining to St. Augustine, in The Mission of St. Augustine, ed. A. J. Mason, Cambridge, 1897; Haddan and Stubbs, Councils, vol. iii.; J. M. Lappenberg, Geschichte von England, i., Hamburg, 1834, Eng. transl., A History of England, under the Anglo-Saxon Kings, 2 vols., London, 1845; B. Thorpe, Ancient Laws and Institutes of England, ib. 1840; R. Schmid, Die Gesetze der Angelsachsen, Leipsic, 1858; J. M. Kemble, The Saxons in England, ii. 342-496, London, 1876; J. R. Green, History of the English People, vol. i., book i., ib. 1877; idem, The Making of England, ib. 1882; W. Stubbs, The Constitutional History of England, i., ch. viii., Oxford, 1883; E. Winkelmann, Geschichte der Angelsachsen bis zum Tode König Alfreds, Berlin, 1884; W. Bright, Early English Church History, Oxford, 1897; W. Hunt, The English Church from its Foundation to the Norman Conquest, London, 1899.
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