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§ 10. The Mission of Gregory and Augustin. Conversion of Kent, a.d. 595–604.


With the conquest of the Anglo-Saxons, who were heathen barbarians, Christianity was nearly extirpated in Britain. Priests were cruelly massacred, churches and monasteries were destroyed, together with the vestiges of a weak Roman civilization. The hatred and weakness of the Britons prevented them from offering the gospel to the conquerors, who in turn would have rejected it from contempt of the conquered.2222    Bede (I. 22) counts it among the most wicked acts or neglects rather, of the Britons mentioned even by their own historian Gildas, that they, never preached the faith to the Saxons who dwelt among them.

But fortunately Christianity was re-introduced from a remote country, and by persons who had nothing to do with the quarrels of the two races. To Rome, aided by the influence of France, belongs the credit of reclaiming England to Christianity and civilization. In England the first, and, we may say, the only purely national church in the West was founded, but in close union with the papacy. “The English church,” says Freeman, “reverencing Rome, but not slavishly bowing down to her, grew up with a distinctly national character, and gradually infused its influence into all the feelings and habits of the English people. By the end of the seventh century, the independent, insular, Teutonic church had become one of the brightest lights of the Christian firmament. In short, the introduction of Christianity completely changed the position of the English nation, both within its own island and towards the rest of the world.”2323    History of the Norman conquest of England, Vol. I., p. 22 (Oxford ed. of 1873).

The origin of the Anglo-Saxon mission reads like a beautiful romance. Pope Gregory I., when abbot of a Benedictine convent, saw in the slave-market of Rome three Anglo-Saxon boys offered for sale. He was impressed with their fine appearance, fair complexion, sweet faces and light flaxen hair; and learning, to his grief, that they were idolaters, he asked the name of their nation, their country, and their king. When he heard that they were Angles, he said: “Right, for they have angelic faces, and are worthy to be fellow-heirs with angels in heaven.” They were from the province Deira. “Truly,” he replied, “are they De-ira-ns, that is, plucked from the ire of God, and called to the mercy of Christ.” He asked the name of their king, which was AElla or Ella (who reigned from 559 to 588). “Hallelujah,” he exclaimed, “the praise of God the Creator must be sung in those parts.” He proceeded at once from the slave market to the pope, and entreated him to send missionaries to England, offering himself for this noble work. He actually started for the spiritual conquest of the distant island. But the Romans would not part with him, called him back, and shortly afterwards elected him pope (590). What he could not do in person, he carried out through others.2424    Beda (B. II., ch.1 at the close) received this account “from the ancients” (ab antiquis, or traditione majorum), but gives it as an episode, not as a part of the English mission (which is related I. 53). The elaborate play on words excites critical suspicion of the truth of the story, which, though well told, is probably invented or embellished, like so many legends about Gregory, .”Se non vero, e ben trovato.”

In the year 596, Gregory, remembering his interview with the sweet-faced and fair-haired Anglo-Saxon slave-boys, and hearing of a favorable opportunity for a mission, sent the Benedictine abbot Augustin (Austin), thirty other monks, and a priest, Laurentius, with instructions, letters of recommendation to the Frank kings and several bishops of Gaul, and a few books, to England.2525    Among these books were a Bible in 2 vols., a Psalter, a book of the Gospels, a Martyrology, Apocryphal Lives of the Apostles, and some Commentaries. “These are the foundation or beginning of the library of the whole English church.” The missionaries, accompanied by some interpreters from France, landed on the isle of Thanet in Kent, near the mouth of the Thames.2626    The first journey of Augustin, in 595, was a failure. He started finally for England July 23d, 596, wintered in Gaul, and landed in England the following year with about forty persons, including Gallic priests and interpreters. Haddan and Stubbs, III. 4. King Ethelbert, by his marriage to Bertha, a Christian princess from Paris, who had brought a bishop with her, was already prepared for a change of religion. He went to meet the strangers and received them in the open air; being afraid of some magic if he were to see them under roof. They bore a silver cross for their banner, and the image of Christ painted on a board; and after singing the litany and offering prayers for themselves and the people whom they had come to convert, they preached the gospel through their Frank interpreters. The king was pleased with the ritualistic and oratorical display of the new religion from distant, mighty Rome, and said: “Your words and promises are very fair; but as they are new to us and of uncertain import, I cannot forsake the religion I have so long followed with the whole English nation. Yet as you are come from far, and are desirous to benefit us, I will supply you with the necessary sustenance, and not forbid you to preach and to convert as many as you can to your religion.”2727    Bede I. 25. Accordingly, he allowed them to reside in the City of Canterbury (Dorovern, Durovernum), which was the metropolis of his kingdom, and was soon to become the metropolis of the Church of England. They preached and led a severe monastic life. Several believed and were baptized, “admiring,” as Bede says, “the simplicity of their innocent life, and the sweetness of their heavenly doctrine.” He also mentions miracles. Gregory warned Augustin not to be puffed up by miracles, but to rejoice with fear, and to tremble in rejoicing, remembering what the Lord said to his disciples when they boasted that even the devils were subject to them. For not all the elect work miracles, and yet the names of all are written in heaven.2828    “Non enim omnes electi miracula faciunt, sed tamen eorum omnium nomina in caelo sunt ascripta.“Greg., Ad Augustinum Anglorum Episcopum, Epp. Lib. XI. 28, and Bede I. 31.

King Ethelbert was converted and baptized (probably June 2, 597), and drew gradually his whole nation after him, though he was taught by the missionaries not to use compulsion, since the service of Christ ought to be voluntary.

Augustin, by order of pope Gregory, was ordained archbishop of the English nation by Vergilius,2929    Not AEtherius, as Bede has it, I. 27, and in other places. AEtherius was the contemporary archbishop of Lyons. archbishop of Arles, Nov. 16, 597, and became the first primate of England, with a long line of successors even to this day. On his return, at Christmas, he baptized more than ten thousand English. His talents and character did not rise above mediocrity, and he bears no comparison whatever with his great namesake, the theologian and bishop of Hippo; but he was, upon the whole, well fitted for his missionary work, and his permanent success lends to his name the halo of a borrowed greatness. He built a church and monastery at Canterbury, the mother-church of Anglo-Saxon Christendom. He sent the priest Laurentius to Rome to inform the pope of his progress and to ask an answer to a number of questions concerning the conduct of bishops towards their clergy, the ritualistic differences between the Roman and the Gallican churches, the marriage of two brothers to two sisters, the marriage of relations, whether a bishop may be ordained without other bishops being present, whether a woman with child ought to be baptized, how long after the birth of an infant carnal intercourse of married people should be delayed, etc. Gregory answered these questions very fully in the legalistic and ascetic spirit of the age, yet, upon the whole, with much good sense and pastoral wisdom.3030    Bede I. 27 sqq. gives extracts from Gregory’s answers. It is curious how the pope handles such delicate subjects as the monthly courses and the carnal intercourse between married people. A husband, he says, should not approach his wife after the birth of an infant, till the infant be weaned. Mothers should not give their children to other women to suckle. A man who has approached his wife is not to enter the church unless washed with water and till after sunset. We see here the genius of Romanism which aims to control by its legislation all the ramifications of human life, and to shackle the conscience by a subtle and minute casuistry. Barbarians, however, must be treated like children.

It is remarkable that this pope, unlike his successors, did not insist on absolute conformity to the Roman church, but advises Augustin, who thought that the different customs of the Gallican church were inconsistent with the unity of faith, “to choose from every church those things that are pious, religious and upright;” for “things are not to be loved for the sake of places, but places for the sake of good things.”3131    “Non enim pro locis res, sed pro bonis rebus loca amanda sunt. Ex singulis ergo quibusdam ecclesiis, quae pia, quae religiosa, quae recta sunt, elige, et haec quasi in fasciculum collecta apud Anglorum mentes in consuetudinem depone.” Gr. Respons. ad interrogat. Aug., Ep. XI. 64, and Bede I. 27. In other respects, the advice falls in with the papal system and practice. He directs the missionaries not to destroy the heathen temples, but to convert them into Christian churches, to substitute the worship of relics for the worship of idols, and to allow the new converts, on the day of dedication and other festivities, to kill cattle according to their ancient custom, yet no more to the devils, but to the praise of God; for it is impossible, he thought, to efface everything at once from their obdurate minds; and he who endeavors to ascend to the highest place, must rise by degrees or steps, and not by leaps.3232    “Is qui locum summum ascendere nititur, gradibus wel passibus, saltibus elevatur.” Ep. lib. XI. 76 (and Bede I. 30). This epistle of the year 601 is addressed to Mellitus on his way to England, but is intended for Augustin ad faciliorem Anglorum conversionem. In Sardinia, where Christianity already prevailed, Gregory advised Bishop Januarius to suppress the remaining heathenism by imprisonment and corporal punishment. This method was faithfully followed by his missionaries. It no doubt facilitated the nominal conversion of England, but swept a vast amount of heathenism into the Christian church, which it took centuries to eradicate.

Gregory sent to Augustin, June 22, 601, the metropolitan pall (pallium), several priests (Mellitus, Justus, Paulinus, and others), many books, sacred vessels and vestments, and relics of apostles and martyrs. He directed him to ordain twelve bishops in the archiepiscopal diocese of Canterbury, and to appoint an archbishop for York, who was also to ordain twelve bishops, if the country adjoining should receive the word of God. Mellitus was consecrated the first bishop of London; Justus, bishop of Rochester, both in 604 by Augustin (without assistants); Paulinus, the first archbishop of York, 625, after the death of Gregory and Augustin.3333    York and London had been the first metropolitan sees among the Britons. London was even then, as Bede (II. 3) remarks, a mart of many nations resorting to it by sea and land. The pope sent also letters and presents to king Ethelbert, “his most excellent son,” exhorting him to persevere in the faith, to commend it by good works among his subjects, to suppress the worship of idols, and to follow the instructions of Augustin.



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