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§ 12. Conversion of the Other Kingdoms of the Heptarchy.


Augustin, the apostle of the Anglo-Saxons, died a.d. 604, and lies buried, with many of his successors, in the venerable cathedral of Canterbury. On his tomb was written this epitaph: “Here rests the Lord Augustin, first archbishop of Canterbury, who being formerly sent hither by the blessed Gregory, bishop of the city of Rome, and by God’s assistance supported with miracles, reduced king Ethelbert and his nation from the worship of idols to the faith of Christ, and having ended the days of his office in peace, died on the 26th day of May, in the reign of the same king.”3636    Bede II., c. 3; Haddan and Stubbs, III. 53.

He was not a great man; but he did a great work in laying the foundations of English Christianity and civilization.

Laurentius (604–619), and afterwards Mellitus (619–624) succeeded him in his office.

Other priests and monks were sent from Italy, and brought with them books and such culture as remained after the irruption of the barbarians. The first archbishops of Canterbury and York, and the bishops of most of the Southern sees were foreigners, if not consecrated, at least commissioned by the pope, and kept up a constant correspondence with Rome. Gradually a native clergy arose in England.

The work of Christianization went on among the other kingdom of the heptarchy, and was aided by the marriage of kings with Christian wives, but was more than once interrupted by relapse into heathenism. Northumbria was converted chiefly through the labors of the sainted Aidan (d. Aug. 31, 651), a monk from the island Iona or Hii, and the first bishop of Lindisfarne, who is even lauded by Bede for his zeal, piety and good works, although he differed from him on the Easter question.3737    Bede III., c. 14-17; V. 24. Sussex was the last part of the Heptarchy which renounced paganism. It took nearly a hundred years before England was nominally converted to the Christian religion.3838    See the details of the missionary labors in the seven kingdoms in Bede; also in Milman l.c.; and the documents in Haddan and Stubbs, vol. III.

To this conversion England owes her national unity and the best elements of her civilization.3939    “The conversion of the heptarchic kingdom,” says Professor Stubbs (Constitutional History of England, Vol. I., p. 217), “during the seventh century not only revealed to Europe and Christendom the existence of a new nation, but may be said to have rendered the new nation conscious of its unity in a way in which, under the influence of heathenism, community of language and custom had failed to do.”

The Anglo-Saxon Christianity was and continued to be till the Reformation, the Christianity of Rome, with its excellences and faults. It included the Latin mass, the worship of saints, images and relics, monastic virtues and vices, pilgrimages to the holy city, and much credulity and superstition. Even kings abdicated their crown to show their profound reverence for the supreme pontiff and to secure from him a passport to heaven. Chapels, churches and cathedrals were erected in the towns; convents founded in the country by the bank of the river or under the shelter of a hill, and became rich by pious donations of land. The lofty cathedrals and ivy-clad ruins of old abbeys and cloisters in England and Scotland still remain to testify in solemn silence to the power of mediaeval Catholicism.



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