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The Early Christian Church

At the end of the sixth century the English were still a Pagan people, worshipping the same gods as their Germanic ancestors. The only Christians were some of the remaining Britons, mostly monks, who followed the teachings of St. Columba and the Celtic Church, not the Roman Church followed by most of the rest of Europe.

If tradition is to be believed, when Gregory became Pope in 590 AD the idea of the conversion of the English had been on his mind for two decades. However, it was not until six years into his papacy that he was able to put his ideas into practice. The man who Gregory chose as leader of the mission to Britain was Augustine, the prior of his own monastery of St. Andrew on the Coelian Hill at Rome. At some point in southern Gaul the mission halted, the monks panicked at the thought of meeting a barbarous and heathen race whose language they did not know, and sent Augustine back to Rome to beg release. Instead, Gregory addressed a letter of encouragement to the monks, in which he stated that he had appointed Augustine to be their abbot, and proceeded to make the papal sanction behind the mission evident to all with whom it might come in contact. [1]  Henceforward the mission was assured of respect throughout Gaul, and early in AD597 Augustine landed in Thanet with about forty companions.
  
However, even at this point, Æthelberht would have already been familiar with Christianity, as a Frankish bishop named Liudhard had accompanied queen Bertha to Britain, and Christian observances must have been followed within the king's household for at least nine years before Augustine's landing. Neither queen nor bishop seems to have made any attempt to explain their religious practices, and in 597 AD Christianity was still a strange and sinister religion to the king himself. It is said that Æthelberht was so suspicious of ‘Christian sorcery’ that he would only meet Augustine and his companions under the open sky where magic would be less effective! The interview, which took place in Thanet, convinced him of their honesty, and although he refused to abandon his Pagan faith, he gave the monks a dwelling-place in Canterbury, supplied them with food, and allowed them to preach their religion. The first stage of their mission was completed a few years later when Æthelberht himself accepted Christianity. From him they received an appropriate seat and an endowment of land. The number of converts increased, and Augustine could start restoring old churches and building new ones. In the autumn of AD597, soon after his consecration as bishop in Gaul, Augustine sent two members of his mission, Laurentis the priest and Peter the monk, to Rome with an account of what had been achieved and a request for further instruction. Accounts from the time report that Augustine had baptised more than ten thousand converts by the Christmas day after his consecration. Despite this success it was not until the summer of 601 that Gregory replied. Also in the summer of 601 Laurentis and Peter returned to Britain as leaders of a second mission. By this time the ultimate conversion of Kent, the most civilised, and probably the most populous, of all the English kingdoms, seemed to be assured. In AD604 a second Kentish see was established in a church built by Æthelberht at Rochester, with Justus (a member of the recent mission) as bishop. The same year also marked the first, somewhat precarious, advance into territory beyond the sphere of Æthelberht’s direct rule with the founding of a church in honour of St. Paul in London, chief city of the East Saxons, where Mellitus (another member of the mission of 601) became bishop. This was achieved mainly because Æthelberht was overlord of the southern English and Saberht, king of the East Saxons, was his nephew. It was also around this time that the first English monastery, that of St. Peter and St. Paul at Canterbury, was founded. Despite all this success, one serious stumbling block that faced Augustine was the distrust of the Roman Church by the native British clergy who had little to do with each other. However, for nearly half a century after Augustine’s death, on the 26th May in an unknown year between 604 and 609 AD, the succession of St. Gregory’s disciples was maintained at Canterbury. Although there had been a fair degree of success in Kent, there was little sign of any expansion of the English church at first; Rædwald, king of the East Angles, was induced by Æthelberht to accept baptism, but none of his people followed him, and the ceremony led to nothing but the introduction of a Christian altar into one of his Pagan temples! The Kentish church itself almost failed after the death of its protector Æthelberht in AD616. Twenty years after Augustine’s landing the Kentish court was not yet wholly Christian. The new king, Eadbald, son of Æthelberht and Bertha, had never received baptism, and openly turned to heathen ways. [2]

In Essex little had been achieved beyond the conversion of King Saberht. On his death his three sons, still Pagans, drove Mellitus from their kingdom because he refused to give them the eucharistic bread which he used to give to their father! Mellitus, and Justus of Rochester, fled to Gaul, and according to tradition Laurentis of Canterbury would have followed them if it was not for a visitation from St. Peter. The story went that Eadbald was brought to accept Christianity by the archbishop’s account of his experience. Whatever the reason, the king was converted before long; Justus returned to Rochester and the church in Kent was once more secure under royal protection. There was no longer any danger of a reversion to Paganism in Kent. King Eadbald, who reigned until AD640, became a respectable Christian ruler. He ultimately married the daughter of a Frankish king, and was remembered as a benefactor of churches. Eorcenberht, his son, was the first English king to order the destruction of Pagan idols throughout his kingdom. In Essex the Pagan reaction was stronger. Mellitus never returned to London, and nearly forty years passed before another bishop could be consecrated for the East Saxons. However, when Laurentis died in 619, Mellitus succeeded him, and when he died in 624 AD, Justus was translated from Rochester to Canterbury. Three years later he was succeeded by Honorius, one of the last surviving members of Augustine’s original mission, who remained until AD652.

The Roman Church’s one other success in this time was the temporary conversion of Northumbria and Lindsey. In 625 AD, while Justus was archbishop, Edwin, king of the Northumbrians, married Æthelberg, daughter of Æthelberht of Kent. Edwin promised that his wife’s religion would be respected and that he would consider changing his own beliefs. Accordingly Paulinus, who had come to England with the mission of AD601, was consecrated bishop at Canterbury and sent north with Æthelberg, but it was many months before Edwin was brought to the point of baptism. After agreeing to be baptised it is said that Edwin summoned a council of ‘friends, princes and counsellors’, so that if they agreed they might all be baptised together. Paulinus then set out the elements of the Christian faith and it is said that Coifi, chief of the king’s Pagan priests, declared that for the first time he had learned the truth, and asked the king that temples and altars which had been honoured in the past should be burned immediately. Then, to defy the law that a priest must never bear arms or ride except on a mare, Coifi borrowed weapons and a stallion from the king, rode to Goodmanham, twelve miles from York, and in the presence of a crowd threw his spear into the building and called upon his companions to burn it. On the eve of Easter, AD627, Edwin was baptised at York in a wooden church dedicated to St. Peter, which he had built for the occasion. A rapid, but superficial, extension of Christianity followed in the North. Paulinus received a seat for his bishopric in York, where Edwin began to build a church for him which was still unfinished when the northern mission was interrupted in AD632. Edwin fell at Hatfield on 12 October AD632, Northumbria was devastated by Cadwallon and his Mercian allies, and Paulinus fled to Kent, where he received the vacant bishopric of Rochester. With his flight the church he had founded came to an end. The permanent establishment of Christianity in that region was the achievement of Celtic monks.

The fall of Christianity in Northumbria was balanced by its introduction into East Anglia. The initiative in this kingdom was taken by Sigeberht the king, who had lived in Gaul as an exile and had been baptised there. For help in the task of establishing a church he looked to Canterbury, and it was from Archbishop Honorius that he obtained a bishop - a Burgundian named Felix who had been consecrated in Gaul and had placed himself at the archbishop’s disposal for missionary work in England. Sigeberht gave Felix a seat in Dunwich for his bishopric, and the future of the East Anglian Church was secured when he founded a school. The church was further expanded by the arrival of an Irish monk named Fursa, who settled in a deserted fortress [3] and founded a monastery.

While Felix was working in East Anglia another independent missionary was beginning the conversion of the West Saxons. Birinus, a bishop of Germanic stock, undertook his mission on the advice of Pope Honorius I, and came to Britain intending to preach in the midlands. Finding the West Saxons among whom he landed intensely heathen he remained with them and baptised their king Cynegils in AD635. King Oswald of Northumbria, who was about to marry a daughter of Cynegils, acted as his godfather, and the two kings jointly gave the city of Dorchester on Thames to Birinus as a seat for his bishopric. However, the baptism of Cynegils did not mean the conversion of the whole royal house of Wessex. His eldest son and grandson soon followed him, but Cenwalh, his second son and successor, was still a heathen in AD645 when Penda and the Mercians expelled him from Wessex. His ultimate conversion was due to the influence of his host, Anna, king of the East Angles. If an important member of the royal house delayed so long before accepting Christianity it is unlikely that Birinus secured any widespread conversion of the West Saxon people. At the same time as the missions of Felix and Birinus Christianity was restored in the north by men who were indifferent, if not hostile, to the Roman Church. The overthrow of Cadwallon at the end of AD633 was followed by the re-establishment of the Northumbrian kingdom under Oswald, son of Æthelfrith of Bernicia. While Edwin was king, Oswald had lived in exile, and had received Christianity from the monks of Iona. [4] As soon as he was secure in power Oswald sent to Iona for a bishop, and before the end of AD634 a company of monks under a leader named Aidan had reached Northumbria. They settled on the tidal island of Lindisfarne, and for nearly thirty years their monastery remained the seat of the only bishopric in Northumbria.

On many points of ecclesiastical order the Irish Church of Aidan differed from the prevailing custom of the Roman Church. It was distinguished by peculiarities of liturgy and ritual, and by an elaborate system of penitential discipline and much greater austerity than the Roman Church. In organisation it was monastic rather than territorial; the bishop’s function was ministerial, and authority rested with the abbot of the chief monastery in each tribe. The Irish method of consecrating bishops differed from continental practice, and its validity was questioned by ecclesiastics trained in other schools. The exact nature of the Irish tonsure is unknown, but it was clearly different from the Roman style, but above all, in the method of determining the date of Easter, the Irish Church was governed by principles which differed fundamentally from those accepted at Rome or in the English churches founded under Roman influence. During the reign of Oswiu, Oswald’s successor, a dispute over the computation of the Easter date divided the whole Northumbrian church, and the court took a personal interest in the outcome. King Oswiu favoured the custom followed at Iona when he had lived there as a youth in exile. His wife, who was a daughter of King Edwin, had been educated in Kent after her father’s death, and adhered to the system accepted by her teachers. In spite of these troubles, this period was marked by a notable expansion of Christianity south of the Humber through priests sent out by the Northumbrian Church. In AD653 Peada, on of King Penda of Mercia, then ruling the Middle Angles under his father, was baptised by Aidan’s successor, Finan, on his marriage to Ahlflæd, Oswiu’s daughter. Penda, secure in his own Paganism, allowed his son to introduce four priests into the territory under his rule, and they began the conversion of central England. Soon after Penda’s death in the autumn of 664 AD Duima, the one Irishman of the four, was consecrated to a see which comprised Mercia, Middle Anglia and Lindsey, although it was many years before the bishops of this great diocese had a permanent seat. Duima, and his immediate successors, regarded Lindisfarne as the church to which they owed obedience, not Canterbury or Rome. The Northumbrian mission had hardly begun its work in central England when one of its members left it for a separate enterprise. Shortly after the middle of the century Sigeberht, king of Essex, was persuaded by Oswiu to receive baptism, and the restoration of Christianity among the East Saxons became possible. Oswiu recalled Cedd, one of the members of the Middle Anglian mission, to Northumbria, and then sent him and another priest to Essex. Cedd was of English birth, but was schooled in the Celtic Church. He had no fixed seat [5]  although one remarkable memorial of his work in Essex still survives - the church which he built in the Roman fort of Ythancæstir (Bradwell-on-Sea).

The history of the southern Church at this time is extremely obscure. Following the death of Honorius in AD652 a West Saxon named Deusdedit was appointed to Canterbury, but the most remarkable of the southern churchmen was the second bishop of the West Saxons - Agilbert. Agilbert was a Frank who had studied in southern Ireland under teachers following the Roman tradition, and had received Episcopal consecration in Gaul in preparation for work as a missionary in England! Towards the middle of the century he arrived in Wessex and attached himself to king Cenwalh, from whom he received the Episcopal seat originally given to Birinus at Dorchester on Thames, but in time the king ‘grew weary of his outlandish speech’, and ‘subintroduced’ into Wessex another bishop, named Wine, who was of English birth, but consecrated in Gaul. In or soon after AD660  the king set Wine as bishop of Winchester, whereupon Agilbert abandoned his see at Dorchester. [6] Following his departure from Wessex he played an important part in settling the division in the Northumbrian Church. The strength of the Roman party in the north had grown during the middle part of the century. It was joined by Oswiu’s son Alhfrith, sub-king of Deira, under the influence of his friend Cenwalh of Wessex, who may have been arbitrary in his dealings with bishops, but was a firm supporter of Roman usages. Among the Northumbrian clergy a new generation was rising, without personal knowledge of the times before the arrival of Aidan, and conscious from early life of the dignity and ancient traditions of the Roman church. To these men the conservatism of Lindisfarne meant a deliberate refusal to acknowledge the clear teaching of scripture and history. The future of the Northumbrian church was to be in their hands, but they could do little to change its practices until this division had been settled by the king. He was slow to act. It was not until the autumn of AD663 that the questions in debate were at last referred to a synod. The assembly met at an important monastery of which an important kinswoman of King Oswiu, named Hild, was abbess. The men who answered the king’s summons represented every phase of the history of the Northumbrian church. They included James the Deacon (a survivor from the days of Paulinus), Cedd, bishop of the East Saxons, bishop Colman speaking for the Celtic party and bishop Agilbert representing the Roman party. [7]
  
The basic argument used by the Roman Church was that it was folly to resist the unique authority of St. Peter, inherited by his church, and obeyed by all Christians except a part of the inhabitants of the last two islands of the Ocean. The king’s decision, that ‘when given the choice between St. Columba and St. Peter he would obey St. Peter, to whom the keys of Heaven had been granted,’ is often regarded as the statement of a new conviction. After the decision, bishop Colman retired to Iona, and he was succeeded at Lindisfarne by Tuda, an adherent of the Roman party. Tuda died before the end of 664 AD, and the Large Northumbrian diocese was divided and for a while Lindisfarne ceased to be a bishop’s seat. A large district in western Deira was assigned as a diocese to Wilfred, whose church at Ripon became its Cathedral. The rest of Northumbria was placed under Ceadda, brother of Cedd, and his seat was fixed in York.

Although the Synod of Whitby concentrated on which strain of the Christian faith should be followed, it must be remembered that at this time England was still not wholly Christian. Apart from Sussex, where a heathen folk was incuriously watching a little community of Irish monks at Bosham, every English kingdom now contained the seat of a bishopric. In East Anglia, Northumbria and Wessex Christianity had been established at court and preached in the country for at least a generation, and the continuity in the church of Kent had never been broken since Augustine’s time. There is no doubt that at the time of the Synod of Whitby Christianity was the dominant religion throughout England, but it is equally certain that the older beliefs of the English people, though driven underground, were still alive. 

The five years following the Synod of Whitby form the most critical period in the history of the Anglo-Saxon Church. Its ultimate unity had been made possible by King Oswiu’s decision, but the mere continuance of organised Christianity in England was uncertain. At the very time of the Synod, England, like much of western Europe, was being swept by a pestilence which removed many leaders from the clergy, depopulated whole monasteries, and produced a widespread reversion to Paganism. The East Saxons, whose bishop Cedd died in the plague, relapsed in a general panic. Individual bishops like Jaruman of Mercia laboured outside their own dioceses to prevent reversion to Paganism, and although few monasteries escaped the plague, most of them survived it. But the whole organisation of the Church in England was rapidly disintegrating in these years; it was becoming difficult to maintain an ordered succession of bishops, and the see of Canterbury itself was vacant.
 
The tradition of Augustine prevented Canterbury from becoming a mere local diocese, and in 667 King Oswiu of Northumbria and King Egbert of Kent selected Wighard, a priest of Deusdedit’s familia , for the post of archbishop. His first duty was to consecrate new bishops to the vacant sees, and to prevent any future questions as to his authority he travelled to Rome for consecration. However, when he reached Rome he died of plague with nearly all his companions. At that time the Papacy was passing through a time of grave depression; Pope Vitalian had been made to feel his subjection to the Eastern Emperor, and policy as well as the necessities of the English church indicated that the Pope himself should provide an archbishop for the English. Although several candidates were put forward, the eventual choice was an unlikely one. Theodore of Tarsus was sixty six years of age and had acquired his learning in the east, in an age when bitter theological controversies were separating the eastern from the western churches. Before he could go to England he needed to be schooled in Catholic doctrine so as not to introduce any Greek ‘perversities’ into the teaching of his church. He completed his training and left for England in 668, eventually arriving exactly one year after his departure from Rome. When he arrived in England there were only three bishops remaining in England. He quickly appointed three more bishops, and on 26 September 672 called an assembly. The canons proposed by Theodore secured the individual bishop against the invasion of his diocese by other bishops, empowered him to check the migration of his clergy, and ruled that his precedence should be determined by the date of his consecration. Monks were forbidden to leave their monasteries without the abbot’s permission, and bishops were forbidden to trouble monasteries. The method of determining Easter was defined, and it was agreed that a synod should be held each year on 1 August at a place called Clofeshoh. The problems raised by the institution of Christian marriage among a half-converted people were covered by a canon forbidding incest, the abandonment of wives for any cause except adultery, and the remarriage of those who had so offended. There was general agreement on all these canons, but a proposal for the increase in the number of bishops was postponed for future discussion.

Over the next eight years Theodore took every opportunity to increase the number of Bishops in England. This opportunism is most clearly seen in the way he dealt with the Northumbrian situation, which led directly to the first appeal by an English ecclesiastic to the Pope. Wilfred, bishop of Deira ruled the Northumbrian church between 669 and 677. He was spiritual advisor to the queen, and his fall from power was a direct result of this relationship. He encouraged her to become a nun, thus incurring the ill will of King Ecgfrith who married a second wife who became a bitter enemy to Wilfred. The exact course of events is unclear, but Wilfred was ultimately deprived of his bishopric and his property and expelled from Northumbria. Theodore accepted the king’s decision, and proceeded to divide Wilfrid’s see into three new bishoprics.

In 677 Wilfred left England to state his case before the Pope. He was driven on to the Frisian coast by a storm, and spent the winter of 677 preaching to the Pagans of that region, and thus beginning the English missionary enterprise in the Germanic homelands. He spent most of 678 with Dagobert II, king of the Austrasian Franks, and Pectarit, king of the Lombards. On reaching Rome, he found Pope Agatho acquainted with the matter in dispute by letters from Theodore, and in October 679 a council of fifty-three bishops met at the Lateran for its settlement. Its decision was a compromise - that Wilfred should be restored to his see, that the bishops who had replaced him should be removed, and that with the advice of a local council he should choose others in their place, whom Archbishop Theodore should consecrate. In addition to a copy of the council’s decision he received a separate privilege from the Pope, confirming him in the possession of his monasteries at Hexham and Ripon. Wilfred’s case formed only part of the English business at the council - there was also a dispute between Theodore and the other bishops of England over Theodore’s policy of increasing the number of English bishoprics above twelve. The council appears to have agreed with the bishops and agreed that twelve were sufficient.

When Wilfred returned to England in 680 he brought his case before a Northumbrian council, producing his papal documents, but the council took no notice and ordered his arrest. After around nine months of imprisonment he left Northumbria, and travelled south and found refuge with Æthelwalh, the Christian king of the Pagan South Saxons. Within the next five years Wilfred and a band of his followers had converted the South Saxons, and Wilfred received an estate at Selsey which became the seat of the South Saxon bishopric. Towards the end of this time Æthelwalh was killed by the West Saxon exile Cædwalla. Wilfred then attached himself to Cædwalla, and on his conquest of the Isle of Wight in 686 received one quarter of the whole island from him. Its inhabitants were still Pagan, but before Wilfred could undertake their conversion it became possible for him to return to Northumbria. He entrusted his lands and responsibilities on the island to his nephew, Beornwine. In less than a generation the last of the Pagan English tribes had accepted Christianity.

Theodore had not intervened between Wilfred and his enemies in 680 (the papal judgement in Wilfred’s favour could not be carried out against the king’s will when that king was the only protector of the northern church.) Instead, Theodore had used Wilfred’s expulsion as a chance to further divide the Northumbrian sees, introducing two new bishoprics. On the other hand, Theodore cannot have been content with a settlement which involved the rejection of papal mandates and he sought a way to bring Wilfred honourably back into the North. The death of king Ecgfrith in 685 removed the bitterest of Wilfred’s enemies, and in 686 Theodore and Wilfred were reconciled at London in the presence of a company of bishops. The bishops that Theodore had appointed remained in place, but Wilfred’s original seat at Ripon was at that time vacant, so Wilfred took up that bishopric. When Theodore died in 690 the English church was at peace.

Theodore’s death was followed by a long vacancy in his see and it was not until 692 that it was filled by Berhtwald, abbot of Reculver. He introduced another new bishopric in Wessex and was able to gain many legal concessions for the Church, and was recognised as the ultimate arbiter for the whole English church. However, Berhtwald’s episcopate was not totally without its troubles. During the vacancy in the see of Canterbury Wilfred raised again his claim to the whole Northumbrian diocese. King Aldfrith was insistent that he should observe Theodore’s settlement of the Northumbrian church, and expelled him from Northumbria in 691. For the next eleven years Wilfred lived under the protection of Æthelred, king of Mercia, administering the whole Mercian diocese for a time, but eventually confining himself to the Middle Anglian provinces. Although he had a position of power and dignity within Mercia, he had not abandoned the hope of returning to Northumbria as bishop of York, and in 699 or 700 he brought his suit by proxy before Pope Sergius I. The Pope referred the matter to an English synod which was held in 702. It seems that Wilfred’s claim was resented by most of the English bishops, and their decision was to deprive him of all his property except Ripon, laying aside the office of a bishop.

Inevitably, he appealed once more to Rome and, excommunicated by his Northumbrian rivals, he and a small band of followers set out for Rome, followed by messengers from Archbishop Berhtwald carrying letters of accusation against him. After much wrangling, Wilfred, now more than seventy years old, was restored to his churches of Ripon and Hexham in 704. After four years of peace he died in 709 in his middle Anglian monastery of Oundle.

Early in 731 the death of Archbishop Berhtwald removed the last ecclesiastic of high rank who could remember the time of confusion before the coming of Theodore. He was succeeded by Tatwine, a Mercian abbot, who died in the summer of 734. In 735 Egbert, bishop of York, received an archbishop’s pallium from Pope Gregory III. The elevation of the see of York into an archbishopric destroyed the constitutional unity of the English church.
© B. Levick, 1995




 
 
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