Tract III: The British and English Churches from 597 to the 8th Century

Tracts for the Times 2.0

Introduction

In Tract 2, I went to great lengths to establish the incontrovertible fact that, contrary to the way the story is often told, the Church in the British Isles was planted long before 597, was relatively well-established, and was associated with but not under the rule of the Roman Catholic Church. These essential truths not only challenge the commonly received notions of what the early Church in England was like but yields two other benefits. First, it will help explain both why the Roman Church, when it did begin to assert its dominance over the indigenous British Church, was resisted for some time and why the British/English Church from the beginning was distinct in many ways from the Roman Church. Second, it will cause us to reflect more deeply on the nature of the English Church after 597 and challenge the naïve and incorrect idea that the English Church suddenly came under papal domination just because a pope sent missionaries to England in 597.

Often, the story is improperly told in the following way. Pope Gregory the Great saw that the British were uncivilized and un-Christianized barbarians, so he sent Augustine of Canterbury to England to convert the pagans there. While a British Church had once existed, it was now very weak and nearly extinguished. Through the work of Augustine and those who followed, the Church in England was converted and became a part of the Roman Catholic Church until Henry VIII arrogantly divorced the English Church from Rome.

But this is simply not the way it happened. Allow me to tell the story in a more accurate way, beginning with the fabled date of A.D. 597 and discussing the nature of Augustine’s mission and the state of the British and English churches from the 597 until the eighth century. I will restrict my discussion to Britain, and not Ireland, Scotland, or Wales (as important as these are), not only to make this tract more manageable but also because it was to Britain that Augustine was sent and it was Britain that would most naturally and completely have come under the rule of the Roman Church.

When considering the state of the churches in the British Isles at the time of Augustine’s coming, we must first keep in mind that the nature and strength of the churches varied from region to region. Monastic ecclesial structures, for example, were particularly strong in Wales (St. Illud in the fifth century), Ireland, Scotland (Ninian in the fifth century and Columba in the sixth century), and Northumbria in England (Cuthbert and Aiden in the seventh centuries). This vibrant monastic Christianity was stronger in the North and West of the British Isles, while the weaker church, now largely Anglo-Saxon, was found primarily in the South and East. In fact, the British Church was the weakest in the Southeast, the very area targeted by Pope Gregory the Great when he sent Augustine of Canterbury.

The State of British/Irish Church at Time of Augustine’s Arrival

Since Augustine came to the southeast corner of Britain, most history books deal with the church he experienced in only that region. What did he find when he arrived? What was the true state of the British Church at the end of the sixth century? We should begin by distinguishing between the churches in the Southeast which came under Anglo-Saxon domination and the churches in western Britain that remained politically independent from the Anglo-Saxons until a century or more later. In the West, the independent British kingdoms were still sub-Roman until 600, and were still trading and using Roman coinage. Although we aren’t sure where Gildas was from, his great learning and literary skill demonstrates a continuity of classical learning. While Gildas’ blistering indictment of the British Church in the early-mid sixth century shows that it still was substantial and had bishops, this does not require us to accept his picture as a fair representation of the British Church. In any case, it appears as if (possibly due to Gildas) an ascetic revival took place in the British Church in the mid-late sixth century. Recent scholarship has determined that the British Church not only converted the Irish but also the incoming Anglo-Saxons in the kingdoms of the Hwicce and the Magonsaetan (roughly Gloucestershire). In addition, around 664 an episcopal consecration in Winchester involved two British bishops who had come there from the Southwest, demonstrating the continuity of the British Church and even the existence of bishops until the late seventh century.

Most importantly, the belief that the British Church was virtually non-existent in the southeast in 597 has been debunked by more recent and careful scholarship. There is evidence of British Christianity in rural regions of southeast Britain, and at least some of the British Christians, most commonly without a clear clergy leadership, continued to live in the southeast with and under the Anglo-Saxons. When Augustine arrived, he found that British Christians were still venerating St. Sixtus at his shrine. For reasons that will become clear later, this shrine had a particular importance, resulting in a rare written record of its existence. Shrines were frequently at the center of churches as this time, and it’s highly likely others, undiscovered or perhaps permanently erased, once existed.

Bede had polemical purposes for diminishing the state of the British Church, as we shall see, but Augustine may have, in part, gotten the wrong impression of the state of the British Church from the rural, lay Christianity that survived the Anglo-Saxon victories. Augustine had not met representatives of the stronger churches in the independent British kingdoms of the West. This mistaken impression, magnified by Bede for his purposes, has given all of us the idea, until very recently, that the British Church in general, and especially in the Southeast, had been virtually extinguished.

Why Augustine was Sent and What He Found

We come next to the question of Augustine of Canterbury’s mission to England in 597. Why was he sent, and what were the results of his mission? The idea for a mission to England, that is, the Anglo-Saxons, came from Gregory the Great, although some scholars think that Bertha, the wife of the Anglo-Saxon king, Aethelberht may have first reached out to Gregory. Different interpretations of Gregory’s motives have been given by scholars. Anglo-Saxon England represented to Gregory the one part of the former Roman Empire that was still pagan, especially with the influx of Anglo-Saxons. Unlike other barbarian tribes who had become heretics, the Anglo-Saxons were still largely pagan, and Gregory may have seen the political stability of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms as providing a suitable place for his missions. Gregory (but not only Gregory), however, was ignorant of the state of the church in Britain. He also assumed that the individual kingdoms of Anglo-Saxon England constituted one, united English people and English identity. This, as we shall see when we examine Bede’s writings, lay at the root of how Augustine conducted his mission to the peoples in the British Isles, as well as the polemic slant of Bede’s history.

One of the reasons both Gregory and Augustine demoted the place of the British Church was that they believed it had done little or nothing to convert the pagan Anglo-Saxons.

For this reason, and due to its relatively localized nature, Augustine of Canterbury’s Roman mission to the British Isles should more properly be thought of as a mission to convert the Saxon (or Anglo-Saxons, or “English”), and not the Britons. This is a point that is virtually ignored in most discussions of Augustine’s mission, outside of the academic channels where the distinction is well-known. Bede is quick to judge the British Church harshly for not converting the pagan Saxons, but we are now in a position to see why his polemical judgment was unfair. The Saxons had not been in Britain for that long, and when they came, they came, in part, as enemies and conquerors. The British Christians were simply not in a place to convert the politically superior Saxons, at least not in large numbers or officially. In fact, in an effort to assert their difference and dominance over the British, the Saxons actually resisted becoming Christian like the British who were already Christian. We must also remember that many British Christians seemed to either assimilate into the new English identity, lay low, continue in Christian micro-communities, or move further west. And, indeed, there is much evidence that British Christians abandoned their churches and shrines as a direct result of the Saxon invasion.

During the sixth century in Britain, leading up to Augustine’s mission, several significant religious changes took place. First of all, the Saxons were unconverted pagans, a fact that had dramatic multiple consequences for Christianity in Britain. The Saxons “conquered” partially by assimilating the British and partially by defeating them in battle. This meant that some Saxons may have become Christian before Augustine but also that more Britons became pagans. With the victory of the Saxons, it became not only more fashionable but also culturally advantageous to become Saxon, which, essentially, meant becoming pagan. One has only to remember how culturally advantageous it was after Constantine converted to Christianity for others to do the same, or to remember how the conversion of the Franks and other tribes happened largely when their kings and chiefs converted.

Second, the Saxon elites desired to distance themselves from their British inferiors, not only culturally but also religiously, which meant that the Saxon/English identity in Britain was now pagan polytheism. Third, British communities which maintained their British identity also maintained their Christian identity.

All of this helps shed light, as well, on why the Saxons eventually converted to Christianity under Augustine and his successors. It was because it was politically and culturally advantageous to be connected with Rome and the Continent that the Saxons connected themselves with the Roman Church, and not as much because they saw any catholic need to come under the direct ecclesiastical rule of the Bishop of Rome. The story of a Roman Church who sent its first missionary to a remote barbarian and unevangelized nation and the converse acceptance of a prestigious Roman, Latin, and foreign Christianity served the polemical purposes of both the Pope and the Saxon lords who eventually converted.

The Meager Scope and Establishment of Augustine’s Mission

How was Augustine’s mission received, and what was its outcome? Augustine’s mission was relatively localized and was neither intended nor executed as a mission to the entire “nation” of England (which did not yet exist) but only to Aethelberht’s kingdom in Kent, in southeast England. Aethelberht’s wife, Bertha, was already a Frankish Christian, and it’s reasonable to assume that not only Aethelberht but also others in Kent were familiar with Christianity: some may possibly have already been Christian. If we have not studied our history, we might assume that when Gregory the Great sent Augustine, Augustine’s mission was a smashing success, and that England was now Christianized.

Not quite.

Augustine requested a meeting with the British church leaders, asserting that the British Church ought to join with the Roman mission to convert the pagan peoples. It was only differences in custom, and not doctrine, that separated them. The most important difference was in the method of calculating Easter, but the difference in tonsures was also an issue. Bede tells the story of how Augustine, in an effort to persuade the British Christians, healed a blind man. The British representatives, however, stated that they could not depart from their ancient customs without the consent of their seniors. They asked for a second synod.

Seven British bishops came to the second meeting, and a great number of learned men, especially from the most prominent monasteries. Before the council, the British leaders consulted a holy and wise anchorite on the issue of whether or not they should desert their customs in favor of the Roman customs trumpeted by Augustine. He advised them that if, when they entered the synod, Augustine rose to greet them, they should humbly hear him. If, on the other hand, he remained seated, they should not show him deference.

Augustine saw his rising as an admission of the equality of the British bishops and remained seated. The British delegates refused to acquiesce to Augustine’s demands.

The British resistance to Augustine’s mission is completely understandable, something obscured by Bede’s pro-Roman history. In the first place, as we’ve already seen, the British would naturally be very wary of submitting to Augustine and his alliance with an Anglo-Saxon overlord whose tribe had recently conquered the British in Kent. A second reason for the British rejection of Augustine and the Roman mission is the ecclesiastical submission it required. When Gregory sent Augustine, he disregarded the pre-existing British Church, telling Augustine that he had authority over the British bishops and churches, but not over those in Gaul. Remember: the Church had existed and taken root in Britain for centuries before Augustine came.

A third reason is that the British has a different conception of ecclesiastical authority from Rome. Rome’s view of ecclesiastical was becoming increasingly hierarchical, even though the Pope was not yet what he would one day become. The British, on the other hand, placed less emphasis on bishops and more on the holiness of their leaders (this makes sense given the monastic structure of many of their churches). When, for example, Gildas interprets Jesus’ words in Matthew 16 on the keys to the kingdom, in a characteristically British manner he interprets the keys as applying to all holy bishops, and not only the bishop of Rome. The British representatives seeking out the wisdom of an anchorite, rather than gathering their own council, is evidence of a different view of ecclesiastical authority.

Local British Christians were still worshiping at the shrine of St. Sixtus when Augustine became aware of them. When, however, Augustine informed Pope Gregory of this, Gregory’s response was to suppress this particular cult and substitute the relics of a Roman St. Sixtus instead. This pattern of the Roman/English suppression of the pre-existing British Christianity played itself out in a number of other ways as well, including the very way the history of this era is told by Bede.

Bede

We now come to the Venerable Bede who, although he was the most learned man of his day, not only was ignorant of much of the British Church but also wrote his famous Ecclesiastical History with the purpose of asserting and exalting the English Church and nation at the expense of the British Church. Bede knew little about England from 411 to 596, and the few sources he had were an inadequate basis for this period.

Bede stressed the Pope’s role throughout his narrative. However, not only was Gregory the Great relatively ignorant of the state of the church in the British Isles at the end of the sixth century, he was also not much involved once he sent his envoys. This is a critical point to understand: just because the Pope sent Augustine and, later his envoys, doesn’t mean that the Pope “controlled” the English Church the way popes later controlled, or attempted to control, the churches in Europe.

Both Nicholas Brooks and Clare Stancliffe conclusively demonstrate that Bede had a Roman and English agenda when he wrote about Augustine’s mission and the decades that followed. Brooks argues that Bede’s mission was to portray a united English people and nation as God’s chosen people who had entered the promised land.[1] Brooks believes that this mission of Bede’s was the same as that Gregory and Augustine, who wanted to fashion a united people out of both Britons and Anglo-Saxons.[2] Bede also downplayed the divisions among the Anglo-Saxons and presented them as a united English people and nation, in contrast to the divisions between the British and Irish, which he overstated.

Bede introduces his discussion of Augustine’s mission this way: “To the other unspeakable crimes, which their historian Gildas describes in doleful words, they [the Britons] added this one, namely that they never preached the faith to the Saxons or English, who inhabited Britain with them. Nevertheless God in his goodness did not reject the people whom he foreknew, but had appointed worthier heralds of the truth to bring this people to the faith.”[3]

Bede justifies his treatment (and that of Gregory and Augustine) of the British Church, therefore, on the basis of its failure to evangelize the Anglo-Saxons. However, as we discussed earlier, Bede is not being fair here because the British Church did evangelize to some degree; the Anglo-Saxons were their lords and conquerors; and the Anglo-Saxons did not want to associate with those they conquered, who could only detract from their prestige.

Bede also faults the British Church for not giving in to Augustine’s demands for observing the Roman date of Easter and wearing the Roman tonsure. Quite possibly, this was not solely a Roman stubbornness and arrogance (which was, indeed, part of the problem) but was also due to the fact that Bede himself was a foremost expert on the calculation of the calendar. The British intransigence on a point near and dear to Bede’s heart surely bothered him. In any case, Bede treated the British Christians not simply as those with different customs but as heretics and schismatics. For Bede, the failings of the Britons justified God’s transfer of British land and of British churches to the English. After commenting favorably on the Picts and the Irish, Bede writes: “Though, for the most part, the Britons oppose the English through their inbred hatred, and the whole state of the Catholic church by their incorrect Easter and their civil customs, yet being opposed by the power of God and man alike, they cannot obtain what they want in either respect.”[4] Bede also wrote favorably of the 1200 defenseless Celtic monks who were slaughtered, as a fulfillment of Augustine’s prophecy of what would befall the British Christians if they refused Augustine’s demands.

For all of these reasons, Bede suggests, the British Church deserved to be replaced by the English one.

After Augustine: to Whitby and Beyond

When we consider what took place in the English Church after Augustine’s initial mission to Kent, we discover again that common portrayals of the era are incorrect or misleading. It’s tempting to think that once Augustine landed, he converted the Anglo-Saxons, and the English (not British) Church was established. In reality, the seventh century saw not a steady establishment of Augustine’s English Church but only an erratic growth which did not produce a strong church until around the year 700.

The fortunes of Augustine’s church were closely tied to those of King Æthelberht’s and his heirs. Unlike the churches in Ireland, where an entire learned elite adopted Christianity, in the Anglo-Saxon lands it was the kings and their court that mattered, and Anglo-Saxon kings were part of a sacral kingship responsible for the religious rituals that contributed to the welfare of the people. When Æthelberht died in 616 or 618, pagan rulers succeeded in both Essex and even Kent, and English bishops had to flee to Gaul. Canterbury became the only English see that retained an unbroken link to Augustine’s mission. Subsequently, the Roman connection became increasingly important: the see of Canterbury was filled by members of Roman missionary groups through the middle of the seventh century. This Roman connection with Canterbury, in contrast to the other parts of the English Church, continued to be significant: Roman authority was its best hope to maintain independence from powerful Northumbrian and Mercian overlords in the seventh through ninth centuries. The relationship of the English Church to the Roman one was also strengthened by Augustine’s giving Æthelberht a code of law fashioned after Roman law.

However, Æthelberht’s son, Eanbald, returned for a time to pagan sacrifices. In Essex the sons of a king connected to Æthelberht reminded their bishop of the “gift-exchange” nature of their relationship and, though they were pagans, demanded the Eucharist from the bishop. Redwald, king of East Anglia, accepted Christ, but maintained one altar for Christ and “another small altar on which to offer victims to devils.”[5] Mayr-Harting writes: “it took nearly 90 years to convert just the kings and greater part of the aristocracy, not to speak of the countryside which was a question of centuries. In the course of that near-90 years hardly a court was converted which did not suffer at least one subsequent relapse into paganism before being reconverted.”[6]

It’s worth remembering as well that the seventh-century English “Church” was actually composed of distinctive “micro-Christendoms.” Nothing like a unified national Church that we might associate, for example, with Henry VIII or which Bede falsely imagined.

With this more complicated context of an imperfectly evangelized and established English Church, we can now understand more fully what happened at the famous Synod of Whitby, which took place in A.D. 664. Whitby is often taken as the date at which the entire English Church finally capitulated to the Roman See. Once again, such an understanding is misleading. The first thing we should notice about the Synod of Whitby is that it was a largely secular affair: it was convened not by a council of bishops and other church leaders but by King Oswy of Northumbria (remember: there is no “King of England” at this time), and the decisions were ones he made.

Oswy desired to convene the synod when he discovered that he and his wife were celebrating Easter at different times. After hearing arguments from Abbot Wilfrid for the Roman method of calculation and Bishop Colman of Lindisfarne for the Celtic method, Oswy decided in favor of the Roman date for Easter, because it was better to side with St. Peter (invoked by Wilfrid) rather than St. John and St. Columba (invoked by Colman). Colman returned to Iona with other Celtic leaders, unwilling to capitulate to Oswy, Wilfrid, and Rome but preferring to continue the ancient traditions he and his church had always known.

When Colman died, he was replaced as Bishop of Lindisfarne by Tula, who was willing to conform to Roman custom. Northern Ireland continued its traditional method of dating Easter in defiance of Whitby until 704 and Iona did not change its usage until 716. Not until around 700, or a little later, did England have a uniform, Roman date of Easter, which is a good proxy for understanding the submission of these churches to Rome in other ways as well.

Until the arrival of Theodore of Canterbury in 668, the diocesan organization of the English church was rudimentary and lacked cohesion, and Canterbury’s metropolitan authority was not recognized outside Kent and East Anglia. Few councils were called, and even the Synod of Whitby, as we have seen, was a local affair. In 672, Archbishop Theodore summoned the Council of Hereford, by which the canons of the Roman Church were established as the governing principles of the English Church, regular synods were to be held, and new dioceses announced. Perhaps more than anyone else, Theodore is responsible for a national English Church, although we should not imagine that all of the churches in the British Isles suddenly chose to come under his head. In addition to his initiatives at Hereford, Theodore made Canterbury a great center of learning, where the best of three cultures were blended: Anglo-Saxon, Celtic, and Roman.

The Council of Clovesho in 747, after the pleading of St. Boniface for the English to have their canons more closely resemble those of the Franks, continued to move the English Church in a Rome-ward direction. Clovesho decreed that the practice of the English Church be brought into conformity with Roman practice concerning the celebration of Mass, the Daily Office, the feasts of the Church’s calendar, and special fasts and litanies. However, in spite of the decrees of Clovesho, liturgical diversity continued in the churches of the British Isles in the eighth centuries, especially in Ireland and the North.

It’s interesting to notice, however, that it was especially the prestige and power of the Frankish kingdom that began to unify the churches in Europe, and not only the papacy. It’s important to note, as well, that Clovesho decreed that a bishop should hold his own local councils and refer any disciplinary cases which he could not resolve to archbishop and his synod. The Frankish decrees (on which Clovesho was based), on the other hand, additionally declared that cases may be referred to the pope if the archbishop’s decision does not have enough authority: the English regulation does not mention the pope.

After Theodore’s strong move to align the English Church with the Roman one, the connections between the Church of England and the Church of Rome were, of course, closer. For example, papal legates attended English church councils in 679, 786, and 824. However, there were many other English church councils at which the pope sent no representatives. While the English Church submitted her practices to those of the Roman Church and also appealed to Rome when needed, this did not imply the kind of hands-on universal jurisdiction that Rome later claimed.

It’s crucial to recognize that the claims and powers of the pope in the later Middle Ages did not exist in these centuries. The pope at this time was the “Vicar of Peter,” and not “The Vicar of Christ.” In official documents, Peter’s primacy was not always referred to, and when it was, the popes derived from it the pureness of the faith preserved in Rome, thanks to the merits and the protection of Peter. During the seventh century, the role of the popes was described as a primacy in guarding the faith and in preaching, and not as a power of jurisdiction over the universal church. On this basis, other churches had no problem referring difficult cases to the pope, as they had always done.

While the English Church by the end of the eighth century was now closely related to the Roman Church and shared liturgical practices and canons, English kings continued to assert their prerogatives over the pope, a phenomenon that regularly occurred during the entire Middle Ages, even at the height of the pope’s power. For example, when Pope Agatho decreed in the late seventh century that Wilfrid should receive back his undivided see of York, the Northumbrian king Ecgfrith ignored this decree, stating that he believed it was inauthentic and that if it were authentic it had been bought. In the late eighth century, King Offa (reigned from 757-796) confiscated land from the archbishops of Canterbury and attended English synods, even though he did not preside at them: his successor, Coenwulf, also felt free to confiscate ecclesiastical property. Offa transferred monasteries, their lands, and their lucrative rents into the permanent control of his relatives. He also created a new archbishopric for political purposes. Even a cursory review of Offa’s actions reveals how similar his actions were to those of Henry VIII, who dissolved the monasteries between 1536 and 1541. My Tracts will not deal with the period from Bede to Henry VIII, but such disputes between king and pope were systematic in the Middle Ages, not only in England but throughout Europe.

A survey of English Church history from the time of Augustine’s mission of 597 to the end of the eighth century reveals a church, or more properly churches, who only slowly came into a closer relationship with the Church of Rome, and even then were not simply a subordinate part of the universal jurisdiction of the papacy. The British and Celtic churches not only continued to exist in 597 but were, in many ways, still active and even thriving, although not in the South and East where the Anglo-Saxons had become dominant. Until recently, historians have followed Bede in extinguishing the continuity with the early British churches that still existed. In contrast to commonly held views, Augustine’s mission was very limited: not only was it confined to Kent but it also found relatively little success. Likewise, the Synod of Whitby does not represent the wholesale acceptance of the authority of the pope and Roman Church but only a regional decree that the British churches adopt Roman customs, a decree that was ignored to a large degree.

By 700, however, due to the extraordinary influence of Archbishop of Canterbury Theodore, the English Church was not only more united and unified but also more closely in line with the Roman Church.

Conclusion

The picture of the British and English churches from their establishment until the eighth century is far different than those usually painted. In contrast to the usual portrait, the British (and English) Church:

1. came to England much earlier than portrayed

2. was much stronger than commonly believed

3. and was less rapidly and completely made a part of the Roman Church than is often asserted.

Anglicans should find peace and encouragement that they have a rich ecclesiastical and spiritual heritage that reaches back to the earliest centuries of the Church and makes a unique contribution to the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church.

  1. Nicholas Brooks, “Canterbury, Rome, and the Construction of English Identity,” in Early Medieval Rome and the Christian West, ed, Julia M.H. Smith.
  2. Brooks 222, 232. For another insightful look at Bede’s polemical history, see Clare Stancliffe, ““The British Church and the Mission of Augustine,” in Augustine of Canterbury: Context and Achievement, ed. Richard Gameson.
  3. Bede, Ecclesiastical History, Boo k I, Chapter 22.
  4. Bede, Book I, Chapter 23.
  5. Bede, Book II, Chapter 15.
  6. Henry Mayr-Harting, The Coming of Christianity to Anglo-Saxon England, 29.

Charles Erlandson

Fr. Charles Erlandson served as rector of St. Chrysostom’s Reformed Episcopal Church in Hot Spring, Arkansas. In 2009, God called him back home to Tyler and Good Shepherd Church and School, to teach high school and serve as assistant rector. He teaches at Cranmer Theological House and is the Church History Department Head. Fr. Erlandson also writes a daily Bible devotional, available online or through e-mail subscription, called Give Us This Day. He has written several books, as well as an even greater number in his head.


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