How England Became Christian

June 12, 2017
10 mins read

Editor’s Note:  The following account is taken from Historical Tales, by Charles Morris (published 1896).

One day, in the far-off sixth century, a youthful deacon of the Roman Church walked into the slave-market of Rome, situated at one extremity of the ancient Forum. Gregory, his name; his origin from an ancient noble family, whose genealogy could be traced back to the days of the early Caesars. A youth was this of imperial powers of mind, one who, had he lived when Rome was mistress of the physical world, might have become emperor; but who, living when Rome had risen to lordship over the spiritual world, became pope, the famous Gregory the Great.

In the Forum the young deacon saw that which touched his sympathetic soul. Here cattle were being sold; there, men. His eyes were specially attracted by a group of youthful slaves, of aspect such as he had never seen before. They were bright of complexion, their hair long and golden, their expression of touching innocence. Their fair faces were strangely unlike the embrowned complexions to which he had been accustomed, and he stood looking at them in admiration, while the slave-dealers extolled their beauty of face and figure.

“From what country do these young men come?” asked Gregory.

“They are English, Angles,” answered the dealers.

“Not Angles, but angels,” said the deacon, with a feeling of poetic sentiment, “for they have angel-like faces. From what country come they?” he repeated.

“They come from Deira,” said the merchants.

“De irâ”
  he rejoined, fervently; “aye, plucked from God’s ire and called to Christ’s mercy. And what is the name of their king?”

“Ella,” was the answer.

“Alleluia shall be sung there!” cried the enthusiastic young monk, his imagination touched by the significance of these answers. He passed on, musing on the incident which had deeply stirred his sympathies, and considering how the light of Christianity could be shed upon the pagan lands whence these fair strangers came.

It was a striking picture which surrounded that slave-market. From where the young deacon stood could be seen the capitol of ancient Rome and the grand proportions of its mighty Coliseum; not far away the temple of Jupiter Stator displayed its magnificent columns, and other stately edifices of the imperial city came within the circle of vision. Rome had ceased to be the mistress of the world, but it was not yet in ruins, and many of its noble edifices still stood almost in perfection. But paganism had vanished. The cross of Christ was the dominant symbol. The march of the warriors of the legions was replaced by long processions of cowled and solemn monks. The temporal imperialism of Rome had ceased, the spiritual had begun; instead of armies to bring the world under the dominion of the sword, that ancient city now sent out its legions of priests to bring it under the dominion of the cross.

Gregory resolved to be one of the latter. A fair new field for missionary labor lay in that distant island, peopled by pagans whose aspect promised to make them noble subjects of Christ’s kingdom upon earth. The enthusiastic youth left Rome to seek Saxon England, moved thereto not by desire of earthly glory, but of heavenly reward. But this was not to be. His friends deemed that he was going to death, and begged the pope to order his return. Gregory was brought back and England remained pagan.

Years went by. The humble deacon rose to be bishop of Rome and head of the Christian world. Gregory the Great, men named him, though he styled himself “Servant of the servants of God,” and lived in like humility and simplicity of style as when he was a poor monk.

The time at length came to which Gregory had looked forward. Ethelbert, king of Kentish England, married Bertha, daughter of the French king Charibert, a fervent Christian woman. A few priests came with her to England, and the king gave them a ruined Christian edifice, the Church of St. Martin, outside the walls of Canterbury, for their worship. But it was overshadowed by a pagan temple, and the worship of Odin and Thor still dominated Saxon England.

Gregory took quick advantage of this opportunity. The fair faces of the English slaves still appealed to his pitying soul, and he now sent Augustine, prior of St. Andrew’s at Rome, with a band of forty monks as missionaries to England. It was the year of our Lord 597. The missionaries landed at the very spot where Hengist the Saxon had landed more than a century before. The one had brought the sword to England, the others brought the cross. King Ethelbert knew of their coming and had agreed to receive them; but, by the advice of his priests, who feared conjuration and spells of magic, he gave them audience in the open air, where such spells have less power. The place was on the chalk-down above Minster, whence, miles away across the intervening marshes, one may to-day behold the distant tower of Canterbury cathedral.

The scene, as pictured to us in the chronicles of the monks, was a picturesque and inspiring one. The hill selected for the meeting overlooked the ocean. King Ethelbert, with Queen Bertha by his side, awaited in state his visitors. Around were grouped the warriors of Kent and the priests of Odin. Silence reigned, and in the distance the monks could be seen advancing in solemn procession, singing as they came. He who came first bore a large silver crucifix. Another carried a banner with the painted image of Christ. The deep and solemn music, the venerable and peaceful aspect of the strangers, the solemnity of the occasion, touched the heart of Ethelbert, already favorably inclined, as we may believe, to the faith of his loved wife.

Augustine’s Audience With King Ethelbert and Queen Bertha, AD 597

Augustine had brought interpreters from Gaul. By their aid he convey to the king the message he had been sent to bring. Ethelbert listened in silence, the queen in rapt attention, the warriors and priests doubtless with varied sentiments. The appeal of Augustine at an end, Ethelbert spoke.

“Your words are fair,” he said, “but they are new, and of doubtful meaning. For myself, I propose to worship still the gods of my fathers. But you bring peace and good words; you are welcome to my kingdom; while you stay here you shall have shelter and protection.”

His land was a land of plenty, he told them; food, drink, and lodging should be theirs, and none should do them wrong; England should be their home while they chose to stay.

With these words the audience ended. Augustine and his monks fell again into procession, and, with singing of psalms and display of holy emblems, moved solemnly towards the city of Canterbury, where Bertha’s church awaited them. As they entered the city they sang:

“Turn from this city, O Lord, thine anger and wrath, and turn it from Thy holy house, for we have sinned.” Then Gregory’s joyful cry of “Alleluia! Alleluia!” burst from their devout lips, as they moved into the first English church.

The work of the “strangers from Rome” proceeded but slowly. Some converts were made, but Ethelbert held aloof. Fortunately for Augustine, he had an advocate in the palace, one with near and dear speech in the king’s ear. We cannot doubt that the gentle influence of Queen Bertha was a leading power in Ethelbert’s conversion. A year passed. At its end the king gave way. On the day of Pentecost he was baptized. Christ had succeeded Odin and Thor on the throne of the English heart, for the story of the king’s conversion carried his kingdom with it. The men of Kent, hearing that their king had adopted the new faith, crowded the banks of the Swale, eager for baptism. The under-kings of Essex and East Anglia became Christians. On the succeeding Christmas-day ten thousand of the people followed the example of their king. The new faith spread with wonderful rapidity through out the kingdom of Kent.

When word of this great event reached Pope Gregory at Rome his heart was filled with joy. He exultingly wrote to a friend that his missionaries had spread the religion of Christ “in the most remote parts of the world,” and at once appointed Augustine archbishop of Canterbury and primate of all England, that he might complete the work he had so promisingly begun. Such is the story of the Christianizing of England as told in the ancient chronicle of the venerable Bede, the earliest of English writers.

As yet only Kent had been converted. North of it lay the kingdom of Northumbria, still a pagan realm. The story of its conversion, as told by Bede, is of no less interest than that just related. Edwin was its king, a man of great ability for that early day. His prowess is shown in a proverb: “A woman with her babe might walk scathless from sea to sea in Edwin’s day.” The highways, long made dangerous by outlaw and ruthless warrior, were now safe avenues of travel; the springs by the roadside were marked by stakes, while brass cups beside them awaited the traveler’s hand. Edwin ruled over all northern England, as Ethelbert did over the south. Edinburgh was within his dominions, and from him it had its name,—Edwin’s burgh, the city of Edwin.

Christianity came to this monarch’s heart in some such manner as it had reached that of Ethelbert, through the appealing influence of his wife. A daughter of King Ethelbert had come to share his throne. She, like Bertha her mother, was a Christian. With her came the monk Paulinus, from the church at Canterbury. He was a man of striking aspect,—of tall and stooping form, slender, aquiline nose, and thin, worn face, round which fell long black hair. The ardent missionary, aided doubtless by the secret appeals of the queen, soon produced an influence upon the intelligent mind of Edwin. The monarch called a council of his wise men, to talk with them about the new doctrine which had been taught in his realm. Of what passed at that council we have but one short speech, but it is one that illuminates it as no other words could have done, a lesson in prose which is full of the finest spirit of poetry, perhaps the most picturesque image of human life that has ever been put into words.

“So seems to me the life of man, O king,” said an aged noble, “as a sparrow’s flight through the hall when you are sitting at meat in winter-tide, with the warm fire lighted on the hearth, while outside all is storm of rain and snow. The sparrow flies in at one door, and tarries for a moment in the light and heat of the fire within, and then, flying forth from the other, vanishes into the wintry darkness whence it came. So the life of man tarries for a moment in our sight; but of what went before it, or what is to follow it, we know nothing. If this new teaching tells us something more certain of these things, let us follow it.”

Such an appeal could not but have a powerful effect upon his hearers. Those were days when men were more easily moved by sentiment than by argument. Edwin and his councillors heard with favoring ears. Not last among them was Coifi, chief priest of the idol-worship, whose ardent soul was stirred by the words of the old thane.

“None of your people, King Edwin, have worshiped the gods more busily than I,” he said, “yet there are many who have been more favored and are more fortunate. Were these gods good for anything they would help their worshipers.”

The High Priest Coifi Profanes the Temple of the Idols

Grasping his spear, the irate priest leaped on his horse, and riding at full speed towards the temple sacred to the heathen gods, he hurled the warlike weapon furiously into its precincts. The lookers-on, nobles and commons alike, beheld his act with awe, in doubt if the deities of their old worship would not avenge with death this insult to their fane. Yet all remained silent; no thunders rent the skies; the desecrating priest sat his horse unharmed. When, then, he bade them follow him to the neighboring stream, to be baptized in its waters into the new faith, an eager multitude crowded upon his steps.

The spot where Edwin and his followers were baptized is thus described by Camden, in his “Description of Great Britain,” etc.: “In the Roman times, not far from its bank upon the little river Foulness (where Wighton, a small town, but well-stocked with husbandmen, now stands), there seems to have formerly stood Delgovitia; as it is probable both from the likeness and the signification of the name. For the British word Delgwe  (or rather Ddelw)  signifies the statues or images of the heathen gods; and in a little village not far off there stood an idol-temple, which was in very great honor in the Saxon times, and, from the heathen gods in it, was then called Godmundingham, and now, in the same sense, Godmanham.” It was into this temple that Coifi flung his desecrating spear, and in this stream that Edwin the king received Christian baptism.

The Baptism of Edwin, AD 627

But Christianity did not win England without a struggle. After the death of Ethelbert and Edwin, paganism revived and fought hard for the mastery. The Roman monks lost their energy, and were confined to the vicinity of Canterbury. Conversion came again, but from the west instead of the east, from Ireland instead of Rome.

Christianity had been received with enthusiasm in Erin’s isle. Less than half a century after the death of St. Patrick, the first missionary, flourishing Christian schools existed at Darrow and Armagh, letters and the arts were cultivated, and missionaries were leaving the shores of Ireland to carry the faith elsewhere. From the famous monastery which they founded at Iona, on the west coast of Scotland, came the new impulse which gave Christianity its fixed footing in England, and finally drove paganism from Britain’s shores. Oswald, of Northumbria, became the bulwark of the new faith; Penda, of Mercia, the sword of heathendom; and a long struggle for religion and dominion ensued between these warlike chiefs. Oswald was slain in battle; Penda led his conquering host far into the Christian realm; but a new king, Oswi by name, overthrew Penda and his army in a great defeat, and the worship of the older gods in England was at an end. But a half-century of struggle and bloodshed passed before the victory of Christ over Odin was fully won.

The Defeat of Penda (Battle of Winwaed, AD 655)
Whitby Abbey (Founded by King Oswi, AD 657)

Raised in a home filled with books on Western civilization, P.G. Mantel became a lover of history at an early age. An amateur writer of verse, he makes himself useful as an editor for Men of the West.


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