Augustine of Canterbury, St.

Augustine of Canterbury, St.
(d. 604)
   Missionary to the Anglo-Saxon people, Augustine was sent to England by Pope Gregory I, called the Great, with forty other missionaries. Much of our knowledge of his evangelical mission comes from two primary sources: the letters sent to Augustine from Gregory, which were preserved, in part, by Bede in A History of the English Church and People, and Bede's history itself. Augustine successfully introduced Christianity to the kingdom of Kent, converted the Kentish king, built or restored churches, and introduced monastic life to England. Augustine was not only a successful evangelist, but he was also the first archbishop of Canterbury. Although there was a period of apostasy after the deaths of Augustine and Æthelberht, the Anglo-Saxon king, Augustine can be recognized as restoring contacts between England and Rome that had been broken during the barbarian invasions and also as reestablishing Christianity in Anglo-Saxon England.
   According to Bede, the inspiration to evangelize England was the result of an experience Gregory had before he became pope. One day while in the marketplace in Rome, Gregory came upon some merchants who had recently arrived with young boys to sell as slaves. Remarking on their attractive features, Gregory asked the name of their race. He was told they were Angels, and he said that was appropriate because "They have angelic faces" (Bede 1981, 100). He learned too that they were pagan and from the land of Deira, and he hoped to rescue them from the wrath of God (de ira). He approached the pope, asking to be sent as a missionary but was refused this request. According to the tradition recorded by Bede, however, he did not forget his hope and as pope sent a mission to England. Although the tale may be apocryphal, it does reveal Gregory's desire to convert the English as well as his possible awareness of the importance of western Europe for the papacy.
   Whatever the truth of Bede's tale, Gregory did send an evangelical mission to England, which was led by Augustine. Little is known of Augustine's life before he was chosen to lead the mission to England, other than that he was probably a student of Felix, bishop of Messana, and was a monk and prior of St. Andrew's monastery in Rome. In 596 Augustine was appointed to lead roughly forty monks to England to preach the Christian faith or at least to learn if the people would be receptive to hearing the word. It was a mission of some uncertainty and setbacks but one that ultimately proved successful.
   Leaving Rome sometime before July 596, Augustine and his fellow missionaries arrived first in Gaul, bearing letters from Gregory asking the bishops of Gaul to support the missionaries on their way. Augustine's route through Gaul possibly took him to the cities of Arles, Lyons, Marseilles, and Tours. As the letters of Gregory reveal, the missionaries also visited the powerful Merovingian queen Brunhilde and possibly also her grandsons Theudebert, later Theudebert II, and Theuderic, later Theuderic II. The queen was, no doubt, interested in the mission because her niece Bertha was married to the English king Æthelberht. A letter from Gregory in 597 suggests that she was most helpful; the pope thanks her for her efforts and praises her as a new Helena, the mother of the first Christian emperor Constantine. The journey through Gaul, however, was not without incident. At either Lérins or, more likely, Arles, the missionaries sent Augustine back to Rome to ask the pope to reconsider sending the mission because of their fears of going to a barbarous, pagan nation. Gregory promoted Augustine to the rank of abbot and returned him with a letter encouraging the missionaries to proceed to England and another letter seeking support for the missionaries from the bishop of Arles.
   The exact date of the arrival of the missionaries in England remains uncertain, but it was probably sometime during the summer of 597. They arrived first on the island of Thanet near the coast of Kent and brought with them Frankish interpreters. Augustine, now a bishop, having been consecrated at Arles, made contact with the king, Æthelberht. Although his wife was a Christian, the king remained a pagan, but he informed Augustine that he would welcome them, even though Augustine was to stay on the island. The king feared that Augustine would use magic to deceive him and ordered an open-air audience to be held, rather than one in a house where Augustine would more easily be able to use magic. The bishop arrived at the head of a procession bearing a silver cross and an icon of Jesus Christ. Although he did not convert, the king welcomed Augustine and offered him a dwelling in the capital of Canterbury, where Augustine settled and restored the ancient church of St. Martin. He thus began the mission, and then his prayers and the miracles he performed convinced the king to convert. This was Augustine's greatest accomplishment, and even though the king did not compel his subjects to convert, many did, and Gregory reported in a letter to the patriarch of Alexandria that Augustine baptized 10,000 people on Christmas Day, 597.
   Augustine set about establishing the infrastructure needed for the church in England. In 601 he received the pallium, symbol of full episcopal authority, from Gregory and permission to establish a number of new bishoprics under his authority as archbishop. He was to promote London to the status of archbishopric and also create a new archiepiscopal see in York and twelve new episcopal sees under the authority of York. Augustine's see at Canterbury, was to remain the primatial see in England. Augustine also repaired the cathedral in Canterbury, Christ Church, which was consecrated on June 9, 603, and established a monastery near the cathedral, which served as the burial site for Augustine and his successors as archbishop as well as for the kings of Kent. He received aid from further missionaries in 601, who brought a number of items necessary for worship, including altar covers, books, church ornaments, relics, and vestments. He corresponded often with Gregory in Rome and received instructions on various matters, including an order not to destroy the pagan temples of the English. Gregory approved destruction of pagan idols but recommended purifying existing pagan temples and consecrating them as churches so that the English would flock "more readily to their accustomed resorts, [and] come to know and adore the true God." (Bede 1981, 87) Augustine also received a letter from Gregory cautioning the archbishop against taking pride in the miracles that God was performing through the archbishop in England.
   Augustine also organized a council at Augustine Oak in 603, between the church he had established and the British churches that existed outside the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. These churches had fallen out of communication with Rome, and Augustine hoped to reconcile with them and introduce Roman practices to them. The conference was a failure because the British churches refused to accept his, and Rome's, teaching on the date of Easter and other matters. Even though Augustine miraculously cured a man of blindness as a test of whom God favored, while the British clerics failed at the task, the conference ended without reconciliation between the two churches. A second council was held sometime later, and again the two sides failed to agree. The British priests refused to accept Augustine's compromise of allowing them to continue their traditional practices but requiring them to conform to Roman usage on Easter and baptism because Augustine did not rise from his seat when they approached. Bede records Augustine's prophecy of strife afflicting the British churches, which, Bede notes, was fulfilled.
   Despite this failure and the period of apostasy after his death on May 26, 604, and the death of Æthelberht, Augustine's mission was of great importance for the history of Christianity in England. He successfully restored connections between England and Rome. He baptized many Anglo-Saxons, including the king of Kent, established a network of bishops,
   built a monastery, and restored many churches that had fallen into disuse and disrepair. Indeed, as the epitaph on his tomb notes, the first archbishop of Canterbury "supported by God with miracles guided King Æthelberht and his people from the worship of idols to the faith of Christ." (Bede 1981, 105)
   See also
 ♦ Bede. Ecclesiastical History of the English People with Bede's Letter to Egbert and Cuthbert's Letter on the Death of Bede. Trans. Leo Sherley-Price. Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin, 1991.
 ♦ Blair, Peter Hunter. The World of Bede. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991.
 ♦ Mayr-Harting, Henry. The Coming of Christianity to Anglo-Saxon England, 3d ed. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1991.
 ♦ Stenton, Frank M. Anglo-Saxon England. 3d ed. Oxford: Clarendon, 1971.

Encyclopedia of Barbarian Europe. 2014.

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