ST AUGUSTINE OF CANTERBURY
The Mission of St Augustine to Kent in A.D. 597 is the most important event in the Christian history of Kent and of England. It had two important results. Firstly, it re-established the Catholic Faith in England, centred on the unity of the Apostolic See, after it had been almost eradicated by the heathen invasions of the 5th and 6th centuries.
Secondly, it re-established cultural and intellectual contact with the Continent, particularly Rome, which was still looked upon as the capital of the western world.
THE SOURCES OF OUR KNOWLEDGE
The most important source of our knowledge about St Augustine comes from the ‘Epistles of Pope Saint Gregory the Great’, preserved in Papal Registers in Rome. These documents consist of letters of Pope St Gregory to St Augustine or other Members of his Mission. They give instructions and advice, sometimes they are letters written to others about the Mission asking for their help in aiding St Augustine. Unfortunately, these letters have not been preserved in chronological order. Many are undated, and different editors have put them in different orders. As well as this, not all of them have survived, and for detailed content of some we must rely on the evidence of Bede (see below). The consequence of the letters being undated, sometimes missing or merely described by a later author, is that it is sometimes extremely difficult to grasp the speed with which events took place.
The other important source of our knowledge is the Venerable ‘Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English Nation’, written about A.D. 731, some four generations after the Mission had taken place. Bede was a very careful historian, and sent researchers to Canterbury and Rome in search of trustworthy information. It is certain that earlier documents about the Mission were still being kept in Canterbury and Rome in the early eighth century.
The story begins with the familiar tale of Gregory’s meeting with fair-haired pagan Anglian slaves in the Roman Forum, probably in the 580’s. He was told that they were Angles. ‘Non Angli, sed angeli si Christiani’ (they are not Angles but angels if they are Christians), was his famous reply. Gregory’s informant added that they were from Deira (roughly equivalent to modern Yorkshire): ‘de ira (delivered from wrath) they would indeed be,’ said Gregory, ‘once they had been called to the mercy of Christ.’ On asking the name of the king of that province, Gregory was told that it was Aella. Alluding to the name, Gregory concluded: Alleluia, the praise of God the Creator must be sung in those parts.’
At the time of this celebrated exchange, Gregory was Abbot of St Andrew’s Monastery on the Coelian Hill in Rome, and a little while later, determined to bring about the conversion of the Angles, set out on a missionary journey to England. However, he was recalled by the Pope, Pelagius II, urged on by the people of Rome who did not want their beloved Gregory to leave the City. In A.D. 590 Gregory became Pope, and that naturally put an end to any hopes he might have had of journeying to England himself. But he never forgot his meeting with the Angles in the Roman market-place and his resolve to evangelise the English.
In A.D. 596, probably in the autumn, Gregory, the new Pope, having heard that the English rulers were favourably disposed, commissioned Augustine, the Prior of his former monastery, St Andrew’s, together with forty monks to undertake the Mission to England. The party crossed the Alps into Provence. It appears that when they reached Aix some of the monks began to have misgivings about the task they had undertaken. They heard accounts of the length and the dangers of the journey and of the barbarism of the English. They began to lose heart, and Augustine was sent back to Rome to implore Pope Gregory to call off the Mission. The Pope issued a stern reproof to Augustine for having turned back after setting his hand to the plough, and he was ordered to rejoin the party at Aix with his position as leader of the Mission confirmed; he was made Abbot and given letters of recommendation to various bishops and leaders in Gaul urging them to give Augustine and his fellow monks every assistance. After many adventures, in the spring of A.D. 597 Abbot Augustine and his forty monks, together with some Frankish priests to act as interpreters, landed on the Isle of Thanet off the Kent coast.
On arriving in Thanet, Augustine sent a message to Ethelbert, King of Kent, who replied that the newcomers should remain on the island until he could visit them. Shortly afterwards a meeting took place in the open air – Ethelbert insisted on this as a precaution against magic. Historians debate the exact spot where this meeting took place, but it could well have been at Ebbsfleet where a Victorian monument, called ‘St Augustine’s Cross’, now stands. Ethelbert gave the missionaries permission to cross the Wansum Channel, a stretch of water which separated the Isle of Thanet from Kent, to the Kentish mainland to preach the Gospel. In due course the party reached King Ethelbert’s capital, Canterbury. Bede gives us a vivid description of the procession as it entered the city chanting a litany and carrying on high a picture of Christ. Tradition has it that Augustine was exceptionally tall and towered head and shoulders above his fellow monks.
Once in the city Ethelbert provided Augustine and his party with lodgings by the Stablegate (near the present redundant church of St Alphege) and the use of St Martin’s church which had been restored some years earlier for the use of his queen, Bertha, who was already a Catholic. Bertha was the daughter of the Frankish king, Charibert, and her presence at the Kentish court was certainly a major reason why Pope Gregory judged that the time was right for a Mission to the English.
The conversion of her husband, Ethelbert, seems to have taken place soon after, for tradition says that he was baptised at Whitsun A.D. 597, possibly in the font which is still to be seen in St Martin’s church. About the same time, King Ethelbert gave Abbot Augustine a grant of land within the city walls, the site of the future Canterbury Cathedral and the Monastery of Christ Church.
There is little doubt that Ethelbert’s conversion was followed by that of his principal nobles and officials. The rapid and spectacular success of the Mission and the need to give the Church formal organisation led to Augustine’s return to the Continent, probably in the autumn of A.D. 597, to be ordained bishop by Vergilius, Bishop of Arles.
On his return to Canterbury, Bishop Augustine sent Laurentius and Peter, two of his companions, to Pope Gregory with a report on the progress of the Mission to date and a list of questions, some theological and some administrative, which were bothering him. In his reply, which was delayed until A.D. 601 on account of illness and his preoccupation with the Lombard invasions, Pope Gregory confirmed Augustine’s authority over other bishops to be created in England. With his reply, carried by Laurentius and Peter, the Pope sent a second group of missionaries, for it was obvious to him that more were urgently needed. In this second group of missionaries were two monks, Justus and Mellitus, who figure later in the story. At the same time, it appears that Pope Gregory sent Augustine the pallium, originally a sort of wrap-around cloak but nowadays a white woollen band with crosses worn over the chasuble, which is the sign of a Metropolitan Archbishop.
THE MISSION IN KENT
The Christianisation of Kent went ahead rapidly. We are told that 10,000 people were baptised, either in the Swale or the River Medway, at Christmas A.D. 597.
In A.D. 604 the second Kentish See was established at Rochester with Justus as bishop. Soon after, the Faith reached the Kingdom of the East Saxons (Essex), doubtless through Ethelbert’s influence with the East Saxon king, Saberht, who was his nephew. London was at that time the capital of the East Saxon Kingdom, and at the highest point in the city a church, dedicated to St Paul, was built, Mellitus becoming the first bishop of London.
THE CELTIC CHURCH
It was about this time that Augustine had his first meeting with the Celtic clergy. Catholicism had survived uninterrupted in the North, Wales and Ireland since the period of the Roman Occupation of Britain.
The Celtic Church, because of its long isolation caused by the heathen invasions of the 5th and 6th centuries, had become only loosely affiliated with the rest of Christendom and had developed its own practices. It had, for example, different ways of calculating the date of Easter. Moreover, it was more monastic in its organisation. Its bishops had no clearly defined dioceses as they had on the Continent, and there were different practices surrounding the consecration of bishops and the form of the tonsure.
The meetings of Archbishop Augustine with representatives of the Celtic Church took place on the bank of the River Severn at a place which Bede tells us was known in his day as St Augustine’s Oak, and may well be the place now called Aust opposite the mouth of the River Wye. We have to rely on Bede, who was not favourably disposed towards Welsh Christianity, for the account of what happened at these meetings.
At their first meeting the Celtic clergy were loath to abandon the practises of their Church and to embrace the full unity of the Catholic Church, centred on the Apostolic See, which Augustine sought to bring, and it was decided to seek divine guidance through a miracle. A blind man was brought. The Celtic priests tried to heal him and failed; Augustine succeeded. Thereupon the Celtic clergy said that they could not give a final answer until they had consulted their colleagues. A second meeting was arranged, and on their way the Celtic representatives called on a hermit with a great reputation for holiness to seek his advice. The hermit said that if Augustine was a man of God they should heed his words, and when they asked how they should know this, the hermit suggested they should arrange to arrive at the meeting after Augustine. If he were a true follower of Christ he would be humble and rise to meet them: if he remained seated it would show him to be filled with pride. The advice was followed. Unfortunately, Augustine remained seated when the Welsh bishops arrived, and in consequence the meeting broke up without achieving anything. The Celtic Church went its own way for several decades longer, and it was not until the Synod of Whitby in A.D. 664 that the full unity of the Church, centred on the Holy See, for which Augustine laboured, was achieved.
Augustine died on 26th May, probably in the year A.D. 604, although the year is not certain. Shortly before his death he consecrated Laurentius as his successor, perhaps to avoid instability in the infant English Church.
He was buried in a roadside cemetery on the east side of Canterbury outside the city walls, the exact location of which has been lost. However, we do know that Ethelbert, prompted by Augustine, built a monastery on the east side of the city dedicated to Saints Peter and Paul which was incomplete at the time of Augustine’s death. Later in A.D. 613 when the abbey had been finished, Augustine’s body was transferred from its first resting place into the new abbey (which was later additionally named St Augustine’s Abbey by St Dunstan, Archbishop of Canterbury, in A.D. 978). The site of Augustine’s first tomb within the Abbey can still be seen as well as the tombs of several Archbishops of Canterbury and Kentish kings.
Over the next four centuries, various alterations, improvements and enlargements were made rto the original abbey building, founded by Augustine himself. In Norman times it was decided to completely rebuild the abbey on a far more splendid scale, and the original Saxon abbey was demolished. As part of the demolition and re-building process, the tomb of St Augustine was opened by Abbot Wydo on 6th September A.D. 1091. The body of the saint, dressed in his archiepiscopal vestments, was, according to contemporary accounts, found to be incorrupt. In due course, once the building of the new Norman abbey had been completed, St Augustine’s tomb was translated to an imposing shrine in the apse behind the high altar with Laurentius, the second Archbishop of Canterbury, and Mellitus, the first Bishop of London, on either side of him.
We are told by Goscelin, a monk of Canterbury who lived a little later in the 12th century, that the inscription on the tomb read: ‘Here lies the body of Saint Augustine, the noble and holy patron of the English, and their glory on high.’ After the new tomb had been dedicated, in fact that very same night, Abbot Wydo and a few of the older monks, removed the body from the tomb so as to prevent it falling into the hands of Danish raiders. They left a few small bones and some ashes in the tomb which had been dedicated that day and hid the body in a stone coffin in a wall under the east window. The knowledge of its real resting place apparently died with those concerned with its removal and re-burial, although there is strong evidence to suggest that in A.D. 1221 the tomb was rediscovered and the body reinstated in a dignified position within the Abbey. There it remained for a further three hundred years.
At the Dissolution of the Monasteries in A.D. 1538 under King Henry VIII it is very probable that the monks of St Augustine’s Abbey secretly removed St Augustine’s body, just as the monks of Christ Church probably secretly removed the body of St Thomas Becket from Canterbury Cathedral. One tradition states that St Augustine was buried at Chilham Church, some six miles south-west of Canterbury, but his remains have never been discovered…”
– This is an excerpt of the booklet “The 1400th Anniversary of St Augustine’s Mission to the English: AD 597-1997” by Canon Michael Bunce
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