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History of the Church of England

Christianity was present in Roman Britain, but the invading Saxons, Angles and Jutes were heathens. In 596 Pope Gregory I dispatched Augustine together with a party of monks to the Anglo-Saxon Kingdom of Kent. Ethelbert of Kent's wife Bertha, daughter of Charibert, one of the Merovingian kings of the Franks, had brought a chaplain with her (Liudhard) and restored a church to the east of Canterbury from Roman times and dedicated it to St. Martin of Tours, a major patronal saint for the Merovingian royal family. Ethelbert himself was a pagan, but allowed his wife to worship God her own way. Probably under influence of his wife, Ethelbert asked Pope Gregory I to send missionaries.

Gregory sent out a mission in 596, led by Augustine, who was was praepositus (prior) of the monastery of Saint Andrew in Rome, founded by Gregory. They lost heart on the way and Augustine went back to Rome from Provence and asked that the missionbe given up. The pope, however, commanded and encouraged them to proceed, and they landed on the Island of Thanet in the spring of 597.

Ethelbert permitted the missionaries to settle and preach in his town of Canterbury and before the end of the year he was converted and Augustine was consecrated bishop at Arles. At Christmas10,000 of the king's subjects were baptized.

Augustine sent a report of his success to Gregory with certain questions concerning his work. In 601 Mellitus, Justus and others brought the pope's replies, with the pallium for Augustine and a present of sacred vessels, vestments, relics, books, and the like. Gregory directed the new archbishop to ordain as soon as possible twelve suffragan bishops and to send a bishop to York, who should also have twelve suffragans,- a plan which was not carried out, nor was the primatial see established at London as Gregory intended for they remained heathen there. Augustine consecrated Mellitus bishop of London and Justus bishop of Rochester.

More practicable were the pope's mandates concerning heathen temples and usages: the former were to be consecrated to Christian service and the latter, so far as possible, to be transformed into dedication ceremonies or feasts of martyrs, since "he who would climb to a lofty height must go up by steps, not leaps" (letter of Gregory to Mellitus, in Bede, i, 30).

Augustine reconsecrated and rebuilt an old church at Canterbury as his cathedral and founded a monastery in connection with it. He also restored a church and founded the monastery of St. Peter and St. Paul outside the walls. He died before it was finished, but is now buried in the Church of St. Peter and St. Paul[?].

In 616 Ethelbert of Kent died and the kingdom and the associated Anglo-Saxon kingdoms which Kent had had influence over relapsed in heathenism for several decades.


William Hunt, The English Church: From It's Foundation to the Norman Conquest (597-1066), Volume I of a 7 volume set by various authors, AMS Press, reprint, originally published in 1899, hardcover, 444 pages

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