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Augustine of Canterbury

Augustine of Canterbury


Augustine of CanterburyTo the Monk Augustine is usually attributed the conversion of England to Christianity. That religion had already been preached to the Britons and was accepted by many but the Angles and Saxons, who had conquered the island were still Pagans at the cud of the sixth century. To them Augustine brought the new faith which has since prevailed. Nothing of his early life is known. The first authentic mention we get of him is when he was Abbot of St. Andrew, at Rome.


Pope Gregory I. surnamed the Great 590-604, had long entertained hopes of sending missionaries to the Angles. According to a familiar story, before he was prelate, he had observed in the market-place of Rome three foreign youths exposed for sale. Struck with the beauty of their fair complexions, Gregory asked to what nation they belonged i and, being told they were Angles, he replied, "Rightly are they called Angles, for they have the face of angels, and they ought to be fellow-heirs of angels in Heaven." Again, on learning that they came from a country named Deira, he said, They are plucked from God's ire de Era Dei, and saved by the mercy of Christ. I On being told that the name of their king was Aella or Alla, he exclaimed "Alleluia! we must endeavor that the praises of God be sung in their country.


Being Bishop of the Imperial City, Gregory determined to carry out his early design, and sent Abbot Augustine with forty associates to preach the gospel in Britain. They had not journeyed far when his companions became frightened and commissioned Augustine to lay their hazards and difficulties before Gregory, and to crave his permission to desist from the undertaking. But Gregory sent back Augustine exhorting them to persevere in their pltrpose. The missionaries then proceeded and landed at Ebbe's Fleet, in the Isle of Thanet, 597 A.D.


Ethelbert, the Saxon King, had married Bertha, daughter of Charibert, King of Paris. She was a Christian, and at her marriage an agreement had been made that she should enjoy the free exercise of her religion. Thus Ethelbert was not indisposed towards the Christian faith, and assigned Augustine and his companions a home in the Isle of Thanet, and soon afterwards admitted them to a conference in the open air, because, as is said, he feared lest spells or enchantments might be employed against him by the priests. At this meeting Augustine, by means of interpreters, delivered to him the tenets of the Christian faith. "Your words and promises," replied the King, "are fair but, because they are new and uncertain, I cannot entirely yield to them, and relinquish the principles which I and my ancestors have so long maintained. You are welcome, however, to remain here in peace and as you have undertaken so long journey solely, as it appears, for what you believe to be for our advantage, I will supply you with all necessaries, and permit you to deliver your doctrine to my subjects.


Augustine and his monks now entered Canterbury in solemn procession. They conducted the services for the Queen and her attendants in St. Martin's Church. Numbers of the Kentish men were soon baptized, and Ethelbert was at last persuaded to submit to that rite on Whitsunday, the 2d of June, 597 A.D. Augustine, in the commencement of his mission, assumed the greatest lenity he told the King that the service of Christ must be entirely voluntary, and that no violence ought ever to be used in propagating so salutary a doctrine. The King gave up his palace at Canterbury to be a residence for the Archbishop. On the adjacent ground the foundation of the cathedral was laid. Outside the walls a cemetery was formed, where Ethelbert endowed a monastery, the foundation stone of which was laid by Augustine. Its original title was the monastery of St. Peter and St. Paul but it was afterwards called St. Augustine. Another church was dedicated under the title of St. Pancras.


Being in want of more aid, Augustine applied in 601 to Gregory for additional clergy. These were sent bearing cloths and vestments for the new cathedral, and some very valuable books. Of these latter, two manuscript gospels still exist, one at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, and the other at the Bodleian Library. Augustine was endowed with authority over all British Churches, and the Pope sent him the pall, a badge of ecclesiastical honor. He now founded the Sees of Rochester and London, consecrating Justus, Bishop ol Rochester, and Mellitus, Bishop of London.


His object was to convert the entire island; but the British Bishops of Cornwall and Wales refused to obey the Roman Bishop. The success of his mission, however, in Kent and Essex was complete. In Bede's "History of the Anglo-Saxon Church," Augustine is said to have restored sight to a blind Saxon; yet even this miracle failed to convince the British bishops of his right of jurisdiction over them. He expired on the 26th of May, 605, and was buried near the unfinished cathedral in Canterbury. On its completion his successor removed the body to the north porch of the building.


Augustine was an active and zealous missionary. He attracted the attention of the Saxons by the austerity of his manner, by the severe penance to which he subjected himself, and by the abstinence and self-denial which he practiced. He bound England with new ties to the rest of Christendom, and laid the firm foundation of a vast superstructure which is still a marvel of the ages.



Forever hallowed be this morning fair,
Blest be the unconscious shore on which ye tread,
And blest the Silver Cross, which ye, instead
Of martial banner, in procession bear:
The Cross preceding Him who floats in air,
The pictured Saviour !-By Augustine led,
They come-and onward travel without dread,
Chanting in barbarous ears a tuneful prayer,
Sung for themselves, and those whom they would free:
Rich conquest waits them: the tempestuous sea
Of ignorance that ran so rough and high,
And heeded not the voice of clashing swords,
These good men humble by a few bare words,
And calm with fear of God's divinity.




Before the end of the sixth century by far the greater and more fertile portion of Britain had become heathen and Teutonic. Three kindred tribes~ Al1gles~ Saxons and Jutes, are in the common national tradition~ said to have divided the land among them in very unequal proportions . Long before the Norman Conquest, the various Low-Dutch tribes in Britain had been fused into the one English nation. The distinction between Angle and Saxon had become merely provincial. To the united nation, the Angle had given his royal dynasty; the Jute, the least considerable in the extent of his territorial possessions, had been, according to all tradition, the first to lead the way to a permanent settlement, and he had undoubtedly been honored by supplying the ecclesiastical center front which Christianity was spread over the land. If Wessex boasted of the royal capital of Winchester, Kent boasted no less proudly of the spiritual metropolis of Canterbury.


The old nation of an Heptarchy, of a regular system of seven kingdoms, united under the regular supremacy of a single over-lord or Bretwalda, is a dream which has passed away before the light of historic criticism. The English kingdoms in Britain were ever fluctuating, alike in their number and in their relations to one another .. .. Yet it is certain that, among the mass of smaller and more obscure principalities, seven Kingdoms do stand out in a marked way, seven Kingdoms of which it is possible to recover something like a continuous history, seven Kingdoms which alone supplied candidates for the dominion of the whole island. First comes the earliest permanent Teutonic settlement in Britain, the Jutish kingdom of Kent. The direct descendants of Hengest reigned over a land which, as the nearest portion of Britain to the continent, has ever been the first to receive every foreign immigration; hut which, notwithstanding, prides itself to this day on its specially Teutonic character, and on the retention of various old Teutonic usages which have vanished elsewhere. Besides Kent, the Jutes formed no other strictly independent State. Their only other settlement was a small principality, including the Isle of Wight and part of Hampshire, whose history is closely connected with that of the Great Saxon kingdom in its immediate neighborhood, in which it was at last merged. The remainder of the English territory south of the thames, together with a small portion to the north of that river, formed the three kingdoms of the Saxons, the East, the South and the West, whose names speak for themselves. Among these, Sussex and Essex fill only a secondary part in our history.


Very different was the destiny of the third Saxon kingdom. Wessex has grown into England, England into the United Kingdom, the United . Kingdom into the British Empire. Every prince who has ruled England before and since the eleventh century, has had the blood of Cerdic, the West Saxon, in his veins. At the close of the sixth century Wessex had risen to high importance among the English kingdoms, though the days of its permanent supremacy were still far distant Step by step, from a small settlement on the Hampshire coast, the West Saxons had won their way, fighting battle after battle against the Welsh, and after nearly every battle extending their borders by a new acquisition of territory. The Somersetshire Axe, and the forests on the borders of Somersetshire and Wiltshire, separated the king. dom from the independent Britons to the west.


North of the Thames lay the three great kingdoms of the Angles. One of these, probably the most purely Teutonic realm in Britain, occupied the great peninsula, or rather island, between the fens and the German Ocean, which received from them the name of East Anglia. Far to the north, from the Humber to the Forth, lay the great realm of the Norlhumbrians, sometimes united under a single prince, sometimes divided by the Tyne and the Tees into the two kingdoms of Bernicia and Deira.


Meanwhile, in the middle of Britain, a power equal to any of the others was growing up. The kingdom of the Mercians, the March or border land against the Welsh, appears at the end of the sixth century as a powerful state but it has no distinctly recorded founder, no distinctly recorded date of origin. It seems to have grown up from the joining together of a great Dumber of small principalities, probably of much more varied origin than the different portions of the other kingdoms. The prevailing blood was Anglian; but it is certain that the Mercian kingdom was considerably enlarged by conquest at the expense of the Saxon race.


Such were the territorial divisions of Teutonic Britain at the end of the sixth century, the last years of which were marked by a change hardly less important than the first settlement of the Teutonic tribes in Britain. The Christian faith, which the English had despised or passed by unheeded as the creed of the conquered Welsh, was now set before them by a special mission from the city which still commanded the reverence of all Western Europe. Kent, under its King Aethelberht (Ethelbert), who then held the rank of Bretwalda., became the first Christian kingdom, and Canterbury became the first Christian city, the spititual metropolis, of the English nation. In less than a century, all the English Kingdoms had fully accepted Christianity. Bishoprics were gradually founded, the limits of each diocese commonly answering to those of a Kingdom or principality. The supremacy of Kent at the beginning of the conversion, the supremacy of Northimberland at the stage when Christianity was first preached to the Northern English, is still shown to this day in the metropolitan position of Canterbury, the city of the Bretwalda Aethelberht, and of York, the city of the Bretwalda Eadwille (Edwin).


The conversion of the English to Christianity at once altered their whole position in the world. Hitherto our history had been almost wholly insular our heathen forefathers had had but little to do, either in war or peace, with any nations beyond their own four seas. We hear little of any connection being kept up between the Angles and Saxons who settled in Britain, and their kinsfolk who abode in their original country. The little intercourse that we read of seems to be wholly with the Franks who now bore rule on the opposite coast of Gaul. By its conversion England was first brought, not only within the pale of the Christian Church, but within the pale of the general political society of Europe. But our insular position, combined with the events of our earlier history, was not without its effect on the peculiar char. acter of Christianity as established in England. England was the first great territorial conquest of the spiritual power, beyond the limits of the Roman Empire, beyond the influence of Greck and Roman civilization.


From this time the amount of intercourse with other nations steadily increased, and the change of religion had also a most important effect within the island itself. The morality of the Gospel had a distinct influence upon the politics of the age. The Evangelical precepts of peace and love did not put all end to war, they did not put an end to aggressive conquest; but they distinctly humanized the way in which war was carried on. From this time forth the never.ending wars with the Welsh cease to be wars of extermination. The heathen English had been satisfied with nothing short of the destruction or expulsion of their enemies: the Christian English thought it enough to reduce them to political subjection. This is clearly marked in the advance of Wessex towards the west. twenty years before the coming of Augustine, Ceawlin, the West Saxon Bretwalda, had taken the cities of Bath, Gloucester and Cirencester. The land between the Avon and the Axe, the northern part of modern Somersetshire, became a permanent portion of the West-Saxon realm. This was the last heathen conquest, the last exterminating conquest waged by the West Saxons against the Britons.


During a space of three hundred years, the process of West Saxon conquest still went on step by step the old Cornish kingdom shrank up before the conquerors, till at last no portion of land south of the Bristol Channel was subject to a British sovereign. This was conquest, and, no doubt, fearful and desolating conquest; but it was no longer conquest which offered the dreadful alternatives of death, banishment or personal slavery. The Christian Welsh could now sit down as subjects of the Christian Saxon. The Welshman was acknowledged as a man and a citizen; he was put under the protection of the law; he could hold landed property his blood had its price, and his oath had its ascertained value. The value set on his life and all his oath shows that he was not yet looked on as the equal of the conquering race but the "Welshmall within the West-Saxon border was no longer a wild beast, an enemy, or a slave; but a fellow-Christian living under the King's peace. 'there call be no doubt that the great peninsula stretching from the Axe to the Land's End was, and still is, largely inhabited by men who are only naturalized Englishmen, descendants of the Welsh inhabitants, who gradually lost their distinctive language, and became merged in the general mass of their conquerors.-E. A. FREEMAN.


Augustine of Canterbury

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