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Bede, The Venerable:
Conversion of England, 597 AD

Of all the early historians, Bede, the Venerable, is the most noteworthy and reliable. In the early eighth century, he was a monk at the monastery of Jarrow, located in the far north of England, in what is now the county of Tyne and Wear. His attention to detail and accuracy set him apart from most other writers in the area of history. His "Ecclesiastical History of the English People" is a valuable account of the arrival and development of Roman Christianity to Britain in 597 AD. Below is an excerpt from his account.


The Arrival in Kent of the missionaries sent By Gregory the Great (597)

In the year of our Lord 582, Maurice, the fifty-fourth emperor from Augustus, ascended the throne and reigned twenty-one years. In the tenth year of his reign, Gregory, a man renowned for learning and behavior, was promoted to the apostolic see of Rome,' and presided over it thirteen years, six months, and ten days. He, being moved by divine inspiration, about the one hundred and fiftieth year after the coming of the English into Britain, sent the servant of God, Augustine, and with him several other monks who feared the Lord, to preach the word of God to the English nation. . . .

[Augustine, with his companions, arrived in Britain.]. The powerful Ethelbert was at that time king of Kent; he had extended his dominions as far as the great river Humber, by which the southern Saxons are divided from the northern. On the east of Kent is the large Isle of Thanet, containing, according to the English way of reckoning, six hundred families, and divided from the other land by the river Wantsum, which is about three furlongs across and fordable only in two places, for both ends of it run into the sea.

In this island landed the servant of our Lord, Augustine, and his companions, being, as is reported, nearly forty men. They had, by order of the blessed Pope Gregory, brought interpreters of the nation of the Franks, and sending to Ethelbert, signified that they were come from Rome, and brought a joyful message, which most undoubtedly assured to all that took advantage of it everlasting joys in heaven, and a kingdom that would never end with the living and true God.

The king, having heard this, ordered them to stay in that island where they had landed and that they should be furnished with all necessaries till he should consider what to do with them. For he had heard of the Christian religion, having a Christian wife, of the royal family of the Franks, called Bertha, whom he had received from her parents upon condition that she should be permitted to practice her religion with the bishop, Luidhard, who was sent with her to preserve the faith.

Some days later the king came into the island and, sitting in the open air, ordered Augustine and his companions to be brought into his presence. For he had taken precaution that they should not come to him in any house, lest, according to an ancient superstition, if they practiced any magical arts they might impose upon him, and so get the better of him. But they came furnished with divine, not with magic, power, bearing a silver cross for their banner, and the image of our Lord and Saviour painted on a board; and singing"the the litany, they offered up their prayers to the Lord for eternal salvation both of themselves and of those to whom they came.

When Augustine had sat down, pursuant to the king's commands, and preached to him and his attendants there present the word of life, the king answered thus: " Your words and promises are very fair, but they are new to us and of uncertain import, and I cannot approve of them so far as to forsake that which I have so long followed with the whole English nation. But because you are come from far into my kingdom, and, as I conceive, are desirous to impart to us those things which you believe to be true and most beneficial, we will not molest you, but give you favorable entertainment and take care to supply you with the necessary sustenance; nor do we forbid you to preach and gain as many as you can to your religion."

Accordingly, he permitted them to reside in the city of Canterbury, which was the metropolis of all his dominions, and pursuant of his promise, besides allowing them sustenance, did not refuse them the liberty to preach. . . .

As soon as they entered the dwelling place assigned them, they began to imitate the course of life practiced in the primitive church : applying themselves to frequent prayer, watching, and fasting; preaching the word of life to as many as they could; despising all worldly things, as not belonging to them; receiving only their necessary food from those they taught; living in all respects conformably to what -they prescribed to others, and being always disposed to suffer any adversity, and even to die for that truth which they preached. In short, several believed and were baptized, admiring the simplicity of their innocent life and the sweetness of their heavenly doctrine.

There was on the east side of the city a church dedicated to St. Martin, built whilst the Romans were still in the island, wherein the queen, who, as has been said before, was a Christian, used to pray. In this they first began to meet, to sing, to pray, to say mass, to preach and to baptize, till the king, being converted to the faith, allowed them to preach openly and to build or repair churches in all places.

When he among the rest, induced by the unspotted life of these holy men and their delightful promises, which, by many miracles, they proved to be most certain, believed and was baptized, greater numbers be-an daily to flock together to hear the word and, forsaking their heathen rites. to associate themselves, by believing, to the unity of the Church of Christ.

Gregory the Great: Instructions to the Missionaries

The Letter to Mellitus of 601
When Almighty God shall bring you to the most reverend Bishop Augustine, our brother, tell him what I have, after mature deliberation on the affairs of the English, determined upon, namely, that the temples of the idols in that nation ought not to be destroyed, but let the idols that are in them be destroyed; let holy water be made and sprinkled in the said temples - let altars be erected, and relics placed. For if those temples are well built, it is requisite that they be converted from the worship of devils to the service of the true God; that the nation, seeing that their temples are not destroyed, may remove error from their hearts and, knowing and adoring the true God, may the more familiarly resort to the places to which they have been accustomed.

And because they have been used to slaughter many oxen in the sacrifices to devils, some solemnity must be substituted for them on this account, as, for instance, that on the day of the dedication, or of the nativities of the holy martyrs whose relics are there deposited, they may build themselves huts of the boughs of trees about those churches which have been turned to that use from temples, and celebrate the solemnity with religious feasting, no more offering beasts to the devil, but killing cattle to the praise of God in their eating, and returning thanks to the Giver of all things for their sustenance; to the end that, whilst some outward gratifications are permitted them, they may the more easily consent to thee inward consolations of the grace of God.

For there is no doubt that it is impossible to efface every thing at once from their obdurate minds., because he who endeavors to ascend to the highest place rises by degrees or steps and not by leaps. This the Lord made himself known to the people of Israel in Egypt: and yet he allowed them to use the sacrifices which they were wont to offer to the devil in his own worship, commanding them in his sacrifice to kill beasts to the end that, changing their hearts they mad lay aside one part of the sacrifice whilst retained another: that whilest they offered the same beasts which they were wont to offer, they should offer them to God, and not to idols, and thus they would no longer be the same sacrifices.

The conversion of Northumbria

[Edwin, the king of Northumbria, urged by his Christian wife Ethelberga, and by the bishop Paulinus,] answered that he was both willing and bound to receive the new faith which the bishop taught, but that he wished, nevertheless, to confer about it with his principal friends and counselors, to the end that, if they also were of his opinion, they might all be cleansed together in Christ, the Fount of Life. Paulinus consenting, the king did as he said; for holding a council with the wise men, he asked of every one in particular what he thought of the new doctrine and the new worship that was preached.

To which the chief of his priests, Coifi, immediately answered: "O king, consider what this is which is now preached to us; for verily I declare to you that the religion which we have hitherto professed has, as far as I can learn, no virtue in it. For none of your people has applied himself more diligently to the worship of our gods than I; and yet there are many who receive greater favors from you, and are more preferred than I, and who are more prosperous in all their undertakings. Now if the gods were good for anything, they would rather forward me who has been more careful to serve them. It follows, therefore, that if upon examination you find those new doctrines which are now preached to us better and more efficacious, we should immediately receive them without any delay' "

Another of the king's chief men, approving of Coifi's words and exhortations, presently added: " The present life man, O king, seems to me, in comparison with that time which is unknown to us, like to the swift flight of a sparow through the room wherein you sit at supper in winter amid your officers and ministers, with a good fire in the midst whilst the storms of rain and snow prevail abroad; the sparrow, I say, flying in at one door and immediately another, whilst he is within is safe from the wintry but after a short space of fair weather he immediately vanishes out of your sight into the dark winter from which he has emerged. So this life of man appears for a short space but of what went before or what is to follow we are ignorant. If, therefore, this new doctrine contains something more certain, it seems justly to deserve to be followed.'

The other elders and king's counselors, by divine inspiration, spoke to the same effect., But Coifi added that he, wished more attentively to hear Paulinus' discourse concerning the God whom he preached. So the bishop having spoken by the king's command at greater length, Coifi, hearing his words,- cried out: "I have long since been sensible that there was nothing in that which we worshiped, because the more diligently I sought after truth in that worship the less I found it. But now I freely confess that such evident, truth appears in this preaching as can confer on us the gifts of life, of salvation, and of eternal happiness. For which reason I advise, O king, that we instantly abjure and set fire to those temples and altars which we have consecrated out reaping any benefits from them."

In short, the king publicly gave his permission to Paulinus to preach the gospel, and, renouncing idolatry, declare he received the faith of Christ: and when he inquired high priest who should first profane the altars and temples of their idols, with the enclosures that were about them, the high priest answered, ,I; for who can more properly than myself destroy those things which I worshiped through ignorance, for an example to all others, through the wisdom which been given me by the true God ? "

Then immediately, in contempt of his former superstitions, desired the king to furnish him with arms and a stallion, and mounting the latter, he set out to destroy the idols ; for it was not lawful before for the high priest either to carry arms or to ride on any beast but a mare. Having, therefore, girt on a sword and carrying a spear in his hand, he mounted the king's stallion and proceeded to the idols. The multitude, beholding him, concluded he was distracted; but he lost no time, for as soon as he drew near the temple he profaned the same, casting into it the spear which he held. And rejoicing in the knowledge of the worship of the true God, he commanded his companions to destroy the temple, with all its enclosures, by fire.

This place where the idols were is still shown, not far from York, to the eastward, beyond the river Derwent, and is now called Godmundingham; where the high priest, by the inspiration of the true God, profaned and destroyed the altars which he had himself consecrated.

Britannia's British History Department

Reproduced by kind permission of The Medieval Source Book