History of the Church: Early Middle Ages - Notre Dame

The Church in the British Isles

[Illustration] from Church - Early Middle Ages by Notre Dame

I. England

The story of how the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes took possession of our island, and drove westward the Christian Britons, can be found in full detail in any English History. At the end of a warfare of one hundred and fifty years, which left the new-comers masters of the land, scarcely a trace remained of the once flourishing Church of Britain. The sacred buildings had been destroyed, and the survivors of those who once lived and worshipped in them had carried the faith into the hilly western provinces, where in safety they continued the worship of the true God, though so completely were they cut off from the rest of the Catholic world that we shall find that they knew little of the discipline which the Popes had caused to be observed in all Christian lands during these years of strife with the Teuton invaders.

The new conquerors of Britain, the men under whom the land grew to be England and the people English, were pagans—brave, stubborn, desperate warriors, who worshipped as chief deities Woden, the god of war, and Thor, the god of thunder. Their religion was that of soldiers; they believed in a future state of rewards and punishments, but Valhalla was awarded to bravery and Niflheim to cowardice: for other virtues and vices they cared little.

Seven or eight principal kingdoms, as we know, were gradually formed. The south-east corner of the island was first peopled. There the Jutes founded the kingdom of Kent; further west they also held a little nameless State in Wight and Hampshire. Clustered round Kent were the Saxon States, Essex, Sussex, and Wessex. The Angles took the north-east as their portion, and East Anglia, Bernicia, which reached to the Firth of Forth, and Deira, occupying the greater part of Yorkshire, were established by them. Mercia, the central State, was peopled by a mixture of tribes, mostly Angles, though Britons and Saxons formed some proportion of the subject people.

From Deira came those fair Angle slaves who were exposed in the Roman Forum when the holy deacon Gregory passed, and, touched at seeing such beautiful youths for sale, inquired whence they came. Their name, that of the land which gave them birth, and the name Ella, borne by their King, inspired his famous saying that Angles should become Angels, that this people should be saved from the wrath of God (de iris Dei), and that Alleluia should be sung in their land. The love of the Romans for Gregory would not permit him to go in person to bear the faith to those whom his heart yearned to save; but the time came when as Pope he was able to carry out the wish that had never been forgotten.

From his own monastery of St. Andrew's, on the Caelian Hill, Pope St. Gregory chose the Prior St. Augustine and forty monks, and sent them to preach the faith to our forefathers. The beautiful story of their journey and arrival in our land is too long to be told here. But nowhere do we hear of missionaries receiving so noble a welcome as on the shores of England. Ethelbert, King of Kent and Overlord of England, gave the monks a home and promised them safety, allowing them to preach where they would, while he himself studied the faith and life of those who had come so far to bring him the good tidings.

A few months later Ethelbert became a Catholic. At Christmas of the same year, won by the great holiness of the Roman monks, quite as much as by their preaching, ten thousand Kentish men were baptized in the River Stour. Ethelbert then gave to St. Augustine a little ruined church and a tract of land to build upon. Thus was founded the famous Christ Church, the seat of the Archbishops of Canterbury, Primates of England, and close by was built the first Benedictine monastery in our land.

King Sebert of Essex and his people were soon after converted, St. Mellitus being made Bishop of London, while a second see for the Kentish kingdom was created at Rochester. Pope St. Gregory's joy at the success of St. Augustine was very great. His beautiful letters of congratulation and advice were accompanied by fresh powers granted to St. Augustine, who was soon afterwards consecrated Archbishop. He was to consecrate whatever Bishops should be necessary, and to appoint his successor. New missionaries were also sent to help in the work of conversion. They brought books which formed the first English library.

As soon as the faith was beginning to be established in the east, St. Augustine tried to induce the British Bishops to join him in converting the English. He met them twice in conference, but found their dislike to the Saxon invaders and their arrogant love of their own peculiar customs too strong to be yet overcome, though in matters of faith he did not see any reason to condemn them.

A long missionary journey took St. Augustine through most of the thickly peopled parts of the different kingdoms. He was listened to with reverence everywhere but in Dorsetshire, whose rough inhabitants insulted the monks. Little lasting work seems to have been done; but no doubt the seed was sown which yielded fruit when later missionaries preached to the people. Seven years only did St. Augustine live to carry the Gospel truths among the English. He died in A.D. 604. St. Lawrence, one of his first companions, succeeded him as Archbishop, and the work of converting Kent and Essex continued. It is not unlikely that in East Anglia also converts were made. Kedwald, the King, tried to unite paganism and Christianity in one belief. The two sons who succeeded him on the throne were Catholics, but they were converted later than this.

At Ethelbert's death misfortunes befell the infant Church. Sebert of Essex died about the same time. His sons re-established paganism, and St. Lawrence had great difficulty in keeping Eadbald of Kent from doing the same in his kingdom. But the North of England became Catholic during these sad days for the South.

Ruins at Lindisfarne.


Edwin, who had united Deira and Bernicia into one State, Northumbria, wished to marry Ethelburga of Kent. As she was a Christian, he promised to allow her free exercise of her religion, and St. Paulin us was to accompany her as chaplain. Venerable Bede tells us how Edwin and his people became Christians, after consulting the Witan, or Great Council, as to receiving the new religion. St. Paulinus spoke to the assembly, and Coifi, the chief priest, declared he abandoned the worship of the gods, and offered to destroy their temple himself. The people, seeing that the heathen gods did not avenge themselves, followed his example. The King and St. Paulinus laboured together at instructing the people. A church was commenced at York, and the Saint was named first Bishop. Northumbria was ruled over by a succession of saintly Kings—St. Edwin, St. Oswald, St. Oswin, and St. Oswy. The last named, though he obtained the crown by slaying St. Oswin, repaired his crime by a holy penitence.

When St. Oswald, who had spent his youth in of exile among the monks of Iona, began to reign, he called on his old friends to help him in spreading the faith throughout his land. St. Aidan was sent, and he not only assisted Oswald, but his two successors as well. A monastery was founded at Lindisfarne, on the Northumbrian coast, which became very famous both as a bishopric and as an abbey. In those days, especially among the Celtic monks, all Bishops and priests were monks, and dwelt in monasteries, only going abroad to make missionary journeys among the people. New churches, each with its abbey, were founded as time went on, but all were held by monks from Lindisfarne, which was regarded as the capital of the ecclesiastical State of North England.

St. Oswald was the means of East Anglia becoming really a Catholic land. He persuaded Redwald's son, King Eorpwald, to be baptized, and though the pagans murdered the newly converted Prince, his brother and successor, aided by St. Felix, a Burgundian priest, brought all his people to acknowledge Christianity.

Wessex also was evangelized about this time. St. Oswald went thither to ask the hand of the daughter of Cynegils in marriage. St. Birinus, a Bishop from Rome, arrived while he was there, and the two Saints induced the West Saxon Prince to renounce paganism. St. Birinus had considerable success, and before long all the southern part of England, except Sussex, was Catholic.

But during this time great troubles had been befalling Northumbria. For twenty years there was strife between Northumbria and Mercia, during which three of the Anglian Kings met their death. Penda of Mercia, a pagan, but a fierce and brave warrior, hated the northern Angles, and, leaguing himself with Cadwalla of North Wales, he attacked and slew St. Edwin in battle at Hatfield, Yorkshire. St. Oswald, too, met the same fate. During the struggle, whenever Penda triumphed, paganism reappeared. At last, in A.D. 655, Penda was slain in battle by Oswin, and Mercia was subjected to Northumbria. The central kingdom then received the faith at the hands of the conqueror. Wulfhere, son of Penda, who recovered the independence of his country, was the first Christian King of Mercia. His daughter, St. Werburgh, became an Abbess, and the Mercian royal family is renowned as a nursery of Saints.

For more than a hundred years there was peace in England, during which the kingdoms of Northumbria, Mercia, and Wessex gradually became more powerful, the lesser States losing their importance. During this time the faith was taking firmer hold on the people, monasteries and convents were multiplied, and England was becoming the island of Saints. The list of sainted Bishops, monks, Abbesses, Kings, and Queens, would be too long to give here. Their stories should be read in full, for nowhere in the history of the conversion of nations is there anything more beautiful than the simple faith of these early English Saints, which showed itself by the noble sacrifice of every advantage the world could offer them. Their devotion to our Lady, St. Peter, and the Holy See, was most remarkable. Church after church was dedicated to our Lady and St. Peter, and pilgrimages to Rome seemed to be a matter of course to anyone who wanted to give himself wholly to God; for instance, St. Bennet Biscop went five times to Rome, St. Wilfrid three times, and both were so filled with love for the Holy See and its discipline that they spent their lives in striving to make England one with Rome in everything. Every dispute was carried to the Pope for settlement, and the submission of Kings and Bishops to the Holy Father's decrees is one of the most touching points in the story of our English fore-fathers.

Two men had a great share in thoroughly establishing Catholicity in England, and in uniting her firmly to the Holy See. These were St. Wilfrid of York and St. Theodore of Canterbury. St. Wilfrid was a Northumbrian, a monk of Lindisfarne, whose burning desire for perfection made him beg to be sent to Rome, where he spent many years in strengthening himself in prayer, and in studying all the lore that the treasures of the Church there could afford. Filled with zeal to introduce to his countrymen all that he had learned to love and cherish in Rome, Wilfrid returned to Northumbria, where King Alchfrid gave him lands at Ripon on which to build a monastery. Here he established the Benedictine Rule, and devoted himself to spreading everywhere the knowledge of Roman discipline. It was needed, for just at this time there were great difficulties in Northern England about the observance of Easter. Lindisfarne (which had received the traditions from Iona, where St. Columba had established the Irish custom), with all its dependent Bishops and Abbots, defended the old mistaken calculation. Others, with St. Wilfrid at their head, laboured to bring about the acceptance of the revised Roman Calendar. A Council was held, where each side had full liberty to defend its practice. Veneration for St. Columba made the Lindisfarne party reluctant to yield. St. Wilfrid based his arguments on our Lord's promise of infallibility to St. Peter. King Oswy then asked the Celtic monks if St. Columba had the keys of heaven as well as St. Peter. They answered that no such power had been given him. "Then," said Oswy, "I would rather side with heaven's doorkeeper, since, if I oppose him, who will open to me the gates of Paradise?" His simple remark struck a right chord, and all followed his example.

About A.D. 668 Pope Vitalian appointed as Archbishop of Canterbury, a Greek monk named Theodore. The new Archbishop found that the Church in England was getting such a hold on the people that it was time to treat the land as a Catholic country. He therefore set to work to consecrate Bishops, for a plague had lately carried off a great number of people, among whom were many priests and nearly all the Bishops. He also fixed the limits of the sees, and permitted priests to settle in parishes; for up to this time Bishops and priests had been like missionaries, preaching where they could, and going from one part of the country to another as they found people willing to profit by their labours. Theodore had many difficulties to settle, for on some points even the holiest men sometimes did not know which was the right way to act. For instance, St. Wilfrid had been named Bishop of Lindisfarne. As it was before St. Theodore came, there were few Bishops in the land, and St. Wilfrid, always zealous for unity with Rome, went for consecration to an Archbishop who had received the pallium from the Holy See. He was long absent, and the old Lindisfarne party persuaded the King to let one. of their number be chosen instead. They selected Chad, a holy, simple monk, who did not know there was anything wrong in accepting the office already given to another, and he was consecrated. Then, too, he shortly after transferred his see from Lindisfarne to York. St. Wilfrid came back and represented the evil that had been done, but he did not insist on receiving his rights. He returned to his monastery of Ripon, and soon after undertook a long journey throughout Mercia and Wessex, everywhere striving to bring about greater union with Rome.

When St. Theodore came, he soon heard of the mistake about St. Chad's consecration, and sent St. Wilfrid to take the see. St. Chad's humble obedience in at once yielding it up so struck St. Theodore that he soon after made him Bishop of Lichfield. But St. Theodore himself committed a grave mistake. Ermenberga, Queen of Egfrid, who had succeeded Alchfrid, hated St. Wilfrid, and she persuaded St. Theodore to divide his vast diocese into four, and to place some of the Lindisfarne monks in his stead. St. Wilfrid knew this was wrong, and went to Rome to consult the Pope. After a long examination of the whole matter, the Pope said that what had been done was illegal, but that the diocese was too large, and that St. Wilfrid himself ought to divide it, and name Bishops to take the parts which he did not keep for his own see. As soon as St. Wilfrid returned and showed the King and Queen the Pope's letters, they cast him into prison, and it was only when great miracles were worked, and the Queen herself was attacked with a dreadful illness, that the Saint was set free. Even then he was driven out of the kingdom.

As the neighbouring Kings feared Egfrid's anger, St. Wilfrid was forced to wander about from place to place for many years. But good came out of evil, and all the people of the Sussex kingdom were converted by the preaching of the Saint. He won their hearts by showing them how to fish at a time when they were suffering from a famine. Wessex also profited by his preaching.

Whilst St. Wilfrid was thus drawing great numbers into the Church, St. Theodore was bringing all into order and regularity. He founded a famous monastic school at Canterbury, where monks from all parts of the land came to study. As soon as they had mastered all the sciences taught in those days, they returned to their own monasteries to teach what they had learned to others. The famous St. Bennet Biscop, the first master of the Canterbury school, founded others at Monks-Wearmouth and Jarrow. As in all Benedictine monasteries, every art was practised—among others, that of church-building, which attained great perfection in England.

In A.D. 690 Theodore died. When attacked by his last illness, he sent for St. Wilfrid and the Bishop of London, and made to them his general confession, saying that what troubled him most was the injustice he had committed in dividing St. Wilfrid's diocese contrary to canon law. He begged St. Wilfrid's forgiveness and friendship, and did all he could to repair the evil, writing to the King and Queen of Northumbria, as well as to the Bishops, begging them to give St. Wilfrid his see, with all its possessions.

After Egfrid's death, St. Wilfrid was restored to his see, and the Bishops retired as the Pope had directed. St. Wilfrid then divided the diocese, and consecrated other Bishops for the new sees. But a few years later he was exiled again. This time he went to Mercia, whose King, Ethelred, received him readily, and St. Chad being just dead, he accepted the See of Lichfield; thus, in a fourth kingdom he established the Roman discipline and brought all the monasteries under Benedictine rule. The new King of Northumbria, for Egfrid was dead, was determined to ruin St. Wilfrid, and succeeded in getting him condemned on false charges. Again Wilfrid appealed to Rome, and though seventy years old, he went thither himself, the greater part of the way on foot. His case was carefully weighed, and judgment pronounced in his favour, but it was long before he was restored to his see. The last four years of his life were spent in constantly visiting every place in his diocese, and in exhorting all to the fervent service of God.

St. Wilfrid felt his death-stroke as he was riding to one of his abbeys. He immediately made his general confession on horseback, and had settled the affairs of his diocese before they reached the monastery. By nightfall he was dead, A.D. 709.

In those days it was no rare thing to see Kings and Queens lay down their crowns to enter religion. Among others, Ethelred of Mercia; Cenred, who succeeded him; Offa of East Anglia; Cadwalla, who went to Rome as a pilgrim, but died a few days after his baptism in Rome; Ina of Wessex, and his Queen—all entered monasteries and lived as holy religious. The convents and monasteries of England soon became renowned for the learned monks and nuns they produced. Greek and Latin were studied, as well as arithmetic, geography, and music. The Scriptures, however, had the place of honour. While the monks followed the arts of sculpture, carving, church-building, and everything that could add to the beauty of God's house, the nuns excelled in the art of illuminating the Scriptures and Office-books, and in embroidery.

St. Bede.


One of the most famous scholars and monks of early Saxon times was Venerable Bede, a monk of St. Bennet Biscop's monastery of Jarrow. His learning was very vast for those days. In one of his books he has told us of forty-five works which he had written, but the most interesting to us is his "Ecclesiastical History." It is to this that we owe nearly all that we know of the Anglo-Saxon Church. He was as holy as he was learned, and his beautiful life of deep piety and keen love of letters is still a bright example to all Catholic scholars.

Caedmon, the monk-poet, is another whose name must not be omitted. An unlearned swine-herd in St. Hilda's Monastery at Whitby, he was taught by an angel how to sing, the subject of the Creation being given him to write on. This is the first poem certainly written on English soil, much of the earlier poetry that has come down to us having probably been brought from the original home of our Teutonic forefathers.

Alcuin, monk of York, carried the rich stores of English learning into the Court of Charlemagne. The confidence of the great monarch, and the honours with which he was surrounded, never made him forget his beloved monastic home in England. As he could not obtain permission to return to it, he claimed the right of retiring to a monastery in France, some time before his holy death, A.D. 804.

Thus, in little over a hundred years from the landing of St. Augustine, pagan England had once more become a Catholic land, and the faith was developing all its most beautiful features. No persecution had met the missionaries who had brought the good tidings, and the simple, straight-forward, earnest Anglo-Saxons had become the noblest of Bishops, Abbots, and Sovereigns, while from the ranks of the people crowds embraced religious life, and all working together at their own sanctification, and going forth to preach the Gospel to foreign lands, earned for England the beautiful titles of the Island of Saints and the Dowry of Mary.

II. Ireland and Scotland

The pagan Saxons did not find their way to Ireland, where the faith planted by St. Patrick ever continued to take stronger root among the people. Hence, during the centuries when England was being won back again to the Church, the sister isle had but to multiply her churches and monasteries. These last became so famous that they were thronged by scholars from every land, and it often happened that the inhabitants of a monastery could be counted by thousands. Thus, it is said that Clonard, and Bangor in Ulster, had each over three thousand monks, with a still larger number of scholars.

Perhaps the most wonderful work done by the Irish monks was the multiplication of copies of the Holy Scripture and of other valuable books, in which many of them passed their lives. Their chronicles, too, are of great value, many being written in fine old Celtic verse. Their marvellous skill in ornamenting the sacred volumes they had transcribed excites admiration to this day. The most famous of these manuscripts still in existence is the Book of Kells, now in Trinity College, Dublin.

Ruins at Iona.


Sanctity and learning produced their usual fruit, a great zeal for souls. From Irish monasteries, for more than two hundred years, there poured a continual stream of missionary monks. There is hardly a nation of Western Europe that does not venerate among its first apostles the memory of Irish Saints. Central Scotland owes to them its faith; Northern England its restoration to the Church. We have seen St. Columba and his monks at work among the Burgundians, while Belgians, Lombards, Swiss, and the people of the neighbouring countries, all owe to them their entrance into the Church.

Still greater works of zeal would have been possible had it not been for civil warfare among the Irish chieftains. It was in consequence of one of these disputes that the famous St. Columba was exiled to Scotland. Monk though he was, Columba was still a soldier at heart. He had excited his kinsfolk to fight desperately, many had been killed, and Columba was excommunicated. The sentence, however, was shortly after raised; but Columba was torn with remorse. The monk to whom he confessed his crime laid on him as penance perpetual exile from his beloved Ireland. With twelve companions he set out, and at last settled in the tiny island of Iona—a rocky, barren spot off the coast of the great island of Mull. Here he established a monastery, and received those who came to him for instruction or relief.

St. Columba's monks went forth into all the neighbouring countries, preaching and winning the people to the faith. None was so successful as the Saint himself in drawing numbers into the Church. The fierce, hot spirit of a warrior was softened and sweetened into the unconquerable zeal of an apostle whom no danger could appall. The monks built numbers of small coracles or boats, in which they crossed all the numerous straits and firths of the rugged Scottish coast. They ventured far out to sea, visiting the Hebrides, Orkneys, and Shetlands. Even the Faroe Isles must have been reached by them, for Irish crosses, bells, and other remains, have been found there. In every important place St. Columba built a church, and, of course, a monastery. In each a fervent band of missionaries would settle, and gradually win the neighbouring peoples to the faith. It is said that nearly a hundred old churches can trace their foundation to St. Columba or his monks.

In many of his churches St. Columba established Bishops. Over all the dioceses founded by him the Abbot of Iona was supreme. This form of Church government was set up in nearly all Celtic or Irish sees. Until the end of the seventh century, even in England as well as in Scotland and Ireland, the Abbot of Iona was the Superior, not only of all monasteries, but also of the bishoprics. This was because every Bishop was a monk, and they clung so firmly to religious obedience that even when at the head of a diocese they still owned the sway of a religious Superior.

St. Columba's Cross at Kells.


For the good of the monks left in Ireland, St. Columba consented to return to his land whenever his presence was needed. All the northern Irish monasteries acknowledged his supremacy. On one occasion he was the means of establishing peace between Ireland and Scotland. One of the northern Irish kings claimed the right of headship over the Scottish chieftains. St. Columba induced him to give up his demand, and to acknowledge the independence of King Aidan the Scot. He also interceded for the Bards, who were exciting disturbances in Ireland, and, though he could not save their whole Order from destruction, he succeeded in getting a certain limited number recognized. To this fact may be attributed the numerous famous Irish poems in praise of St. Columba. The story of Ireland in the next century can be told in a few words. Times of peace are not rich in events, and so, though this part of Church history is the most glorious in the pages of Irish records, there is little to tell beyond the constant multiplication of Irish monasteries and of Irish scholars, while the bare list of her Saints would fill several pages.

King Aidan, named above, was the first King who received consecration in Scotland. The stone on which Aidan was consecrated in the Isle of Iona has become famous. It was placed in Scone Abbey, and here all Scottish Kings were crowned till Edward I. carried it off in A.D. 1296. It now forms part of the coronation chair of the English Sovereigns, and is kept in Westminster Abbey. Aidan ruled over the central tribes, and was a devoted helper of St. Columba.

Coronation Chair.


Towards the close of his life St. Columba made a state visit to St. Kentigern at Glasgow. This great man had been making many converts among the mixed tribes of Scots and Britons who inhabited the country lying between Clydemouth and the Alersey. His labours in this part of the land had been interrupted by his exile to Wales. A tyrannous chieftain had driven him from the scene of his missionary zeal. While in Wales he had founded a monastery and a diocese, called after one of his disciples, St. Asaph, and after twenty years he had been recalled by Prince Roderick and reinstated at Glasgow, whose Archbishop he became. A fine monastery sprang up, and from it St. Kentigern's monks went forth to convert the people. Like St. Columba's missionaries, the disciples of St. Kentigern were to be found in all the islands lining the coast. Then St. Columba, desirous to see a man who had done so much for Scotland, went, attended by a train of monks. St. Kentigern advanced to meet him with all his community. Both sets were divided into three bands, the youthful, the middle-aged, and the aged, among whose ranks the two Saints took their places. After discussing together the best way of spreading the faith and establishing it solidly among the Scottish people, the two apostles parted.

St. Columba did not long survive. He foretold the time of his death, and was found lying before the altar, giving up his soul in peace. It was in A.D. 596, just before St. Augustine landed in England. The Saint's work was continued by his disciples, but hardly a record of their labour remains. The terrible affliction which befell the Church in England and Scotland at the end of this period—the invasion of the Danes—swept away every trace of the work of St. Columba in Scotland.

[Illustration] from Church - Early Middle Ages by Notre Dame