The story of Augustine of Kent is essentially the story of the conversion of the first Saxon kingdom in England to Christianity. It was the work more than one man, and Augustine did not provided the impetus for the expedition, but rather accepted the mission out of deference to the Pope's wishes. Augustine himself was sincere, patient and soft-spoken in manner, and gentle of persuasion. He arrived in the Kingdom of Saxon with 40 missionaries, without weapons or any manner of defending or providing for themselves, depending only on the hospitality of the pagan king, Ethelbert. With the help of Bertha, the king's Christian wife, and much patience and industry, Ethelbert eventually submitted to baptism, and tens of thousands of his subjects followed suit.
Some background is necessary to understand the state of Christianity in England at the close of the fifth century. Christianity had been widespread in Britain during the Roman Empire, particular in the third and fourth centuries. When the Roman legions withdrew however, the Celtic civilization fell into chaos, as Anglo-Saxon pagans invaded from the sea, and the savage Picts invaded from the North. The Celtic communities who survived the onslaught were pushed into the western and northern regions, and the Celtic church survived and even grew for the next few centuries in Ireland and Scotland, but the formerly Christian regions of southern England were entirely overtaken by pagan Saxon kingdoms. The Celts were despised by their Saxon conquerors, who believed that their "gods" must be more powerful than the Christian god. They were therefore, not responsive to missionaries from the Celtic church.
The idea of sending Christian missionaries to Britain to convert the Saxon kingdoms originated with Gregory the Great, a few years before he was called to serve as pope. He had hoped to lead the mission himself, but when this was determined to be impossible, he selected Augustine and forty other Italian, Benedictine monks for the mission. In 596 they journeyed across Gaul, crossed the channel and arrived in the kingdom of Ethelbert of Kent. The king at first was not impressed by their message, but allowed them to settle in his domains on the sight of an old church at Canterbury. There they founded a monastery, but had limited success in making converts. Ethelbert's curiosity was piqued by the conduct of the monks, and also by the prodding of his Christian wife. Eventually he consented to be instructed in the faith and baptized. Once the king embraced the new creed there was a stampede of converts, and thousands were baptized the following Christmas. Augustine spent the rest of his life in England, tending to his new flock, and building up an Anglo-Saxon Christian community.
The final task of Augustine's mission to England involved an attempt to unite the Roman and Celtic churches in Britain. The churches had been separately governed for centuries, and his first attempts at reunification failed, but sixty years later, the churches were brought into communion.
|Ethelbert becomes king of King Kent, and overlord of the surrounding kingdoms.|
|Gregory sees Angle slaves in Rome, and dreams of converting the to Christianity.|
|Gregory the Great elected pope.|
|Augustine and his monks arrive in Kent.|
|Monks are allowed to rebuild the Church in Canterbury.|
|Ethelbert himself is baptized|
|Ten thousand Saxons are baptized on Christmas day.|
|Augustine attempts, but fails to bring the Celtic church in communion with Rome.|
|Death of St. Augustine|
|Celtic and Roman churches are finally united.|
|How England Became Christian in||Stories from English History by Alfred J. Church|
|How England Became Christian in||Historical Tales: English by Charles Morris|
|Boy Captives in||Stories from English History by Hilda T. Skae|
|Saint Augustine of Canterbury in||In God's Garden by Amy Steedman|
|Saint Augustine of Canterbury in||Our Island Saints by Amy Steedman|
|St. Augustine of Kent in||Our Island Saints by Amy Steedman|
St. Augustine of Canterbury
in Back Matter
Conversion of Ethelbert by Augustine
in Back Matter
Angles call ye them?' he said, 'Nay, Angels rather.'
in Our Island Saints
|First Christian Saxon King. Invited St. Augustine to Kent to preach in Britain.|
|Christian princess who married the Saxon king, Ethelbert. Helped convert him to Christianity.|
|Increased the power of the papacy by church reforms and effective management.|