Christianity has a long history in Britain, but from where did it originate? Below is my attempt at a brief history…
- Angelcynn – the Old English word meaning the Anglo-Saxon peoples, literally ‘Angle-folk’
- Bishopric – the area controlled by a bishop. The more modern term Diocese came to be used by the time of the Normans.
- Britannia – the Roman-controlled areas of the British Isles, consisting of what is now England and some parts of Wales
- Britons – the Celtic Iron-Age population of the British Isles
- See – the area controlled by an archbishop
Britain and the End of Roman Rule (55-450AD)
Christianity first came to Britain with the Christianising of the Roman Empire in the 3rd and 4th centuries AD. Churches were built and bishoprics established in the province, but there was no sense of it being a national religion, and bishops had influence over groups of people, rather than diocese as we think of them. Broadly speaking, it never spread beyond the upper and professional classes of Roman occupants. The Britons did not accept this new religion, and when the Romans withdrew in the 5th century, the Britons were still largely adherent to their old pagan religions. However, when the Roman Empire, now already divided and crumbling, withdrew military and administrative support from Britannia, they left behind a number of powerful Romano-British chieftains. There was also an upper middle-class of Christianized Romano-Britons, as well as a number of soldiers and Roman clerks and civil servants who had married into the local population during service or on retirement. Some of these were Christian.
The Coming of the Anglo-Saxons and the Heptarchy (450AD-600ADish)
The tribes around the Baltic, for various reasons, came to Britain as the Empire crumbled. Chief among these were the Angles, Saxons and Jutes. Famously, the chieftains Hengist and Horsa were invited over by a regional governor to help fight Celtic raiders and other Anglo-Saxon raiders. Hengist and Horsa thought Britain was eminently desirable, and instead decided to settle there. The exact chronology of events for this period is difficult to piece together, but the Anglo-Saxon invaders eventually settled and conquered most of England. Interestingly, the period of initial successful resistance to the Saxon invaders is the birth of the Arthur legend, who was probably a Romano-British warlord active in the late 5th or early 6th century, hailed as a Christian hero. By the end of the 6th century, a patchwork of small kingdoms had amalgamated into what historians call the Heptarchy, meaning the seven kingdoms of Northymbre (Northumbria), East Engle (East Anglia), Mierce (Mercia), West Seaxe (Wessex), East Seaxe (Essex), Kent and Suth Seaxe (Sussex). They were pagans, worshiping the Germanic pantheon of Gods such as Woden, Tyr, Freya and Thunor.
St Augustine’s Mission (595AD)
The real history of established Christianity in Britain begins in 595AD. According the story (which I really like and hope is true), Pope Gregory the Great was in the slave market in Rome, and on seeing a group of beautiful men with blonde hair and blue eyes, he asked his aide, ‘who are these men, are they Christian? I have not seen their like before’. The man replied, ‘Your Greatness, they are heathen men from the Isles of Britannia, they are Angles’. So struck was the Pope with the look of these men, that he said, ‘No, they are not Angles, but angels’. He dispatched Augustine (Not Augustine of Hippo, a different Augustine) with a mission to convert the pagan peoples of the heptarchy. Accordingly, Augustine arrived in Kent, and converted King Athelberht, establishing the See of Canterbury.
The Northumbrian Golden Age (634AD-730sAD)
As the initial phase of settlement drew to a close, Christianity became established first in Northumbria, which was already home to a strong element of Celtic Christianity, and the northern kingdoms were already racially and culturally intermixed with Britons from the patchwork of kingdoms in what are now Scotland, Ireland, the Western Isles and the Isle of Man. The great monasteries of Iona and Skye were already established by missionaries from Ireland such as St Patrick. Under Warrior-Kings like Oswald the Brightblade and Oswiu, Northumbria became the dominant power in England, receiving tribute from most of the other Kingdoms. This power waxed and waned in a tumultuous time, as alliances and political marriages with Welsh and Anglo-Saxon kingdoms constantly changed the balance of power. However, this time saw the establishment of the See of York, and the ‘conversion’ of nearly the entirety of the Anglo-Saxons kingdoms. It was a time of two faiths often co-existing, evident in the grave of (probably) king Redwald of East Anglia, a powerful king in the 7th century, found at Sutton Hoo. His ship-burial contained both crosses and the full range of weapons and wealth needed for a pagan afterlife. Bishoprics were established by Kings, but also by other missions from Rome and Ireland, and other parts of Europe. The biggest Church conflict was between the Celtic and Roman Churches, which came to a head at the Synod of Whitby in 664, which saw Northumbria (and thus by extension Angle-land under its influence under King Oswiu) put firmly under Rome’s jurisdiction. It covered matters such as conduct for monks and the correct time of observing Easter, as well as artistic and cultural differences between the two styles of Christianity. Another change noted during this period was the granting of large amounts of land to the Church to be held in perpetuity, meaning forever, for monastic settlements and Church estates. This was significant because, under the more tribal mindset of the Anglo-Saxon kings, land was often transferred between Ealdormen, Reeves, Lords or other high-status warriors as reward for service to a king. The permanent ‘loss’ of the land to the Church was one of the indicators that England was moving (albeit slowly) towards a more settled, permanent Kingdom that did not derive it’s identity from a single personality.
The Mercian Supremacy and the Coming of the Vikings (740sAD-865AD)
However, in the second quarter of the 8th century, there was a power shift in Angle-land. The heirs of Penda of the Mercians were now in the ascendancy, and the next period saw Mercia acknowledged as the dominant English kingdom, controlling everything from London to Chester, and at times, large swathes of the South-West, the North and Wales. At this time the Church became a dominant political force in England, and bishops were part of the Witan, the ruling council of all kingdoms. While this has often been portrayed as political power-grabbing, they actually played a vital role in negotiating peace between kingdoms, brokering marriages, and providing social structure and support during times of conflict (which were many and often). Christianity also gave a gift to Britain; literacy. It is during this time that monks and chroniclers wrote down stories, histories, charters and genealogies, which gives us much of the source material we have for this time. This literacy gave kings legitimacy, and the written word meant that messages and learning flourished. Offa, builder of the Dyke, was even addressed in a letter as ‘brother’ by Charlemagne the Great of the Franks, at the height of Frankish power and learning. By the end of the 8th century Britain had resolved into four kingdoms; East Anglia, Mercia, West Seaxe and Northumbria.
However, it was at this time that another threat emerged, though its full challenge to Christianity was not to become apparent until later. In the summer of 793AD, a warband of Norse raiders sacked the monastery at Lindesfarne, and killed many of the brothers there. They were Vikingr, pirates and raiders from across the North Sea, and England would never be the same. Over the course of sixty years their assaults and raids increased in size and frequency until the kings of England were regularly giving battle against large raiding armies. Norse and Danish raiders were not unknown before 793, having raided for slaves and plunder in Ireland, the West Seaxe coast and Scotland, but 793 was the first major raid on an English monastic settlement. The Viking Age, as it is called, caused a seismic shift in Christianity in Britain, for where the rival Sees and bishoprics had traditionally vied for power, they now had a common enemy. These Vikings were brutal pagans, and many, such as Alfred the Great felt that they were a scourge sent by God for the spiritual backsliding of the Angelcynn.
In the hot summer of 865AD, an enormous Viking force, named the Great Heathen Army, landed in East Anglia after having been paid to leave Kent, their original landing place, and for next fifteen years they tore the heart out of the three of the four great kingdoms.
The Great Heathen Army and the Rise of Wessex
Northumbria submitted in 867, and the Danes installed a puppet king. East Anglia was next. Their King Edmund, later St Edmund the Martyr, was reportedly shot full of arrows in a Church, and the kingdom was overrun in 870AD. Mercia, having paid the Vikings to leave in 868, was overrun after the Vikings received reinforcements from the Great Summer Army. As these kingdoms were drowned in the tide of invasion, they would never rise again as independent kingdoms. Wessex and the Danes clashed at the battle of Ashdown in 871. It was a very bloody battle, which saw the forces of Wessex narrowly defeated, but several important Danish leaders were slain, and it bought Wessex time. At the battle was a young Atheling of the West Seaxe, Alfred, youngest son of Athelwulf.
It is this period which saw Christianity being wrapped up in English national and political identity, not the reign of Henry VIII as many think. The pagan hordes provided an enemy for the Church to rally the English against. In 878AD, Alfred, now king of West Seaxe after his brothers had all been killed in battle or died of illness, bought back the kingdom of West Seaxe, or ‘Wessex’ as it was now being termed, from the brink of annihilation, and destroyed the Great Heathen Army at Eddington (or Ethandum). This battle, and subsequent wars to drive back the invaders, took on much of the language and symbolism of a crusade, being portrayed as not only a battle for control of land, but as a Biblical conflict between light and dark. The Church was obviously key in this process.
The Making of England
In the approximately sixty years between Alfred the Great’s victory at Ethandum (878AD) and his grandson Athelstan the Glorious’ final crushing defeat of the Viking Sea-King Olaf at Brunaburh (937AD), England emerged as a nation with a national identity, and one with a firm religious identity. It was one nation, Angel-londe, under one God, Jesus, and one King. The most telling change is the coronation ceremony itself. Alfred’s forebears had been crowned as King of the West Saxons with a helmet in a hall by a trusted retainer or family member; Athelstan and his descendants would be crowned in a cathedral with a crown by an Archbishop; his colossal army at Brunaburh marched beneath a cross, not the Wyvern of West Seaxe. By the time of William the Bastard’s invasion of 1066, the diocesan structure that we recognize today was in place, and has changed little since then. We have even kept the two Sees of York and Canterbury, tribute to when they were separate kingdoms with separate spheres of influence.
Timeline at a Glance
450 – Romans withdraw from Britain
450-600 – invasion and settlement by Anglo-Saxons
595 – St Augustine’s Mission to Kent. Canterbury established as a centre of Christian influence
634 – Oswald victorious, reclaims Northumbrian throne. Northumbrian Golden Age begins. York established as Archbishopric (sometimes vacant during next 200 years)
664 – Synod of Whitby, English Church becomes Roman rather than Celtic
730s-840s – Mercian Supremacy
793 – Vikings sack Lindesfarne. ‘Viking Age’ begins
865-877 – Great Heathen Army subdues Northumbria, East Anglia. Mercia divided.
878 – Alfred victorious at Ethandum.
937 – Athelstan defeats Viking and British coalition at Brunaburh