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Following the decline of Rome, incursions came against the British Celts from Irish pirates, but eventually Angles and Saxons invaded from the mainland of Europe, creating kingdoms in Northumbria, Merica and Wessex, with the Jutes occupying Kent, forcing the Celts out of England.
These kingdoms were principally pagan. Indeed, the only strong form of Christianity in the region was that of the Celtic Church in Ireland.
Ireland had been relatively free of the migrations of the time, and was to be converted to Christianity about 454AD by St Patrick. Believed to have been born about 385 in Wales, at age sixteen Patrick was taken by pirates to Ireland.
Escaping six years later, he went to be a monk in France. In 432 he returned to Ireland as a missionary, travelling among the chiefs before setting up a see at Armagh. Establishing many churches, the story of him banishing snakes from Ireland is probably a remembrance of many pagan gods the world over who were represented by serpents. It was these gods whom he banished.
From the work of St Patrick a distinctly Irish, Celtic Church arose. Monastic in nature, it had a strong literary culture which produced the ‘Book of Kells’, an illuminated manuscript of the Gospels.
Ascetic and evangelical, this centre of Christendom in north west Europe sent missionaries out to convert the pagan Germanic tribes. In particular St Columba headed into Scotland.
However, the missionary zeal of the Celtic Church caused a problem for Rome. With a uniquely Celtic tone, it varied in several respects from the Roman version of the faith. And it is in this semi-political light that Rome decided to send its own missionary to the area in the person of St Augustine.
With forty monks, Augustine landed at Thanet and soon gained an audience with Ethelbert, king of Kent. This was fortuitous, for the king’s wife had already converted to Christianity.
The monks were given a residence at Canterbury, and from here they went throughout England doing their work, with Augustine becoming the first Archbishop of Canterbury and successfully converting the king.
By this time, England was a Christian country as such, but it was uncoordinated and had a specific British air, with variations of the Celtic and Roman systems. Finally, in 664, a Synod was held at Whitby, with the Roman system rising supreme.
From this point on, the Celtic Church was to be absorbed into the Roman. However, this apparent acceptance of an outside influence was only on the surface. Church ritual was carried on in Latin, above the people, who seemed to go about their lives in the same old local way as they always did.
© Anthony North, March 2008