The Anglo Saxon Church
And did those feet in ancient time
Walk upon England's mountains green?
And was the holy Lamb of God
On England's pleasant pastures seen?
Nobody is sure precisely when Christianity first came to Britain. And yet, as William Blake's words suggest, there is a legend that Our Lord himself walked upon our land. It holds that his uncle, St Joseph of Arimathea, brought the young Jesus to Britain to escape persecution. It goes on to tell of how, after Our Lord had been crucified and raised to heaven, St Joseph came back to these isles with the chalice that Jesus had used in the last supper. This chalice is the famous Holy Grail of legend, into which St Joseph had reputably caught drops of Christ's blood at the crucifixion. He buried the Grail at Glastonbury in Somerset where he founded the first Church in Britain, St Mary's. It is also said that this location is the burial place of the legendary King Arthur.
There is no firm evidence for any of this and yet the legends persist, firmly rooted in our folk traditions. Indeed, St Joseph was reputably a tin merchant and probably would have travelled to Britain so there may be something to it! There is, however, firm evidence that Christianity flourished in these Islands in these very early years. Gildas, writing in the early 6th century, maintained that Christianity came to Britain in the last year of Tiberius Caesar, which would have been AD37. The Orthodox Church holds that Christianity was brought to Britain in about AD45 by people from the region of Ephesus (modern Turkey). This view is given some support by the fact that the Church in the British Isles maintained that its original Liturgy was that of Saint John, who is known to have lived in Ephesus in his later years.
Five Papal Council’s (Pisa in 1409, Constance in 1417, Sens in 1418, Siena in 1424 and Basle in 1434) stated the antiquity of the British Church and held it to be the oldest in the whole of the gentile world.
Saint Aristibule, one of the Seventy Apostles mentioned in the Gospel of Saint Luke 10:1, who died in about AD90, was Bishop of Britain. He is regarded by the Orthodox Church as the “Apostle of Britain”.
Recent archaeology suggests that the oldest church building so far positively identified in Britain, dates from approximately 140. We also know of domestic Christian remains of earlier date in the south of Britain. There is even evidence that the Romano - British elite used their villas as centres of worship. Within these villas, Christian symbols, fused with pagan images perhaps reflecting the variety of religions tolerated in the Empire at that time. The Roman historian Tertullian, in a tract written around 208, not only mentions the Church in Britain, but refers to it as having extended beyond the area of Roman rule.
Saint Dyfan is regarded as the first Christian Martyr of the British Isles, being martyred around 190. Saint Alban was among several other martyrs, including Bishop Stephen of London, martyred around 300-304.
Ancient Britain can even lay claim to Emperor Constantine the Great, who recognised Christianity as the official religion of the Roman Empire. He had followed his father Constantine 1 to York with his wife Helena, who some historians believe was a Briton. It was in York, in 306 that his father died and he was proclaimed Emperor.
In 314, the Bishop of York, Bishop Restitutus of London and Bishop Adelfius of Caerleon and a large retinue attended the Council of Arles. Saint Athanasius states that the British Church recorded her agreement to the decisions of the First Ecumenical Council held at Nicaea in 325. In 359, British Bishops attended the Council of Rimini.
Very soon after the introduction of monasticism into the Eastern Empire from Egypt, it appeared in the British Church. In fact, monasticism was to become the predominant form of Christian organisation and came to be strongly associated with Celtic Christianity. It had a strong ascetic ethos as well as holding scholarship and the arts in high regard. It was a tradition of hermits and holy men. It is often said that the Celtic tradition was more in tune with the natural world, possibly reflecting the influence of the old druid religion.
The Church in the British Isles at this time looked more to the Patriarchate of Jerusalem than to Rome. Some of the most powerful leaders of the British Church at this time, including Saint David, seemed to deliberately ally themselves to the Patriarch of Jerusalem. This may be because they felt that the centre of the Church should be the place where Jesus had actually ministered. This relative isolation from Rome led to a number of differences in Church Governance, dating and general culture that was not resolved until the Synod of Whitby in 664.
By the fifth century, the Roman Empire was being pressured from incursions by Germanic tribes from the north. Gradually, the Empire began to pull its troops out of peripheral places such as Britain to shore up its continental heartland. At the same time, prosperous Romano Britain came under increasing pressure from various tribes of what we would now call Ireland, Wales and Scotland. Roman withdrawal meant they could not defend the Britons against these attacks, despite many pleas to do so. Paradoxically, the Britons turned to a group of Germanic people to defend them. Many of these warriors had experience of fighting with (and against) Roman soldiers and some of them probably already lived in Britain. They were the Germanic tribes of Angels, Saxons, Jutes and Frisians who, today, we call the Anglo-Saxons. They were offered land in return for protection and did an excellent job. Unfortunately, for the Britons they liked the land so much they decided to stay!
As the Germanic peoples moved into lowland Britain, the main body of Britons retreated into the northern and western highlands, repeating previous patterns of migration and conquest. The Church retreated with them. From here, the Celtic Church actually began to flourish, but was isolated from the Church on the continent.
The Anglo-Saxons were not Christians when they first came to the British Isles. For many decades, the Britons made little if any attempt to convert them. Nobody is quite sure why. Perhaps they were in too much disarray following the English conquest. Perhaps they were frightened of the fierce Germanic warriors, or maybe they rather liked the idea of thinking that their enemies would not enjoy the benefits of their idea of heaven. The Anglo-Saxons, for their part, allowed the Britons to continue to practice their Christian faith.
Christianity came to the English from both the Celtic British Church and from Rome. Bede tells the story of how Pope Gregory 1 was walking through a market place in Rome when he saw a group of boys with "fair complexions, handsome faces and lovely hair" being put up for sale as slaves. On asking where they came from, he was told 'from the Island of Britain whose people were of that appearance'. He asked if they were Christian and was told that they were still heathen. Sighing deeply, he is reputed to have said: "Alas, that the author of darkness should have men so bright of face in his grip, and that minds devoid of inward grace should bear so graceful an outward form." When asked which tribe these lads came from, he was told the Angli. "Good", he said, "they have the faces of angels and such men should be fellow heirs of the angels in heaven".
It was from this encounter, that in 596 Gregory ordered Augustine, an Italian Churchman, to go to the land of the Angels (Engel) and convert them to the Christian faith. Landing on the Isle of Thanet, he was kindly received by King Aethelbert whose wife Bertha was a Christian. At first, Aethelbert was extremely suspicious of the Christian missionaries believing that they intended to bewitch him. However, he allowed them to set up a small monastery where they began to preach the Christian faith. In time, Aethelbert himself was baptised, thus paving the way for mass conversions of his subjects. Augustine became the first Archbishop of Canturbury and died in 604.
Another famous Italian missionary who brought the Christian faith to the English was Paulinus (563-644). He left Italy in AD 601 to assist Augustine in his conversion of southern England. In AD 625, King Edwin of Northumbria, who was still a heathen, married the Christian Aethelburga, daughter of King Aethelbert of Kent who had received St. Augustine. Paulinus went with her to her new husband's kingdom, having been consecrated - on 21st July 625 - by Archbishop Justus as Bishop of the Northumbrians. Paulinus held a conference with the highest Northumbrian thegns, where he explained to them the advantages of the Christian religion:
Bede tells us that having been convinced of the new faith, the high Priest, Coifi, personally rode out to the great heathen temple at Goodmanham and threw a spear into it - representing the end of the old religion. The present parish church there may possibly occupy the site. Edwin was baptised shortly afterwards at York on Easter Day 627.
Paulinus spread the gospel all over northern England until 633 when King Edwin fell in battle to the heathen King Penda of Mercia. As a result, he returned to Kent with Edwin's widow. He later became Bishop of Rochester until his death in 644 and is buried in the Cathedral there.
Christianity did not die out following the departure of Paulinus. Within only a couple of years of Edwin's death, Oswald the new King of Northumbria, invited Aidan, one of the young monks from the monastery on Iona, to establish a monastery on the island of Lindesfarne. Aidan established churches all over northern England and even travelled as far south as East Anglia. However, there was a subtle change. Whilst Paulinus had been a 'Roman' Christian, Aidan and the monastery of Lindesfarne were of the Celtic tradition. In reality, there must have been much interaction between the two, but a subtle difference was established between the Christianity of northern and southern England that to some extent is still evident today. These early days of the establishment of the faith in England saw not just changes between the Celtic and Roman traditions, but also resurgences of the old heathen religion. To some extent, all three must have co-habited, especially in the lives of ordinary people.
The differences between Celtic and Roman Christianity are sometimes dismissed as little more than an argument about how you should wear your hair and when you should celebrate Easter. But the differences were more profound than this. The arguments over the 'correct' tonsure - or hair cut for Monks - were really more about Church authority and culture. Should the priests be 'above' the people or an intrinsic part of the people. Roman Christianity was more hierarchical and the priests developed into a ruling elite, many becoming increasingly remote from the ordinary people. Celtic Christianity, on the other hand, was more ascetic. Priests lived in smaller monastic units and often travelled around the countryside spreading the Word. They lived simple lives, were closer to nature and recognised that the divine presence of God existed in all things and through all things. They sought to live with the world around them as part of it rather than seeking to tame and subdue it.
The fusion of the Celtic and Roman traditions into a single Anglo Saxon Church led to a golden era of Christianity in England, particularly in Northumberland. It was the era of Bede and St Cuthbert, of scholarship and monastic life, of the Lindisfarne Gospels. It was an era when England was seen as the Rome of Northern Europe and English took the leading role in spreading the Gospel to their Saxon cousins on the continent. St Boniface (680 – 754), for instance, became known as the Apostle of Germany. But this era drew to an untimely close with the sacking of Lindisfarne in 793, heralding the Viking incursions that almost resulted in the loss of Christian England to the heathen Danes. But even this dark period produced some of our greatest heroes and heroic resistance to invasion. Blessed St Edmund, the true patron of Anglo Saxon England, died a martyr’s death in 869 refusing to submit to the Danish invaders. By the time of King Alfred the Great, England was almost entirely under Danish rule.
Although Alfred was one of the greatest, if not the greatest, English King, he was never King of England. This is because the country was still made up of a number of individual Kingdoms and had still not been unified into a single state in his day. He did refer to himself as King of the Anglo Saxons, though, demonstrating that the English had a clear understanding of their common identity even if there was not a single state.
Alfred became King of Wessex in 871 and in this year the English suffered two defeats at the hands of the Danes. Alfred managed to hold on to his reduced Kingdom and a period of peace ensued for the following five years as the Danes sought to consolidate their hold on the rest of England. However in 876, under their new leader, Guthrum, the Danes managed to slip past the English army and attack Dorset. The following year, they advanced steadily westwards under the pretext of peace talks into Devon. The fledgling English navy blockaded the Danes at this point and after a relief fleet was scattered by storms, the Danes were forced to retreat back into Mercia. However, they launched a surprise attack on the royal party at Chippenham over Christmas in 878, killing many people. Alfred managed to escape into the woods and swamp land, eventually establishing a fort at Athelney. Alfred’s escape through the woods has given rise to one of the best known of English legends. This tells of Alfred being given shelter by an old peasant woman, who being unaware of his identity, left him to watch over some cakes she was cooking on the fire. Alfred was so busy working out a strategy to defeat the Danes that he forgot all about the cakes and they burned to a cinder. On her return, the old woman told Alfred off in no uncertain terms, but apologised profusely when she realised who he was. Alfred, however, insisted that it was he who should apologise. Cakes or no cakes, Alfred organised an effective resistance to the Danes from his fort at Athelney and slowly drove them back, not just out of Wessex but out of Mercia too.
Warfare between the English and Danes continued off and on for another 10 years or so, but under Alfred, the English were to prove a much stronger adversary and won most of the battles. By 896 or 897, the Danes gave up the struggle in southern England and either retired into Northumberland or returned to the continent.
Alfred was therefore a great military leader who reversed the precarious position regarding the Danes and is credited with establishing the Royal Navy as well as a type of rapid response force on land and sea that was able to repel the deadly Danish lightening attacks. However, Alfred was not just a great military leader. He was also a man of great learning and culture. The story of the burnt cakes is intended to show this. The Danes destroyed monasteries and ruined learning and education in the country. Alfred tried to revive all of these. He was clearly a man of great learning himself and urged the clergy to improve their own education and to restore something of the golden age of English Christianity. He personally translated works of philosophy and religion into English and commissioned others to do the same, including several books of the bible. He drew on the 10 Commandments for his laws, which form the basis of the common law is still (though only just in England itself) in use today. He made an effort to re-establish monastic life, which had become almost extinct, and in this he was partially successful. As part of a peace treaty with the Danes, he insisted on the baptism of the Danish King Guthrum.
Much of Alfred’s work in trying to restore the religious life came to fruition in St Dunstan (909 – 988). As Abbot of Glastonbury, Dunstan reformed his monastery under the rule of St Benedict and it became a renowned centre of learning. In 959, Dunstan was made Archbishop of Canterbury, and together with King Edgar, was responsible for a thorough reformation of the Church and State. In effect, a second golden age of English church history had taken place and the light of Bede’s world shone through once again.
All of this was yet again to be shortlived. The last Anglo Saxon King of England was King Harold II, killed defending his homeland at the battle of Hastings on the 14 October 1066. May he rest in peace and rise in glory, Amen.
But in truth, the Anglo Saxon Church, just like the Anglo Saxon people, did not end at Hastings. Both are still with us today. The Church of England was partly justified as the re-establishment of the Anglo Saxon Church and it is in this sense that the term ‘Anglican’ is used by ASA.