The Anglo Saxon Church





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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.


When it did, Christianity came to the English from both Ireland and Rome, representing the two strands of Celtic (British and Irish) and Roman Christianity that were to shape the English Church. English Christianity was also shaped by the ‘heroic’ tradition of the Germanic Heathen religion the Anglo Saxons brought with them. Initially, it was the Irish tradition that slowly began to convert the Anglo-Saxon English. Saint Aidan of Lindisfarne was the founder and first bishop of the Lindisfarne island monastery in England and is credited with restoring Christianity to Northumbria. St Hilda, (614–680) was another important Celtic Christian figure in the Christianisation of Anglo-Saxon England. She was the founder and Abbess of the Abbey at Whitby in Yorkshire where the famous Synod was held to determine whether the English Church should follow Celtic or Roman traditions. Perhaps the best known of the Celtic Christians is St Cuthbert (634 – 687), who is the Patron of northern England and our very own St Francis in his relationship with the natural world. 


But a separate process from the continent began at around the same time. 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:


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"This is how the present life of man on Earth, King, appears to me in comparison with that time which is unknown to us. You are sitting feasting with your ealdormen and thegns in winter time. The fire is burning on the hearth in the middle of the hall and all outside is warm, while outside the wintry storms of rain and snow are raging - and a sparrow flies swiftly through the hall. It enters in at one door and quickly flies out through the other. For the few moments it is inside, the storm and wintry tempest cannot touch it, but after the briefest moment of calm, it flits from your sight, out of the wintry storm and into it again. So this life of man appears but for a moment. What follows or, indeed, what went before, we know not at all."



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.



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The Synod of Whitby was held in 664 to try to resolve the differences between the two traditions. It ended with a victory for the Roman Church. The continuing influence of the Celtic tradition cannot be underestimated and is something that the modern English Church should seek to draw inspiration from.



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.


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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.