Augustine of Canterbury – A Reluctant Missionary
If Augustine was not the first to bring Christianity to England, he was the first to be sent on an official mission by a Roman pope and the first to be appointed as archbishop of Canterbury. He was also the first to adopt Gregory’s method of “recycling” pagan places and rites for Christian purposes. This was not a wholly new practice (Roman buildings, names, and rites had been recycled before), but Gregory’s imprimatur and Augustine’s example contributed to its diffusion.
Augustine of Canterbury, often known as “the apostle of the English,” would have never made it across the Channel if it hadn’t been for the insistent prompting of Pope Gregory I.
The eighth century historian Bede tells us in fact that Augustine and his companions were “seized with a sudden fear” after hearing tales about the “barbarous, fierce, and unbelieving nation to whose language they were strangers.” In unanimous agreement, they sent Augustine back to Rome to beg Gregory to spare them from “so dangerous, toilsome, and uncertain a journey.”
Gregory and Augustine had known each other for some time, since Augustine had served as prior at Gregory’s family monastery of St. Andrew’s in Rome. Gregory held Augustine in great esteem, but was not about to let him off so easily. He sent him back to his companions, but sent letters to bishops and kings in France asking them to supply the missionaries with whatever they needed. He also made sure Augustine could able to find some interpreters who spoke the language of the Anglo-Saxons.
Augustine and his team of about forty monks landed in the Isle of Thanet (a peninsula in the east of Kent, southern England) in the spring of 597.
Augustine and Ethelbert
Augustine told Ethelbert, king of Kent, that they had come to bring “a joyful message, which most undoubtedly assured to all that took advantage of it everlasting joys in heaven and a kingdom that would never end with the living and true God.”
Ethelbert received the missionaries warmly, although he kept them outdoors. Bede tells us the king was afraid that, inside a building, they could cast some magical spells. This is unlikely, since, as Bede himself confirms, he had learned about Christianity by his Frankish wife of 15 years, Bertha. In fact, Bertha’s parents gave her to Ethelbert on condition that she could continue to practice her religion with the assistance of her confessor, Bishop Luidhard. Ethelbert gave her an older church building, St. Martin’s, for her worship.
In any case, Ethelbert was cautious. “Your words and promises are very fair,” he said, “but as they are new to us, and of uncertain import, I cannot approve of them so far as to forsake that which I have so long followed with the whole English nation.”