Today is the feast day of Augustine of Canterbury, who died on this date in 604. He was a Benedictine monk who was sent to Britain by pope Gregory the Great to convert the relatively new settlers from northern Europe generally called the Anglo-Saxons. He eventually became the first Archbishop of Canterbury in the year 597, securing in perpetuity the primacy of Canterbury over all other Anglican archdioceses (although from his time until the English Reformation it was a Catholic archdiocese).
After the withdrawal of the Roman legions from their province of Britannia in 410, the inhabitants were left to defend themselves against the attacks of groups from the north German plain and Scandinavia. Before the Roman withdrawal, Britannia had been converted by the Romans to Christianity. Archeology testifies to a growing presence of Christians, at least until around 360. After the Roman legions departed, non-Christian groups settled the southern parts of the island while western Britain, beyond the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, remained Christian. Thus, the old British church developed in isolation from Rome under the influence of missionaries from Ireland, and was centered on monasteries instead of bishoprics. Other distinguishing characteristics were its distinctive method of calculating the date of Easter and the style of the tonsure that clerics wore. Evidence for the survival of Christianity in the eastern part of Britain during this time includes the survival of the cult of Saint Alban and the occurrence in place names of Eglos and Eglwys, Brythonic Gaelic for “church” (possibly Anglicized as Eccles).
It was against this background that Gregory I decided to send a mission, often called the Gregorian mission, to convert the Anglo-Saxons to Christianity in 595. The Kingdom of Kent was ruled by Æthelberht, who married a Christian princess named Bertha some time before 588, and perhaps as early as 560. Bertha was the daughter of Charibert I, one of the Merovingian kings of the Franks. As one of the conditions of her marriage, she brought a bishop named Liudhard with her to Kent. Together in Canterbury, they restored a church that dated to Roman times —possibly the current St Martin’s Church. Æthelberht was not a Christian at this point but allowed his wife freedom of worship. It’s an open question whether Æthelberht and/ or Bertha asked Pope Gregory to send missionaries to Kent or whether Gregory initiated the mission on his own. Bede, in the 8th century recorded a famous story in which Gregory saw fair-haired Anglo-Saxon boy captives from Britain in the Roman slave market and was inspired to try to convert their people. He is reputed to have asked (in Latin) who they were and was told they were “Angli” (Angles) to which he replied, “Non Angli sed Angeli” (Not Angles but Angels). I prefer Sellar and Yeatman’s humorous mistranslation – “Not Angels but Anglicans.”
In 595, Gregory chose Augustine to head the mission to Kent. The pope selected monks to accompany Augustine and sought support from the Frankish royalty and clergy in a series of letters, of which some copies survive in Rome. He wrote to King Theuderic II of Burgundy and to King Theudebert II of Austrasia, as well as their grandmother Brunhild, seeking aid for the mission. Gregory thanked King Chlothar II of Neustria for aiding Augustine. Besides hospitality, the Frankish bishops and kings provided interpreters and Frankish priests to accompany the mission. By soliciting help from the Frankish kings and bishops, Gregory helped to assure a friendly reception for Augustine in Kent, as Æthelbert was unlikely to mistreat a mission which visibly had the support of his wife’s relatives and people. Moreover, the Franks appreciated the chance to participate in mission that would extend their influence in Kent. Chlothar, in particular, needed a friendly realm across the Channel to help guard his kingdom’s flanks against his fellow Frankish kings.
Sources make no mention of why Pope Gregory chose a monk to head the mission. Pope Gregory once wrote to Æthelberht complimenting Augustine’s knowledge of the Bible, meaning that Augustine was well educated. But he was also a good administrator. Gregory was the abbot of St Andrews as well as being pope, and he left the day-to-day running of the abbey to Augustine, the prior. Augustine was accompanied by Laurence of Canterbury, his eventual successor to the archbishopric, and a group of about 40 companions, some of whom were monks. Soon after leaving Rome, the missionaries halted, daunted by the nature of the task before them. They sent Augustine back to Rome to request papal permission to return. Gregory refused and sent Augustine back with letters encouraging the missionaries to persevere.
In 597, Augustine and his companions landed in Kent, achieving some initial success soon after their arrival. Æthelberht permitted the missionaries to settle and preach in his capital of Canterbury where they used the church of St Martin’s for services. Neither Bede nor Gregory mentions the date of Æthelberht’s conversion, but it probably took place in 597. In the early medieval period, large-scale conversions required the ruler’s conversion first, and Augustine is recorded as making large numbers of converts within a year of his arrival in Kent. Also, by 601, Gregory was writing to both Æthelberht and Bertha, calling the king his son and referring to his baptism. A late medieval tradition, recorded by the 15th-century chronicler Thomas Elmham, gives the date of the king’s conversion as Whit Sunday, or 2 June 597; there is no reason to doubt this date, although there is no other evidence for it.
Augustine established his episcopal see at Canterbury. It is not clear when and where Augustine was consecrated as a bishop. Bede, writing about a century later, states that Augustine was consecrated by the Frankish Archbishop Ætherius of Arles in Gaul after the conversion of Æthelberht. Contemporary letters from Pope Gregory, however, refer to Augustine as a bishop before he arrived in England. A letter of Gregory’s from September 597 calls Augustine a bishop, and one dated ten months later says Augustine had been consecrated on Gregory’s command by bishops of the German lands.
Soon after his arrival, Augustine founded the monastery of Saints Peter and Paul, which later became St Augustine’s Abbey, on land donated by the king. This foundation has often been claimed as the first Benedictine abbey outside Italy, and that by founding it, Augustine introduced the Rule of St. Benedict into England, but there is no evidence the abbey followed the Benedictine Rule at the time of its foundation. In a letter Gregory wrote to the patriarch of Alexandria in 598, he claimed that more than 10,000 Christians had been baptized; the number may be exaggerated but there is no reason to doubt that a mass conversion took place. However, there were probably some Christians already in Kent before Augustine arrived, remnants of the Christians who lived in Britain in the later Roman Empire.
Further missionaries were sent from Rome in 601. They brought a pallium for Augustine and a present of sacred vessels, vestments, relics, and books. The pallium was the symbol of metropolitan status, and signified that Augustine was now an archbishop unambiguously associated with the Holy See. Along with the pallium, a letter from Gregory directed the new archbishop to consecrate 12 suffragan bishops as soon as possible and to send a bishop to York. Gregory’s plan was that there would be two metropolitans, one at York and one at London, with 12 suffragan bishops under each archbishop. As part of this plan, Augustine was expected to transfer his archiepiscopal see to London from Canterbury but the move from Canterbury to London never happened. No contemporary sources give the reason, but it was probably because London was not part of Æthelberht’s domains. Instead, London was part of the kingdom of Essex, ruled by Æthelberht’s nephew Saebert of Essex, who converted to Christianity in 604.
Augustine failed to extend his authority to the Christians in Wales and Dumnonia to the west. Gregory had decreed that these Christians should submit to Augustine and that their bishops should obey him, apparently believing that more of the Roman governmental and ecclesiastical organization survived in Britain than was actually the case. According to Bede, the Britons in these regions viewed Augustine with uncertainty, and their suspicion was compounded by a diplomatic misjudgement on Augustine’s part. In 603, Augustine and Æthelberht summoned the British bishops to a meeting south of the Severn. These guests retired early to confer with their people, who, according to Bede, advised them to judge Augustine based upon the respect he displayed at their next meeting. When Augustine failed to rise from his seat on the entrance of the British bishops, they refused to recognize him as their archbishop. There were also, however, deep differences between Augustine and the British church that perhaps played a more significant role in preventing an agreement. At issue were the tonsure, the observance of Easter, and practical and deep-rooted differences in approach to asceticism, missionary endeavors, and how the church itself was organized. There were political dimensions involved, as Augustine’s efforts were sponsored by the Kentish king, and at this period the Wessex and Mercian kingdoms were expanding to the west, into areas held by the Britons.
Before his death, Augustine consecrated Laurence of Canterbury as his successor to the archbishopric, probably to ensure an orderly transfer of office. Although at the time of Augustine’s death the mission barely extended beyond Kent, his undertaking introduced a more active missionary style into the British Isles. Despite the earlier presence of Christians in Ireland and Wales, no efforts had been made to try to convert the Anglo-Saxon invaders. Augustine by converting them eventually became the decisive influence on the development of Christianity in the British Isles.
I have chosen Kentish huffkins for today’s recipe, not because they are especially ancient or Anglo-Saxon, but because they are a distinctively regional specialty and rather hard to come by these days because they cannot easily be produced commercially. They are rather rich bread rolls, noted for the indentation in the middle. They can be eaten plain, or more commonly these days, with the middle hole filled with either something savory, such as bacon, or sweet, such as pitted cherries (for which Kent is well known).
500g strong bread flour
50g vegetable shortening
12g fresh yeast
Sieve the flour into a warm bowl. Rub the vegetable shortening into the flour and add the salt and the sugar. Leave in a warm place for a few minutes.
Heat the milk and water in a small pan until just tepid, then crumble in the fresh yeast and stir until the yeast and liquids are all thoroughly blended. Add the yeast and liquids to the dry ingredients and combine to form a dough.
Turn the dough on to a floured surface and knead for about 20 minutes until it is smooth.
Return the dough to the bowl, cover, and leave in a warm place for about 1 hour or until doubled in size.
Punch down the dough and divide it into 12 pieces. Roll each piece into a round ball and place them on a greased and floured baking sheet making sure to leave enough space between the balls for expansion. Press your thumb firmly into the center of each roll to form a hole. Leave in a warm place to rise for 20 minutes.
Set oven to 425ºF
Bake for 20 minutes or until golden brown.