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The Christian Church

greater power than the Romans and the Saxons was slowly, inexorably working its way towards the English shores and people. Christianity would change the lives of the people for ever. It was not accomplished overnight. Many people died before unification would be achieved. During the first two hundred years of Roman subjugation, Christianity like many other cult like religions had not made much of an impact on the British people. From the third century onwards, the British Christian church gained a foothold and bishops were sent out to spread the word. It was a difficult challenge following the departure of the Romans and the arrival of the Saxons. The Saxons were Pagan and worshipped gods of war such as Woden and Thor and were not receptive to Christian conversion. It was a dangerous occupation and many bishops and monks were slaughtered in the process, with their churches looted and burned to the ground. After the expansion of the Saxons, despite the persecution, the British Christian church managed to survive, mainly in the Celtic areas in west of England, Wales and parts of Scotland. Compared to later times, very little effort was made to spread Christianity to the Saxons, possibly because their gods were too strong or they just feared for their lives. David, better known as St David, patron saint of the Welsh, worked tirelessly in Wales with the British Celts. 

St Patrick

robably the most famous of all Christian missionaries was St Patrick, who later became the patron saint of Ireland. Patrick was the son of a Roman Britain. His father was also a Christian deacon. They lived in the Severn Valley area. In about 410, around the time the Romans were recalled, an Irish raiding party landed near his home. He was kidnapped and taken back to Ireland where he was put to work tending pigs. After six years of slavery, he managed to escape and work his way to the Irish coast. Talking his way on to a boat he escaped. We lose track of him for a short while. He finally arrives at a small island off Marseilles in the Mediterranean sea. Here he meets Bishop Germanus of Auxerre and manages to persuade him of his devout Christian faith. He informs Germanus of his wish to go back to his enslavers in Ireland to teach them Christianity and to convert them. Germanus was impressed by Patrick's sincerity and agreed to his proposal. After fourteen years of training and indoctrination, he was ready to return. On his arrival he quickly set to work. His task was made slightly easier by the fact that his faith was beginning to make inroads and was not treated with the same dis-respect afforded by the Saxons a few years earlier. It is also a fact that Christianity in The British Isles originated from Ireland.

Across the sea from Ireland

bout fifty years later, after the death of St Patrick, An enthusiastic disciple from the same school crossed the Irish Sea to Scotland. His name was Columba. He arrived on the Scottish island of Iona where he built a monastery and set to work spreading the word among the Pict tribes. Columba or St Columba as he became, was the founder of the Scottish Christian Church. He practised a totally different form of Christianity to that which was now gaining support in Europe under the auspices of Rome and the Pope. It was monastic and operated as a separate entity. St Columba's labours as they were known, spread down the west coast where the remaining Britons had been pushed by the Saxons. Eventually, news of Columba's exploits reached the Pope. He decided to take action. To this end, Pope Gregory or Pope Gregory the Great as he was known, at the end of the sixth century, dispatched an envoy to England. After due consideration on his part, a monk by the name of Augustine was chosen. The only problem was where he should start. It was known that King Aethelbert of Kent was a pagan and worshipped Woden and Thor. His wife, Bertha, Was much more enlightened. She was the daughter of the Frankish king in Paris and had her own Frankish chaplain. Gregory taking all this into account chose Kent for his destination. In 596 he arrived. Aethelbert was quickly converted to Christianity. Aethelbert is attributed as the founder of the seat of the English church at Canterbury, The home today of the Archbishop of Canterbury or Primate of all England. The problem still existed of the two forms of the same religion being diametrically opposite. As far as Rome was concerned there could be only one. The Pope required all Christians to be under the umbrella of Rome. A meeting was arranged to try and resolve the differences. The exact location is not known, but is thought to be in the Severn Valley area where St Patrick was born. The purpose was to try and persuade the bishops and monks from the St Columba school to practise a more socially acceptable form of Christianity. The meeting dissolved into abject failure. The Celtic bishops and monks totally rejected Augustine's proposals. There argument was that they protected the faith when deserted by the Romans and why should they trust a newly converted Saxon king when all Saxons ever wanted to do was destroy them. As often as they tried, their differences could not be resolved. To many people Augustine's attempt was a complete failure. .

Island of Iona

The struggle for power

ver the next twenty five to thirty years, Rome kept watch on developments in England. The territorial battles continued. Raedwald, King of the Angles in East Anglia expanded his kingdom by moving north and west. With the help of Raedwald, Edwin an exiled prince, gained the crown of Northumbria. Edwin was a dynamic character and slowly became acknowledged as the primary force in England, except Kent. This is extraordinary considering Raedwald was still alive. Edwin married a Kentish princess and respected her Christianity. In 625 A.D on her trek to Edwin's home in York, there followed a Roman missionary by the name of Paulinus. He had been living in Kent for a quarter of a century. As Augustine converted Aethelbert, Paulinus converted Edwin and many of his people in Northumbria. Edwin's power was almost total, so peace reigned for a number of years. The events that took place in Northumbria were being observed by Penda, the king of Mercia. He made an alliance with Cadwallon, king of the area now known as North Wales with the intent of overthrowing Edwin. It is interesting to note that this was the first and last time British and English ( Celt and Saxon ) ever fought together. The purpose was to overthrow the suzerainty of Edwin. In a bloody battle near Doncaster, Edwin was defeated, decapitated and his head displayed on the ramparts in York. This defeat spread through the land. This defeat gave Cadwallon the opportunity to repay the English for their brutality of his people. The defeat at Doncaster outraged Saxon England. Edwin's Successor was a man named Oswald. Oswald did battle with Cadwallon and killed him. Oswald himself was defeated and killed by king Penda of Mercia seven years later. Oswald's younger brother, Oswy assumed control and settled the score by killing Penda. Northumbria was again the power base of England.

Rome tries again

fter the failure of Augustine and Aethelbert to reunite the religious differences. Rome turned to York as the centre of enlightenment. The country was split in two by Celtic and Roman versions of the same faith. Paulinus decided he could do no more and returned to Canterbury. A further meeting was arranged in Whitby in 664 A.D. The topic was, should Christianity develop in the Celtic or Roman way. After much discussion and disagreement, the Roman way was adopted. The Celtic clergy walked out in disgust and retreated back to Iona. At last England encompassed the Catholic faith advocated by the Pope. The missions of Augustine and Paulinus had not been successful in Rome's eyes. To counteract this, in 668 A.D, two new missionaries were appointed with good track records. The first was Theodore of Tarsus, and the second, Hadrian of Carthage. Theodore was not particularly made welcome on his arrival but when he died in 690 A.D he had managed to increase the Bishoprics of England from seven to fourteen. Little is known about the work of Hadrian, one assumes he aided Theodore in the task. England belonged to Rome. 

The fall of Northumbria

ngland may have had one common religion but it had many kings all vying for supreme power. Northumbria was in a vulnerable area. It had the Picts in Scotland, the British in Strathclyde and the jealous and outraged Mercians in the Midlands who were still upset about the fate of their leader Penda. In fact there were seven kingdoms or Heptarchies competing against one another. Perpetual battles reigned for the next hundred years. In 829 A.D Mercia emerged the strongest, and for the next eighty years, two kings, Aethelbald and Offa, ruled unchallenged. Most of the historical facts that are quoted here are from the writings of one man. A monk who quietly chronicled events. His name was Bede. He is now famously known as the Venerable Bede. Without his writings we would know little of the events that took place in that era. He was also responsible for the way we count years now, i.e. from the birth of Christ.

The two kings of Mercia

he Christian church by 730 A.D had become very powerful. It was not afraid to comment and lost all fear of retribution from the Heptarchies kings. The morals laid down by the church concerning sex, behaviour and sin put the fear of god into people. Which was probably the idea. You are less likely to commit a sin if there is a divine presence with a long memory watching your every move. Aethelbald became a victim of the churches moral crusade when he was unable to restrain himself in nunneries. He used his position for the wrong reasons. In 733 A.D he raided Wessex and 740 A.D invaded Northumbria whilst their king was dealing with the Picts. He was eventually murdered by his guards. Offa became the next king of Mercia. As Mercia was by far the strongest of the seven regions he was unofficially the king of the whole of England. His standing can be assessed by the fact that Charlemagne requested that one of Offa's daughters should marry one of his sons. As Charlemagne was the most powerful person in Europe at the time, to refuse would be considered to be the ultimate snub. Offa replied that he would only allow this if one of Charlemagne's sons would marry one of his daughters. Charlemagne refused so Offa introduced a trade embargo. Charlemagne changed his mind and the marriages took place. He was not afraid to fight and spent considerable time subjugating the under kings of England. He captured Kent and mint and had coins struck in his name and was on very good terms with the Pope who addressed him as Rex Anglorum. His most astounding work, which survives today, is that of Offa's Dyke. A trench and Hill which stretches from the Severn River almost to Liverpool, built to keep the British in what is Wales today. This construction must have been a total labour of love. Offa's links with Europe introduced new ideas and culture that had been missing since the Romans departed. The trade had returned. England was a respected country once again with one religion. What could go wrong ?


copyright Glen Ray Crack - Battle - East Sussex - United Kingdom
Submitted 10th January 1998
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