by Gerald Prater

April 18, 2008

Sometime during the early Roman occupation of southern Britain, Christianity slowly gained followers among the Britons, i.e. the Celts who had previously settled there. Although the main religion of the Romans at that time was Mithraism, some of the occupation forces were evidently Christians. But the new faith probably spread through trade, either with Britons travelling abroad or traders coming to its shores. One has to remember that the Roman Empire was like the EU today, with little restriction on travel within its boundaries. Already at the end of the 2nd C the famous church leader in N. Africa, Tertullian, wrote that Christianity had penetrated into Britain.

We know that at the Synod of Arles 314 AD Britain was represented by 3 bishops. But some time before that the first notable persecution had taken place at Verulam (later called St Albans after its famous martyr). Archaeological remains of Christian centres of worship date back to about 350 AD, e.g. in Kent, Hampshire and Gwent.

When the imperial forces were withdrawn in 407 AD, the British were left open to attack from surrounding pagans, marauding Irish in the west and above all Picts from north of the border. Before long the east of the country also was invaded by Saxons. When a British king had the idea of enlisting the help of the Saxons against the Picts, this only led to large numbers of barbarians from the continent coming and occupying the land, gradually spreading westwards. Although we presume that the Britons were not wiped out in these areas, they quickly lost their identity. The area not dominated by the pagans was roughly defined by a frontier running southwards from Edinburgh bordering on Cumberland, the West Yorkshire Dales, Wales and Cornwall, as well as Brittany.

The renewal of British Christianity at that time (6th C) was due largely to two Welsh saints, Illtyd pioneer in education and founder of a monastery at Llantwit Major and David, the national patron. Beyond the old Roman wall the Scots were evangelized by St Ninian in Galloway and Dumfries and Ireland by St Patrick. Later an Irish saint Columba came from Ireland to the Scottish coast and established a community on the Island on Iona, from which the northern Picts were evangelized.

Missionaries sent from Rome by Pope Gregory (and led by Augustine) had landed in Kent (597 AD), whose king, Ethelbert, had a Christian queen, Bertha, daughter of the king of Paris. It appears that the old Germanic religions had been weakened and without compulsion!! the king and his people accepted the new faith, creating a bishopric at Canterbury. Thus in the north the Kingdom of Northumbria was surrounded by Christians on three sides and in 624 AD its Anglian king, Edwin, was converted.

Up till now the British, i.e. Celtic, churches had used a liturgy based on the French (Gallican) one, while in the north the Ionian tradition was also followed. But Augustine wanted all the British churches to adopt the Roman one. One of the main differences was fixing the date of Easter. However, it was not until the Synod of Whitby in 664 AD that agreement was reached.

England was Christianised in this period and took up the torch of evangelisation, taking the faith to the Germans and the Swiss. It produced famous scholars, e.g. Bede of Durham with his ecclesiastical history of England, Caedmon the poet and King Alfred, truly one of the greatest kings who ever lived. Apart from being a military leader, Alfred formulated a code of laws, furthered Christian learning and piety, even translating Latin books himself. He successfully defended his kingdom of Wessex against the Vikings. Gradually these Danes were absorbed into the Anglo-Saxon culture. Fortunately the later Viking invasions did not seek to destroy this culture. So perhaps without Alfred we would be speaking a mixture of Danish and French today!

The talk will include projected maps, pictures of Celtic sites and monuments, example of old English texts, extracts from Bede and Caedmon.