Page images






TOWARDS the end of the sixth century the Anglo-Saxon power was firmly established in Britain, and a number of petty kingdoms were struggling for ascendancy. Kent having been the first conquered, enjoyed the prestige of old dominion, and the advantage of a firmly-settled government. Besides this, its position near the continent made it of great importance to the island generally; the old connection of Britain with Gaul had been steadily maintained through the two stormy centuries in which kindred Teutonic tribes had conquered kindred Keltic races in either province of the old empire; the Frank could converse with the Angle without an interpreter; Frank money, which was useless beyond the Alps, circulated in Hampshire and Kent; a trade of some sort existed between the two coasts; and Ethelbert, king of Kent, had married

1 But not apparently with the Saxon. Coinwalh of Wessex sent away the Frank bishop Ægilberht because he could not understand him.-Bede, H. E., lib. iii., cap. 7. Thierry has pointed out that the Frank tongue tended to exchange the broad Italian sound of the vowels for the narrow English sound; the a of father for that of fate, and o for u, as in deo written deu.-Lettres sur l'Histoire de France, p. 145. This peculiarity is very noticeable in Kent, where languid, and angle, are pronounced lenguid, engle. Bede, H.E., lib., i., c. 25.

2 Greg. Epist., lib. vi., p. 7, solidi Galliarum qui in terrâ nostrâ expendi non possunt; Smith's Richborough, p. 214; Murray's Handbook of Hampshire, p. 142.

3 This is probable both from the Merovingian coins found in England, and from the fact that we never hear that the missionaries had any difficulty in getting a passage.



Bertha, a princess of the Franks. Æthelbert's importance has been a little exaggerated in history. It is doubtful if he ever enjoyed the purely Northumbrian title of "Bretwalda," or British King; or even possessed an honorary supremacy over his Saxon neighbours in the south. But after a bloody defeat at Wimbledon, 568 A.D., in which the fortunes of Wessex prevailed, Æthelbert, probably taking advantage of a civil war in the west, retrieved the independence of Kent, and took a high position among the sovereigns of his time. What his exact relation to his own subjects was, cannot certainly be determined. But by this time it is probable that Briton and Jute were beginning to fuse in Kent, as we find old Roman coins imitated in the Saxon mint; while local tradition assigns Æthelbert a palace within the walls of Canterbury, and afterwards in the fortified lines of Reculver. independence of the great cities would naturally be less jealously guarded as the king of the country adopted the common Roman culture, and gradually ceased to be regarded as a foreigner.


Meanwhile a great man was re-organising the European church in Rome. Gregory had been born of a rich patrician family, and to the traditions of gentle culture which his birth might give him, he added the best practical education of the day, the study and administration of Roman law. But religion overpowered ambition, and Gregory, in the prime of manhood, having served the office of prætor, exchanged the world for the cloister. Fortunately his own restless energy, his superiors' sense of his great practical abilities, and the reverence of the people for his character, forced office and greatness upon him. He in vain attempted to escape as a missionary to Britain; the pope consented; but the people pursued and brought back the fugitive. In 590 A.D. he was made pope. Like all great organizers, Gregory united strong contrasts in his

1 Hallam on the Dignity of Bretwalda.-Archæologia, vol. 34.

2 Palgrave's English Commonwealth, p. cclxvii.; Smith's Richborough, p. 214. Stanley's Canterbury, pp. 21-27.



character: a love of law and discipline, which sometimes made him intolerant, as when he taxed the Sardinian peasants into Christianity; a broad common sense, which made him temper his zeal where it met with obstacles; and large human sympathies, which have been commemorated in the beautiful legend that the soul of Trajan was granted to his prayers.2 Such a man could not rest while a province like England, that had once been Christian, was lost to the church; while the fair-haired Angles, whom the Jewish slave-merchant exposed for sale in the Roman market, were pagan. Remembering his own first projects, he sent Augustine, the prior of his old convent on the Cœlian Hill, with forty monks to Britain. But the missionaries halted on their way, disheartened by the reports they heard of a rude people, who spoke a strange language; they even sent back Augustine to beg for leave to return. "It were better," Gregory sternly wrote back to them, "that ye had not begun the good work, than that having begun it, ye should fail from it even in thought." The mission went on its way. Experience had shown that a certain outward show was required to impress barbarians: they advanced in procession to meet the Saxon king when he visited Thanet, chanting litanies, and bearing before them a picture of Christ and a silver cross. Æthelbert had assembled his court in the open air, that the foreign priests might not throw a spell over them. He was probably disposed in their favour by his Christian queen, but he gave them no further promise than permission to remain: "their words, indeed, were specious; but he could not promise lightly to desert the faith of his ancestors. Yet, as they had come from a far country to tell him what was true and best, let them stay as his guests, and make converts as they could."s

The ascendancy of civilized Italians over men just able to appreciate civilization, of men devoted to their faith over men

1 Greg. Epist., lib. iv., 26; compare lib. viii., 1.

2 Dante, Purgatorio, canto x.

2 Bede, H. E., lib. i., c. 23-25.




who had out-grown old traditions, was soon felt. Æthelbert himself was one of the first converts; the court followed, and in a few years Kent might be called Christian. It is remarkable that we hear of no opposition from a pagan priesthood; the only occasion when a priest appears, is some years later in Northumbria, where he heads the movement against his own gods. The caste was not numerous enough to foster an intolerant conservative feeling, it was enlightened enough to appreciate the new doctrine, and it was perhaps attracted by the superior splendour and power which the Christian hierarchy enjoyed. Augustine's chief difficulties with his converts arose from the fact that their paganism had entered into their daily lives, and connected itself with family ties. What should be done with the heathen temples; whether the feasts were to be at once discontinued; how sacrilege was to be punished; whether cousins might intermarry, or a son marry his stepmother, are among the questions which the timid, somewhat narrow-minded monk, submitted to his superior. Gregory's answers on these points would alone suffice to establish his character for large-minded sagacity. He consented, with some reluctance, to let the heathen temples and festivals be baptized into the church. Many facts proved that the spirit of paganism was not easily exorcised from its old institutions. As for sacrilege, let the man who stole from want be let off with a light correction for his soul's sake; above all, never let the church make any profit by the fines it imposes. First and second cousins had better not marry, because experience had shown that such unions were unfruitful. But marriage with a stepmother was forbidden in Holy Writ, and must be put down summarily. Generally, let Augustine adopt the good customs of any church, without regard for authority.

1 Unless the "doctores," who persuaded Redvald to unite the worships of Christ and Odin, were priests.-Bede, H. E., lib. ii., c. 15.

2 Bede, H. E., lib. i., c. 27. For other proofs of Gregory's sound sense and knowledge of physiology, see the answer to question 8.



Unfortunately, Augustine was not a man to pass lightly over small differences. The Welsh church had hitherto abstained from any attempt to convert the Saxons; rejoicing sullenly that the men who had conquered England would be tormented in hell. Probably a Welsh missionary during the early years of the conquest would have had no better chance of converting a Saxon tribe than a Greek among Turks, or a Brahmin in an English regiment. Now, however, as Christianity was established in Kent, and tolerated in the south through Ethelbert's influence, Welsh missionaries might labour usefully, at least among the British population, and a union between the two Christian churches was desirable. Augustine had made up his mind to great concessions, but he felt that three points were too important to be sacrificed: the Britons must celebrate Easter at the Roman time, baptize according to the Roman ritual, and send missionaries to the Saxons. At the first congress held to debate terms, the British delegates were convinced by a miracle, but remained unsubdued, and pleaded want of sufficient authority to conclude a treaty. At the second meeting the new envoys, with characteristic superstition, referred the question to the decision of an omen: if Augustine should rise to meet them, they would yield to his arguments; Augustine remained seated; they concluded that he had not the Spirit of God, and refused compliance with his demands. The bitterness of this rupture was seen a few years later, when the Saxon church exulted over a massacre of Welsh monks as God's just judgement upon His enemies. To ourselves, with every allowance for the importance of unity at a time when the church was struggling for existence, the prominence attached

1 Bede, H. E., lib ii., c. 2. The question of the tonsure does not seem to have been mooted at this interview. It is worth while to observe that the British church probably did not differ as widely as the Eastern from the Latin practice; that is to say, they did not make Easter fall on a week-day, but on a different Sunday.—Life of St. Augustine, pp. 214-5, in Lives of the English Saints.

2 Bede, H. E., lib. ii., c. 2. Augustine had prophesied this fate to them.

« PreviousContinue »