In the Roman slave market one day, Pope Gregory noticed some
pretty fair-haired Yorkshire children for sale. He asked who
they were and was told they were Angli, English. 'Angli who
look like Angeli (angels)', the Pope replied, making a famous
If this old story is true, the Pope's interest in Britain was
aroused on that day, and he decided to send a missionary to
convert these attractive heathens to Christianity. In 597, St
Augustine landed in Kent. After 150 years of silence, England's
contact with Rome was restored.
St Augustine landed very near the spot where the Roman legions
had waded ashore, but unlike them he came in peace, and with
the agreement of the king of Kent. His message was gratefully
received: on Christmas Day 10,000 people were baptized at Canterbury,
where a Christian church was still standing.
Beyond Kent, Christianity spread less rapidly. King Edwin of
Northumbria, after consulting his council, accepted Christianity
in 626; but he was killed a few years later and the new churches
were destroyed in a pagan reaction. Although Christianity was
soon restored, it was not by missionaries from the Church of
Christianity had never disappeared from the British Isles. The
British, when they retreated from the Anglo-Saxons, took their
religion with them. More than thirty years before St Augustine
landed in Kent, an Irish monk, St Columba, founded the monastery
of Iona, Scotland's Holy Isle, which became the centre of British
Christianity. It was to Iona that the new king of Northumbria
sent for a bishop in 635, and the man appointed was St Aidan,
who settled at Lindisfarne. He soon made that island a Northumbrian
counterpart to Iona.
While out of touch with Rome, the British, or Celtic, Church
had developed differently from the continental Church. Even
the date of Easter was different, so that in places where both
Churches were represented, half the people were mourning the
crucifixion of Christ while the other half were celebrating
In 663 a synod (a meeting of clergy) was held at Whitby in
Yorkshire to decide the matter of the double Easter. At least,
that was the main point on the agenda; but what the synod really
decided was a much wide question: was the Church of England
to be British or Roman? The King of Northumbria, who presided,
decided that English Christians should not cut themselves from
fellow Christians in the rest of Europe. But although the Romanists
won the argument, Celtic influence remained strong. The Church
in England was always to remain different in spirit from the
Church in Italy or France, and the influence of Celtic Christianity,
gentler and less grand than Roman, was one of the chief reasons
The Celtic Church was a Church of missionary monks, while the
Roman Church was organized under bishops, whose headquarters
were in large towns. The Roman Church was supported by a mass
of learned laws and, from a political point of view, it looked
like a more orderly, stable institution. For that reason kings
Monasteries were also a vital part of Roman Christianity. St
Augustine himself was a monk (he founded the monastery of St
Peter and St Paul at Canterbury), and monastic influence was
strong in early Christian England. All kinds of people became
monks, including several kings, and many of them deliberately
chose a monastery far away from home, to cut themselves off
more thoroughly from ordinary life.
Devout Christians went on pilgrimages if they possibly could,
mostly to Rome though one or two bold people went to Jerusalem.
King Alfred was taken to Rome as a child. But a pilgrimage,
or any journey, was neither safe nor simple. Storms and pirates
made the Channel crossing a fearful experience, and on land
bandits and swindlers waited to trap the innocent traveller.
One archbishop, on his way to Rome, was frozen to death crossing
the Alps. Sensible people made their wills (завещания)
before they set out on a pilgrimage.
Irish monks were working as missionaries in Europe before 597,
and this tradition was continued by early English Christians.
Most of northern Europe was converted to Christianity by English
missionaries. Charlemagne's chief assistant in his programme
of educating the people of his empire was a Yorkshireman, Alcuin.
Christianity was a great civilizing influence. To begin with,
it introduced more education. Its teaching was narrow, as it
was simply designed to make native Englishmen fit to be priests,
but it did produce scholars who knew Greek as well as Latin
and had read some Classical - i.e. pre-Christian - literature.
Among them was the 'father of English history', Bede.
Venerable Bede Translating the Gospel of
John, by JD Penrose
Bede, who is sometimes called 'the Venerable' (Бéда
Достопочтенный), though such a dusty title does not suit
him, spent all his life in the Northumbrian monastery ofJarrow.
He wrote many books, but the most famous is his Ecclesiastical
History of the English People, finished in 731. It is the only
worthwhile history of England in the earliest period. Bede had
a remarkable sense of history - of the passing of time - as
well as a rare scholarly attitude to facts. His book, in English
translation, still makes good reading.
Although books were written in increasing numbers, a far greater
number were imported from the continent. Up and down the country
monks were kept busy copying them, and often decorating them
with beautiful miniature illustrations. The Lindisfarne Gospels
in the British Museum (produced about 700) are a magnificent
example of their work.
All these books were written in Latin. But English too was
being written. According to Bede, the first Anglo-Saxon poet
was a peasant named Caedmon, who was inspired by a dream to
write about the Creation. Anglo-Saxon is, of course, almost
a foreign language to us. Caedmon's poem, for instance, runs
Nu scylum hergan hefaenricaes uard,
metudaes maecti end his modgidanc …
(Now we must praise the guardian of heaven, the powers of the
Creator and his thoughts ... ).
The most famous Anglo-Saxon poem is Beowulf, the saga of a
hero who saves his people from a series of evil monsters. Like
many Anglo-Saxon stories, it is on the grim side.
objects - works of art, to weapons, etc. - that survive through
the centuries do not always give a perfectly accurate picture
of the works of an ancient people. Most Anglo-Saxon art that
has survived is Christian, for people went round smashing pagan
idols after they were converted. We also have examples of swordhilts,
drinking horns and jewellery, but not much to show us the fine
quality of early English needlework, because cloth does not
last as well as metal or stone.
Anglo-Saxon art was similar to Celtic art in design and inspiration;
at least, it was more like Celtic than Roman art. Patterns of
decoration were often abstract, or semiabstract, based on animals
and plants. Christianity brought foreign influences with it,
in particular the tradition of realistic art inherited from
Ancient Rome. In Northumbria the two styles merged to prouce
sculpture, like the stone cross at Ruthwell, Dumfries, made
in the 7th centuty, which experts once believed to have been
made 500 years later.