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The Influence Of Christianity On Anglo-Saxons

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Christianity remains the most followed religion in the world today making up nearly a third of the world’s population. In 2011, Christianity was the largest religion in England and Wales with 33.2 million people, equating to 59.3% of the population. Christianity has an enriched heritage and profound history, but one may be interested to know where the origins of Christianity began? Or what the history of conversion in the UK and, in particular, the English was? Conversion is the notion of persuading one to change their religion or beliefs. Some of the earliest data and research considering these questions date as far back to the Anglo Saxons spanning the late 6th and entire 7th and 8th centuries. This period of conversion of the English was caused and affected by a variety of factors ranging from the impact of Roman Christianity versus the Celtic impact. These factors included the mission of Augustine, the Celtic contribution from Gaul which was able to influence areas such as Northumbria, and the Irish which also conducted its influence in Northumbria to spread ideas all over the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. However, the knowledge provided to historians on this topic is very limited and obtained from one central source; Bede. Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People, completed in 731, is essentially our only narrative for this period of Anglo-Saxon history which of course aligns with the fact that there will a cloud of unreliability associated with the information provided. Bede uses earlier sources to reconstruct events of this period and many agree to the consensus this will be unreliable. There are a few other primary sources which will be analysed in this essay, but one must understand that the information available is not entirely accurate. This essay will assess the importance of the Celtic contribution on the conversion of the English versus the other factors leading to conversion.

The year 597 is perhaps the most sensible year and area to begin this debate. The death of Columba of Iona was of significance because he may have been one of the first to bring Christianity to the Northern Picts. Moreover, in this same year, the key event of Augustine’s mission occurred . Pope Gregory I, in approximately 595, conceived the idea of converting the English and began to organise the finances of his estates in Gaul for the mission. In 597 Augustine and approximately forty companions arrived at the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms and they were received by Æthelberht. He gave them St Martin’s in Canterbury as their base whilst also allowing them license to preach. From analysing Pope Gregory’s letter’s one can identify the immediate success of the mission. Gregory comments that “those who were sent out with him shine amongst that nation with such miracles that they seem to imitate the mighty works of the Apostles”. The use of the verb “shine” and noun “miracle” convey the initial success that Augustine had accomplished upon arriving. Furthermore, these words emit connotations and depict images of success, achievement, and wonder. This emphasises the success that Augustine had in converting English peoples to Christians, which is further supported by Gregory’s comment that by Christmas “more than ten thousand English people” were converted. With its initial success, further missionaries were sent to England in 601 to aid the mission’s endeavours. Thus, this initial wave of Christianisation

One also must consider the impact of rulers and their kingdoms on the spread of Christianity in this period. First of all, it was Æthelberht that first received Augustine and provided him a base in which to preach. Moreover, he was married to a Christian wife named Bertha. This perhaps furthered the influence of Christianity in these areas or at least encouraged Æthelberht to convert and advocate such conversion. It could also be argued that by marrying a Christian, Æthelberht would be viewed as not being hostile to the religion and hence, when Augustine embarked on his mission, knew he would possess more chance of success by arriving in Kent. Additionally, Mellitus, who was sent as one of the extra missionaries by Gregory, preached to the inhabitants of Essex. This was after its ruler, Sæberht, had adopted Christianity. This links the two factors of Augustine’s mission and impact of rulers having a profound importance and origin to the beginning of conversion of the English. However, the deaths of Æthelberht in 616 meant that Augustine’s mission lost its most valuable supporter as well as Sæberht passing. Both of these ruler’s sons were initially hostile to Christianity and this led to a reduction in support and conversion. This conveys how important kings and rulers were in the spread of Christianity. In Anglo-Saxon hierarchy it is evident that the peasants and lower members of the social structure adhere to what the King advises. They follow and believe in their King’s actions and thus when these rulers began to accept Christianity, the conversion began to increase in prominence. Likewise, when these rulers passed, there was reduction in the belief as priests and churches were not enough to substantiate people’s faith and continue its expansion.

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The Celtic contribution to conversion of the English was profound. The ‘Age of Saints’ was prominent in the fifth and sixth century in Wales. These saints first endeavoured to Christianise Wales and then the Saxons in England. However, reluctance to adopt this new religion from Celtic missionaries, led to Celtic influence in Ireland. This had the consequence of the enormous Irish influence in converting the English. Columba of Iona, as previously aforementioned, was potentially one of the first to bring Christianity to the Northern Picts. Despite the Picts being located in modern day Scotland, it still had the core origins of spreading Christianity into England. Columba was able to teach many disciples who would later originate from monasteries in Ireland and travel over to Britain to convert the peoples that inhabited these areas. The Irish influence was particularly prominent under King Æthelfrith’s son Oswald who was a Christian. After being exiled and residing in Ireland, Oswald gained the support of the Irish Church and sent a bishop to Northumbria. The bishop named Aidan was able to establish a monastery in Lindisfarne. This became the hub for Celtic Christianity to develop as Aidan taught priests and began to spread the faith. The church in Northumbria epitomised the Irish influence on conversion as it enabled priests to spread Christianity across all of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. However, it must be noted that in accordance with the importance of kings and rulers, the Irish success was feasible and continued due to the support of King Oswald. Irish missionaries could guarantee the support of Oswald and rely on his funding to build monasteries and churches. This enabled the continuation of the spread of the faith and allowed for preachers to a base to operate. By this time Celtic Christianity had a large prominence in Mercia, Northumbria, Sussex, and Kent.

Celtic contribution was significant to the conversion of the English however, there is evidence supporting the argument that there was already a considerable amount of practice on Christianity from the late Roman period. There has been archaeological and recorded evidence from churches, councils, and synods, such as letters, which had a greater propensity to appear in the non-Celtic areas of Britain. This data regards the practice of Christianity and also includes the charters of recorded gifts and other transactions. Barbara Yorke argues that this data can be presumed to indicate an unbroken practice from the late Roman period. Further to this, in Anglo-Saxon areas the written charter and late Roman traditions of land tenure embodied within it were introduced as part of the process of conversion to Christianity, Yorke continues. This suggests, whilst the Celtic contribution was important, Christianity was already being practiced in some areas of Britain and thus would have had the necessary platform to expand without contribution from elsewhere. Prior to the Roman’s arriving in Britain, there is evidence to suggest that Britain had elements of a Christian society. The religion was referred to as paganism.

By the mid sixth century, Christianity almost existed in all kingdoms across England. As discussed, it is apparent to why Christianity spread to most of the corners of Britain. However, in drawing most of our information from Bede, it is important to assess the reliability of such account. There are some inconsistencies with Bede’s reconstruction of events and Bede says little about the Frankish involvement. The West Saxons and kingdom of East Anglia received Christianity from bishops of Gaul named Birinus and Felix respectively. This was, according to Bede, in the years 635 and late 630s. However, there was more involvement of Franks which Bede fails to draw upon. With the combination of archaeological evidence, it has provided historians with more access to data an altered some opinions, however, information on this period is of relative unknown.

As Marilyn Dunn commented in 2009, “the difficulties of studying the religions of the Anglo-Saxons in the conversion period are well known”. Skewed data, limited accounts, and restricted primary sources is what historians studying this period have been left to work with. However, this can fuel the fascination to want uncover the mysteries surrounding this period and speculate one’s own theories and concepts. It is, however, feasible to speculate that the Celtic importance on conversion of the English was of significant proportion. The Irish influence on the English was profound and hard hitting. Combined with the support of King Oswald the sixth century, Celtic Christianity was able to thrive and spread to kingdoms such as Mercia and Kent. It is also important to mention the less significant, but still vital effect of kings on the spread of Christianity. Without the influence, power, and funding of these rulers it would have considerably slowed down the spread of the faith. Augustine’s mission under Pope Gregory I also bears some share in the conversion of the English. Starting from as early as 597, Gregory was able to send his missionaries to begin conversion and muster powerful connections in rulers such as Æthelberht. Overall, the Celtic influence was very important to the conversion of the English, but significantly more effective in conjunction with other factors such as the influence of rulers. The joining of these factors created a situation where faith was enabled to spread at such a rate it led to remarkable coverage. Perhaps why Bede named his literary piece The Ecclesiastical History of England.

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