British History, 407-597, by Fabio P. Barbieri

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  Vortigern Studies > Faces of Arthur > British History > Book IX > chapter 9.2

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Chapter 9.2: The English conquest and conversion

Fabio P. Barbieri

From a geopolitical point of view, the conquest of Britain by the English is really not separate from the process of internal collapse and localization that had been taking place in Britain throughout Gildas’ adult lifetime, and which was echoed here and there throughout the former Empire: a process of violent, mostly unconscious adaptation to changed circumstances, which had to take place in uncontrolled and disorderly fashion because the Empire had not been able to perform it consciously. We should not, however, imagine that the fact that it was English kinglets rather than British who completed the process was of no importance in itself, any more than that it was the Muslim Arabs, rather than any other race or religion, who completed it in the East. The victory of the English meant the triumph of a new, more stable model of kingship. Unlike the Celts whom they overcame, they recognized no prescriptive rights in the mere existence of other kingdoms and were therefore able to conquer, annexate and reorganize at will; which had a major influence on later British history.

In spite of the rhetorical hatred unleashed at the Saxons by Gildas, there is no indication in his work that they were a present threat.  He is constantly raising the spectre of murdered fathers, grandfathers and great-grandfathers, to make the memory of their crimes loom large and present, but if the battle of Badon (516/7) had been “almost the last” of their defeats as Gildas was writing in 561, then they cannot have been extensively engaged in war against the British.  Indeed, he insists that “external wars have ceased” (26.2).  Yet thirty years later we find them masters of south-east Britain; sixty years later, the north has fallen and Edwin is threatening Gwynedd, Strathclyde and Man.

What has happened?  I think one theory is likelier than any other.  The Saxons, or their successors (who, in my view, acquired the Angle ethnic name when the Anglian lord Icel crossed over and took over kingship over the Teutonic settlers of eastern Britain at some point before the 520s), had a tradition of going abroad to fight or settle, which – in spite of the invaders of the 520s and the division and weakening that followed –carried on into the sixth century.  Procopius knew the English as stratiotes, soldiers, and was told that they were being regularly settled in Frankish land; and their known settlements confirm this.  In other words, the Saxons/English had never lost the habit of being mercenaries.

Now, one development that seems to me, in the bellicose atmosphere of Gildasian Britain, almost inevitable, is that sooner or later some ambitious or threatened British kinglet would resort to them to shore up his military resources.  Ethnic hatred and contempt have never been a bar to employing even the most despised aliens as temporary mercenaries or even as regular soldiers.  English war-bands would begin to be settled here and there in Britain, as local lords saw need; hence the blossoming of English graves across the country which archaeology suggests took place in the middle and later sixth century.  This would probably be more marked in the agricultural and relatively prosperous south, whose lords would have less readily available manpower – in a comparatively settled agricultural society – disposed to go to war at a moment’s notice, than their northern counterparts, and would conversely be much more threatened by the latter’s ambitions[1].  At some point in the unsettled post-542 period, English military settlements would multiply across the face of Christian Britain, still separated from their British neighbours by a virtual apartheid of religion, language and mutual disdain, but increasingly necessary for their defence.  In France, as late as the 580s, the Saxons of Bessin are on record as putting on British clothing and entering a battle against the Franks on the Breton side; which shows that British settlers in Gaul could use Saxon allies or mercenaries - even at such a late stage, when the Saxons were rampaging across the British mother country.

The beginning of the English wars of conquest in the west, whose leading spirit seems to have been one Ceaulin, are dated by the Anglo-Saxon chronicle at 568; I think this is a very likely date, give or take a few years (it is, perhaps, a little suspicious that it should correspond so exactly to the Longobard invasion of Italy).  The ASC itself was written in Wessex, the kingdom that claimed succession from Ceaulin’s original rebels, and where, if anywhere, traditions could be kept among a nobility descended from his raiders; but more importantly, a number of considerations suggest the 570s as a credible date for the ruin of the British south of the Humber and Trent.  Firstly – let me insist on this - Gildas knew nothing of a present and immediate Saxon threat in 561; but by 597 all of southern England except Dumnonia and perhaps the Lichfield-Wall area were in English hands.  Over a smaller period of time, Gregory of Tours seems to change his attitude to Kent and its lords: when he wrote the first of his two passages about Bertha, daughter of Ingoberga, describing her father Charibert’s life, he only spoke of her husband as someone from Kent; when he gets back to her marriage, in a passage written after the death of her mother (589), he has no qualms about calling her husband the son of a king of Kent.  Clearly, the degree of force he felt in the political position of the future king Aethelberht has changed radically, probably as a by-product of the British collapse.  Gregory the Great, proclaiming the success of Augustine’s mission, has a similar picture in mind: "Indeed, look how that once enraged ocean now lies down and serves the feet of the Saints; and those very barbarous energies which earthly lords could not beat down with iron, now by the fear of God are bound by the simple words of priests; and the infidel who never feared any horde of fighting men, is now a believer and fears the tongue of humble men[2]".  What this shows is the picture of an established order, old enough to seem stable (the expression terreni principes, earthly lords, does not show any sense of inner instability; to the contrary, it seems to include in a small space the whole conception of ordinary human political power, that is to involve as much stability as political power ever has) struck and erased by something as alien and as unstoppable as the ocean itself.  It seems that Gregory still thought of the English as chiefly a maritime race, the naval terror that horrified Sidonius Apollinaris and that the Frankish kings described to Procopius tried to use for their own advantage.  But above all, the sense it gives is that of an established order which still existed in the recent past, but which has been overwhelmed and destroyed beyond recall.

Bede’s list of Breatwealdas is in a sense the pendant to this Gregorian vision, an ideologically significant document intended to prove several points.  With one, the need to set up an opposite term to the Welsh theory of the Seven Emperors – that is, to the Welsh image of sovereignty over Britain – we have already dealt; but equally significant is the journey of this English image of royalty.  The first Breatwealda, as we have seen, was Aelle, who was regarded as having established English sovereignty in Britain, and who was probably the Saxon leader who defeated Vitalinus and was himself defeated and killed by Ambrosius.  After this, English royalty goes as it were underground, only to reappear with Ceaulin in the 570s.  The third Breatwealda is Aethelberht, who cannot be in any sense regarded as the successor to the rebel chieftain in the west; it is all too obvious that he is there because through him Roman Christianity reached the English.  For the same reason, I do not for a minute believe the claims for his sovereignty reaching as far north as the Humber; for sheer unlikelihood, it matches the one about Maelgwn terrifying all Britain from Gwynedd.  Kent – think about it – Kent, the pocket handkerchief garden of England, exercising overlordship over half of England, over Essex, Wessex, Sussex, East and Middle Anglia, Mercia and Lyndsey?  And the high king of England, who surely should be one of the greatest barbarian kings in Europe, nevertheless ends up marrying an unimportant member of a dead branch of the house of Meroveus, and is not even recognized as royal by Gregory of Tours until the early 590s?

No.  The place of Aethelberht in the list of Breatwealdas depends on his role within the overall ideological picture.  That he was supposedly overlord south of the Humber implies a progress in the nature of Breatwealda-ship, but only to an incomplete stage, which does not embrace the fullness of what the imperial, English monarchy of all the island is to be.  Aelle, the first independent English (Saxon) king in Britain, had fathered the monarchy.  Ceaulin had resurrected it.  Aethelberht had put it on a sound basis by consecrating it to the One God.  But the completion would only come with the three great Christian Northumbrian kings, Edwin, Oswald and Oswy.  That they finish off the list is evidence enough that they are its intended end, that the list is meant to climax with them.  And what Aethelberht has done has been to make one English crown Christian; but the completion would not come until true sacred royalty came to what was, to Bede, the central English kingdom, his own Northumbrian homeland. The fourth is Redwald of East Anglia, and, again, the ideological and Northumbrian intent is obvious: not only did Redwald expand Christianity into his own kingdom, but he was above all the instrument by which the first and greatest of Northumbrian Breatwealdas, Edwin, started his glorious rule, which was to lead Northumbria both to Christianity and to supreme power in the island.  (As for Redwald being supreme among the kings of Britain, his own people do not seem to have thought so; in their eyes, he was not important enough to preserve his name, like that of the national father William Wehha, in the later, formulaic fourteen-generation pedigree.)  In other words, what the list of Breatwealdas describes is the migration of overlordship from English origins to Northumbria and from paganism to Christianity.

The essential role of Ceaulin in this list, whose next stage after him is the entrance of Christianity into the island’s new royal race, is to resurrect Aelle’s ancient claim to independent kingship; in other words, to throw off for good and for ever any claim of British kingship over the Saxons.  From the day of Ceaulin, the English are independent; and being independent, they are sovereign.  In other words, Ceaulin – a war-lord established somewhere in the South-West, perhaps originally ranged against Dumnonia – had been the first to rise against the British with a complete rejection of the existing settlement, carving a Saxon sovereignty dependent on no British or Roman title.

What this describes is the successful insurrection of an English war-band settled very far from the Saxon homelands, which threw what British political organization out of balance altogether.  Since Badon Hill, if not indeed since Ambrosius, the Saxons had been contained in a number of eastern territories; it seems probable that the catastrophe of Badon Hill had instilled in them a healthy dread of British military power, especially if, as I argue, it had been followed by the repeated successes of the same military leader across various seas, as well as by invasions from Scandinavia.  But by the time of Ceaulin, the memory of Arthur had lost potency because of the suicidal squabbles of his diadochi; the invasions had long since ceased; and a number of English military colonies were in existence across Britain, not to mention in Frankland.  The English were overdue for a realization of their own strength and of their potential enemies’ weakness.  The fragmentation of their own polities, began or brought about somehow in the 520s, weakened them; but now the British were at least as weak, at least as divided, and there was space for a military adventure.

In the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Ceaulin’s wars stand out with a strange clarity, as compared with the other murderous blows by which, one presumes, south Britain must have been wrested from its many kings.  It would be possible to suspect Wessex chauvinism, were it not that, more than a century before Alfred the Great (in whose period and possibly at whose court the Chronicle was written), Bede already regarded Ceaulin as that essential stage in the progress of imperial, all-British, English monarchy.  Indeed, it is Bede, rather than the ASC, who places Ceaulin in the ideologically significant list of Breatwealdas, despite the evident Northumbrian bias of the Ecclesiastic History; more than one hundred years before the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle imposed its Wessex one.  The claim for Ceaulin, that is, is not a one-sided Wessex affair; all the Teutons of Britain recognized Ceaulin’s historical role.  This does not necessarily make it historical - there are still several decades, at least, between Ceaulin’s time and the earliest possible likelihood of written records - but it testifies to a consensus in a period in which Wessex simply did not have the means to impose one.

There is, incidentally, a great need to clarify a major difference between Dark Age ideas and ours.  To use any term related to the modern concepts of ethnicity to explain the Bedan vision of Britain, and for that matter that of his Welsh enemies, is to make it incomprehensible.  We must begin with the realization that the central social institution of the time was not the nation, not even the tribe, but the monarchy.  All the stories that were not about saints were about kings; it was the king, and all the institutions that related to him, that was the source of sense and meaning in society.  In the Bedan idea of the seven Breatwealdas, what was central was not that they were English, but that they were sovereign; it was not that they received their own value from being expression of English society, but that English society received its own value from being the matrix of kings.  In our world, the source of meaning and sense in society is the whole body of society itself, the people in their corporate character; and it follows that a society can only legitimately claim as much territory as its members legitimately occupy (which is why all the major unsolved and insoluble conflicts of our own time are ethnic conflicts, with two ethnic groups settled on the same territory claiming it for separate and opposing states).  In the world of the first Welsh and the first English, the centre was the king, and if such a thing as an all-British crown was recognized, it followed as the day followed the night that the ethnic group to which the king belonged was inherently royal over the whole territory.  What the British hated the English for was not having stolen their territory, but their sovereignty; and conversely, the reason for the extraordinarily swift and thorough Anglicization of the conquered British was that they recognized the king, whether he had become so by force or by inheritance, as the royal centre of society.  If the king spoke English, there was no reason why they should not speak it too.

It is the language that manifests most clearly this sense of royal self-assurance.  There is a confidence about early English that seems to echo the wealth of hoards like Sutton Hoo.  Old English absorbed few Celtic or even Latin words: Latin loans tended to be functional terms like cheese, and as for Celtic, philologists have traced no more than 10 – ten! – in the whole Anglo-Saxon vocabulary.  For all the world, these are the linguistic habits of a dominant culture (it would be interesting to study the proportion and type of early Latin loan words in other Germanic languages like Gothic).  By contrast, there is Gildas spitting out English keels, treating the alien word as if it represented a linguistic aggression.

Pope Gregory was, in his own way, no less a revolutionary than Arthur, David, or Ceaulin.  The body whose highest authority he was, the orthodox Church, was naturally aligned with the Roman Empire and with the Roman party everywhere.  Therefore he was expected to oppose, if not every barbarian – I do not suppose even Justinian imagined he could subdue the Franks – at least the most recent and least Romanized waves of invaders, the pagan English and the Longobards, last and most threatening of the Arian powers, surrounding Rome with a ring of iron.  However, his policy to both was consistently one of approach, of attempts to convert, and – what was odious to both Byzantines and Britons – recognition of their conquests.  Later Popes, even those like Gregory II and III, who admired the first Gregory, followed a policy of implacable hostility to Longobard aims, motivated mainly by their temporal role as kings of the city of Rome; but Gregory himself was a complete exception to the rule.  A Catholic but patriotic Longobard like Paul the Deacon saw him as something like a light though the darkness.  And he pursued such a policy in a period in which hostility would have been more than ordinarily justified, since the Longobards were still largely Arian or even pagan, and they had (in historical terms) only just entered the peninsula with fire and sword.

There is a letter in existence that startles by its sheer cheek.  When Byzantine power in Italy crumbled under Longobard onslaught, Byzantium, finding itself militarily helpless, fought back with the one weapon it had left.  Gold; gold; rivers and mountains of gold; to corrupt Longobard dukes, to cause anarchy in the fledgling political entity, to pay for Frankish allies to come crashing from the Alps.  It was very nearly a successful strategy: the Longobards were for ten years without a King, one Duke defected to Ravenna and a few others were suspect of wanting to follow suit, and for a while the Frankish invasions of 584-585 (the one which cost Mauricius 50,000 gold solidi – and it was only a part of his policy) seemed about to crush them[3].

In this political landscape, Gregory I had the nerve to send to the court of Byzantium a letter of self-defence against a foul accusation (allowing a bishop to die in jail over a matter of money.  The fabrication of such a vile charge clearly proves that, in some Byzantine circles, Gregory was hated), in which he said that he had so little taste for the death of men, even Longobards, that he has done nothing of what he could have done against them, even if, had he wanted, the whole nation would have been in summa confusione, with no kings, dukes or counts left[4].  In other words, he has the supreme effrontery (or the divine innocence) of using, to defend himself, a clear statement that, having been in a position to successfully carry out Imperial policy, destroying the social and political cohesion of the Longobard people, he did not.  I remember reading somewhere - though I haven't been able to track down the reference - that Roman and Byzantine documents of the sixth and seventh century show very little veneration or respect for the great Pope's memory, and that it was not until the age of Bede - when two pugnacious Popes in succession took the name of Gregory, and deliberately imitated Augustine's mission by sending the Englishman Boniface to the Saxons - that he was recognized as a major figure.  If that is the case, then his attitude to the Longobards goes far to explain why.  If any age is ever prepared for forbearance to one's enemies, Gregory's certainly wasn't.

The English and the Longobards broke into Catholic lands, and established their own lordships, almost at the same time, spreading like two black oil slicks beginning in the late 560s, conquering not at one blow and not under one leader, but region by region, kingdom by kingdom, the English under self-proclaimed kinglets, the Longobard under dukes theoretically obedient to a king.  By the time that Gregory was enthroned, their power in both countries was stabilized, although in both cases fighting at the borders, with the Byzantines and the British losing further swathes of land (Liguria, Tuscia, the fortresses of the Po Valley, in Italy; Northumbria, Chester and Dumnonia up to the Tamar in Britain) went on for many more decades.  In both cases, Gregory seems to have been minded to recognize what the British and the Byzantines would not, that the conquest was irreversible.

But while the circumstances in the two countries were almost the same (though the material culture in Italy was far more advanced), the Pope’s motivations were not the same in both cases.  A major factor was his perception of the quality of the local Church.  It has been pointed out that Gregory must have formed, at some point, an extremely negative view of the British Church, since in consecrating Augustine Archbishop of all Britain he mandated him not only to convert the English but also to rule over the remaining British bishops, with the extraordinary commission “that the ignorant might be instructed, the weak strengthened by your counsel, and the perverse corrected by your authority”[5].

What this meant, and what the Pope expected, is made clear in the same collection of answers to questions from Augustine, called the libellum responsionum, or Little Book of Answers.  This is not to be read as a series of actual questions and answers, as much as a demand from Augustine to be supported by authoritative Roman rulings on issues on which this or that party had refused to defer to his authority.  It is not a coincidence that, according to Bede, the libellus responsionum reached him as soon as he was consecrated full (arch)Bishop by Aetherius, the important Bishop of Arles, in 601[6].  The two things, episcopal authority and Roman backing in difficult questions, went together.  And the other question to which Augustine sought an “answer” was: is it legitimate for me to consecrate Bishops alone?  Answer: in your case, yes, since there are no Bishops near you this side of Gaul to come and be co-consecrators.  In other words, Gregory expected the existing British bishops to refuse to help Augustine consecrate bishops himself.

According to Bede, the libellum responsionum was written some considerable time before the famous two synods of Augustine and the British, in which the split was formalized.  On the other hand, to judge by a letter written in 619 to the Bishops of Ireland by the successors of Augustine – Bishops Lawrence of Canterbury, Mellitus of London and Justus of Rochester – the break between Rome and the Welsh Church took place after the beginning of the mission.  Lawrence was actually a member of Augustine’s first mission, so that when the letter says that “When… the Apostolic See… sent us to preach the Gospel to the heathens… we came to this island of Britain.  Until we realized the true situation, we had a high regard for the devotion… of the British”[7], we have to accept that it reflects their actual experience.  The bishops report with shock that the Irish bishop Dagan refused even to eat with them.  All these missionaries were – as we say – Romani de Roma, from the diocese of Gregory himself, and we cannot doubt that they reflected the attitude of the Pope.  Early in the mission, the Pope was gung-ho about evangelizing the English while the Gaulish bishops, who were closer to events, dragged their feet – as he says in a letter to the Frankish regent Queen Brunhilde.  This indicates that he must have started with a rosy view of the situation.

I have suggested the role of David’s monastic movement in the schism; but there is another possible element to be considered.  Pope Gregory’s disappointment seems to have been even earlier and more radical than that of the missionaries themselves.  The nomination of Augustine, not only to missionary bishop to the English, but to primate of all Britain, is a slap in the face for existing Church authorities in the unconquered areas; and it is accompanied by the evidence of the libellus responsionum that the Pope expects a schism and that he has had reason to find the Britons ignorant, immoral (“weak”), and stubborn.  While the missionaries were still trying in Lawrence’s time to establish relationships with their colleagues in Britain and Ireland, Gregory seems to have resolved by 601, four years into his great enterprise, that there was no hope in the Celtic Churches, and that the only future was through a new Roman-led Church evangelizing those blank slates, the English, rather than accepting the bad habits and perverse ways of the British.

We have certain notice of one visitor from the British Islands who came as a complete shock to the Pope, namely St.Columbanus, the renewer of monasticism in Frankland and Northern Italy, who addressed the Chair of Peter in letters whose tone was free and confident to the point of near-insolence, and who is punctually mentioned in the three Bishops’ letter as one of their disappointments; but while the Saint might not unreasonably be described as stubborn, nobody but a fool would call him either weak or ignorant, and Gregory was no fool.  Besides, the letter of Lawrence, Mellitus and Justus says explicitly that they were first disappointed by the British Church, and that it was only after that that their contact with the Irish Church showed the same arrogance, bad customs and obstinacy.  In other words, whatever bad impression may have been made by Columbanus only went to reinforce impressions already formed in the contact with British Church authorities.  This happened between 596 and 601; an instant in historical terms, but time enough for one group of people to change their minds about another - radically.

It is my belief that that bad impression arose when surviving British Church authorities tried to pressure the Pope into reversing his pro-English policy.  Bede’s famous story of two meetings between Augustine and British church authorities, the second of which was attended by no less than seven bishops, and which resulted in an incurable schism between, proves that, in spite of the collapse of central Britain, British church authorities still acted in concert and saw themselves as a unit.  Now there is a story which claims to document, from the other position, British activity in this period, to do with the great political and religious crisis of the rise of England.

The Life of Kentigern, compiled from earlier sources by the monk Jocelyn of Furness[8]in the eleven hundreds, is a truly bizarre product many of whose features seem to want to make the founding bishop of Glasgow into nothing less than a reincarnation of Jesus Christ.  His birth and youth are modelled point by point on those of Our Lord in canonic and apocryphal Gospels, with one Fregus deputized to serve as old Simeon of the Gospel of Luke, claiming that “The Lord is with us” when Kentigern comes to visit him, and singing  Simeon’s hymn, “Lord, now lettest thy servant depart in peace”, when he sees Kentigern’s face.  All the chapters about Kentigern’s birth, childhood and youth, from his conception by the virgin Theneu (who had prayed that she might be “like the Virgin Mary in all things” and promptly produced a virgin birth) to the visit to Fregus, are consistent; only one detail – Kentigern’s study with the elderly teacher St.Servan – has no counterpart in the Gospel, though it affords the writer a parallel with Moses walking through the Red Sea.  On the other hand, it is noticeable that there is no visible further allusion to Kentigern as Christ except in the stories of his childhood; as an adult, there is nothing particular to connect him to Our Lord.

I want to introduce a new analytical model.  In the development of legend from historical fact, I think we should speak of the First Biography and of the Second Biography.  When a man has left a considerable impression, it often happens that a member or members of his circle, or people commissioned to do so, should write an account of the remarkable events of his life.  This is what I would call the First Biography: it is essentially historical, although its early chapters, dealing with the childhood and youth of the great man – when nobody knew that he was going to be great, and when most or all of the future members of his circle had not met him or were not even born – are considerably less reliable than the accounts of his great years of activity and success. A pleasingly perfect instance of what I mean is in the Penguin volume Two lives of Charlemagne.  The Vita Karoli (Life of Charles) by Einhard or Eginardus is a fine example of First Biography: although Einhard, a member of the Emperor’s administration in the later part of his life, was a wholehearted supporter who consciously modelled his biography after Suetonius’ account of Augustus, never-theless it has its feet planted firmly in the soil of historical events, and the worst that may be said of Einhard as a reporter is that he may have exaggerated his own role at court, and perhaps been uncritical of his hero.

However, the very importance of the man’s deeds mean that his image goes marching on, after the circle of friends has dissolved; spurious stories become attached to him, true ones are exaggerated or misunderstood, and it may even happen that true stories are preserved that the circle itself never knew of or never considered important; and there is also a great need to attach him to all sorts of issues on which men of latter days like to think that they would have had his endorsement.  At some point, it happens that someone reads the First Biography and finds it depressingly flat and short of all the good stories, interesting insights and wonderful instances of greatness (as he himself conceives it) which were flying around in his time; and resolves to write those down.  This is the Second Biography; an intermediate stage to legend, since what it is composed of is not so much one big legend of the great man, as many small anecdotes.  The De Karolo Magno by Notker the Stammerer, a monk of Sankt Gallen (Switzerland), is a lovely example of the Second Biography.  The honest author does not even claim that it is a Vita, an account of the emperor’s life; only that it is a book that speaks “about the Great Charles”, setting down all the welter of poorly connected anecdotes that Notker had heard about the figure that loomed so large across his whole world seventy years after his death, king, warrior, hero, sage, and saint – and earthy, humorous Frankish country gentleman.

The fact that the weak point of the First Biography is the childhood and youth raises an echo in the Life of Kentigern’s shameless “portrait of the bishop as a young Jesus Christ”.  As I said, one discordant element in this clear, consistent and unabashed picture, is the education of Kentigern with Servan: no schoolteacher of Our Lord appears in the corresponding legends, at least not in anything like the positive role of Servan.  Another is that his mother, Theneu, is the daughter of a king, Lleuddun Lluyddog, the eponymous king of Lothian; the Virgin Mary certainly is not[9].  It follows that these two items of information have a chance of being historical, while the rest of the story has simply been attached to Kentigern at some point later on in order to fill in a gap in the story and to exalt the Saint according to his followers’ idolatrous idea of him.

I am of the opinion that a First Biography of Kentigern existed.  In spite of the manifest legendry, there are a number of things in Jocelyn of Furness’ Life that seem not to belong to the realm of myth, let alone to the blatant and consistent picture created in the early chapters, but to the world of prosaic fact.  Indeed, my own taste finds it rather disappointing that the Dominical pattern of Kentigern’s life peters out completely after the Fregus episode: in spite of the careful build up to the idea of Kentigern as Jesus, the adult Kentigern, bishop, politician, diplomat, courtier and miracle-worker, does nothing whatsoever like Jesus.  Even his miracles, where it would have been easiest to insert Jesus-like features, are nothing like Our Lord’s.  And there is something, on the other hand, quite satisfying – to the analyst if not to the ordinary reader – in that, while the account of Kentigern’s birth and youth is the most scandalous fake – and I wonder Jocelyn was not ashamed to copy it out – the account of his old age and death is one of the parts that sound most lifelike.  And because of the extremity of old age and infirmity, the fastenings of his sinews were almost entirely withered and loosened; therefore he bound up his cheeks and his chin by a certain linen bandage, which went over his head and under his chin, neither too tight nor too loose… that nothing indecent should appear in the gaping of his mouth.  This hardly sounds like romantic hagiographic invention; and the fact that it refers to a certain linen bandage, as though the author had a specific item in mind, suggests that the bandage in question was preserved as a relic of the saint.

And then there is the matter of his death.  Kentigern died while having a hot bath; a matter of which the story is so ashamed that it has to invent an angel – one of those useful angels that always turn up to tell Celtic saints what to do or where to go[10] – telling him to take a bath, the first hot bath of his life, in recognition of his lifelong asceticism.  I think that on this episode depends the somewhat exaggerated description of his austerities earlier on in the book, whose climax is an account of his extended vigils of prayer immersed in freezing rivers – an ascetic practice typical of the Celtic churches, but one which, in this case, sounds like a denial-in-advance of the luxurious lifestyle implicit in his bath.  Most of us, today, would not deny an old man so physically decrepit, in the climate of Glasgow, the pleasure of a hot bath; but to the monastic communities that preserved this story, to admit that Kentigern could command the resources for a hot bath in mid-January (in the octave of Epiphany, January 14, says Jocelyn) – firewood, servants to carry the water to boil, servants to pour it in the stone bath – meant that the man simply did not live according to the rule of the monks.

As indeed, why should he.  He was in the confidence of the king, with whom – says the Life in a revealing aside – he used to travel around; and the most important legends of his adulthood show him supporting the power, prestige and magical authority of his king, Rhydderch Hael, by hook or by crook.  He was the son of a woman of royal blood, the grandson of a king, the founder of the diocese of Glasgow, so involved in its politics that the party of one king – dead, it was felt, because he had quarrelled with the bishop – expelled him and another king called him back; everything about his biography, whether historical or legendary, bespeaks the king’s man, the court bishop, as committed to the preservation and power of the king of Strathclyde as to his own church.  Even the fact that the Life clearly means us to understand that his teacher Servan was a prestigious teacher, strongly suggests an aristocratic identity: we have seen, in discussing Gildas, the class overtones of being an educated person in Educated Britain.

It is as a diplomat, and possibly as a king’s man, that Kentigern enters our subject matter.  The Life claims that he travelled to Rome no less than seven times to discuss the parlous situation of Britain with Pope Gregory.  I do not think that the number of seven journeys is reliable, considering the difficulty of such a journey, and the King’s need to have his bishop at home to run the Church for him.  On the other hand, the detail that Kentigern fell badly sick on his way back on his last journey back and therefore did not embark on another, is one of those things that sound like real life rather than legend.  I think we can envisage a plural number of journeys, two, three, maybe four, with the last ending in a serious illness on the way home.  I would suggest, however, that Kentigern may have had other reasons than illness and hardship to decide against going back to Rome again.

We are warned (by an unusually cautious John Morris[11]) that meetings with Pope Gregory are among the commonplaces of Celtic hagiographic legend, and that therefore there is a presumption that any tale of saints encountering him would be unhistorical; but in the case of Kentigern I think we have cause to suspect otherwise.  Proceeding from the weakest to the strongest reason: first, there is an indication that Kentigern may have had family ecclesiastical connections on the continent.  In the 550s, a bishop with the unusual name of Conotigernus appears in the episcopal lists of Senlis in Gaul.  Unlike John Morris, as rash, in this case, as we are used to see him, I cannot bring myself to believe that this is the Kentigern of Glasgow, who died about 616: even granting him a great age, he would by then be a boy or little more, and one cannot imagine why a very young ecclesiastic, neither Frankish nor Roman, would be placed at the head even of a fairly unimportant diocese.  But it seems likely that this is a kinsman.  Second, the typical hagiographic saints’ encounter is a one-off event (the Life of Kentigern has a classic instance in the obviously unhistorical meeting of Columba and Kentigern), attended by all the panoply of vision and miracles that the writer can summon up; but in this case the journeys are many, there is little by way of visions, miracles or angelic visitations, and there is the life-like detail of the illness that strikes Kentigern on the way back.  Thirdly, the list of gifts from Gregory to Kentigern is not only lifelike but, as we will see, possibly quite significant: codes of canon laws, “other books of holy writings” (it is not clear whether the text originally meant Bibles, or simply Christian literature), privileges for his church, and relics of Saints.  All of these are the sort of thing one would expect the bishop of Rome to give to a visiting dignitary from a distant and rather primitive Church; in fact, every ecclesiastical journey was among other things an occasion to replenish libraries.

The fourth and strongest reason is the wholly untypical historical setting of the Life.  The most superficial acquaintance with Welsh/Cornish/Breton hagiography will show that its authors were apt to be wildly careless in matters of chronology, if indeed any chronology could be discovered in their writing at all.  Many Welsh saints can be dated with a margin of error of as much as centuries; however untypical the Life of St.Gurthiern may be in other respects, the fact that the hero is made the son of a woman who lived a century after the real Vortigern is wholly in character.  But Kentigern moves in a recognizable world and time.  He is contemporary with St.Columba and king Rhydderch Hael; he helps found the bishopric of St.Asaph, which probably was a reaction to the collapse of the British Midlands in the same period; and he goes to see a Pope who not only lived at the right time but had a deep interest in all things British.  And all these historical features are decidedly not the work of Jocelyn himself, whose historical picture of British history is a ridiculous concoction of Gildasian and Nennian or near-Nennian lore from which he unerringly managed to single out all the unhistorical features; rather, if a mind may be judged by its products, it is the unfortunate Jocelyn who, in trying to expand on the original historical picture of his sources, has exposed his fantastic, or, to quote Trevor-Roper, his “oceanic” credulity.  He was not the man to put the journeys of Kentigern in a credible historical context.

Indeed, why should anyone want to employ a Pope of Rome in the foundation legend of two British bishoprics, Glasgow and St.Asaph?  Let us remember the context: this was a Church that split from Rome in Gregory’s own lifetime, and on account of his policies.  It did not return to Rome until about 768[12].  It was in this period, surely, that the legend of Kentigern took shape.  The only reason why it should be written down at all is as a self-defence of the British Church for its actions, including the schism; and that, in my view, is exactly what we find.

Jocelyn himself was quite clear about the conditions in which Kentigern lived, and his potted history of Britain, otherwise a mere and bad hodgepodge of known sources, acquires both precision and an interesting kind of vagueness when describing both the reason for appointing Kentigern bishop of Strathclyde and for him to go to the Pope.  Kentigern’s mission to the Pope is motivated by two reasons: firstly, that the island of Britain was being assaulted by “idol-worshippers”; secondly, that even within the Church of Britain itself there were many usages contrary to Catholic usage and a good few heretics.  It is however on the uncanonical usages that he insists: it is, after all, the same reason why Kentigern himself was made bishop of Strathclyde years earlier – because the locals, nominally Christian, were both so untutored and so threatened by vicious and often idol-worshipping neighbours (clearly the Picts) that Christianity was stained by ignorance, carelessness and bad customs.  This is quite a credible picture, and it agrees with the fact that the first item on the list of Papal gifts to Kentigern was a code of canons.  At the same time, there is little or no description of what, exactly, Kentigern did to change all that.  We hear that he preached and that he built stone crosses (which, incidentally, has a certain hazy echo of the stone bathtub in which he died, in the sense that carving stone for decorative, ceremonial or palatial purposes was not alien to him), but there is little account of the more typical activities of a reforming bishop, which must inevitably involve a certain amount of correction, compulsion and the odd expulsion; Kentigern’s life as told by Jocelyn is long on public events and ceremonies, but rather short on discipline.

Even the fact that he founded a monastery seems to be a by-product of his political activity: exiled in North Wales, he sets up a bishopric at St.Asaph and suddenly finds himself surrounded by nearly a thousand monks.  This apparently crazy number is actually in keeping with the more than 2100 whom Bede claimed belonged to the nearby monastery of Bangor Is-Coed at the same time, and must represent the presence of exiles from English-conquered or threatened lands; not only the fact that the monks massed to pray for the victory of British forces against the hated English at Chester, but the fact that all 2100 had to earn their living by manual labour[13], suggests that these were in effect huge monastic refugee camps.  When Kentigern is recalled to Glasgow, he finds that the majority of monks want to go with him – to distant, secure Strathclyde – rather than remain with Bishop Asaph – within raiding distance of Saxon swords.  It seems likely that Kentigern was working to firm up the Church in the threatened regions, and that he may never even have originally thought of a major monastic foundation at all.

The most visible supposed result of Kentigern’s visits to Rome was a Papal privilege that he should be subject to no other bishop, which Jocelyn explains anachronistically by his having been made a papal vicar and chaplain.  Such a dispensation is highly relevant to early seventh-century conditions, in which the Welsh church refused to accept the primacy over Britain granted by the Pope to his appointee Augustine; it is, in fact, a direct denial of the authority of Canterbury over Glasgow, on the supposed authority of the very Pope who had made Augustine head bishop over all Britain!

In other words, this is a deliberate falsehood.  Specifically, it was intended to explain why Kentigern and his diocese should claim to be absolved from obedience to any other see without being itself made an archbishopric; and it shows a clear awareness of the issues facing Gregory, Augustine and Kentigern.  The urge to reconcile all the great names of the past, and probably a complete failure to understand the issues involved, led Jocelyn, himself an Anglo-Norman and therefore sympathetic to the church of Augustine, to try somehow to place this in harmony with Augustine’s arrival on the island; but it must be obvious that what we have here is a justification for going against him in every significant way, for rejecting archiepiscopal authority altogether.

Some of the justification must be of a later date than a First Biography; in particular, the impossible life-span of 185 years attributed to Kentigern, which seems to have been invented to push back the foundation of the diocese of Glasgow; and the anachronistic features of the rejection of Canterbury’s authority, specifically the weight given to the title of Archbishop in the so-called Papal dispensation – which sounds like it might come from a century or two later – and the titles of Papal chaplain and vicar – which sound as though they came from very much later, and are probably Jocelyn’s own invention.  But apart from Jocelyn’s own part, what this testifies to is only the persistence of a culture of self-justification and self-defence; the fact is that the issues alluded to in Kentigern’s false Papal privilege and also in the Pope’s gift of books of canon law are sixth- and seventh-century issues.  Jocelyn admits that the practices of the British Church were often at variance with those of the universal Church, which agrees with Bede’s picture, or even downright corrupt, which agrees with Gildas’.  And the fact that Kentigern had to flee Strathclyde for his life when his enemy Morkent died, only to be called back when another king came to power, has not a little in common with Gildas’ picture of the control of the Church by “tyrants” and their episcopal creatures, who saepissime are killed by the tyrants who created them.  From this point of view, the gift of books of canon law and other teaching matter acquires a quite different significance from what Jocelyn thought, more along the line of “the Lord in His goodness shed light on you, and meanwhile, here is something for you to chew on”.

You cannot get away from the fact that at some point in the early years of the mission, both the Pope and the missionaries conceived a great dislike for the British Church and its practices – a dislike which, according to the missionaries’ own words, did not pre-date the mission.  As a prominent bishop in the British Church, Kentigern would at the very least have been a prominent part of that group of people whom the missionaries began to dislike; and when we are told that, at the same time, he is claimed to have made not one, but several, journeys to the Pope in Rome – whose apparent result, on Kentigern’s own British side, was a group of claims that was starkly at odds with Papal and missionary policy and claims – then we have to say that it is very possible that Kentigern himself had something to do with Gregory’s view of the British as stubborn, ignorant, weak and in bad need of discipline.

There can be no doubt that if such missions took place, they must have had a strongly anti-English content.  Whatever counsels the Bishop of Glasgow urged on the Bishop of Rome, they cannot have included setting up a church authority supreme over all the island in the territory of the English.  He is more likely to have urged an alliance of all existing Catholic powers to destroy them – the daydream of the Welsh down the ages.  But as with the Byzantine plan to cause civil war among the Longobards, Gregory not only implicitly rejected the idea, but explicitly adopted an opposite and indeed extreme policy.  Just as he had not only negotiated with the Longobards and even called the Duke of Benevento “our true child”, but actually thrown his rejection of imperial policy in the Empire’s face; so he actually placed the bishops of the British under the control of the new archbishop of Canterbury.  Informing Augustine of the new authority he intended to confer on him, Gregory’s words indicate that he already had reason to expect resistance, obstinacy, indeed even schism, from the British, and that he had the Pope’s own mandate to effectively ride roughshod over them.

I think that Kentigern’s journeys must have taken place between 596 and 601, and must have represented an attempt to stop the mission to the English, which the Welsh positively did not want to see evangelized.  I think that in or some time before 601, the last journey ended in a breach, and then Kentigern used the illness he suffered on the way back to excuse himself – probably to the king – from further fruitless endeavours.  I very much doubt that Bede’s two synods had much to do with the decision of the British to break from Rome; I think that the game had already been played and lost on other fields, and that the famous story of Augustine refusing to rise before the assembled bishops and abbots was only a ceremonial assertion – on both sides – of positions already taken and now made irrevocable.

A side-effect of Gregory’s severely diminished view of the British Christians was his remarkably severe attitude to the cult of a local martyr by name Sixtus, found by Augustine somewhere in Kent.  This episode is treated in an item in the libellus responsionum which Bede omitted[14], and which shows, by the way, that Augustine’s so-called questions at the head of each “answer” are only summaries of longer and more circumstantial expositions.  Gregory begins his “answer” with mihi tamen uiditur, “it seems to me, however”; which obviously implies a difference of opinion with Augustine himself; and that means that Augustine had not only sent a request for advice, but a plan for action for which he sought the Pope’s support.  We need not doubt that the other libellus items were, similarly, the result of long documents from Augustine with similar suggestions, in which, however, the Pope had acquiesced, so that no trace of a difference of opinion remains in his prose.

The difference was on what to do about this cult of Sixtus; and it must be noticed that both the missionary and the Pope were not very happy about it.  Augustine seems to have suggested that relics of the historical and indubitable St.Sixtus of Rome (Pope Xystus or Sixtus II, martyred 258, a martyr of the batch of St.Lawrence and nearly as popular in the early Roman church) should be brought in and buried near the tomb of the Kentish Sixtus, so as to transfer popular devotion from what, he seems to have thought, was a badly documented and probably valueless cult.  Gregory, however, was more radical: he sent along the requested relics, but he suggested that the grave of the Kentish Sixtus should be fenced off altogether and no cult allowed there at all.  This is not really out of keeping with ordinary Church practice – the Church does not like unproven or unhistorical Saints and their cults – but reflects a view, on Gregory’s side even more than on Augustine’s, that British Christian institutions really were not trustworthy.

And this leads us to the people whom Augustine found in Kent.  We should not speak of the conversion of England as though the religion, or for that matter the ethnic identity, of the English, were the same for every dweller in their kingdoms.  The fact that the word wealha had quickly passed over from meaning Roman/ Welshman to meaning slave, shows sufficiently that large swathes of the population were serfs descended from conquered Roman-Britons; and such people may be assumed not to be welcome at whatever religious functions, in particular sacrifice, were known to their conquerors.  Slaves are frequently excluded from sacrifice; and conversely, they can never have quite forgotten the Roman identity and religion of their fathers; not when most of Britain was Christian, governed by Christian kings, until the 570s.  It is not to be imagined that the Romano-British slaves of the new English kings in places like Kent would not tell tales of their free and royal kinsmen across the border, of their churches, their bishops and their saints.

There is evidence that cults of a specific kind carried on, probably with no consecrated priests, at specific spots.  In Appendix III I argue for the existence of a martyr’s cult in Hoxne, Suffolk (in the heart of the earliest Saxon conquest) located at a specific spot, a bridge, and attracting pilgrims – indubitably of servile status – from the neighbouring region.  That it was a servile cult is suggested by the fact that it seems to have had none of the skills that come with book learning, failing to preserve dates and circumstances, and attaching its own historically based legend to a much later and completely different martyr who had no original connection with Hoxne at all.  These are the same features of the Kentish martyr’s cult of the otherwise unknown Sixtus, and Augustine and Gregory’s visible distrust for it suggests that its legend was also of the kind I postulate for the martyrium at Hoxne, poorly grounded in history and with no book learning behind it, a popular memory preserved by the existence of the cult centre itself rather than properly recorded[15].

This kind of place of cultic assembly has to do, in my view, with the many places called Eccles or their compounds, spread all over the country.  The word comes from Ekklesia, assembly (of the brothers), the old term for Christians as a corporate group, especially at their ceremonies.  There are Eccles in areas of early English settlement such as Kent (near Rochester) and East Anglia (between Happisburgh and Palling), and places in stubbornly pagan Mercia, where the English took longest to convert.  Now one feature to be noticed is that names formed with Eccles compounds practically always indicate open-air places – Ecclesfield, Eaglesfield, Eccleshill, Ecchinswell (that is Eccles well), Eccleshall (nook of land, healh, of the Eccles) – or farmsteads – Eccleston, of which there are several in Lancashire and Cheshire; the point being, surely, that a farmstead is an isolated building on open farming ground.  In all likelihood it is the farming ground, or part of it, which is the Eccles that qualifies the tun or farmstead.  It seems to have been a regularity, therefore, that Eccles corresponded with open grounds.

Now, as soon as English begins to acquire a Christian vocabulary, the word it uses for “a sacred Christian building” is not Eccles from Greek Ekklesia (a gathering of people, especially of citizens) but cirice, Church, from the adjective Kyriacon, belonging to the Lord.  That is, it seems to understand the difference between ekklesia and kyriacon, eccles and church, that is between the assembled body of members, which does not have to gather in an enclosed place at all, and the building consecrated and set apart, “belonging to the Lord”, kyriacon.  This definite difference in meaning corresponds to the difference between the various open-air Eccles and the enclosed and preferably stone-built church building.  I would also suggest that there is no reason why the distinction between cirice and eccles should not have been known to the English before conversion; it was, after all, part of a landscape in which they had been settled for over a century.

What this suggests to me is that the conquering English would allow their conquered serfs to cultivate their own religion in the open air, but not in consecrated buildings.  This reminds us of King Aethelberht’s reluctance to meet the Roman missionaries except under the open sky, since he was afraid that they could do something maleficent to him in an enclosed building.  The reasons for this are not terribly clear in the absence of any statement of pagan English views on such matters as the value of sacred buildings (it is perhaps significant for Aethelberht’s understanding of the Church that, while he had this superstitious view of her buildings, he understood the principle of endowing it, and did so as soon as he was convinced of Augustine’s good intentions); but the effect on history ought to be tolerably obvious. While there is a good deal of work to be done into why the English, alone among all the conquering German hordes before and after, had such a negative relationship with Church buildings, it is clear that the conquering English would destroy or deconsecrate every church building they could lay their hands on, making sure above all that the local wealhas would not use them again.  Sixth-century buildings in Britain were made of wood, easy either to dismantle or to burn; and Gildas testifies that there had been a spate of vainglorious, highly visible church-building in his day (79.3; 80.4), with every refinement of luxury, it seems.  Such churches would make both highly visible and highly vulnerable targets.  It is perhaps significant that St.Martin’s, the first church made available to the missionaries in Canterbury, was an old, Roman building, presumably made of stone and harder to destroy altogether.

The destruction or deconsecration of church buildings in conquered areas would skew every picture of history thereafter, since the physical traces of Christian presence would vanish.  This probably includes books and other written matter, and certainly such places as monasteries; and as the Church of Gildas’ time was rich (42.3), the complete eradication of its built-up inheritance would make a great difference to the country.  But a Christian presence of sorts would carry on, transformed into something like a cult meeting at holy open places, possibly with the characteristics of a sacred fair or pilgrimage centre, and possibly with a different frequency from the weekly or daily celebration of a normal church.  That the two ecclesia sites I argued for seem both to have been dedicated to the cult of martyrs seems indicative of the mood of the oppressed Christians of the English lands, where suffering and dying for the faith might have been seen as something all too real; and it seems to reflect the fact that the shrines which Gildas knew to exist across the barbarian border were shrines of martyrs (10.2).

In other words, a peculiar kind of organization carried on among the conquered Christians of England.  The wide spread of eccles place-names indicates that English practice in this respect was regular, carried on even in areas such as Cheshire and Lancashire which were conquered after Augustine’s mission had started.  And the fact that a definite form of organization, however, peculiar, existed, bestowing group identity and enabling Christians to make themselves visible to their masters, explains a few further questions.  There must have been Christians in England, since, according to Pope Gregory, the Frankish bishops had been asked to send a bishop before he started his own mission, but had ignored the request.  Why they should is not clear; the stated policy of the Frankish kingdoms was to gain influence among the peoples of Britain, and to settle Frankish or Frankish-controlled bishops across the Channel would have been an obvious way to do so.  The kings themselves were in fact quite interested in Gregory’s mission, and the regent Brunhilde was complimented by the Pope (and compared implicitly with the sluggish bishops) for her help.  Certainly, therefore, any resistance or sluggishness about a mission to England came from the bishops, not from the kings.

Our considerations so far suggest a reason.  It seems to me obvious that the request for a bishop for the conquered Christians of England would come either through, or with the consent of, their local pagan kings.  Now if the pagan kings intended to carry on with the model thus far established, of open-air assemblies with no consecrated buildings and (it follows) no land set aside for the Church and therefore no patrimony, the Frankish bishops may have been more aware than the lord of distant Rome of the intolerable obstacles that the prohibition on built churches would inflict on any mission; they may have regarded it as useless until the English changed their minds.

Certainly, such requests were sent.  Quite apart from the fact that it was canon law that no bishop should be sent without a formal request, there is the size and importance of the mission: forty men, led by the prior of Gregory’s own monastery, St.Andrew’s on the Caelian Hill (today dedicated to Gregory the Great himself), successively enlarged by interpreters collected in Gaul (probably Gregory’s earlier plan to purchase young English slaves to train for the mission had failed or produced an insufficient number of candidates).  While the Church of Rome may certainly want to send missionaries to a pagan country, would it ever have sent a candidate for Bishop, with a commission to set up a whole regular Church structure, had they not been sure of the presence of Christians waiting to be organized?  Especially the wise Gregory, a man of wide experience and deep thought who had worked both in government and in diplomacy before being made Pope?  All the evidence is that the English project was a major one for him: according to Paul the Deacon, he had thought of it since before he had been made Pope, and a hint in a letter to Eulogius, Catholic Patriarch of Alexandria, suggests that he had cast as far as Egypt for help. He must have chosen his men with care, and meant Augustine for an Archbishop from before he started. And what about the reception Aethelberht gave Augustine and his crowd (and it was a crowd)? Compare that with the tribulations of early missionaries in Frisia and Saxony, and the Kentish king's behaviour seems almost impossibly tolerant. He must have been used to Christians living peacefully in his kingdom.

It is even possible that the recent suggestion that dioceses in Mercia were set up by British Bishops from Wales before the ecclesiastical troops of the Pope ever got there[16] may be subject to the same qualification. Mercia was almost the last English kingdom to convert, and, under the pagan Penda, played a powerful part in the upheavals that nearly made Cadwallon king of all Britain above the Humber. The presence there of Eccles names – Eccleshall, Staffordshire; Eccleston, Cheshire – shows that the open-air-meeting model had been imposed there as well as in other areas of English conquest. Why, therefore, is there evidence of British bishops and church buildings there shortly before the conversion of the kingdom, so that a modern scholar could quite credibly suggest that the British were the ones who converted the Mercians? The historical picture I have been building up suggests an answer. The Mercians, like the other English, had at first suppressed church buildings and forced their subject population to worship, if at all, only in eccles fields. To the Mercians as to the other English, this was part of a very practical problem – what to do with the slave population, and, in particular, how to deal with their religious identity. But in the time of Penda, the Mercians find themselves faced with the alarming situation of the rise of an English episcopate that might serve as a focus for discontent among their shadow-Christian serfs. To avoid this danger, they decide to receive, on their own terms, bishops; not, however, from the Roman party – which included their prospective enemies in Northumbria, East Anglia and Wessex – but from their then allies, the Welsh. And so a Welsh ecclesiastical organization is re-built on territories from which, after all, it had only been expelled within living memory. But I believe that Steven Bassett exaggerates when he says that the British evangelized “the immigrants”, that is the English conquerors; what they are likely to have done is minister to the subject population. The English settler aristocracy of Mercia is unlikely to have converted until their king did – and when a king of Mercia, Wulfhere, converted, he converted to Roman, not to Welsh, Christianity[17].

In his letter to Eulogius of Alexandria, Gregory states as a fact that in the previous year (597), Augustine and his mission had baptized 10,000 people. Predictably, modern scholars have arbitrarily decided that “no reliance could be placed in the number”, even though Gregory was in receipt of official reports and we are not; after all, it is not to be expected either that a poor befuddled ancient would understand anything about his own time until the moderns happen along to explain it to him, or that a Church leader would ever tell the truth. I think the explanation of that apparently huge number is a great deal simpler: as soon as the King granted Augustine leave to work, all the shadow-Christians of Kent, who probably had not had a proper priest free to reach out to them for decades, rushed to the consolation of Baptism. This is why I believe that no properly consecrated priest attended the eccles open-air meetings of Christian serfs. And from that point of view, the number 10,000, far from being an absurd exaggeration indulged by a self-important Church leader (for those folks always lie, we know that), turns out to be a measure of how far the old Roman religion had faded in Kent. For however we reckon the population of the kingdom, it is not to be imagined that 10,000 would represent even a large minority; I would guess that the subjects of Aethelberht would be, perhaps, from 50,000 to 200,000 – counting women, children, serfs, and other persons outside political consideration but not outside Baptism – at any rate, not enough for this first wave, not of converts, but of recovered brothers, to make a big impact, especially since most of them would have been of the lowest social class. Kent witnessed some vigorous Pagan backlashes, and it was not till fifty years had passed that the worship of idols was outlawed.

The inevitable backlashes and the apparently slow process of Gregory’s policies, means that his forward-looking – one might almost call it visionary – attitude to the barbarians of his time must have seemed, to his immediate successors, one big mistake. The Longobards continued both to be Arian and to threaten Rome; the English mission proceeded with what seemed agonizing slowness, and it was not until the days of St.Theodore of Tarsus and St.Wilfrid, the third quarter of the seventh century, that the English church was placed on a sound footing and all official paganism abandoned. And yet, while Gregory may have deluded himself as to the speed with which his policies would work, he was, in the long run, right, and his opponents were wrong. Within two decades of each other, the Longobards and the English entered the number of Catholic peoples, the Longobards in the 660s, the English by the 680s; neither of them as a result of one single big royal decision, let alone of the pressure of the fading Catholic powers Byzantium and Frankland, but as the climax to a long slow process of persuasion and conversion adapted, in each country, to the polycentric structure of its society, converting kingdom by kingdom and dukedom by dukedom. The future in Italy belonged to the Longobards, in Britain to the English, and any settlement in the peninsula and in the island would have to deal with them. For that matter, it might even be said that the barbarians in the far end of the world turned Christian with what is, in historical terms, staggering rapidity when compared with neighbouring Frisia and Saxony. Evidently the pressures for change were strong.


[1]This also suggests a connection with the enduring English tradition, which I looked at elsewhere, that the British were helpless and incapable of defending themselves, and that the English/Saxons were called on to defend the island alone. This was not a fair reflection of the age of Vitalinus, but it was probably a common view in latter days. Likely enough, it was constantly reinforced when, in spite of their mutual hatred, one British lordling after another began to call on English swords to fight for him for gold.

[2]GREGORY THE GREAT, Moralia in Iob, 27.11.20-21, quoted by BEDE, HIstory 2.1: Ecce quondam tumidus, iam substratus pedibus sanctorum seruit Oceanus; eiusque barbaros motus, quos terreni principes edomare ferro nequiuerant, hos formidine Dei sacerdotum ora simplicibus uerbis ligant; et qui cateruas pugnantium infidelis nequaquam metuerat, iam nunc fidelis humilium linguam timet.

[3]This is my own account of my conclusions, drawn from accounts in Paul the Deacon’s Gesta Langobardorum 3.13, 3.17-19, 3.22, 3.27, 3.29, 3.1, and on the comment from the version by ANTONIO ZANELLA, Paolo Diacono: Storia dei Longobardi, Milan 1982. Of these, 3.27, an invasion launched by the Longobard king Authari against the Longobard territory of Friuli, would be inexplicable as Paul tells it, except in the light of a fortunately surviving letter from Gogo, Maior Domo of the Frankish King Childebert II, which tells us that Gradulf, Duke of Friuli, was about to defect to the Empire. Monumenta Germaniae Historica, Epistulae III, p.147, 152-53.

[4]GL 4.29. Paul's quotation of this letter is surely in the nature of a reproach to more rent and less sympathetic Pontiffs. He was a Longobard Catholic, and, as he saw it, his people had got blasted little for their faith.

5]BEDE op.cit., 1.27, question 7.

[6]Supporters of the opposite view - of which there are, incredibly, still a few - must tell me exactly how anyone who needed instruction about “the proper relationship between the Bishop and his clergy, the proper apportioning of offers by the faithful, and the functions of a Bishop in his church” – Augustine’s first question – could ever be considered for presbyteral, let alone episcopal, rank, and how on God’s green Earth Augustine is supposed to have not only lived for years as a monk in the centre of Western Catholicism, but also to have become prior of an important monastery, without being clear about such elementary matters.

[7]BEDE op.cit..2.4.

[8]ALEXANDER PENROSE FORBES, Historians of Scotland, Vol.5, 1874.

[9]Legend, by the way, did not try too hard to maintain Theneu’s virginity, like Mary’s, perpetual; she was made mother of a number of other saints – including our old friend Saint Gurthiern, in the wrong century!

[10]This, by the by, makes it very interesting that no such angel turns up when Kentigern makes the central decision of his life, to leave St.Servan and his school because of the hostility of his fellow pupils. Kentigern makes up his mind on his own; he crosses a swollen river, by miracle, dry-shod like Moses; and there is a touching and very vivid picture of Servanus calling to him from the further shore, only to be told by Kentigern that this was God’s will. This, I think, apart perhaps from the miracle, has a good chance of being an anecdote told by the old Kentigern, in reminiscent mood, about the days of his youth.

[11]Age of Arthur, 165.

[12]The Annales Kambriae say that this was a decision taken for all the Britons, that is, not just the Welsh, but the Strath-clyders, Cornishmen and Bretons. This cannot be literally true, since the Cornish Church is supposed to have remained in schism for much longer, but if there is any credibility at all in that word Brittones, it must include the Strathclyders, who are described as Brittones or dexterales Brittones in the entries for 722, 750, and 778, that is, either side of the entry for 768. JOHN MORRIS (ed.), NenniusBritish History and the Welsh annals, Chichester 1980, 87-88.

[13]The insistence on manual labour, of course, might represent the triumph of David’s ideas, even at the other end of Wales; however, name places and church dedications do not suggest that his cult reached as far as St.Asaph and Bangor is-Coed. Conversely, it might be that the tragic circumstances of the late sixth century, with monks fleeing to the refuge of Wales having lost most possessions and wealth, helped David’s ideas to triumph; his kind of monasticism, without the assistance of patrimony and rich kings, would now have become the only viable kind, and the frightful visitation of the barbarians might encourage a complete rejection of the royally supported, pre-David church, with its worldly and upper-class attitudes. Oddly, the Life of David has nothing to say about the English conquest.

[14]CLARE STANCLIFFE, The British Church and the mission of Augustine, in RICHARD GAMESON (ed.), St.Augustine and the conversion of England, Stroud 1997, page 121 and note 90 (authorities).

[15]Incidentally, the re-dedication of the cult site to the Roman Sixtus reminds me forcibly of the somewhat unexplained appearance of the Roman martyr Lawrence in Bradford-on-Avon, the probable site of Wyrtgeornsburg and possible British site of the cult of St.Gurthiern. It may have been a practice of Roman, and later Anglo-Saxon, missionaries, to re-dedicate poorly documented native cult sites to more credible Roman saints; and this suggests that an investigation of early dedications to Roman saints in England might point to further British-Christian Ecclesiae.

[16]STEVEN BASSETT, Church and diocese in the West Midlands: the transition from British to Anglo-Saxon control, in JOHN BLAIR & RICHARD SHARPE (eds.), Pastoral care before the parish, Leicester 1992, 13-40.

[17]BEDE op.cit.3.24.

History of Britain, 407-597 is copyright 2002, Fabio P. Barbieri. Used with permission.

Comments to: Fabio P. Barbieri

VortigernStudies is copyright Robert Vermaat 1999-2007. All rights reserved