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 Issues | Christians in England | The Anglo-Saxons

Christians in England - The Anglo-Saxons

The Angles, Saxons and Jutes began arriving in the 5th century. They were pagan Germanic tribes and drove the Christian British gradually west. The last significant British victory was the Battle of Mount Badon around the year AD500.

The Anglo-Saxons established a number of kingdoms usually known as the heptarchy (Kent, Northumbria, Wessex, Essex, Sussex, Mercia and East Anglia). Northumbria was at times divided into Bernicia and Deira and there were some smaller, shorter-lived kingdoms.

The British did little at first to evangelise their neighbours but eventually missionary work began.

Columba (AD521-597) was an Irish monk who became a missionary to the Picts in southern Scotland and is particularly associated with Iona. Monks from Iona began to travel south.

Augustine of Canterbury was sent from Rome to be Archbishop and given authority over the British bishops by the Pope. He landed in AD597 and was instrumental in the conversion of Kent, but his authority was rejected by the British monks and Bishops.

Both continental and British monks worked to evangelise Wessex and East Anglia. Felix of Burgundy being particularly associated with the latter and Birinus from North Italy with the former.

Celtic (British) missionaries were the agents for the evangelisation of the three largest Anglo-Saxon kingdoms; Essex, Mercia and Northumbria.

King Edwin of Northumbria (cAD586-633) became a Christian and the later King Oswald (cAD604-642) requested the Iona community to send monks. Aidan (died AD651) led the party and founded the monastery of Lindisfarne.

By AD660 all the Anglo-Saxon nations were in some degree Christian, except for the small kingdom of Sussex.

There thus existed:

  • The Church of Kent
  • The Church of Northumbria
  • The Church of Mercia
  • The Church of the East Angles (East Anglia)
  • The Church of the East Saxons (Essex)
  • The Church of the West Saxons (Wessex)
  • and The British (Celtic) Church.

The British Church, having been isolated for nearly a century, had different practices to the Roman, and these were probably more ancient. This meant that there were also different practics amongst the differetn Anglo-Saxon churches, not least in the date of Easter which had been revised in Rome, but not adopted by the British.

King Oswui of Northumbria found that he and his wife thus kept Easter on different days and a Synod was arranged at Whitby to discuss the matter. Both sides appealed not to Scripture but to tradition. King Oswui was impressed by the supposed claims of the Roman See and ruled in their favour. The British largely withdrew with many monks returning to the north whilst gradually the Anglo-Saxons adopted the Roman practices.

The Anglo-Saxon churches were nevertheless still not united.
Theodore of Tarsus was appointed by the Pope as Archbishop of Canterbury and he called a Synod at Hertford of the English Churches in AD673. Whilst it is hard to say exactly when the Church of England began this Synod in many respects marks its origin as an institution, though there were still several English nations.

The Venerable Bede (cAD672-735) wrote his famous Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum (Ecclesiastical History of the English People) describing these early years of English history.

For the next century and more the different Anglo-Saxon nations continued, often in conflict with each other and the outside world. Though Egbert (802-839) tried to unite them with the sword it was not until a common enemy arouse that the English united.

Following the influence of Benedict (480-547) there was flowering of monasticism in England but by the end of the 7th century corruption had set in and during the 8th century many monks and nuns were a cause of scandal. God's judgement was to fall so that by the mid 9th century the monastries were almost entirely defunct.

The sack of the monastery at Lindisfarne in AD795 announced the next wave of invaders, the Danes. Over the next century they threatened to drive out the English in the same way that the latter had earlier driven out the British. The English leader who finally thwarted them is generally reckoned as the first King of England and the only King to be called ‘Great’ - Alfred (cAD849-899).

Alfred was also a fine scholar and he himself translated many works, including parts of the Scriptures, into the English language. Alfred also sought strenuously to convert the conquering Danes and to avoid conflict with the British, both policies eventually bore fruit and meant that the later English peoples had quite diverse origins.

Properly speaking Alfred was only ever the King of the West Saxons (Wessex) and it was his grandson Athelstan (AD871-939) who was the first king of a truly united England which had roughly the same borders as today.

By AD924 there was not only a united Church of England, but also a single nation of England.

The next century and a half saw much turmoil and conflict with continuing Danish invasions. Eventually the English monarchs were inter-married with the Danes and from 1016 to 1042 had Danish kings. The Saxon monarchy came to an end with the Norman Conquest in 1066.

See Also

How England Became Christian (Cross†Way 1995 No 57) by David Streater

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