I’ve got a confession to make. I’ve never made a confession in my life – well, not in a church at least, and that’s because I’m not a religious person; but I do have to confess that some time ago I converted from a devout atheist to an agnostic, and by that I mean that I can understand why other people are religious even if I’m not.
One of my passions in life is to try and piece together how life on our planet has evolved. Notice that I didn’t say how life began. I’ll leave that to scientists and theologians to fight over: I would rather concentrate on what we know to have happened in the past, rather than what we think may have happened: I have enough trouble finding out where the pieces fit into this jigsaw as it is without delving any further.
The good news though is that I don’t need a degree in theology or quantum physics to be able to admire buildings like Canterbury Cathedral: It’s not just the magnificent architecture that grabs my attention, it’s the history behind it too, and the reason why I’ve chosen to start my blogs on Canterbury with St. Augustine – the ‘Apostle to the English’.
Not to be confused with Augustine of Hippo (who had his own idea of evolution), Augustine of Canterbury was the Pope’s missionary to re-Christianize Britain, but before I endeavour to explain who he was and what his achievements were, I really need to take a brief step backwards to put things into perspective.
Trying to separate fact from fiction around the early days of Christianity is something that goes beyond the scope of this article and throws up more questions than answers anyway, but one thing that is certain is that after the Emperor Constantine converted in 312 A.D., Christianity became the official religion throughout the Roman world, of which Britannia was a part.
With the Roman departure from Britannia in 410 the country largely reverted back to paganism. The exceptions were Wales, Scotland, and some extreme corners of England which came under the influence of Irish missionaries.
The large void left by the Romans led to raids on England by pagan Germanic tribes from the continent, and subsequently the widespread immigration of Angles, Saxons, Jutes and others.
It was under these circumstances that Pope Gregory I decided it was time to send someone to re-Christianize Britain and in 596 he called on Augustine, the prior of St Andrew’s monastery in Rome, to carry out the mission.
Augustine left Rome in June, but this first mission was aborted when his entourage lost the enthusiasm for taking on the heathen English and forced Augustine to turn back. Pope Gregory wielded the big stick and forced Augustine to return, offering him the carrot of the title of abbot in the process.
Travelling through Christian Gaul, he landed on the Isle of Thanet where he met King Ethelbert of Kent, whose Frankish wife, Queen Bertha, was already a Christian. No doubt she exerted a fair amount of influence on her husband because not only did the king welcome Augustine, he actively encouraged him to stay and build his church in Cantwarabyrig, the King’s capital and a former Roman town.
He gave him land for both a cathedral and an abbey and became one of Augustine’s first converts.
That great “Father of English History”, the Venerable Bede (673-735), tells us that Augustine reused a former Roman church as his first cathedral although there’s no tangible proof to verify it. That said, Anglo-Saxon foundations have been found beneath the nave of the present cathedral indicating that this was indeed the site of Augustine’s church which he dedicated to Christ Jesus the Saviour in 602.
The site that was chosen for his monastery was outside of the city walls between the cathedral and St Martin’s Church. St Martin’s was used by the Queen and was offered to the missionaries as a stop-gap while the cathedral and monastery were being built.
During his time at Canterbury, Augustine baptized and converted thousands of Anglo-Saxons, for which Pope Gregory made him Archbishop.
It was the Pope’s ambition to set up two separate Archiepiscopal Sees – one in the north of England at York and one in the south at London, but the move from Canterbury to London never happened, and is the reason why we still have an Archbishop of Canterbury.
Augustine died in 604 and was buried in the monastery, but thanks to Henry VIII’s falling out with Pope Clement VII over his divorce of Catherine of Aragon, the monastery – and St. Augustine’s remains – were destroyed. The only reminder of where the man who brought Christianity back to England was laid to rest is a small mound amongst the ruins.