The Story of Gregory and the Pretty Children
Y OU remember that the Romans came to Britain and, in a manner, conquered it. But after staying several hundred years, they again went away. When the Romans came to the island, the people who lived there were Britons. When the Romans left the island, the people who lived there were still Britons. The Romans could not make the Britons Romans, however hard they tried. They could not even make them speak Latin, which was the language of the Romans. The Britons learned many things from the Romans, but in spite of all they learned, they never forgot that they were Britons.
When the Saxons came to Britain, things happened very differently. You remember that first of all Vortigern asked the Saxons to come, and that afterwards every British king fought against them and tried to drive them away.
It seemed sometimes as if the Britons might succeed, but it never seemed so for long. In fact, from the day Hengist and Horsa landed, Britain had never really been free from these fierce heathen people. As time went on, they came in greater and greater numbers from over the sea. They were all Saxons, but there were many different tribes of them, some called Jutes, some Angles, and some by other names.
The Britons fought nobly for their country, but all in vain. However many of the Saxons were killed did not seem to matter, for their ships always brought more and more of them from over the sea. At last the Saxons had killed nearly all the Britons, and the few who remained took refuge in the mountains, in that part of the country which we now call Wales, and in Cornwall. So to this day the men of Cornwall and the Welsh are the descendants of the ancient Britons, and the language they speak is very like the language spoken by the ancient Britons.
I want you to understand that the kings and people of whom you are now going to read are not British but Saxon, the new people from over the sea who had gradually taken possession of the whole of the south of Britain. There were other British kings after Arthur, but as nearly all their time was taken up with fighting against the Saxons, the story of their lives is not very interesting.
These wild Saxons did not at once settle down quietly into one kingdom. No, they had many leaders, and each leader seized a part of Britain for himself and his followers, so there arose seven different kingdoms. And although they were really all one race of people, and spoke almost the same language, they were always fighting with each other. This lasted until Egbert, one of the kings of one of the seven kingdoms, succeeded in making the others own him as a kind of over-lord. He was an Angle, and he changed the name of the country from Britain to Angleland or England. So we may say that he was the first king of England.
The Saxons were heathen as you know, and they pulled down the churches and killed the Christian priests. So all the land became heathen again. Only in the wild mountains of Wales, the teaching of Arthur and his Christian knights was remembered.
But once again the story of Christ was brought to Britain, and you shall now hear how it happened.
In those days slavery was allowed, that is, people used to buy and sell men and women, and little boys and girls, just as if they were cattle.
The merchants who came to trade with Britain used to take away slaves to sell in far-off countries. One day a good man called Gregory was walking through the market-place in Rome. It was market day and the square was crowded with people buying and selling. It was very noisy and gay. Fine gentlemen strolled about, careful housewives went from stall to stall trying to find what was cheapest and best, friends met and chatted, and through all the noise and bustle Gregory walked with his head bent, deep in thought.
Suddenly he stood still. He had been awakened from his dream by the sound of children's voices, and now he stopped to watch them, as they laughed and played together. These children had fair faces and rosy cheeks, their eyes were merry and blue, and their hair shone like gold in the sunshine. Gregory thought they were the prettiest children that he had ever seen.
A very tender look came into Gregory's eyes as he stood and watched them playing. Then he sighed, for he saw by the chains round their necks that they were to be sold as slaves. "Poor children," he said, "so far from home!" He knew they must come from some far-off country because all the people in his own land had dark faces and black hair.
"Where do these children come from?" he asked, turning to the man who had charge of them.
"From the island called Britain," replied the man, "but the people are called Angles."
"Angles," said Gregory, as he gently put his hand on their curly heads, "nay, not Angles but angels they should be called."
The children could not understand what Gregory said, but they knew from his voice that it was something kind. They ceased their play, and stood round him, looking up trustingly into his face, with their big blue eyes.
Gregory stroked their curly heads, and as he bent over them he felt love for the pretty fair-haired children grow in his heart. He asked many questions about them, and when he heard that they were heathen, he made up his mind to buy them and teach them to be Christians.
Gregory took the pretty children home with him. He was very kind to them, and taught them how to grow up into good men and women. They loved him, you may be sure, and he loved them so much, that he made up his mind to go to Britain to teach all their brothers and sisters there to be Christians too.
But the people of his own land were so fond of Gregory that they would not let him go. So, although it was a great sorrow to him, he was obliged to give up his plan.
But Gregory did not forget about it. Some years after this he was made Bishop of Rome, and so became a very powerful and important person. And one of the first things he did after he became powerful was to send a good man called Augustine to preach about Christ to the Angles.
Augustine took about forty other good men with him, and set out for Britain. We are not told if the pretty children, whom Gregory had bought in the Roman market-place so many years before, were among these men, but I think very likely they were. They would be so glad to go back to their own country to teach their brothers and sisters all the good things they had learned from Gregory.
It is a long way from Italy to England, and in those days when there were no trains and travelling was both difficult and dangerous, it seemed very long indeed. But after many adventures Augustine and his men arrived safely on the seashore of France. There they had to wait for a ship to take them across to Britain, or England as we must now call it.
While they waited, Augustine and his men heard such stories about the fierceness of the Angles and the Saxons that they were frightened. They were so frightened that they turned back to Rome.
When Gregory heard that they had returned he was very angry. "I am ashamed that you should be so cowardly," he said to Augustine. "Go back again. If the people of England kill you, you die for others, even as Christ did."
So Augustine set out again. This time he reached England.
Although the Saxons were fierce and lawless, they treated Augustine and his followers very kindly. Ethelbert, who was King of Kent, one of the seven kingdoms into which England was divided, was the first to listen to them. He was a heathen, but he had married a Christian lady, and so had already heard something of the story of Christ. Soon he and all his people were baptized.
Augustine does not seem to have had any difficulty in persuading the Saxons to leave off worshipping idols. One would think that the heathen priests at least would have been very angry, and that they would have tried to stop the teaching of this new religion. But they did not.
A story is told of a priest whose name was Coifi. He sat one day among the people listening very attentively to the story of God and Christ. When the preacher had finished speaking there was a great silence. This new religion seemed to the people to be very beautiful, but they were so accustomed to believing that their idols had power to punish them, if they neglected them or disobeyed them, that they were afraid. Then Coifi rose. "No one," he said, "has ever served the old gods more faithfully than I have. I have tried to believe in them all my life, yet they have never done anything to make me better or happier. This new teaching seems to me to be good. Let us destroy our old gods and turn to the teaching of Christ."
Then while the astonished people looked on in fear, Coifi took a spear in his hand, mounted upon a horse, and riding at full speed knocked over the great idol which for so many years he had worshipped as God.
When the people saw their god fallen and broken, they trembled. They felt sure something dreadful would happen to Coifi for his wickedness. But nothing happened. So, taking heart and following the example of Coifi, the people set fire to their temple, which was soon burned to the ground, and the idols with it. Then all the people were baptized and became Christians.
In time Augustine or his followers went through all the seven kingdoms of England. It took a long time, but at last the whole land became Christian, although of course the people did not learn all at once to live as good Christians ought.