How England Became Christian
W HATEVER success the Britons may have had, it did not last very long. The English, Saxons, Jutes, and others—afterwards all called English—came pouring over from the countries about the mouths of the Elbe in North Germany, and the Britons could not stand against these daring sailors and fierce warriors. Fifty years after the battle of Badon Hill the Britons had been driven to the western side of the island, and all the rest of England, and part of the South of Scotland, belonged to the invaders.
The Romans during the latter part of their stay in Britain had become Christians, and the Britons, who imitated their masters in everything, were Christian too. But the English, Saxons, and Jutes were all heathen, and now the greater part of Britain, which had been Christian, was turned again to heathenism. I must now tell you how these brave heathen were converted.
In the year of our Lord 572 or thereabouts, Ethelbert, King of Kent, who was the most powerful prince in the southern parts of England, married a certain Bertha, daughter of the King of Paris. Ethelbert was a heathen, as all the English folk were in those days, but he promised that his wife, being a Christian, should be allowed to worship God in her own way. More than this, he permitted a certain bishop from France to come with her, and he gave them a church in Canterbury, which was the chief town of his dominions. This church had been built by the Romans, before they left the island.
About eight years after these things happened, a certain Roman named Gregory had his heart wonderfully turned to the work of preaching the gospel in this country. He was a man of noble birth and of great wealth, and he had founded a monastery in Rome, named after St. Andrew, of which monastery he was himself the abbot or chief. One day, as he walked through the marketplace of the city, he saw among the various kinds of merchandise three boys, who were to be sold for slaves. They were of a fair complexion, with long flaxen hair, things to be noted in a country where the folk are mostly dark. Struck with pity for their hard lot, he asked of the slave-merchant from what land they came.
SLAVE-MERCHANT. "From Britain, where all the people have this same fair complexion."
GREGORY. "Are the people of this strange country Christians or Pagans?"
SLAVE-M. "They are Pagans."
GREGORY (heaving a deep sigh). "Sad is it to think that creatures so full of light should be slaves of the Prince of Darkness! But say, of what nation are they?"
SLAVE-M. "They are Angli."
GREGORY. "Angli! Rightly are they called Ang(e)li, for their faces are as the faces of angels, and they should with the angels be fellow-heirs of the kingdom of heaven. But from what province of this island of Britain do they come?"
SLAVE-M. "From Deira."
GREGORY. "It is well again. They are delivered from the ire of God (de ira = from the ire or anger) and called to His mercy. And who is the King of this region?"
SLAVE-M. "Ella is his name."
GREGORY. "Then Alleluia shall be chanted in his kingdom."
The abbot went straight from the market-place to the Bishop of Rome, and begged permission to go and preach the gospel to the inhabitants of this far-away island. The Bishop granted the request, and Gregory set out. He knew, it would seem, that his going would not be liked by his fellow-citizens. Accordingly, he made his departure as secret as possible. But what he had expected happened. As soon as the people missed him, they burst in upon the Bishop, as he was worshipping in the church of St. Peter, and demanded with loud cries that their beloved Gregory should be given back to them. The Bishop had to yield; messengers were sent after Gregory, and overtaking him at the end of his third day's journey compelled him to return.
The good abbot never forgot his purpose of bringing his dear "Angels" to the knowledge of Christ; but he had to wait a long time before he could carry it out. Ten years after he saw the three fair-haired boys in the market-place, he was himself made Bishop of Rome. That seemed to make the thing more hopeless than ever, for the times were full of trouble, and Gregory had work without end to do at home. Then it seems to have occurred to him, that what he could not do himself he might do by means of another. Accordingly he chose out forty men from among the monks of his old monastery, and putting the prior, whose name was Augustine, at their head, sent them to preach in Britain.
Augustine and his company set out on their journey, but when they got as far as the South of France their hearts failed them. Every one gave them terrible accounts of the Pagans that had come over and conquered the island of Britain. Nowhere, it was said, was there a people so savage and barbarous. The missionaries stopped on their way, and sent their leader Augustine back to Rome, with a petition to Gregory that he would release them from their task.
Gregory refused to listen. He was one of the men who do not spare themselves any trouble or danger, and expect others to be like themselves. He sent Augustine back with a letter full of exhortation. "Do not shrink," he said, "from your duty. Go on, with God to help you. The harder the work, the greater the reward." At the same time he gave them letters to the bishops of France, who were told to give them all the help they could. The company started again, and made their way to the sea-coast. There they provided themselves with interpreters who knew the English tongue, and crossing the Channel, landed at Ebbe's Fleet in the Isle of Thanet.
As soon as they were on shore they sent a messenger to King Ethelbert. They had come, they told him, with good news, news of glory in heaven, and of a kingdom that should have no end in the presence of God.
The King sent back a friendly answer. "I shall be glad to see and talk with you. But do not come for the present beyond the river Stour."
Though he was thus disposed to be friendly with the new-comers, he was greatly afraid of them. He even made a point of not meeting them in any house, but in the open air. Under a roof they might put a magical spell upon him. In the open air, he thought, he would be more safe. Accordingly he arranged that the first meeting should take place under an oak, a tree which his own people held to be sacred. Augustine and his companions came up from the shore in solemn procession. One attendant carried in front a silver cross; another followed behind holding up a picture, done in colours and gold, of the Crucified Christ. As the missionaries moved along, they chanted a solemn prayer for themselves and for the people to whom they came to preach.
Augustine then declared the message which he had to deliver. He could himself speak no language but Latin, while the King and his people knew only their own English tongue. But the interpreters whom the missionaries had brought with them translated the preacher's words as he went on. Augustine explained the picture, telling his hearers how the Son of the One God in heaven had come down to earth, had died for the sins of a guilty world, and had thus opened the kingdom of heaven to all believers.
When the preacher had finished, the King made a very friendly answer. "You promise good things," he said, "but there is much in what you say that I do not understand, nor can I engage to give up at once the customs of my fathers. Nevertheless, you are welcome; you are free to worship God in your own way; if any of my subjects wish to follow you, I will not hinder them."
After this the missionaries formed another procession, and again chanting solemn prayers, marched to the royal town of Canterbury, where they took up their abode in dwellings which the King gave over to their use. The more the King heard of their teaching and saw of their holy life, the more moved he was. In the end, before a year had passed from their coming, he declared his conversion. On Whitsunday, the second day of June, in the year 597, he was baptized. His people soon followed his example. 'On Christmas Day in the same year ten thousand converts were baptized in the Swale, at the northern end, where it joins the Medway.