Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Lesson 8* - The Anglo-Saxon Church and its Continental Mission

The Church in Britain had been organized since the ancient Roman Empire. The Picts, Angles, Saxons and Jutes invaded Britain after the Roman Legion was recalled from Britain in 407. They drove the Christian population to Wales or the continent specifically in Britanny.

A heptarchy, the rule of seven kingdoms, was founded by the year 450 which removed every trace of Christianity. The Heptarchy consisted of:
1. Mercia – ruled by the Angles
2. East Anglia – ruled by the Angles
3. Northumbria – ruled by the Angles
4. Essex – ruled by the Saxons
5. Sussex – ruled by the Saxons
6. Wessex – ruled by the Saxons
7. Kent – ruled by the Jutes

Rome from the continent and the Iro-Scottish Church sent missionaries to Britain by the end of the 6th century. There were conflicts between the Roman and Iro-Scottish missionaries but it was soon resolved.

A. Roman Mission

Pope Gregory the Great[1] (590-604) sent Augustine[2] (+604), the prior of the monastery of St. Andrew (Later, Archbishop of Canterbury), to England together with forty monks. King Ethelbert of Kent (ca.560-616) received them kindly. Eventually, King Ethelbert with 10,000 of his subjects was baptized on Christmas day 597 by Augustine himself. Soon, Pope Gregory the Great sent more missionaries to Britain.

The initial success inspired Gregory the Great to reveal his organizational plan for the English/British Church. He established London (in Canterbury) as the principal see, and Augustine could consecrate 12 other bishops. Furthermore, a bishop could be sent to York so that he could create 12 new bishoprics. Such organizational plan at such an early stage in the conversion process was premature. The Archbishop of York never had 12 subordinate bishops at this time. The choice of London was based on its traditional Roman significance but in reality London was deserted at this time and only a small Anglo-Saxon settlement stood west of London. The importance of London would be seen in the 7th century as a national capital.

Because of the premature plans, the Roman mission to England came to the brink of failing. King Ethelbert’s successor Eadbald (616-640), who was not a Christian — had been converted but went back to his pagan faith, although he ultimately did become a Christian king. Eadbald outraged the church by marrying his stepmother, which was contrary to Church law, and by refusing to accept baptism.

At about the same time, the three pagan sons of the late king of the Essex, who had converted, were openly hostile to Christianity. Meanwhile, Raedwald (+624) Raedwald, king of East Anglia, who had been baptized in Kent, kept two places of worship: one altar to offer sacrifice to Christ and another one for the pagan gods.

With Kent, Essex and East Anglia reverting to paganism, the three remaining Christian bishops (Laurence of Canterbury, Justus of Rochester and Mellitus of London) decided to leave. Progress was slow and in the succeeding centuries other missions  (apart from Rome) came to Britain.

We can describe the Augustinian Mission to England/ Britain in two points:
1.     A detailed Papal instruction regarding the process of acculturating pagans to Christianity was followed.
-       The temples were not destroyed but were converted for Christian use.
-       The sacrifice of oxen to devils was substituted with the permission to kill animals in gratitude to God’s generosity.

2. Augustine’s antagonism against the native British Church
-       The Romano-Britons[3] were not recent converts but were Christians for centuries. Augustine rebuked them for not converting the barbarians that led them to be pushed to the Western part of Britain.
-       Augustine reproved the Christian Britons for celebrating Easter at a different date from the Roman. The Britons refused to yield in this matter and both agreed to ask for a sign from heaven. Then, a blind man was cured not by the Britons but by Augustine. This incident still remained less impressive for the Britons.
-       Augustine’s attitude towards the Britons revealed an unattractive sense of superiority in the face of reversals, all but abandoned their mission.

B. Other Mission to Britain

1). The Mission in the South of England
We can say that the Roman mission through Augustine was less than successful. Furthermore, the conversion in southern England was independent of Canterbury and Augustine’s mission. For example, when Christianity came to East Anglia, it came from Gaul, and the first bishop of East Anglia came from Burgundy. The ascetic tradition of the East Angles came from the Iro-Scottish (Celtic) missionaries. The Anglo-Saxon monks inherited the desire for the perigrinatio pro Christo from the Celtic missionaries as well.

Christianity came to Wessex, not through Augustine, but through the missionary Birinus (ca.600-649), Apostle to the West Saxons (Wessex). He was probably of German origin. He baptized the King of Wessex in 635 and took his Episcopal seat at Dorchester.

2). The Mission in the North of England
Two stages marked the coming of Christianity to the North:

a). Mission from the south ® unsuccessful

A certain Roman missionary named Paulinus (+644) was sent by Pope Gregory the Great to Canterbury in 601. He became the first Bishop of York.  Little is known of Paulinus' activities in the following two decades. He accompanied Ethelburg of Kent, sister of King Eadbald of Kent, on her journey to Northumbria to marry King Edwin of Northumbria (ca.586-632/633), and eventually succeeded in converting Edwin to Christianity. Paulinus also converted many of Edwin's subjects and built some churches. One of the women Paulinus baptized was a future saint, Hilda of Whitby. Following Edwin's death in 633, Paulinus and Ethelburg fled Northumbria, abandoning the infant church. Paulinus returned to Kent, where he became Bishop of Rochester. After his death in 644, Paulinus was venerated as a saint.

b). Iro-Scottish (Celtic) Mission ® Success!

When King Edwin’s enemies were overthrown, the English kingdom of Northumbria was re-established with Oswald (ca.604-642) as king. He lived in exile prior to his reign and received baptism from the Irish monk-priests.He was immediately sent to Iona (the monastery founded by St. Columba) for assistance so that his people might be converted as well. Consequently, Aidan (+651) was sent. He was consecrated as bishop at Lindisfarne (know as the Holy Island since the 12th century). He was the Apostle of Northumbria and was the founder and first bishop of the monastery on the island of Lindisfarne in England.

Other Irish missionaries came after Aidan. King Oswald himself acted as the interpreter between the evangelizing monks and his people. In 635, missionaries from the Northumbrian Church went south to convert the pagan Mercians.

PROBLEM: Cultural differences between the Irish missionaries and the Roman missionaries became a source of conflict. Three differences stood out:
1. The date of Easter
2. The form of tonsure
3. The rite of baptism

The Synod of Whitby (664), a seventh century Northumbrian synod, concluded the differences.  King Oswy of Northumbria ruled that his kingdom would calculate Easter and observed the monastic tonsure according to the customs of Rome, rather than the customs practiced by Iona and its satellite institutions. The tradition of Peter, holder of the keys of the gates of heaven, was preferred over the tradition of the apostle John , who held not those keys, whose tradition passed down through Columba.


In summary, the Kingdom of Kent was the first to be converted to Christianity (624-633). Wessex and Northumbria followed. Sussex was converted in 680-690. The conversion of the entire Anglo-Saxon was soon completed. The Anglo-Saxon monastic schools and nunneries became intellectual centers.

The Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum (or the Ecclesiastical History of the English People) is a work in Latin by Bede the Venerable (672-735) on the history of the Christian Churches in England, and of England generally; its main focus is on the conflict between Roman and Celtic Christianity. It is considered to be one of the most important original references on Anglo-Saxon history. It is believed to have been completed in 731, when Bede was approximately 59 years old.


Soon, the Anglo-Saxon themselves sent missionaries to evangelize the other parts of Europe. However, there were striking differences between the Anglo-Saxon and Iro-Scottish Mission. While the Celtic missionaries proceeded without a plan or system and concentrated on winning converts, the Anglo-Saxons had a systematized method of evangelization:
-       Their mission was sanctioned by the Pope himself (Church support) and supported by the Frankish Ruler (State support). They were equipped with papal letters of recommendation and royal guarantees of protection.
-       They tried to convert the leader of the people before converted his subjects because the latter was bound to follow the former.
-       By emphasizing authority and ecclesiastical organization, the Anglo-Saxon missionaries represented the Roman heritage.

ST. WILFRID OF YORK (ca.633-709)
-       He is the first notable Anglo-Saxon missionary
-       He was a Northumbrian noble who entered religious life as a teenager and studied at Lindisfarne, at Canterbury, in Gaul, and at Rome.
-       He returned to Northumbria (ca. 660) and became the abbot of the monastery at Ripon.
-       In 664, he acted as spokesman for the Roman "party" at the Synod of Whitby, and became famous for his speech advocating that the Roman method for calculating the date of Easter should be adopted.
-       He was then appointed as the Bishop of Northumbria.  But he chose to be consecrated in Gaul because of the lack of what he considered to be validly consecrated bishops in England at that time.
-       For the next nine years Wilfrid discharged his Episcopal duties, founded monasteries, built churches, and improved the liturgy.

-       First journey to Rome: In 678, Bishop Wilfrid went to Rome to appeal. His diocese was divided and he was deposed by Archbishop Theodore of Canterbury. Apart from this, he obtained papal authorization to preach to the Frisians as we shall see later.
-       His notable disciples were Egbert and Wigbert followed him to Frisia in 689.
-       Willibrord (another Wilfrid’s disciple) 12 disciples followed him to Frisia after having obtained the papal authorization in 690.
-       He spent the next few years in Selsey, where he founded an episcopal see and converted the pagan inhabitants of the Kingdom of Sussex to Christianity.

-       Second journey to Rome: He consecrated Willibrord as the first bishop of Utrecht and renewed the papal sanction in 695
-       Wilfrid died in 709 and was venerated as a saint.
-       He ruled a large number of monasteries, and claimed to be the first Englishman to introduce the Rule of Saint Benedict into English monasteries. Some modern historians see him mainly as a champion of Roman customs against the customs of the British and Irish churches, others as an advocate for monasticism.


The Church had planted the seed of Christianity in England and from there, two names stand out in the story of conversion of the Germanic people East of the Rhine river.
  1. Willibrord
  2. Wynfrith Boniface

These are English monks who under the papal authority sent out on their respective missions. In other words, they are natives of England, who received the Word and will now share the Word. They were authorized by the pope. Remember, that in the Anglo-Saxon mission, the missionaries moved in a more systematic way as compare to that of the Iro-Scottish mission.

But what is striking is that: England has just been recently converted and with recent memories of paganism at this time of their mission to the continent. How did this come about? Actually, the mission was not planned and it was almost by accident, at least in the beginning.

-       In 678 - Bishop Wilfrid went to Rome to appeal. His diocese was divided and he was deposed by Archbishop Theodore of Canterbury. On his way, he passed by modern-day Netherlands called Frisia where the Frisians remained. He preached the Gospel and gained some converts.
-       In 690 – an effective English mission to Frisia began, when Willibrord and other english monks were sent by Wilfrid after obtaining papal authorization.

It is important to note that the English mission did not originate in England but in Ireland. There was actually an English monastery at Clonmelsh (in Ireland).

Q: Where geographically is Frisia?
A: The Germanic group Frisians are natives to the coastal parts of The Netherlands, Denmark and Germany. They inhabit an area known as Frisia. Frisians have a reputation for being blond-haired. The Frisian languages are still used by 500.000 speakers; dialects of Frisian are recognized as official languages in both the Netherlands and Germany.

The Frisian region is beyond the control of the Franks who are in modern day France. By the late 7th century the Merovingian kings, descendants of Clovis, with power weakening, were mere “rois faineants” (do nothing kings). The real power was in the hands of the mayors of the palace of these kings.

When Willibrord arrived in Frisia, Pepin II (+714) was the mayor of the palace. He had control over most of France and also Western Frisia including Utrecht and he had the ambition to extend his power further north to Frisia.

In Frisia and even in some parts of France, paganism/heathenism was still flourishing. This was the scenario when St. Egbert(+729)[4] and the other English monks came from Ireland to preach the Gospel in Frisia.

WILLIBRORD (ca. 658-739)

Willibrord was a Northumbrian missionary saint, known as the "Apostle to the Frisians" in the modern Netherlands. He became the first Bishop of Utrecht and died at Echternach, Luxembourg.

A disciple of St. Wilfrid, he was sent to the Abbey of Ripon at a very young age. Later, he joined the Benedictines. He spent the years between the ages of 20 and 32 in the Abbey of Rathmelsigi which was a center of European learning in the 7th century. During this time, he studied under St. Egbert, who sent him and twelve other companions to Christianize the pagan North Germanic tribes of Frisia, at the request of Pepin II, the Christian Mayor of the Palace of the Merovingian kings.

Willibrord went immediately to Rome to get papal sanction for his mission and the authority to establish an ecclesiastical province. He eventually became archbishop to the Frisians. With him, are the relics of saints in his bags to replace the idols of his converts. The Frisians were converted in a short span of time. He built numerous churches, among them a monastery at Utrecht, where he established his cathedral and he was counted as the first Bishop of Utrecht (in the Netherlands). In 698, he established an abbey at Echternach (in Luxemburg).

They were English monks. How can they preach in the language of the Frisians? He had the power to create subordinate dioceses and to consecrate bishops. Willibrord’s commission was clear: to establish Christianity among the Frisians. His Intention to convert the Danes did not materialize. After Rome, he went on a retreat in Echternach.

While on a Carolingian-sponsored mission to Frisia with the purpose of trying to convert the pagan Frisians, a political move was made by the Franks. Once the Frisians had converted to Christianity, the Franks could gain control of the important trade port Dorestad, which they had never conquered. In 716, the pagan Radbod (+719), king of the Frisians, re-took possession of Frisia, burning churches and killing many missionaries. After the death of Radbod, Willibrord returned to resume his work, aided by Wynfrith Boniface, and under the protection of Charles Martel. The success of Willibrord can be attributed to the assistance of the Frankish rulers, the authority of the Pope and the receptivity of the Frisians.

Winfrid or Wynfrith was the greatest of the Anglo-Saxon Continental missionaries. He played a very important role in the conversion of Germany that’s why he acquired the title “Apostle of the Germans”. He prepared the union between the Frankish empire and the Papacy as we would see later.

He was born in Wessex and reared as a monk in the monasteries of Exeter and Nursling where he received higher education. He was under Willibrord’s mission to Frisia and later, he had his own group to Germany. He sought papal approval from Pope Gregory II (731-741) who gave him the permission to preach to Germany. The Pope changed his name into Boniface (from a Latin word which means “fortunate”.

He went on a mission to Hesse and Thuringia which were not completely pagan. The Iro-Scottish (Celtic) and Frankish itinerant missionaries had a mission here as well but their impermanency hindered their missionary work.

Between 723-732, he resumed his missionary works. Hesse had papal recommendation and special guarantees of protection from Charles Martel. He cut down an oak tree sacred to the god Thor. This action is said to mark the beginning of the Christianization of the Germanic peoples.
In 732, Winfrid Boniface returned to Rome because he needed greater authority. Consequently, he was consecrated bishop and took an oath of fidelity to St. Peter and his successors on the same year. The oath was in the form used by bishops within the immediate jurisdiction of the ppe in central Italy. It was unusual for a bishop of a faraway mission to swear that way. This is called the Suburbicarian Bishops’ Oath which was customarily taken by the seven bishops in the immediate vicinity of Rome [Albano, Ostia, Velletri-Segni, Porto-Santa Rufina, Palestrina, Sabina-Poggio-Mirteto, Frascati (Tusculum)]. The oath is pledged especially by those with close ties and unity to Rome. He asked the pope’s advice on matters regarding his mission, sent reports of his activities and humbly gave his loyalty to each new pope.

Pope Gregory II appointed him as the archbishop-at large with the power to consecrate bishops. He established monasteries but cannot establish bishoprics probably because the Frankish episcopate was threatened by a foreigner and powerful Boniface.

In 737/738, he went to Rome for the third to Rome and was appointed apostolic legate for Bavaria, Hesse and Thuringia with the special charge to institute in these areas a tighter ecclesiastical organization. Boniface was called missus sancti petri (Legate of St. Peter).

He presided over the Concilium Germanicum I (743). It was the first major Church synod to be held in the Eastern parts of the Frankish kingdoms. It was called by Carloman who ruled Austrasia (Eastern part of the Frankish Kingdom) at an unknown location, and presided over by Boniface, who was solidified in his position as leader of the Austrasian church.

Participation in the Concilium was restricted to Boniface's supporters, and among those invited were the bishops of Carloman's Austrasia. Strengthened by the absence of his enemies, Boniface succeeded in having stricter guidelines adopted, but the effort to re-appropriate church property was thwarted by bishops and nobility alike. The measures adopted at the Concilium included:
1.     Archbishops and bishops with a fixed see were to be appointed to replace the noble laypersons who had received dioceses under Charles Martel.
2.     Bishops were required to visit their parishes, with the aid of auxiliary bishops.
3.     Clergy were required to appear annually before the bishop to give a reckoning of their personal and official activities.
4.     On Maundy Thursday, bishops were to consecrate oil (chrism) during a special mass, with which all the parishes in their diocese were to be supplied.
5.     Clergy were not allowed to carry weapons, and were forbidden to hunt.
6.     The Rule of Saint Benedict became mandatory for all monasteries.

Many of the Concilium's measures were geared toward a stricter organization of the Frankish church, and to enforce such organization annual synods were called for, as well as real bishops and archbishops and the enforcement of canon law.

Between 738-747, Winfrid Boniface devoted himself to organization and reform of the Frankish kingdom as he established new bishoprics. The mission of Boniface was both clear and vague.
  1. It was clear that it was a mission to the German people living East of the Rhine and North of the Danube
  2. It was vague because there were no established diocese even after his appointment as archbishop but later in his life the See of Mainz was established for him.

His last days were filled with disappointments:
  1. Peppin II proceeded with the ecclesiastical reform without consulting Winfrid Boniface. Consequently, Boniface withdrew.
  2. Frankish nobles had prevented him from taking over the vacant bishopric of Cologne in 745. So, in 748, he chose Mainz instead. He made his ministerial and supervisory work in both Mainz and in Fulda (his favorite establishment).
  3. He no longer seems to have participated in the great political decisions.
In 752, Winfrid Boniface (now established as Bishop Boniface of Mainz) was surprised and killed by angry non-Christian Frisians at Dokkum. The murderers believed that they had acted lawfully because Boniface had destroyed their places of worship. He was buried in Fulda. In the same year, the momentous bond was established between Papacy and Frankish kingdom, a bond whose foundation Boniface laid.

[1] Pope Gregory the Great was the first pope to consciously pay attention to the Germanic tribes.
[2] Augustine here is not St. Augustine of Hippo but Augustine of Canterbury.
[3] The Britons (sometimes Brythons or British) were the Celtic people culturally dominating Great Britain from the Iron Age through the Early Middle Ages. Romano-Briton is a term to denote the cultural link between the Roman empire and the inhabitants of Britain.
[4] St. Egbert (+729) was an Anglo-Saxon monk of Northumbria and Bishop of Lindisfarne. As a youth he went on a perigrinatio, or pilgrimage far from home, traveling to Ireland. There was a plague and he was spared so he devoted his life as a monk in Ireland until his last breath. He was motivated to have mission to the Frisians but he never went. 

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