Cross in the Foggy Albion: how Britain became Christian

Christianity has existed in the British Isles since ancient times. Many Old English saints are also revered by the Orthodox Church. At the same time, the phenomenon of early Christianity in England is quite different, there was a confrontation between the Celtic and Roman schools. Сolumnist for Realnoe Vremya Karim Gaynullin tells about how the British solved the issue of choosing faith in the author's column for our publication.

First mention of Christianity among the Britons

Christianity came to the territory of Great Britain and Ireland at a time when most of the territory of the British Isles was inhabited by Celtic tribes: Britons, Welsh, Proto-Irish and Picts, who became one of the “components” of modern Scots. By that time, the southern part of Britain was under Roman rule, and the Celts themselves were heavily Romanised.

Medieval tradition, rooted in the stories of King Lucius, Fagan and Deruvianus, claimed that Christianity came to the British Isles during the reign of Emperor Tiberius. But this can be attributed to the category of myths of Sacred History.

In reality, the first mentions of Christianity among the Britons in the works of Tertullian and Origen belong to the first years of the third century. At that time, Christianity was “one of the religions”, along with local pagan cults and Roman religions such as Mitraism. Then Christianity was persecuted, and even the lives of martyrs, such as Saints Alban, Julius and Aaron, belong to this time.

Then Britain was a Roman province, and the improvement of the position of Christianity is also connected with its legalisation by the Roman emperor Constantine the Holy. It is known that already in the fourth century British bishops participated in the work of Christian councils.

In Britain, the heresy of Pelagius was born, who opposed the teachings of St. Augustine about original sin: the fall does not affect the actual human nature, and man has full autonomy in choosing between good and evil. Rome sent delegations, where Herman of Auxerre, bishop of Gaul, may have participated, to suppress heretical sentiments.

How St. Patrick established Christianity in Ireland

At the beginning of the V century, the Roman legions completely left Britain, the Celtic tribes drowned in internecine wars. At the same time, the Germanic tribes of Angles, Saxons and Jutes, the ancestors of modern Englishmen, began their invasion of the islands.

After the invasion, Germanic paganism was added to the religious map of the British Isles. Germanic tribes expelled the Christian Britons to Wales and Cornwall, as well as from the islands to Brittany (a peninsula in the north of modern France). The invasions of the Germans, whether Saxons, Angles, Jutes or (later) Normans, were accompanied by the destruction of a large number of Christian records. The Germans perceived Christianity as a Celtic religion and destroyed everything connected with it, and the British Christians treated the Germans with hostility and did not want to preach to them.

Being persecuted, Christian missionaries from the Britons and Welsh continued to preach on the islands, the famous Christian saint of British origin Patrick established Christianity in Ireland. Reliable evidence has been preserved about Patrick: two documents of his own composition — “Epistle” and “Confession”. Patrick came from a Christian family of Romanised Britons and did not know Latin well, because his works were written artlessly and simply, but he appreciated knowledge and Mediterranean education, as evidenced by the beginning of self-reflection in his writings. He and his followers laid the foundations on which the entire medieval culture of Great Britain and Ireland was built.

Already the Irish began to preach among the Anglo-Saxons and Picts, making them Christians. Of these missionaries, one can single out Saint Columbus, who successfully preached in Scotland.

“Celtic Christianity was characterised by an excellent system of church organisation”

Celtic Christianity was characterised by a rather free attitude to the title of saints, it was said that on some islands already at that time there were the remains of thousands of saints and thousands lived.

Probably, the Justinian plague epidemic of 547-548 also contributed to the success of the Christian mission. Apocalyptic moods, widespread death from a terrible and painful disease intensified Christian preaching, which blamed demons, as Christians called pagan deities, from local beliefs, for diseases. There is also an opposite opinion: quite Christian Anglo-Saxon rulers were among the first to return to pagan cults in times of disasters, such as the plague, there were cases of double-belief: an example is the finds from archaeological excavations of a burial in the form of a rook in East Anglia attributed to King Redwald.

Many researchers isolate the phenomenon of Celtic Christianity, putting it on a par with Roman Catholicism. Celtic Christianity was characterised by an excellent system of church organisation, close to tribal: monasteries were headed by married clergy, inheritance of church positions was widespread, illegitimate children were treated more gently (they could inherit if recognised by their father), there was no parish system, Christians did not attend regular services, but monastic communities made “tours” by region, and the role of monasticism was incomparably higher. The role of monks approached the role of druids. Besides, the stumbling block between the Roman and Celtic traditions were the options for calculating Easter.

In 597, wanting to simultaneously convert the conquerors of New England, the Anglo-Saxons, to Christianity, and at the same time somehow fit the local church into the Catholic mainstream, Pope Gregory I sent a mission led by Augustine of Canterbury. The last was the Synod of Chester in Whitby, which called on the Celts to abandon their liturgical traditions. Reports of these meetings have been preserved by the Venerable Bede. Augustine successfully conducts his sermon among the Saxons, but the Christian Britons refuse to abandon their customs and preach among the Saxons they dislike. The Venerable Bede pointed out that the further massacre committed by the Germans against the Britons was God's punishment for refusing to preach the Christian word among the Saxons. The Welsh dioceses came under the sovereignty of the English diocese only after the Norman invasion, but the Celtic bishops were forced to leave England. The Celtic tradition was gradually supplanted and replaced by the Roman one.

Ethelbert, the Anglo-Saxon king of Kent, married Bertha of Kent, a Frankish Christian princess, which also facilitated baptism. Bede in his essay separately emphasises the role of Christian princesses in the conversion of their husbands.

Ethelbert allowed Augustine's mission to preach freely, and the mission was a success. After Ethelbert's death, a pagan reaction began, but his daughter Ethelburga married King Edwin of Northumbia, and her retinue of missionaries led by Bishop Paulinus, sent by Pope Gregory the Great to strengthen Augustine's Kentish mission, converted Edwin to Christianity. An alien mission brought the Roman tradition to the islands.

Paulinus preached successfully in other Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, such as Bernicia and Lindsey, many East Angles were also converted to Christianity. The active conversion of the Germans to Christianity began.

Monasteries in England have become scientific centres

Papal Legate Theodore/Theodore of Canterbury in 669-690 united episcopal and monastic life in England, which was the victory of Rome over Ireland in spiritual life. Because of this, a monastic dawn came in England, united in its Christianity and because of the sovereignty of the diocese of the Roman Rite, which became the owner of huge resources that allowed it to invest in construction and educational projects. New monasteries are opened, and a great influence is exerted on all spheres of life. Even some German kings voluntarily went to the monastery. Monastic culture had a huge impact on the intellectual life of England, monasteries became scientific centres.

Separately, it is worth mentioning the Venerable monk Bede from one of these monasteries — Jarrow. He was fluent in Latin and partly Greek, quoted Virgil and Pliny. He wrote commentaries on the Bible, the lives of saints and, most importantly, the “Ecclesiastical History of the English People”, the main source of all that we have listed above, covering events from the campaigns of Caesar to 731, written in Latin, written in a living language.

In addition to the essay on the history of England, Bede wrote works on the Christian calendar, “The Book of Time” (703) and “On the Calculation of Time” (726). In addition, he wrote the Chronicle, or About the Six World Epochs, where he outlined the Christian Sacred history.

Bede was born near the Wearmouth Monastery, where he became a monk. In 703, he accepted the priesthood. He owns about 40 works, his mathematical and exegetical works were appreciated throughout Europe and were included in the library of probably every large monastery.

Bede's character is distinguished at the same time by the influence of an atmosphere of lively Celtic religious zeal and obedience in the spirit of the Roman tradition. According to Fletcher, the connection of these two traditions in England at the beginning of the VIII century determined the whole nature of his activities.

He was canonised only in 1899, in the Catholic Church he is called Saint Bede, and Protestants — Venerable Bede, also translated into Russian as Venerable Bede.

And although the Anglo-Saxons adopted Christianity about a hundred years later than the Franks, they began to move much more actively in this direction, entering the family of Mediterranean peoples and perceiving its education. In a letter of 601, Pope Gregory congratulates King Ethelbert and calls him “the new Constantine”. Now the king owned the letter as a universal means of communication and legislation, and also enlisted the support of clerics, which gave him more strength in the eyes of European states and authority from the point of view of neighbouring tribes. In Anglo-Saxon society, the word and reason were highly valued, which was probably the main reason for the widespread perception of the culture and language of Christians in the Mediterranean. In the future, this will flourish in the form of poetry and prose in Old English.

Karim Gaynullin

The author's opinion may not coincide with the position of the editorial board of Realnoe Vremya.