Rome’s New Mission

Diarmaid MacCulloch

  • Christians and Pagans: The Conversion of Britain from Alban to Bede by Malcolm Lambert
    Yale, 329 pp, £30.00, September 2010, ISBN 978 0 300 11908 4

Fortunate is the reader seeking the story of early Christianity in Britain. At its heart is one of the greatest and most readable of medieval historians, the Venerable Bede, and its modern exponents include such engaging and stylish writers as Charles Thomas, Leslie Alcock and Henry Mayr-Harting. The literary sources have attracted much idiosyncratic talent, for they possess the fascination of a cryptic crossword in which one must sift fact from propaganda, post-Norman Conquest forgery from dimly glimpsed ancient original. At one pole, there is the sixth-century Welshman Gildas, whose gloomy rhetoric in De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae testifies to the survival of solid classical education after the Roman legions departed. At the other pole, six centuries later, stand the heroic liar Geoffrey of Monmouth, whose Historia Regum Britanniae conjured up Arthurian splendour from scrappy British memories that they had had a champion against the Saxons, and some ingenious Welsh bishops who, furious at the unholy alliance of Anglo-Saxon and Norman Johnny-come-latelies, consolidated their prestige and estates against the interlopers by inventing evangelistic exploits for ancient saints like Dyfrig or David. Malcolm Lambert is a judicious guide to the shifting opinions of scholars amid these quicksands, casting a sceptical eye even on Bede’s motives for glorifying and sanitising the Roman mission to the Anglo-Saxons.

What makes Lambert’s account so valuable, however, is the excellent use he makes of archaeological evidence. Advances in archaeology have been aided by the responsible use of metal detectors: once regarded with contempt by professionals, the evolution of sensible ground rules for their use has generated a vast auxiliary force of enthusiastic amateurs with a wide range of historical expertise. Our mania for building roads has helped too, thanks to the enlightened arrangements that now allow for excavations to take place before work begins. Consequently, the last century has witnessed an astonishing array of new finds. The Sutton Hoo grave was the flagship: it was discovered on the eve of the Second World War, and in it we can say with reasonable certainty is interred King Raedwald of East Anglia, a familiar if ambiguous historical figure from Bede’s account of the early years of the papal mission to England. In 2003, the richly caparisoned chamber-grave of another sixth to seventh-century king, on whose eyes had been laid crosses in gold foil, was found in Prittlewell in Essex; he may reasonably be identified as King Saeberht of Essex (d. 617), who was the first of his line to convert to Christianity and made possible the institution of St Paul’s Cathedral in London. Metal detecting has also given us the Staffordshire Hoard, discovered in 2009, whose five kilos of gold and over a kilo of silver have inspired more public excitement and regional pride than Sutton Hoo. Supplementing the hoard’s array of military ostentation are gold crosses ruthlessly folded, maybe by an enemy of the Christian faith, together with a mysterious gold strip bearing a quotation from Numbers 10.35, which could have been part of the consecration jewellery of some great church of the conversion era.

The metal detectors have helped to reveal the existence of a peculiar religious artefact from Roman Britain, not found anywhere else in the Christian world: lead tanks, 20 of them so far, decorated with Christian symbols and occasionally scenes of prayer or baptism. They are clearly fonts, and raise many enjoyable puzzles. Why do some sites yield more than one? Why have so many been damaged? If they were intended to be portable, why create an object which would take at least four men to carry? We may imagine them trundling on a cart along the roads of late Roman Britain, no doubt escorted with much ceremony. And then from motives which are irrecoverable (perhaps sectarian strife – misuse by Pelagian heretics?), they seem to have been solemnly retired, rendered incapable of further use by mutilation, and buried at some hallowed site: three were found near what looks like a Roman church building at Icklingham in Suffolk.

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