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.

Before there were archaeologists, people were intrigued by the standing stones of early Christian Britain, and they sometimes generated place names: we can visit Valle Crucis in Denbighshire, in the shadow of the ninth-century Eliseg’s Pillar, with its long, boastful dynastic inscription for the king of Powys, a monument already venerable when Cistercian monks arrived in the valley; or the Cumbrian equivalent, Crossdale, first attested in 1294; or the more picturesquely corrupt Crouch End in north London. Despite the Reformation, these islands remain crowded with early Christian crosses. I especially relish one of the least known, at Great Ashfield in Suffolk, which has stood in shady seclusion in a gentleman’s garden since 1786, when it was rediscovered after being recycled during the Reformation: having cast it down as a monument of superstition, Tudor churchwardens put it to good Protestant use as a bridge over a stream into the churchyard. As a result, one side of it is worn perfectly smooth, while the other preserves scrolls as intricate as the Lindisfarne Gospels.

The Great Ashfield cross’s now agonisingly illegible inscription is unusual in its region, for, as Lambert notes, in a millennium-long geographical peculiarity yet to be explained, eastern England is short of epigraphy from the centuries between Claudius and William the Conqueror. By contrast, in Wales, Cornwall and Ireland, brief stone-cut inscriptions remain in abundance: for instance, in Llansadwrn on Anglesey one celebrates the church’s patron saint, ‘beatus Saturninus’, whose story was of no use to later empire-building Welsh bishops, and is therefore lost to us. The Irish had their own script called ogham, invented before they became Christians, and wonderfully practical in a world where there was no paper, and parchment cost a fortune, since its alphabet consists of arrangements of short lines, cut against a straight edge of wood, ivory or stone. It was as good for the blind as for the sighted: a Celtic braille. It can be found wherever Irish Christians travelled, not simply on their own island but in Scotland and Wales too, and it reveals that Irish Christians, unlike the Welsh and the Cornish, felt that their own language was just as good as Latin for solemn religious commemoration.

In the Scottish Highlands, the people whom the Romans dubbed the Picts also used ogham and generally despised Latin, the language of their enemies. Their own Brittonic language is now almost entirely lost to us, thanks to the ninth-century conquest by the Irish (Christian) kingdom of Dál Riata. Equally mysterious is the Picts’ rich symbolic language, which they continued to use, once they had converted to Christianity, to produce magnificently hybrid monuments whose designs even the dourest Presbyterian iconoclast could not easily square with popery, and which thus frequently escaped defacement. Not religious fanatics but 19th-century builders destroyed the monumental procession of carved bulls at the Pictish fortress of Burghead on the Moray Firth, and we can still be intimidated and baffled by the grinning man brandishing an axe depicted on the reverse side of a cross-slab from Craigton near Golspie in Sutherland. Evidently, Picts saw no conflict between the two sides of that monument, for there are at least 57 surviving examples of such stones, cheerfully marrying pre-Christian and Christian iconography.

These are the raw materials of Lambert’s enjoyable new study, an ambitious attempt to tell the story of Christianity from its earliest traces in Britain until the eighth century, by which time the whole archipelago was at least nominally converted. Lambert begins with the steady consolidation of British Christianity in the later Western Roman Empire, in which the two provinces of Britannia were an outlying but prosperous and important possession. We know virtually nothing of the Church’s earlier phase, apart from one or two martyr stories about Roman soldiers who resisted third-century imperial persecution. There is nothing implausible about these: Saint Alban inspired a long-lived cult that resided in the town the Romans had called Verulamium and that, most unusually, was not despised by the Anglo-Saxons; Saint Julius and Saint Aaron, martyred at Caerleon in South Wales, sound convincing because that strange second name is paired with one of the commonest names among legionaries. None of the three martyred legionaries is likely to have been a local. Britannia’s Christianity long remained a religion of wannabe Romans in country villas and, to a lesser degree, of urban tradespeople. While there is a curious dearth of Christian finds from Roman London, the distribution of small finds suggests that the Church’s strength was concentrated in the South-East and along the South coast. Apart from the martyr stories, and the presence of three bishops from Britannia’s cities at one of Constantine I’s empire-wide councils in 314, all the evidence we have is from the era after Constantine’s successors began to favour the Church rather than traditional religion, and thrust the older cults aside.

The earliest known occurrence of the word ‘Christian’ in Britain is compelling: a certain Annianus, angry at the theft of his purse, offered a curse tablet to the goddess Sulis at Bath enlisting her aid against the thief ‘whether gentilis or Christian, man or woman, boy or girl, slave or free’. Annianus was clearly not a Christian himself, or he would hardly have wasted his money on Sulis, but he was living in a fourth-century society already consciously dividing itself between Christian and non-Christian, and increasingly adopting the Christians’ condescending term for those who weren’t believers (for ‘Gentile’, read ‘pagan’). The imperial backing for Christianity was symbolised by the ‘chi-rho’ symbol – the first two letters of Christ’s name in Greek combined as a monogram – apparently invented by Constantine in the course of his successful military campaigns. This striking device, with no precedent in scripture or early Christian tradition, became an all-pervasive symbol of imperial Christianity in the fourth century, appearing on the small change of imperial coinage in the purses of people like Annianus. It also appeared scratched on tiles, or as an ornament on silver dishes and those lead fonts, and it long outlived the departure of the Roman legions as a symbol on the monuments of British Christians anxious to emphasise their enduring Romanitas – even in sixth-century Whithorn on the Solway Firth, beyond the now abandoned Hadrian’s Wall.

One intriguing feature of British Christianity is that, far from fading away after 410 along with hypocausts and decent flooring, it spread beyond the imperial frontiers into Ireland and southern Scotland. Latin inscriptions multiplied, and more and more cemeteries were marked by that peculiarly Christian care given to proper burials for infants and children. The most charismatic name to survive this ill-documented period is that of Saint Patrick, who left texts, no less precious for being written in imperfect Latin, that cast some brilliant shafts of light on a turbulent but expanding Church. He tells us the name of his home town, ‘Bannavemtaberniae’, the identity of which has provoked much debate. Many now believe that it was probably one of the little settlements along Hadrian’s Wall, where the fort and settlement of Birdoswald are known to have been called Banna, encouraging the rearrangement of a garbled name into a very feasible ‘Banna Venta Berniae’. Lambert discounts this theory and places Patrick’s home in South-West England, but the one argument that he puts forward, the scarcity of villas around Birdoswald that match Patrick’s description of his home as a villula, is contradicted by his own later note that Birdoswald boasts signs of a substantial chieftain’s house converted from the former military granary.

As intriguing is the question of what form Christianity took after the Anglo-Saxons overwhelmed the population with their gene-pool and language. Was there a coherent Church left when Augustine of Canterbury arrived in 597 on his mission from Rome? The historian Rob Meens has made provocative observations on the correspondence between Augustine and his patron, Pope Gregory I, about policy in the newly established Kentish mission. Gregory argued at great length against those who had been perplexing Augustine with their strong opinions about what constituted sexual uncleanness. These rigorists wanted to apply Old Testament exclusions from participation in the temple liturgy to pregnant women and married couples who had recently had sex, to keep them out of church while the pollution lasted. Clearly, these troublesome people were Christians, since non-Christians would have no interest in and presumably no knowledge of the Old Testament. The Roman missionaries were coming up against a significant body of well-informed local Christians with standards different from their own. Lambert decides that these people were Gauls rather than Britons, but he undermines his case by recounting another significant story about Augustine: when approached by British Christians wanting to find out more from this well-educated Roman about their ancient saint Sixtus, Augustine denied that Sixtus had ever existed. Pope Gregory had told him to suppress the cult around the saint, sending the bones of a more ‘authentic’ namesake, Pope Sixtus II, from the catacombs in Rome as consolation. Not only does this show that there were British Christians doing their best to find an accommodation with the new missionaries, but that Augustine and Gregory treated them with sneering hostility. The pope bluntly told Augustine that while he must treat Gaulish bishops with deference, British bishops were committed directly to his charge, ‘to instruct the unlearned, to strengthen the weak and correct the misguided’.

Inevitably, there is a faultline in Lambert’s narrative between the Christianity that survived from the Roman period and the new Roman initiative. Both Augustine’s missionaries and their later champion Bede were concerned to stress the differences that caused friction between Celt and Anglo-Saxon, such as clashing traditions in clerical hairstyles (shave off all the front if you’re Celtic, just a little patch on the top if you’re Roman) and the crucial question of how to decide the date of Easter. The tangle is still intricate even in Bede’s narrative. He praised certain non-Anglo-Saxon Christian pioneers from the North and West, such as the indisputably great Columba of Iona; Fursey, the Irish evangelist of eastern England; and the very early Uinniau of Whithorn, whose name he or his assistants managed to mistranscribe as Nynia (thanks to Aelred of Rievaulx, Nynia further descended into the uneuphonious Ninian). Almost invariably, these figures had the advantage of not being British or Welsh – in other words, they came from lands on which Anglo-Saxons had no territorial designs. Bede and other Anglo-Saxon clergy members took a much harsher view of their fellow Christians in Anglo-Saxon territories or Wales, such as the unfortunate monks of Bangor-is-Coed, who committed the cardinal sin of praying for a British Christian king rather than an Anglo-Saxon pagan one, and were briskly butchered for this faux pas; or the only marginally luckier British priests whose churches were given away to Bishop Wilfrid by King Ecgfrith of Northumbria after the Northumbrians had chased them out in the 670s. There was quite a lot of fancy theological footwork to perform if such attitudes were to have any moral plausibility, hence Bede’s argument that British Christians had been punished by God for their selfishness in refusing to convert the Anglo-Saxons who had overrun their country. This was an early shot at dealing with a problem that became steadily more insoluble through the medieval period, as all western Europe accepted not just Christianity but a form of it that involved allegiance to the bishop of Rome. Why did these Catholic Christians persist in killing each other despite their shared creed of love? Not even the Reformation stopped Catholics being beastly to one another.

For 60 years or so, the English mission sputtered erratically through the various kingdoms of Angles and Saxons, and grasping what happened is not helped by the excess of Eadbalds and Aethelburhs. Suddenly, in the year 666 (let paranoid Protestants take note of that number) the pope seized the initiative once more, when the Anglo-Saxon candidate for the archbishopric of Canterbury happened to die of plague while visiting Rome. Pope Vitalian made a bold substitution: a Greek-speaker from distant Tarsus in Asia Minor, called Theodore. Rome was inclined to feel that Easterners like Theodore were too clever by half, and a promotion to Canterbury may have been a convenient way of getting an unpredictable theologian as far away from Rome as possible. Theodore arrived accompanied by a papal minder, the equally exotic Hadrian, a refugee monk from North Africa. Between them, they transformed the English Church, though they had serious competition: there were episcopal giants in the land in those days, notably Wilfrid, Chad and Cuthbert, none of them disposed to play second fiddle. Theodore, however, had the personality and the prestige to arbitrate between kings. When he called the Council of Hertford in 672, it was as a Church leader who ignored the boundaries of the kingdoms of Hwicce, Mercia, Wessex, Northumbria or whatever other frontiers the British might seek to maintain: his Church represented an island entity that was as yet nameless, but which had one stimulus to unity in its common allegiance to the faraway Vicar of Peter in Rome.

One might say that the papacy, or its inspired historian Bede, invented the English, who two centuries later duly found themselves with a single kingdom of the English, or of England. But by the ninth century, Lambert’s tale is long done. Effectively, it ends in the 680s, with the submission of the last non-Christian enclave of any significance in this archipelago, the Isle of Wight, whose acceptance of the Good News from the swashbuckling Bishop Wilfrid was encouraged by a massacre at the hands of the dubiously Christian warlord Caedualla of Wessex. It was not a happy end to the century of conversion, and Bede is patently uneasy about it, though its outcome was a welcome distraction from having to say too much about the constant contemporary friction between the various church leaders in Theodore and Wilfrid’s generation. But we only know l’affaire Wight took place because Bede tells us about it. So who are we to criticise?