This week in class, I spent a lesson learning about how Christianity spread in England. The reason it all happened was because of Saint Gregory the Great. Gregory was determined to convert England to Christianity, and he successfully accomplished it.
In around 600 AD, Gregory sent one of his friends, Saint Augustine of Canterbury (not Saint Augustine of Hippo) to England to convert the people. More specifically, the Anglo-Saxons that lived there.
When Augustine and his group of chosen companions reached England in the spring of 597 AD, they were greeted by King Ethelbert, whose wife was a Catholic. Ethelbert gave his blessing to the group to evangelize his people, but warned that they should not destroy the culture of the people, but instead add to it and slowly change it into the Catholic culture.
For example, many of the native people in England were pagans. Augustine’s group slowly started to introduce the idea of there being one absolute God. Sacrifices that were originally meant for the pagan gods were given in the name of the one and only God.
In the winter of 597 AD, Augustine baptised thousands of Ethelbert’s people. This great victory prompted Pope Gregory to send over more missionaries to assist Augustine.
The religion spread across the England kingdoms quickly, but many kingdoms refused to convert. Their only reason was that they wanted to provoke their Christian enemies. Despite this, the conversion of England was going smoothly. King Ethelbert even converted a few years into the conversion mission. However, in 616 AD, King Ethelbert died, causing an uprising against the Christian religion.
When this happened, Augustine met with the British Bishops (seven in total), and asked for their help in converting the Anglo-Saxons. Augustine thought that if he could convert the Saxons, the uprising that was happening at the time would calm down.
However, the British Bishops refused. When Rome fell in 476 AD, their troops were removed from England, allowing the Saxons to enter the land and pillage and steal from the natives. Many of the native Englanders refused to assist in the conversion of the Saxons because of what they did to their ancestors. When the British refused to help, the Irish came to assist with the conversion of the Saxons.
In 626 AD, a man named Edwin became the king of North Umbria (an Anglo-Saxon kingdom) and converted to Christianity. But he was hesitant to introduce it to his people. He called a council of pagan priests and asks them if he should let his people continue to be pagans or if he should introduce them to Christianity. The priests tell Edwin that their religion has disappointed them so far, and encouraged him to introduce Christianity to the people.
The Anglo-Saxons were successfully converted, but in 633 AD, two other Saxon kings overthrow Edwin. This threw all missionary work into disarray. A year later, Edwin’s nephew, Oswald, took over. He was converted by the Irish, who had a slightly different idea of Christianity, which caused some Saxons to have a different version of Christianity than others.
As you can see, the spread of Christianity in England was all because of Saint Gregory, who wanted to spread the religion to the rest of the Western world. It turned out that the Anglo-Saxons did not need many missionaries to convert them, but a king who wanted what is best for his people.