Augustine of Canterbury


Archbishop of Canterbury
Illuminated manuscript with a forward-facing man in the middle of the large H. Man is carrying a crozier and his head is surrounded by a halo.
Portrait labelled "AUGUSTINUS" from the mid-8th century Saint Petersburg Bede, though perhaps intended as Gregory the Great.[a]
Appointedbefore 601
Term endedprobably 26 May 604
SuccessorLaurence of Canterbury
Other postsPrior of Abbey of St Andrew's
Consecrationc. 597
Personal details
Bornearly 6th century, probably in Italy
Diedprobably 26 May 604
Canterbury, Kent, England
BuriedSt Augustine's Abbey, Canterbury
Feast day
26 May (Anglican, Eastern Orthodox, & Catholic Extraordinary Form calendar in Great Britain)
27 May (Catholic Ordinary Form calendar)
28 May (Catholic Extraordinary Form calendar outside Great Britain)
Venerated in

Augustine of Canterbury (born first third of the 6th century – died probably 26 May 604) was a Benedictine monk who became the first Archbishop of Canterbury in the year 597. He is considered the "Apostle to the English" and a founder of the English Church.[3]

Augustine was the prior of a monastery in Rome when Pope Gregory the Great chose him in 595 to lead a mission, usually known as the Gregorian mission, to Britain to Christianize King Æthelberht and his Kingdom of Kent from Anglo-Saxon paganism. Kent was probably chosen because Æthelberht had married a Christian princess, Bertha, daughter of Charibert I the King of Paris, who was expected to exert some influence over her husband. Before reaching Kent, the missionaries had considered turning back, but Gregory urged them on, and in 597, Augustine landed on the Isle of Thanet and proceeded to Æthelberht's main town of Canterbury.

King Æthelberht converted to Christianity and allowed the missionaries to preach freely, giving them land to found a monastery outside the city walls. Augustine was consecrated as a bishop and converted many of the king's subjects, including thousands during a mass baptism on Christmas Day in 597. Pope Gregory sent more missionaries in 601, along with encouraging letters and gifts for the churches, although attempts to persuade the native British bishops to submit to Augustine's authority failed. Roman bishops were established at London, and Rochester in 604, and a school was founded to train Anglo-Saxon priests and missionaries. Augustine also arranged the consecration of his successor, Laurence of Canterbury. The archbishop probably died in 604 and was soon revered as a saint.

Background to the mission

After the withdrawal of the Roman legions from their province of Britannia in 410, the inhabitants were left to defend themselves against the attacks of the Saxons. Before the Roman withdrawal, Britannia had been converted to Christianity and produced the ascetic Pelagius.[4][5] Britain sent three bishops to the Council of Arles in 314, and a Gaulish bishop went to the island in 396 to help settle disciplinary matters.[6] Material remains testify to a growing presence of Christians, at least until around 360.[7] After the Roman legions departed, pagan tribes settled the southern parts of the island while western Britain, beyond the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, remained Christian. This native British Church developed in isolation from Rome under the influence of missionaries from Ireland[4][5] and was centred on monasteries instead of bishoprics. Other distinguishing characteristics were its calculation of the date of Easter and the style of the tonsure haircut that clerics wore.[5][8] Evidence for the survival of Christianity in the eastern part of Britain during this time includes the survival of the cult of Saint Alban and the occurrence in place names of eccles, derived from the Latin ecclesia, meaning "church".[9] There is no evidence that these native Christians tried to convert the Anglo-Saxons.[10][11] The invasions destroyed most remnants of Roman civilisation in the areas held by the Saxons and related tribes, including the economic and religious structures.[12]

It was against this background that Pope Gregory I decided to send a mission, often called the Gregorian mission, to convert the Anglo-Saxons to Christianity in 595.[13][14] The Kingdom of Kent was ruled by Æthelberht, who married a Christian princess named Bertha before 588,[15] and perhaps earlier than 560.[16] Bertha was the daughter of Charibert I, one of the Merovingian kings of the Franks. As one of the conditions of her marriage, she brought a bishop named Liudhard with her to Kent.[17] Together in Canterbury, they restored a church that dated to Roman times[18]—possibly the current St Martin's Church. Æthelberht was a pagan at this point but allowed his wife freedom of worship. One biographer of Bertha states that under his wife's influence, Æthelberht asked Pope Gregory to send missionaries.[17] The historian Ian N. Wood feels that the initiative came from the Kentish court as well as the queen.[19] Other historians, however, believe that Gregory initiated the mission, although the exact reasons remain unclear. Bede, an 8th-century monk who wrote a history of the English church, recorded a famous story in which Gregory saw fair-haired Saxon slaves from Britain in the Roman slave market and was inspired to try to convert their people.[b][21] More practical matters, such as the acquisition of new provinces acknowledging the primacy of the papacy, and a desire to influence the emerging power of the Kentish kingdom under Æthelberht, were probably involved.[18] The mission may have been an outgrowth of the missionary efforts against the Lombards who, as pagans and Arian Christians, were not on good relations with the Catholic church in Rome.[22]

Aside from Æthelberht's granting of freedom of worship to his wife, the choice of Kent was probably dictated by a number of other factors. Kent was the dominant power in southeastern Britain. Since the eclipse of King Ceawlin of Wessex in 592, Æthelberht was the leading Anglo-Saxon ruler; Bede refers to Æthelberht as having imperium (overlordship) south of the River Humber. Trade between the Franks and Æthelberht's kingdom was well established, and the language barrier between the two regions was apparently only a minor obstacle, as the interpreters for the mission came from the Franks. Lastly, Kent's proximity to the Franks allowed support from a Christian area.[23] There is some evidence, including Gregory's letters to Frankish kings in support of the mission, that some of the Franks felt that they had a claim to overlordship over some of the southern British kingdoms at this time. The presence of a Frankish bishop could also have lent credence to claims of overlordship, if Bertha's Bishop Liudhard was felt to be acting as a representative of the Frankish church and not merely as a spiritual advisor to the queen. Frankish influence was not merely political; archaeological remains attest to a cultural influence as well.[24]

In 595, Gregory chose Augustine, who was the prior of the Abbey of St Andrew's in Rome, to head the mission to Kent.[13] The pope selected monks to accompany Augustine and sought support from the Frankish royalty and clergy in a series of letters, of which some copies survive in Rome. He wrote to King Theuderic II of Burgundy and to King Theudebert II of Austrasia, as well as their grandmother Brunhild, seeking aid for the mission. Gregory thanked King Chlothar II of Neustria for aiding Augustine. Besides hospitality, the Frankish bishops and kings provided interpreters and Frankish priests to accompany the mission.[25] By soliciting help from the Frankish kings and bishops, Gregory helped to assure a friendly reception for Augustine in Kent, as Æthelbert was unlikely to mistreat a mission which visibly had the support of his wife's relatives and people.[26] Moreover, the Franks appreciated the chance to participate in mission that would extend their influence in Kent. Chlothar, in particular, needed a friendly realm across the Channel to help guard his kingdom's flanks against his fellow Frankish kings.[27]

Sources make no mention of why Pope Gregory chose a monk to head the mission. Pope Gregory once wrote to Æthelberht complimenting Augustine's knowledge of the Bible, so Augustine was evidently well educated. Other qualifications included administrative ability, for Gregory was the abbot of St Andrews as well as being pope, which left the day-to-day running of the abbey to Augustine, the prior.[28]