September 1


256 The Synod of Carthage reaffirms earlier African church council position that Christians baptised by the breakaway Novatian sect had to be rebaptised if they rejoined the Catholic church. This was defended by Cyprian (c. 200-58), bishop of Carthage but Pope Stephen mandated the reacceptance of the lapsed without a second baptism, causing severe tension between the papacy and the African church. Two years later Cyprian would be martyred when the Roman government renewed its persecution of Christians; he was canonized with his feast day September 16.

710 death of St Giles, one of 14 Holy Helpers. Giles (650-710) was a hermit in the south of France around whom legends of miracles and piety grew. In art he is depicted with a deer and a wound from an arrow. He is the patron saint of cripples, breast cancer, Edinburgh and the outcast. The 14 Holy Helpers are a group of saints whose intercession is deemed to be efficacious for certain diseases. Their cult seems to have sprung up in reaction to the Black death of the fourteenth century.

1159 Death of Pope Hadrian (or Adrian) IV, the only Englishman ever elevated to the papacy. Born Nicholas Breakspear c. 1100, he acquired a reputation as a reformer and administrator before his election. He is best known for placing the city of Rome under the interdict (a kind of mass excommunication) in order to drive out the rebel Arnold of Brescia and for granting the English king Henry II the lordship of Ireland, for which the Irish have never forgiven him.

1939 Hitler begins the T-4 Euthanasia program. One of the reasons that fascists like Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini despised Christianity was that it loves the weak and helpless. Fascism is a philosophy for the strong and ruthless; that which can be destroyed must be destroyed. The Nazi eugenics policy moved from encouraging the mating of healthy Aryan youth to eliminating the chronically ill, mentally disabled, patients with incurable diseases and mental illnesses. Before the end of the war at least 70,000 Germans were euthanized through this policy.

August 30


Death of an Arian king

The last Roman emperor in the West was deposed in 476 by a barbarian warlord named Odoacer who sent the imperial regalia to the Eastern emperor at Constantinople and who pretended to rule Italy on his behalf. The German tribes who had poured into and overrun the West in the 400s had no desire to end Roman civilization, only to be parasites on it. As the West was divided into petty kingdoms by the various barbarian groups, it often served their rulers’ interest to be seen by the conquered populace as viceroys of the empire and continuers of civilization. Other barbarian princes served as generals in a Roman army, fighting against other Germans.

One such Ostrogothic lord was Theoderic (b. 454) who had been a political hostage in Constantinople and had soldiered for the eastern emperor. In 489 Emperor Zeno sent him against Odoacer who had been conspiring with his enemies. Odoacer was defeated and forced to accept Theoderic as co-ruler but, at the banquet to celebrate this pact, Theoderic murdered him and assumed sole rulership of Italy, still maintaining the fiction that he was governing on behalf of the Empire. The coin above shows Theoderic in a Roman cloak and armour but with an unmistakably barbarian moustache.

From his capital in Ravenna in northeastern Italy, Theoderic ruled the peninsula well in what was, essentially, a protection racket. In return for a third of the wealth, his Ostrogoths kept the peace, put down banditry, and deterred other barbarian incursions. The illiterate Goths could not run the machinery of government and civilization themselves; for that they relied on the old Roman senatorial elite. They ran his civil service, collected his taxes, made sure the harbours were dredged and the roads maintained. Though Theoderic and his tribe were Arian Christians, unlike the majority of the populace which was Catholic, the alliance between Germans and Romans operated smoothly for years. The inhabitants of Italy were at least as well off as they had been under the later western emperors. However, in his old age Theoderic began to suspect (and he may have been right) that his Roman civil service was seeking to undermine him and bring in the rule of Constantinople. He arrested his chief minister Boethius and had him murdered in prison. (It was during his time in the dungeon that Boethius wrote his masterwork The Consolation of Philosophy). His policy of religious toleration also eroded in his last years as he tried to cement alliances with other Arian tribes and secure the succession for his family.

Tragically, it all crumbled at his death in 526. His heir, an infant grandson, was not accepted by his warrior class and civil war broke out among the Ostrogoths. Emperor Justinian in Constantinople used this as an excuse to intervene and roll back a century of barbarian occupation of the West. The resulting Gothic Wars devastated Italy and virtually destroyed civilization there, leaving it prey for the next wave of barbarians, the Lombards.

Had been Theoderic’s successor been able to continue his policies, the Dark Ages that followed might not have been so dark.

August 27

St Monica

Few saints’ lives are as intertwined with that of their mother as was Saint Augustine of Hippo’s and his mother Monica’s.

Monica was born in present day Algeria during the fourth century of Berber stock and married the Roman official Patricius, by whom she had at least three children, two boys and a girl. Though she was raised a Christian, her husband was a pagan and forbade his children the baptism she wished to arrange for them. (Notwithstanding the objections of Patricius she made sure that her offspring were educated in her faith.) Her son Augustine was highly intelligent but lazy and broke her heart by adopting the dualist Manichean creed in his late teens during his studies in rhetoric in Carthage. Monica refused to see Augustine for a time after this though she continued to pray for his conversion. Her disapproval of his beloved concubine and her monumental expectations of him were too much for the young man and he departed in secret for Italy to set up as a rhetorician. Doggedly she followed him, first to Rome and then to Milan where Augustine finally became a Christian and was baptized by St Ambrose, much to Monica’s joy. Their plan was to return to Africa. In the seaport of Ostia as they awaited a ship,  Augustine and his mother sat at a window conversing of the life of the blessed; she turned to him and said, “Son, there is nothing now I care for in this life. What I shall now do or why I am here, I know not. The one reason I had for wishing to linger in this life a little longer was that I might see you a Catholic Christian before I died. This has God granted me superabundantly in seeing you reject earthly happiness to become His servant. What do I here?” A few days afterwards she had an attack of fever, and died in the year 387. (Her remains were later removed to Rome.)

Her tombstone reads: “Here the most virtuous mother of a young man set her ashes, a second light to your merits, Augustine. As a priest, serving the heavenly laws of peace, you taught the people entrusted to you with your character. A glory greater than the praise of your accomplishments crowns you both – Mother of the Virtues, more fortunate because of her offspring.” She is the patron saint of difficult marriages, disappointing children, victims of adultery or unfaithfulness, victims of (verbal) abuse, housewives, alcoholics (Monica herself had been a heavy drinker) and conversion of relatives, plus the city of Santa Monica in California.

August 24


The Act of Uniformity

When High Church had the upper hand in the reign of Charles I, it did not hesitate to pillory the Puritans, cut off their ears, and banish them. When the Puritans got the ascendancy afterwards, they treated high-churchmen with an equally conscientious severity. At the Restoration of the Stuart monarchy in 1660, all the reforming plans of the last twenty years were found utterly worn out of public favour, and the public submitted very quietly to a reconstitution of the church under what was called the Act of Uniformity, which made things very unpleasant once more for the Puritans. By its provisions, every clergyman was to be expelled from his charge on the 24th of August 1662, if, by that time, he did not declare his assent to everything contained in the revised Book of Common Prayer; every clergy-man who, during the period of the Commonwealth, had been unable to obtain episcopal ordination, was commanded now to obtain that kind of sanction; all were to take an oath of canonical obedience; all were to give up the theory on which the old ‘Solemn League and Covenant’ had been based; and all were to accept the doctrine of the king’s supremacy over the church. The result was, that two thousand of the clergy signalised this Bartholomew Day by leaving the church. Laymen such as John Milton, John Bunyan, and Andrew Marvell, left as well.

The act became the more harsh from its coming into operation just before one whole year’s tithes were due. Two thousand families, hitherto dependent on stipends for support, were driven hither and thither in the search for a livelihood; and this was rendered more and more difficult by a number of subordinate statutes passed in rapid succession. The ejected ministers were not allowed to exercise, even in private houses, the religious functions to which they had been accustomed. Their books could not be published without episcopal sanction, previously applied for and obtained. A statute, called the ‘Conventicle Act,’ punished with fine, imprisonment, or transportation, every one present in any private house where religious worship was carried on—if the total number exceeded by more than five the regular members of the household. Another, called the ‘Oxford Act,’ imposed on these unfortunate ministers an oath of passive obedience and non-resistance; and if they refused to take it, they were prohibited from living within five miles of any place where they had ever resided, or of any corporate town, and from eking out their scanty incomes by keeping schools, or taking in boarders. A second and stricter version of the Conventicle Act deprived the ministers of the right of trial by jury, and empowered any justice of the peace to convict them on the oath of a single informer, who was to be rewarded with one-third of the fines levied.

Writers who take opposite sides on this subject naturally differ as to the causes and justification to be assigned for the ejection; but there is very little difference of opinion as to the misery suffered during the years intervening between 1662 and 1688. Those who, in one way or other, suffered homelessness, hunger, and penury on account of the Act of Uniformity and the ejection that followed it, have been estimated at 60,000 persons, and the amount of pecuniary loss at twelve or fourteen millions sterling. Contemporary writers, record upwards of 5000 Nonconformists as the number who perished within the walls of prisons; and many, like preacher Richard Baxter, were hunted from house to house, from chapel to chapel, by informers, whose only motive was to obtain a portion of the fines levied for infringement of numerous statutes.

Considered as a historical fact, dissent may be said to have begun in England on this 24th August 1662, when the Puritans, who had before formed a body within the church, now ranged themselves as a dissenting or Nonconformist sect outside it.

August 22

Death of a rebel Earl

For the first ten years of her reign Elizabeth I ordained a religious settlement that forbade any public worship other than the Anglican variety of Protestantism, but which tactfully looked the other way if Catholic families complied only minimally. The Queen was said to have announced that she did not wish to make windows into peoples’ hearts. Thus many Catholics worshipped as they wished in secret, paid a small fine for non-attendance at Anglican services, or made sure that at least one member of the family attended the state church.  That there were prominent noblemen and gentry who were secret Catholics was well known. Elizabeth imprisoned the Catholic bishops she inherited but did not burn the members of the dissident episcopacy as her sister Bloody Mary had.

This changed in 1569 with the first of two horribly ill-advised acts by Catholics. The first was the Rising of the Earls (or the Northern Rising), a rebellion by two prominent Catholic nobles in the north of the country: Thomas Percy, Earl of Northumberland and Charles Neville, Earl of Westmorland. For a time their army controlled Durham and celebrated the Mass openly but royal forces soon rallied and defeated the rebels, forcing the earls into Scottish exile. Then, far too late to aid the Rising, Pope Pius V issued the bull Regnans in Excelsis which declared Elizabeth a heretic, absolved English Catholics of their obedience to her and declared the throne vacant.

The results were catastrophic for English Catholicism. They inspired assassination attempts on the life of Elizabeth and hardened the Queen’s heart against Catholics; persecutions became the order of the day and many believers and priests were martyred. It would not be until the early 19th century before English Catholics were accorded their full civil rights. On this day in 1572, the Earl of Northumberland, having been sold by his Scottish hosts for £2,000 to Elizabeth, was beheaded for treason.

August 19


The trial of the Salmesbury Witches

The European Witch Craze took the life of about 40,000 women and men in the fifteenth to seventeenth centuries and it has been the subject of much study and debate ever since. Was it caused by the clash between Protestantism and Catholicism? Was it a war on women? Did it emerge more in mountainous regions or on the plains? Was there an economic basis for it? Did the views of witches vary among the social classes? Were witches really the practitioners of an ancient folk religion? The arguments continue.

One thing is certain and that is that the accusations of witchcraft were far more numerous in countries using a form of Roman law which allowed the torture of witnesses. In places such as England and Ireland, under common law, torture was generally forbidden and witch trials were far fewer. This changed somewhat, after the accession to the English throne of King James of Scotland. James was a believer in witchcraft and he even wrote a book on it, Daemonologie, where he stated: “The fearefull aboundinge at this time in this countrie, of these detestable slaves of the Devil, the Witches or enchanters, hath moved me (beloved reader) to dispatch in post, this following treatise of mine … to resolve the doubting … both that such assaults of Satan are most certainly practised, and that the instrument thereof merits most severely to be punished.”

In 1612, Grace Sowerbutts, a Lancashire girl, aged twelve, accused three women of the village of Salmesbury of being witches, and of practising infanticide and cannibalism. Jane Southworth, and Grace’s grandmother and mother, Jennet Bierley, and Ellen Bierley were said to be able to transform themselves into dogs and consort with demons. They had killed a local baby and disinterred the child and eaten it. Neighbours testified that one of the women had the reputation of being a witch. Things looked bad for the three accused until the judge re-examined Grace and her story fell apart. She confessed that she had lied and had been coached in her testimony by a Jesuit priest, hiding illegally in the area. The judge instructed the jury to find the defendants not guilty.

Others accused of witchcraft at the same time were less lucky and some of their trials resulted in them being hanged by the same judge who had released the Salmesbury Three.

August 17


The End of the Prayer Book Rebellion

The English reformation of religion in the sixteenth century was a notoriously top-down affair and many government mandates were met with violent resistance. During the reign of Henry VIII, the dissolution of the monasteries prompted the massive Pilgrimage of Grace when the conservative north of the country rose in defence of the monks. Caught unawares the king was forced to conciliate the rebels with sweet promises until he had assembled enough of a military force to crush them. When Henry was succeeded by his Protestant son Edward VI attempts to enforce the new religious order was also met with outrage and violence.

The Prayer Book Rebellion (or the Western Rebellion) broke out in Cornwall and Devon in 1549. There the peasantry was already upset by the imposition of new taxes, painful price inflation, and the destruction of ancient religious sites by outside commissioners. The announcement that the old Latin rite that the countrymen had worshipped with for centuries was to be replaced by the English-language Prayer Book sparked riots and mass gatherings of armed men. Local landowners took leadership of the rebellion; the city of Exeter was besieged and gentry fled to their manor houses for safety as the two western counties saw thousands of angry Catholics under arms.

Judging by the list of demands drawn up by the rebels, the rising was a combination of religious grievances and social unrest. We can see the former in these three articles:

“First we will have the general counsel and holy decrees of our forefathers observed, kept and performed, and who so ever shall speak against them, we hold them as heretics.” 

“Item we will have the Lawes of our Sovereign Lord Kyng Henry the VIII concerning the Six Articles, to be used as they were in his time.”

“Item we will have the mass in Latin, as was before, and celebrated by the priest without any man or woman communicating with them.

But the dire economic situation of what historians have called the Iron Century also led the rebels to demand that lords restrict the number of their servants and to reform landholding practices.

Though successful at first, the rebels were ultimately defeated by royal armies containing large numbers of hardened foreign mercenaries. On this day in 1549 the decisive battle of Sampford Courtney was fought. Thousands of the men of Devon and Cornwall died in battle and thousands more were rounded up and killed out of hand by government troops. This would not be the last English rebellion over religious reform.

August 15



Christians lose control of the Levant

On this day in 636 began the Battle of Yarmouk in which forces of the first Islamic Caliphate defeated a Byzantine army in what is now Syria. It was a long-held part of Byzantine strategy to avoid major winner-take-all battles but the arrival of a massive Arab army that had already rolled up Persian and Christian holdings in the Middle East forced the Byzantines to concentrate their forces. They were outmaneuvered and driven from the field leading to a rapid Islamic conquest of the eastern shore of the Mediterranean, territory that would not be regained until the First Crusade in 1099.

A plethora of other Church-related activity also took place on this day.


Frankish co-ruler Carloman retires to a monastery leaving his brother Pepin the Short in charge. Within a few years Pepin will win papal approval for deposing the Merovingian dynasty and setting up the Carolingian line. In return Pepin will invade Italy to defeat enemies of the pope and grant the Bishop of Rome the lands that become the Papal States.


Lanfanc, a Benedictine monk from Italy, will be named Archbishop of Canterbury. Working with the recently-victorious William the Conqueror he will reform the English church, cutting down on corruption and sexual immorality in the clergy. He will also resist papal pressure and avoid entangling England in the battles between church and state that raged on the Continent.


The cornerstone for the most striking of all Gothic cathedrals will be laid in Cologne. The building would house the relics of the Three Magi and be finished only in 1880.


The Knights of St John seize the island of Rhodes and use it as a base against Islamic states in the eastern Mediterranean. They will stay in their huge fortress until being driven out by Suleiman the Magnificent in 1521.


Pope Sixtus IV consecrates the Sistine Chapel.

Take the gorgeous Virtual Tour. Copy this link into your browser.

August 13


Arrest of a Spanish Heretic

Michael Servetus was born in Aragon about 1510 to a respectable family of the lower nobility. Well educated at the universities of Toulouse, Paris and Montpellier, Servetus demonstrated brilliance in a wide variety of fields: medicine, astronomy, law, geography and Biblical languages but it was his unorthodox views on the Godhead that brought him persecution and death.

In 1530 Servetus became a very junior part of the court of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V (he who had faced Luther at Worms in 1521). In his travels with the emperor he encountered a number of Reformation thinkers and books and began to drift away from the Catholic faith. For the next decade Servetus became a renowned scientist and physician while also publishing works attacking the traditional notions of the Trinity. Despite a friendly correspondence with John Calvin in Geneva Servetus also condemned the notion of predestination, which helped lead to a break in his relations with Calvin who said: “Servetus has just sent me a long volume of his ravings. If I consent he will come here, but I will not give my word; for if he comes here, if my authority is worth anything, I will never permit him to depart alive.”

By 1553 Servetus had discovered the pulmonary circulation of the blood but the authorities were closing in on his heretical views. Forced to flee France, he headed for Italy with an ill-advised stop-over in Geneva. He was recognized in a church service on August 13, was denounced and arrested on charges of denying the Trinity and of attacking infant baptism. Calvin pressed hard for his execution, though since Servetus was neither a resident nor had he taught any doctrine in the city, banishment was the legal punishment. On October 27, 1553 he was burnt alive on a pile of his own books. Though most Protestant leaders supported the execution, it is an act that has blotted Calvin’s reputation to this day.

August 11


Death of Johann Tetzel, provoker of Martin Luther

Seldom has the financing of public works had such profound consequences. In the early sixteenth century, the papacy was engaged in a long-standing and expensive renewal of Rome and its churches; the centre-piece of this project was the enormous St Peter’s Basilica. The old St Peter’s, dating back to the 300s, had been torn down and the finest architects and artists had been engaged to produce a splendid successor — Bramante, Bernini, and Michelangelo all worked on the building. Their talents were costly, so popes were always looking for ways to find funding for this Renaissance masterpiece. In 1517 Pope Leo X, in return for a large sum of money, granted a waiver of canon law to allow Archbishop Albrecht of Mainz to hold two sees simultaneously. In order that Albrecht not suffer too much financially, the pope also granted him the franchise to preach an indulgence campaign in parts of Germany. Half of the money raised would go to the building of St Peter’s and the other half to Albrecht.

The catechism defines an indulgence as “a remission before God of the temporal punishment due to sins whose guilt has already been forgiven, which the faithful Christian who is duly disposed gains under certain prescribed conditions through the action of the Church which, as the minister of redemption, dispenses and applies with authority the treasury of the satisfactions of Christ and the saints”. In the summer of 1517 the Dominican monk Johann Tetzel raised funds in Saxony in return for indulgences that would reduce the pains of Purgatory for those purchasing them or those already dead. Tetzel was an experienced preacher of such drives and his sermons were very effective. Unfortunately, he abused the permissible limits of indulgences by claiming in his sale pitch that “as soon as a coin in the coffer rings, a soul from Purgatory springs.”

Tetzel did not take his entourage to Wittenberg because its ruler, Frederick of Saxony, already possessed the rights to sell indulgences but word of Tetzel’s claims reached the ears of Augustinian monk Martin Luther. Luther was so incensed, both by the doctrine of indulgences and Tetzel’s fraudulent claims that he posted “97 Theses” on the doctrine of Purgatory and papal powers over the afterlife. This was the first shot in the battle we call the Protestant Reformation.

Tetzel was caught up in the controversy and was forced to retire in disgrace. Despite their disagreement, when Luther heard that Tetzel was dying he wrote to absolve him from responsibility for the firestorm that had erupted, telling him “not to be troubled, for the matter did not begin on his account, but the child had quite a different father.”