May 27

Saint Augustine of Canterbury

No part of Europe suffered as much from the fall of the Roman Empire to the barbarian invasions as did Britain. After the last legion pulled out in 410, the island was left to its own resources which proved insufficient to repel the waves of Picts, Saxons, Irish, Angles and Jutes that assailed the Romano-Britons. Civilization gradually died; literacy almost vanished; the barter system replaced coinage; and Christianity retreated into the Welsh hills and the remoter regions; Germanic petty kingdoms were established on the ruins.

The task of reintroducing Christianity fell to Irish monks who evangelized the north and to a mission sent out from Rome in the 590s. Aethelbert, a barbarian king in Kent, had married a Frankish princess who had won permission to include Christian priests in her retinue. Pope Gregory the Great took the opportunity to send monks from his own monastery to the Kentish capital at Canterbury and the expedition was to be led by the abbot Augustine. On the way to his post Augustine apparently heard stories of the bloodthirsty people to whom he was being sent and wanted to turn back. His spine was stiffened by exhortations from Gregory so the monk continued to Britain, arriving in 597. Aethelbert’s reception was friendly but guarded. According to the Venerable Bede, the king said: “Your words and promises are very fair but as they are new to us and of uncertain import, I cannot assent to them and give up what I have long held in common with the whole English nation. But since you have come as strangers from so great a distance, and, as I take it, are anxious to have us also share in what you conceive to be both excellent and true, we will not interfere with you, but receive you, rather, in kindly hospitality and take care to provide what may be necessary for your support. Moreover, we make no objection to your winning as many converts as you can to your creed”.

Eventually Augustine succeeded in converting Aethelbert and thousands of his people. He followed up this success by establishing monasteries, schools, and churches and laying the foundation for a network of bishoprics that would encompass all of the Anglo-Saxon territory. He was not successful, however, in winning over the native British Christians to the obedience of Rome — a Celtic variety of Christianity persisted on the island for some time.

Augustine was named the first Archbishop of Canterbury, dying in 605. His body is still interred in the church of Saints Peter and Paul which he founded.

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