The Great Events by Famous Historians, Vol 4

Author: The Venerable Bede  | Date: A.D. 597

Augustine’s Missionary Work in England

A.D. 597


St. Augustine was the first archbishop of Canterbury. He was educated in Rome under Pope Gregory I, by whom he was sent to Britain with forty monks of the Benedictine order, for the purpose, of converting the English to Christianity. Bertha, wife of Ethelbert, king of Kent, was a Christian. She was a daughter of Charibert, king of Paris, and had brought her chaplain with her, who held services in the ruined church of St. Martin, near Canterbury.

There seemed little prospect, however, of the faith spreading among the wild islanders until Augustine arrived on the Isle of Thanet A.D. 596. The occasion of his being sent on this missionary errand is said to have been connected with an incident which has often been related, wherein it appears that Gregory, while yet a monk, struck with the beauty of some heathen Anglo-Saxon youths exposed for sale in the slave market at Rome, inquired concerning their nationality. Being told that they were Angles, he said: Non Angli sed angeli [’Not Angles, but angels’], and well may, for their angel-like faces it becometh such to be coheirs with the angels in heaven. In what province of England do they live?" "Deira" was the reply. "From Dei ira [’God’s wrath’] are they to be freed?,’ answered Gregory. "How call ye the king of that country?" "Ælla." " Then Alleluia surely ought to be sung in his kingdom to the praise of that God who created all things," said the gracious and clever monk.

"The conversion of the English to Christianity," says Freeman, "at once altered their whole position in the world. Hitherto our history had been almost wholly insular; our heathen forefathers had had but little to do, either in war or peace, with any nations beyond their own four seas. We hear little of any connection being kept up between the Angles and Saxons who settled in Britain, and their kinsfolk who abode in their original country. By its conversion England was first brought, not only within the pale of the Christian Church, but within the pale of the general political society of Europe. But our insular position, combined with the events of our earlier history, was not without its effect on the peculiar character of Christianity as established in England. England was the first great territorial conquest of the spiritual power, beyond the limits of the Roman Empire, beyond the influence of Greek and Roman civilization."

The following account from the Ecclesiastical History of the Venerable Bede, the father of English history," and foremost scholar of England in his age, is in the modern English rendering by Thomson, of King Alfred’s famous translation, made for the instruction of the English people as the best work of that period on their own history.

As a contrast John Richard Green’s treatment of the same episode is appended.


When according to forth running time [it] was about five hundred and ninety-two years from Christ’s hithercoming, Mauridus, the Emperor, took to the government, and had it two-and-twenty years. He was the fifty-fourth from Augustus. In the tenth year of that Emperor’s reign, Gregory, the holy man, who was in lore and deed the highest, took to the bishophood of the Roman Church, and of the apostolic seat, and held and governed it thirteen years and six months and ten days. In the fourteenth year of the same Emperor, about a hundred and fifty years from the English nation’s hithercoming into Britain, he was admonished by a divine impulse that he should send God’s servant Augustine, and many other monks with him, fearing the Lord, to preach God’s word to the English nation.

When they obeyed the bishop’s commands, and began to go to the mentioned work, and had gone some deal of the way, then began they to fear and dread the journey, and thought that it was wiser and safer for them that they should rather return home than seek the barbarous people, and the fierce and the unbelieving, even whose speech they knew not; and in common chose this advice to themselves; and then straight-way sent Augustine (whom they had chosen for their bishop if their doctrines should be received) to the Pope, that he might humbly intercede for them, that they might not need to go upon a journey so perilous and so toilsome, and a pilgrimage so unknown.

Then St. Gregory sent a letter to them, and exhorted and advised them in that letter: that they should humbly go into the work of God’s word, and trust in God’s help; and that they should not fear the toil of the journey, nor dread the tongues of evil-speaking men; but that, with all earnestness, and with the love of God, they should perform the good things which they by God’s help had begun to do; and that they should know that the great toil would be followed by the greater glory of everlasting life; and he prayed Almighty God that he would shield them by his grace; and that he would grant to himself that he might see the fruit of their labor in the heavenly kingdom’s glory, because he was ready to be in the same labor with them, if leave had been given him.

Then Augustine was strengthened by the exhortation of the blessed father Gregory, and with Christ’s servants who were with him returned to the work of God’s word, and came into Britain. Then was at that time Ethelbert king in Kent, and a mighty one, who had rule as far as the boundary of the river Humber, which sheds asunder the south folk of the English nation and the north folk. Then [there] is on the eastward of Kent a great island [Thanet by name], which is six hundred hides large, after the English nation’s reckoning. The isle is shed away from the continuous land by the stream Wantsum, which is three furlongs broad, and in two places is fordable, and either end lies in the sea. On this isle came up Christ’s servant Augustine and his fellows—he was one of forty. They likewise took with them interpreters from Frankland [France], as St. Gregory bade them; and he sent messengers to Ethelbert, and let him know that he came from Rome, and brought the best errand, and whosoever would be obedient to him, he promised him everlasting gladness in heaven, and a kingdom hereafter without end, with the true and living God.

When [he then] the King heard these words, then ordered he them to abide in the isle on which they had come up; and their necessaries to be there given them until he should see what he would do to them. Likewise before that a report of the Christian religion had come to him, for he had a Christian wife, who was given to him from the royal kin of the Franks—Bertha was her name; which woman he received from her parents on condition that she should have his leave that she might hold the manner of the Christian belief, and of her religion, unspotted, with the bishop whom they gave her for the help of that faith; whose name was Luidhard.

Then [it] was after many days that the King came to the isle, and ordered to make a seat for him out [of doors], and ordered Augustine with his fellows to come to his speech (a conference). He guarded himself lest they should go into any house to him; he used the old greeting, in case they had any magic whereby they should overcome and deceive him. But they came endowed—not with devil-craft, but with divine might. They bore Christ’s rood-token—a silvern cross of Christ and a likeness of the Lord Jesus colored and delineated on a board; and were crying the names of holy men; and singing prayers together, made supplication to the Lord for the everlasting health of themselves and of those to whom they come.

Then the King bade them sit, and they did so; and they soon preached and taught the word of life to him, together with all his peers who were there present. Then answered the King, and thus said: Fair words and promises are these which ye have brought and say to us; but because they are new and unknown, we cannot yet agree that we should forsake the things which we for a long time, with all the English nation, have held.

But because ye have come hither as pilgrims from afar, and since it seems and is evident to me that ye wished to communicate to us also the things which ye believed true and best, we will not therefore be heavy to you, but will kindly receive you in hospitality, and give you a livelihood, and supply your needs. Nor will we hinder you from joining and adding to the religion of your belief all whom you can through your lore.

Then the King gave them a dwelling and a place in Canterbury, which was the chief city of all his kingdom, and as he had promised to give them a livelihood and their worldly needs, he likewise gave them leave that they might preach and teach the Christian faith. It is said that when they went and drew nigh to the city, as their custom was, with Christ’s holy cross, and with the likeness of the great King our Lord Jesus Christ, hey sung with a harmonious voice this Litany and Antiphony: Deprecamur te, etc. "We beseech thee, Lord, in all thy mercy, that thy fury and thy wrath be taken off from this city and [from] thy holy house, because we have sinned. Alleluia."

Then it was soon after they had entered into the dwelling place which had been granted to them in the royal city, when they began to imitate the apostolic life of the primitive church—that is, served the Lord in constant prayers, and waking and fasting, and preached and taught God’s word to whom they might, and slighted all things of this world as foreign; but those things only which were seen [to be] needful for their livelihood they received from those whom they taught; according to that which they taught, they [themselves] through everything lived; and they had a ready mind to suffer adversity, yea likewise death [it] self, for the truth which they preached and taught. Then was no delay that many believed and were baptized. They also wondered at the simplicity of [their] harmless life and the sweetness of their heavenly lore.

There was by east well-nigh the city a church built in honor of St. Martin long ago, while the Romans yet dwelt in Britain [in which church the Queen (was) wont to pray, of whom we said before that she was a Christian]. In this church at first the holy teachers began to meet and sing and pray, and do mass-song, and teach men and baptize, until the King was converted to the faith, and they obtained more leave to teach everywhere, and to build and repair churches.

Then came it about through the grace of God that the King likewise among others began to delight in the cleanest life of holy [men] and their sweetest promises, and they also gave confirmation that those were true by the showing of many wonders; and he then, being glad, was baptized. Then began many daily to hasten and flock together to hear God’s word, and to forsake the manner of heathenism, and joined themselves, through belief, to the oneness of Christ’s holy Church. Of their belief and conversion [it] is said that the King was so evenly glad that he, however, forced none to the Christian manner [of worship], but that those who turned to belief and to baptism he more inwardly loved, as they were fellow-citizens of the heavenly kingdom. For he had learnt from his teachers and from the authors of his health that Christ’s service should be of good will, not of compulsion. And he then, the King, gave and granted to his teachers a place and settlement suitable to their condition, in his chief city, and thereto gave their needful supplies in various possessions.

During these things the holy man Augustine fared over sea, and came to the city Arles, and by Aetherius, archbishop of the said city, according to the behest and commandment of the blessed father St. Gregory, was hallowed archbishop of the English people, and returned and fared into Britain, and soon sent messengers to Rome, that was Laurence a mass-priest and Peter a monk, that they should say and make known to the blessed St. Gregory that the English nation had received Christ’s belief, and that he had been consecrated as bishop. He like-wise requested his advice about many causes and questions which were seen by him [to be] needful; and he soon sent suitable answers of them.

Asked by St. Augustine, bishop of the church of Canterbury: First, of bishops, how they shall behave and live with their fellows. Next, on the gifts of the faithful which they bring to holy tables and to God’s churches—how many doles of them shall be?

Answered by Pope St. Gregory: Holy writ makes it known, quoth he, which I have no doubt thou knowest, and sunderly the blessed Paul’s epistle, which he wrote to Timothy, in which he earnestly trained and taught him how he should behave and do in God’s house. For it is the manner of the apostolic seat, when they hallow bishops, that they give them commandments, and that of all the livelihood which comes in to them there shall be four doles. One, in the first place, to the bishop and his family for food, and entertainment of guests and comers; a second dole to God’s servants; a third to the needy; the fourth to renewing and repair of God’s church. But because thy brotherliness has been trained and taught in monastic rules, thou shalt not, however, be asunder from thy fellows in the English church, which now yet is newly come and led to the faith of God. This behavior and this life thou shalt set up, which our fathers had in the beginning of the newborn church, when none of them said aught of that which they owned was his in sunder; but they all had all things common. If, then, any priests or God’s servants are settled without holy orders, let those who cannot withhold themselves from women take them wives, and receive their livelihood outside. For of the same fathers, of whom we spoke before, [it] is written that they dealt their worldly goods to sundry men as every [one] had need.

Likewise concerning their livelihood it is to be thought and foreseen (i.e., provided) that they live in good manners under ecclesiastical rules, and sing psalms and keep wakes and hold their hearts and tongues and bodies clean from all forbidden [things] to Almighty God. But, as to those living in common life, what have we to say how they deal their aims, or exercise hospitality, and fulfil mercy? since all that is left over in their worldly substance is to be reached and given to the pious and good, as the master of all, our Lord Christ, taught and said: Quod superest, etc. "What is over and left, give aims, and to you are all [things] clean."

Asked by St. Augustine: Since there is one faith, and are various customs of churches, there is one custom of mass-song in the holy Roman Church, and another is had in the kingdom of Gaul.

Answered by Pope St. Gregory: Thou thyself knowest the manner and custom of the Roman Church, in which thou wert reared; but now it seems good, and is more agreeable to me, that whatsoever thou hast found either in the Roman Church or in Gaul, or in any other [church], that was more pleasing to Almighty God, thou should carefully choose that, and set it to be held fast in the Church of the English nation, which now yet is new in the faith. For the things are not to be loved for places; but the places for good things. Therefore what things thou choosest as pious, good, and right from each of sundry churches, these gather thou together, and settle into a custom in the mind of the English nation.

Asked by Augustine: I pray thee, what punishment shall he suffer—whosoever takes away anything by stealth from a church?

Answered by Gregory: This may thy brotherliness determine from the thief’s condition, how he may be corrected. For there are some who have worldly wealth, and yet commit theft; there are some who are in this wise guilty through poverty. Therefore need is that some be corrected by waning of their worldly goods, some by stripes; some more sternly, some more mildly. And though the punishment be inflicted a little harder or sterner, yet it is to be done of love, not of wrath nor of fury; because through the throes of this is procured to the man that he be not given to the everlasting fires of hell-torments. For in this manner we ought to punish men, as the good fathers are wont [to do] their fleshly children, whom they chide and swinge for their sins; and yet those same whom they chide and chastise by these pains they also love, and wish to have for their heirs, and for them hold their worldly goods which they possess, whom they seem in anger to persecute and torment. For love is ever to be held in the mind, and it dictates and determines the measure of the chastisement, so that the mind does nothing at all beside the right rule. Thou likewise addest in thy inquiry, how those things should be compensated which have been taken away from a church by theft. But, oh! far be it that God’s Church should receive with increase what she seems to let alone of earthly things, and seek worldly gain by vain things.

Asked by Bishop St. Augustine: At what generation shall Christian people be joined among themselves in marriage with their kinsfolk? . . . Answered by St. Gregory: . . But because there are many in the English nation [who], while they were then yet in unbelief, are said to have been joined together in this sinful marriage,2

now they are to be admonished, since they have come to the faith, that they hold themselves off from such iniquities, and understand that it is a heavy sin, and dread the awful doom of God, lest they for fleshly love receive the torments of everlasting death. They are not, however, for this cause to be deprived of the communion of Christ’s body and blood, lest this thing may seem to be revenged on them, in which they through unwillingness sinned before the bath of baptism. For at this time the Holy Church corrects some things through zeal, bears with some through mildness, overlooks some through consideration, and so bears and overlooks that often by bearing and overlooking she checks the opposing evil. All those who come to the faith of Christ are to be reminded that they may not dare to commit any such thing. But, if any shall commit them, then are they to be deprived of Christ’s body and blood; for, as some little is to be borne with in regard to those men who through unwillingness commit sin, so on the other hand it is to be strongly pursued in those who dread not to sin wittingly.

Asked by Bishop St. Augustine: If a great distance of journey lies between, so that bishops may not easily come, whether may a bishop be hallowed without the presence of other bishops.

Answered by Gregory: In the English Church, indeed, in which thou alone as yet art found a bishop, thou canst not hallow a bishop otherwise than without other bishops; but bishops must come to thee out of the kingdom of Gaul, that they may stand as witness at the bishop’s hallowing, for the hallowing of bishops must not be otherwise than in the assembling and witnessing of three or four bishops, that they may send [up] and pour [forth] their petitions and prayers to the Almighty God for his favor.

Asked by Augustine: How must we do with the bishops of Gaul and Britain?

Answered by Pope Gregory: over the bishops of Gaul we give thee no authority, because from the earlier times of my predecessors the bishop of the city Arles received the pallium, whom we ought not to degrade nor to deprive of the received authority. But, if thou happen to go into the province of Gaul, have thou a conference and consultation with the said bishop what is to be done, or, if any vices are found in bishops, how they shall be corrected and reformed; and if there be a supposition that he is too lukewarm in the vigor of his discipline and chastisement, then is he to be inflamed and abetted by thy brotherliness’s love,3

that he may ward off those things which are contrary to the behest and commands of our Maker, from the manners of the bishops. Thou mayest not judge the bishops of Gaul without their own authority; but thou shalt mildly admonish them, and show them the imitation of thy good works. All the bishops of Britain we commend to thy brotherliness, in order that the unlearned may be taught, the weak strengthened by thy exhortation, and the perverse corrected by thy authority.4

Augustine likewise bade [his messengers] acquaint him that a great harvest was here present and few workmen. And he then sent with the aforesaid messengers more help to him for divine learning, among whom the first and greatest were Mellitus and Justus and Paulinus and Rufinianus, and by them generally all those things which were needful for the worship and service of the Church—communion vessels, altar-cloth, and church ornaments, and bishops’ robes, and deacons’ robes, as also reliques of the apostles and holy martyrs, and many books. He likewise sent to Augustine the bishop a pallium, and a letter in which he intimated how he should hallow other bishops, and in what places [he should] set them in Britain.

The blessed Pope Gregory likewise at the same time sent a letter to King Ethelbert, and along with it many worldly gifts of diverse sorts. He wished likewise by these temporal honors to glorify the King, to whom he had, by his labor and by his diligence in teaching, opened and made known the glory of the heavenly kingdom.

And then St. Augustine, as soon as he received the bishop-seat in the royal city, renewed and wrought, with the King’s help, the church which he had learnt was wrought long before by old Roman work, and hallowed it in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ; and he there set a dwelling-place for himself and all his after-followers. He likewise built a monastery by east of the city, in which Ethelbert the King, by his exhortation and advice, ordered to build a church worthy of the blessed apostles Peter and Paul, and he enriched it with various gifts, in which church the body of Augustine, and of all the Canterbury bishops together, and of their kings, might be laid. The church, however, not Augustine, but Bishop Laurentius, his after-follower, hallowed.

The first abbot at the same monastery was a mass-priest named Peter, who was sent back as a messenger into the kingdom of Gaul, and then was drowned in a bay of the sea, which was called Amfleet, and was laid in an unbecoming grave by the inhabitants of the place. But the Almighty God would show of what merit the holy man was, and every night a heavenly light was made to shine over his grave, until the neighbors, who saw it, understood that it was a great and holy man who was buried there; and they then asked who and whence he was: they then took his body, and laid and buried it in a church in the city of Boulogne, with the honor befitting so great and so holy a man.

Then it was that Augustine, with the help of King Ethelbert, invited to his speech the bishops and teachers of the Britons, in the place which is yet named Augustine’s Oak, on the borders of the Hwiccii and West Saxons. And he then began, with brotherly love, to advise and teach them, that they should have right love and peace between them, and undertake, for the Lord, the common labor of teaching divine lore in the English nation. And they would not hear him, nor keep Easter at its right tide, and also had many other things unlike and contrary to ecclesiastical unity. When they had held a long conference and strife about those things, and they would not yield any things to Augustine’s instructions, nor to his prayers, nor to his threats, and [those] of his companions, but thought their own customs and institutions better than [that] they should agree with all Christ’s churches throughout the world; then the holy father Augustine put an end to this troublesome strife, and thus spoke:

"Let us pray Almighty God, who makes the one-minded to dwell in his Father’s house, that he vouchsafe to signify to us by heavenly wonders which institution we ought to follow, by what ways to hasten to the entrance of his kingdom. Let an infirm man be brought hither to us, and, through whose prayer soever he be healed, let his belief and practice be believed acceptable to God, and to be followed by all."

When his adversaries had hardly granted that, a blind man of English kin was led forth: he was first led to the bishops of the Britons, and he received no health nor comfort through their ministry. Then at last Augustine was constrained by righteous need, arose and bowed his knees, [and] prayed God the Almighty Father that he would give sight to the blind man, that he through one man’s bodily enlightening might kindle the gift of ghostly light in the hearts of many faithful. Then soon, without delay, the blind man was enlightened, and received sight; and the true preacher of the heavenly light, Augustine, was proclaimed and praised by all. Then the Britons also acknowledged with shame that they understood that it was the way of truth which Augustine preached; they said, however, that they could not, without consent and leave of their people, shun and forsake their old customs. They begged that again another synod should be [assembled], and they then would attend it with more counsellors.

When that accordingly was set, seven bishops of the Britons came, and all the most learned men, who were chiefly from the city Bangor: at that time the abbot of that monastery was named Dinoth. When they then were going to the meeting, they first came to a [certain] hermit, who was with them holy and wise. They interrogated and asked him whether they should for Augustine’s lore forsake their own institutions and customs. Then answered he them, "If he be a man of God, follow him." Quoth they to him, "How may we know whether he be so?" Quoth he: "[Our] Lord himself hath said in his gospel, Take ye my yoke upon you, and learn from me that I am mild and of lowly heart. And now if Augustine is mild and of lowly heart, then it is [to be] believed that he bears Christ’s yoke and teaches you to bear it. If he then is unmild and haughty, then it is known that he is not from God, nor [should] ye mind his words." Quoth they again, "How may we know that distinctly?" Quoth he, "See ye that he come first to the synod with his fellows, and sit; and, if he rises toward you when ye come, then wit ye that he is Christ’s servant, and ye shall humbly hear his words and his lore. But if he despise you, and will not rise toward you since there are more of you, be he then despised by you." Well, they did so as he said.

When they had come to the synod-place, the archbishop Augustine was sitting on his seat. When they saw that he rose not for them, they quickly became angry, and upbraided him [as being] haughty, and gainsaid and withstood all his words. The archbishop said to them: "In many things ye are contrary to our customs and so to [those] of all God’s churches; and yet if ye will be obedient to me in these three things—that first ye celebrate Easter at the right tide; that ye fulfil the ministry of baptism, through which we are born as God’s children, after the manner of the holy Roman and apostolic Church; and that, thirdly, ye preach the word of the Lord to the English people together with us—we will patiently bear with all other things which ye do that are contrary to our customs." They said that they would do none of these things, nor would have him for an archbishop; they said among themselves, "If he would not now rise for us, much more, if we shall be subjected to him, will he contemn us for naught." It is said that the man of God, St. Augustine, in a threatening manner foretold, "if they would not receive peace with men of God, that they should receive unpeace and war from their foes; and, if they would not preach among the English race the word of life, they should through their hands suffer the vengeance of death."

And through everything, as the man of God had foretold, by the righteous doom of God it came to pass; and very soon after this Ethelfrith, king of the English, collected a great army, and led it to Legcaster, and there fought against the Britons, and made the greatest slaughter of the faithless people. While he was beginning the battle, King Ethelfrith saw their priests and bishops and monks standing aloof in a safer place, that they should pray and make intercession to God for their warriors: he inquired and asked what that host was, and what they were doing there. When he understood the cause of their coming, then said he, "So! I wot if they cry to their God against us, though they bear not a weapon, they fight against us, for they pursue us with their hostile prayers and curses." He then straightway ordered to turn upon them first, and slay them. Men say that there were twelve hundred of this host, and fifty of them escaped by flight; and he so then destroyed and blotted out the other host of the sinful nation, not without great waning of his [own] host; and so was fulfilled the prophecy of the holy bishop Augustine, that they should for their trowlessness suffer the vengeance of temporal perdition, because they despised the skilful counsel of their eternal salvation.

After these things Augustine, bishop [of Britain], hallowed two bishops: the one was named Mellitus, the other Justus. Mellitus he sent to preach divine lore to the East Saxons, who are shed off from Kentland by the river Thames, and joined to the east sea. Their chief city is called Lunden taster (now London), standing on the bank of the foresaid river; and it is the marketplace of land and sea comers. The King in the nation at that time was Seabright (or Sabert), Ethelbert’s sister-son, and his vassal. Then he and the nation of the East Saxons received the word of truth and the faith of Christ through Mellitus, the bishop’s lore. Then King Ethelbert ordered to build a church in London, and to hallow it to St. Paul the apostle, that he and his after-followers might have their bishop-seat in that place. Justus he hallowed as bishop in Kent itself at Rochester, which is four-and-twenty miles right west from Canterbury, in which city likewise King Ethelbert ordered to build a church, and to hallow it to St. Andrew the apostle; and to each of these bishops the King gave his gifts and bookland and possessions for them to brook with their fellows.

After these things, then, Father Augustine, beloved of God, departed [this life], and his body was buried without [doors], nigh the church of the blessed apostles Peter and Paul, which we mentioned before, because it was not then yet fully built nor hallowed. As soon as it was hallowed, then his body was put into it, and becomingly buried in the north porch of the church, in which likewise the bodies of all the after-following archbishops are buried but two; that is, Theodorus and Berhtwald, whose bodies are laid in the church itself, because no more might [be so] in the foresaid porch. Well-nigh in the middle of the church is an altar set and hallowed in name of St. Gregory, on which every Saturday their memory and decease are celebrated with mass-song by the mass-priest of that place. On St. Augustine’s tomb is written an inscription of this sort: Here resteth Sir5

Augustine, the first archbishop of Canterbury, who was formerly sent hither by the blessed Gregory, bishop of the Roman city; and was upheld by God with working of wonders. King Ethelbert and his people he led from the worship of idols to the faith of Christ, and, having fulfilled the days of his ministry in peace, departed on the 26th day of May in the same King’s reign.


Years had passed by since Gregory pitied the English slaves in the market-place of Rome. As bishop of the imperial city he at last found himself in a position to carry out his dream of winning Britain to the faith, and an opening was given him by Ethelbert’s marriage with Bertha, a daughter of the Frankish king Charibert of Paris. Bertha, like her Frankish kindred, was a Christian; a Christian bishop accompanied her from Gaul; and a ruined Christian church, the church of St. Martin beside the royal city of Canterbury, was given them for their worship.

The King himself remained true to the gods of his fathers; but his marriage no doubt encouraged Gregory to send a Roman abbot, Augustine, at the head of a band of monks to preach the Gospel to the English people. The missionaries landed in 597 in the Isle of Thanet, at the spot where Hengist had landed more than a century before; and Ethelbert received them sitting in the open air, on the chalk-down above Minster where the eye nowadays catches miles away over the marshes the dim tower of Canterbury.

The King listened patiently to the long sermon of Augustine as the interpreters the abbot had brought with him from Gaul rendered it in the English tongue. "Your words are fair," Ethelbert replied at last with English good sense, "but they are new and of doubtful meaning." For himself, he said, he refused to forsake the gods of his fathers, but with the usual religious tolerance of his race he promised shelter and protection to the strangers.

The band of monks entered Canterbury bearing before them a silver cross with a picture of Christ, and singing in concert the strains of the litany of their church. "Turn from this city, O Lord," they sang, "thine anger and wrath, and turn it from thy holy house, for we have sinned." And then in strange contrast came the jubilant cry of the older Hebrew worship, the cry which Gregory had wrested in prophetic earnestness from the name of the Yorkshire king in the Roman marketplace, "Alleluia!"6

It was thus that the spot which witnessed the landing of Hengist became yet better known as the landing-place of Augustine. But the second landing at Ebbsfleet was in no small measure a reversal and undoing of the first. "Strangers from Rome" was the title with which the missionaries first fronted the English King. The march of the monks as they chanted their solemn litany was in one sense a return of the Roman legions who withdrew at the trumpet-call of Alaric. It was to the tongue and the thought not of Gregory only, but of the men whom his Jutish fathers had slaughtered or driven out that Ethelbert listened in the preaching of Augustine.

Canterbury, the earliest royal city of German England, became a centre of Latin influence. The Roman tongue became again one of the tongues of Britain, the language of its worship, its correspondence, its literature. But more than the tongue of Rome returned with Augustine. Practically his landing renewed that union with the western world which the landing of Hengist had destroyed. The new England was admitted into the older commonwealth of nations. The civilization, art, letters, which had fled before the sword of the English conquerors returned with the Christian faith. The great fabric of the Roman law indeed never took root in England, but it is impossible not to recognize the result of the influence of the Roman missionaries in the fact that codes of the customary English law began to be put in writing soon after their arrival.

A year passed before Ethelbert yielded to the preaching of Augustine. But from the moment of his conversion the new faith advanced rapidly and the Kentish men crowded to baptism in the train of their King. The new religion was carried beyond the bounds of Kent by the supremacy which Ethelbert wielded over the neighboring kingdoms. Sebert, king of the East Saxons, received a bishop sent from Kent, and suffered him to build up again a Christian church in what was now his subject city of London, while the East Anglian king Redwald resolved to serve Christ and the older gods together.

1Translated by King Alred the Great.

2That is, with their near kinsfolk.

3A brother is here styled "his brotherliness," as a pope "his holiness."

4The remainder of this is not translated here.

5"Sir" in English (Schir, Scottish) equal to Dominus, Latin, was five or six centuries ago prefixed to the name of every ordained priest.

6See introduction to Augustine’s Missionary work in England.


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Chicago: The Venerable Bede Bede, "Augustine’s Missionary Work in England," The Great Events by Famous Historians, Vol 4 in The Great Events by Famous Historians. Lincoln Memorial University Edition, ed. Rossiter Johnson (Harrogate, TN: The National Alunmi, 1926), Original Sources, accessed December 6, 2022,

MLA: Bede, The Venerable Bede. "Augustine’s Missionary Work in England." The Great Events by Famous Historians, Vol 4, in The Great Events by Famous Historians. Lincoln Memorial University Edition, edited by Rossiter Johnson, Harrogate, TN, The National Alunmi, 1926, Original Sources. 6 Dec. 2022.

Harvard: Bede, T, 'Augustine’s Missionary Work in England' in The Great Events by Famous Historians, Vol 4. cited in 1926, The Great Events by Famous Historians. Lincoln Memorial University Edition, ed. , The National Alunmi, Harrogate, TN. Original Sources, retrieved 6 December 2022, from