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A Catholic Ruler is the Key to a Christian Land

A Catholic Ruler is the Key to a Christian Land

Saint Augustine of Canterbury and the Conversion of King Saint Ethelbert

by: Servus Immaculatae


England was first reached by the Roman Empire some sixty years before the birth of our Lord, by Caius Julius Caesar.  The initial settlement of the Island with Romans, however, began after the Emperor Claudius conquered it, along with the Isles of Orkney, 105 years later.[1] Thus when Christianity began to spread throughout the empire it also spread to Britain.  When the time of the persecution of Diocletian came there were many Roman Christians in England who suffered and died planting the seeds of faith for future generations of English people.  One of the most famous of these was Saint Alban who was martyred in the year 301.[2] Following the days of the persecution there was peace for some years until the outbreak of the Arian Heresy.  At the beginning of the fifth century the Roman Empire fell and shortly after there was a mass exodus of nearly all Romans from Britain, which included most of the Christians as well.[3]

Britain, without the Roman Legions to protect it, was then cast into darkness by plagues of marauding barbarians coming in from every side of the island.  Britain was again a pagan land, though several missionary journeys were made to preach the gospel to the heathens and minister to the few Christians that still remained there.  While these laid the groundwork for its later conversion, there was not lasting and widespread success.  In the year 596 Pope Saint Gregory the Great sent Saint Augustine of Canterbury along with some monks to preach the Catholic faith to the inhabitants of the Island that, because of his efforts, would one day be known as the Island of Saints.­[4]

Though of course Saint Augustine had the aid of almighty God and the backing of the Holy Father, still there seems to be one crucial factor of his success among the Britons.  This key to winning over Britain was Augustine’s first winning over the pagan King Ethelbert, who initially only gave his approbation for the carrying out of missionary work, but who would eventually convert.  In 597 Augustine met with the King for the first time and preached the Gospel to him and explained his plans for his missionary work in Britain.  Augustine impressed the King with his preaching, but he was unwilling to give up the old pagan ways of his people, yet he still granted permission for Augustine to preach in the very city where he resided: Kent, which would later become the first Diocese in Britain.[5] This was a monumental victory for Augustine at the very outset of his work in Britain.  He was then able to move around fairly freely and preach the faith to the people and win many to it.  This story is strikingly similar to another that happened a century earlier on the island just to the West when another missionary was sent to convert a pagan people.  This missionary was Saint Patrick and the island was Ireland.  He was able to have similar success in converting that island after receiving the approbation of the pagan Irish High King Laoghaire who preferred Saint Patrick’s preaching to that of the Arians, but would not himself give up his pagan beliefs.[6]

While Laoghaire never converted, however, King Ethelbert did convert to the Catholic Faith at the urging of Saint Augustine.  The conversion of the British King was a boost to the Catholic Faith in the Kingdom since now both secular and ecclesiastical authorities were working in consort to rid the land of paganism and institute the Catholic Faith.  It was during this time that Pope Gregory wrote a letter to the King in which he compared this new Christian Ruler to the Emperor Constantine and spoke of how beneficial it was to have a ruler that professes the faith.[7] This too even more profoundly parallels what happened a century earlier just to the south in Gaul when Saint Remigius converted the pagan king Clovis.  Unfortunately, the parallel is similar in a dark way as well for in both instances upon the death of these good Christian Kings their respective Kingdoms immediately plunged back into paganism.  Yet in both cases these lands would again be restored to the faith by later Christian rulers.

All of the above (not otherwise cited) is related by Saint Bede the Venerable in what is considered his greatest work: History of the English Church and People.[8] Bede was a prolific writer in the history of the Catholic Church, and though he wrote mostly commentaries on Sacred Scripture, because of his aforementioned work he was given the title “Father of English History” by Pope Leo XIII on November 13th, 1899 when he declared him a Doctor of the Church.[9]  Bede was a monk in England living under the rule of Saint Benedict during the late 7th Century and well into the early 8th Century after Christ.[10] He never left the confines of the shores of Britain, and thus had to rely on extant documents available to him at the time for his information of the outside world.[11]

Warren Carroll also covers this period of time of the sending of Saint Augustine of Canterbury to England by Pope Saint Gregory the Great.[12] It is interesting to note that his treatment of the subject is very similar to that of Saint Bede, but Carroll does not even refer to the great Father of English History.  Instead he relies principally upon the work of F. Holmes Dudden[13] and Margaret Deanesly[14], both Anglicans.  These authors seem to have been in possession of more information than Bede as Carroll draws from them a number of details not given by the Saint.  One of these details is that the wife of King Ethelbert, whom Bede does not mention, was the great-granddaughter of King Clovis of the Franks.[15]  It is probable that she had a similar impact on her husband as did her great-grandmother Saint Clotilda.  Another detail mentioned by Carroll, and at best obscure in Bede, is that when King Ethelbert converted and was baptized: “Augustine immediately asked Pope Gregory for more priests, knowing that the Church would now grow very rapidly in England.”[16] This clearly demonstrates Augustine’s understanding of the great importance of winning over a ruler in order to win over the people.  Finally, while Bede mostly confines himself to what was going on in England during this time, Carroll gives a much broader historical context.  He also speaks about the concurrent conversion of the rulers of Spain at the hands of Saint Leander, and in particular way the staunch orthodoxy of the Merovingian Princess Ingunthis who married the Gothic Prince of Spain Hermenegild and converted him to orthodoxy from the Arian heresy in which his country was then steeped.[17] Hermenegild would eventually be martyred by his own Arian Father, and after his death his brother Reccared succeeded to the throne.[18]  He it was who would secured the official conversion of Spain to the orthodox Catholic faith and who personally addressed the 65 Bishops at the Council of Toledo in 589 which permanently sealed the orthodoxy of Spain and the condemnation of Arianism in that land.[19]  Thus both the great Catholic Kingdoms of Spain and England seem to have been closely connected, if not in some way brought about, by the conversion of the Eldest Daughter of the Church and her leaders.  Saints Remigius, Augustine, and Leander performed a powerful work when one considers the vast host of Saints that would be raised up by God in these great Catholic lands for hundreds of years after these great men had left this earth to their eternal reward.

When Ethelbert’s son Eadbald came to the throne he rejected the faith of his father and banished two Bishops who had been consecrated by Saint Augustine.[20] This misfortune was soon reversed when, before he too left Britain, Augustine’s successor Laurentius converted Eadbald and the Church could again grow.   The next King was Edwin who was a heathen but who married the Christian daughter of King Ethelbert and once he converted he “received wide additions to his realm, and brought under his sway all the territories inhabited by the Britons, an achievement unmatched by any previous English King.”[21] During his reign this Christian King inspired the pagan high priest in his realm to destroy his own altars and convert to the true faith.[22] When his nephews succeeded him after his death they both promptly apostatized from the faith resulting in much suffering for the people of the kingdom.[23] Both met their end a short time into their reigns and the Kingdom was again restored to peace by the Christian King Oswald.[24] One can then see this trend continue through the history of the English nation that when it has a good Christian ruler the faith flourishes and when the ruler is a pagan or heretic much damage is done to the faith of the people and the work of the Church.  Sadly this culminated when nearly a thousand years after Augustine came to England the once Catholic King Henry VIII broke with the Church and took the entire English nation with him.  How we must pray that England will once again be ruled by a good Catholic ruler and bear the title Island of the Saints proudly once more.

Collect for the Feast of Saint Edward the Confessor (Oct. 13th)

Deus, qui beátum regem Eduárdum Confessórem tuum æternitátis glória coronásti: fac nos, quǽsumus; ita eum venerári in terris, ut cum eo regnáre póssimus in coelis.  Per Dóminum nostrum Iesum Christum, Fílium tuum, qui tecum vivit et regnat in unitáte Spiritus Sancti, Deus, per ómnia sǽcula sæculórum. Amen.

O God, Who hast set upon the head of thy blessed Confessor King Edward a crown of everlasting glory, grant unto us, we beseech thee, so to use our reverence for him here upon earth, as to make the same a mean whereby to come to reign with him hereafter in heaven. Through Jesus Christ, thy Son our Lord, Who liveth and reigneth with thee, in the unity of the Holy Ghost, ever one God, world without end. Amen.

[1] Saint Bede the Venerable, A History of the English Church and People, Trans. Leo Sherley-Price, (Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1955), 40-42.

[2] Ibid, 44-47.

[3] Ibid, 50-51.

[4] Ibid, 66-67.

[5] Ibid, 68-71.

[6] Hugh De Blacam, Saint Patrick: Apostle of Ireland, Ed. Joseph Husslein S.J. PH.D. (Milwaukee: The Bruce Publishing Company, 1941), 67-8.

[7] Bede, A History of the English Church and People, 88-91.

[8] Fr. Christopher Rengers O.F.M. Cap., The 33 Doctors of the Church (Rockford: TAN Books and Publishers, 2000), 220.

[9] Ibid, 230.

[10] Ibid, 220-1.

[11] Ibid, 221.

[12] W. Carroll, A History of Christendom, vol. 2, The Building of Christendom (Front Royal: Christendom College Press, 1987),197-9.

[13] F. H. Dudden, Gregory the Great, His Place in History and Thought (New York, 1905, 1967), 2 vols.

[14] Margaret Deanesly, Augustine of Canterbury (London, 1964).

[15] Carroll, The Building of Christendom, 198.

[16] Ibid, 198.

[17] Ibid, 192.

[18] Ibid, 195.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Bede, A History of the English Church and People, 106-8.

[21] Ibid, 112.

[22] Ibid, 124-6.

[23] Ibid, 138-39.

[24] Ibid, 139.


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