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AD 597 - Augustine arrives in Kent


Sent to Britain in 597 by Pope Gregory the Great, Augustine and his evangelists wanted to turn back, ‘being,’ according to Bede, ‘appalled at the idea of going to a barbarous, fierce, and pagan nation.’ They persevered, landed in Kent, and were received well by the local king Aethelberht.


Written and presented by Robert Smith, Chairman of the Manorial Society of Great Britain - www.msgb.co.uk






Written and presented by

Robert Smith


Voice over

Barney Powell

Rebecca Cooper


Music production &

Original music

Simon Roberts

(Lyric media group)


Original film footage

Ian Phillips


Picture editor

Roberto Ekholm


Asst picture editor

Guilfre Jordan


Associate Producer

Ian Phillips



Antonio Parente


Picture sources:


Icon of the enthroned Virgin and Child with saints and angels, 6th century, at St Catherine's Monastery, south Sinai, Egypt:



The map comes from Paul Vidal-Lablache's Atlas général d'histoire et de géographie (1894).   Although this is a political representation of France c 1420, before the later expansion, it gives a reasonable idea of the principal fiefs of the late sixth century, which were greatly subdivided among local warlords, with whom Augustine and his evangelical mission would have had to negotiate on their way to England in 597.   Note that most of modern north-eastern and eastern France had not been absorbed into the Merovingian kingdom, and were only incorporated in the 16th and 17th centuries, the last being Lorraine in 1766: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Division_of_Gaul_-_587.jpg


 Pope Gregory I, the Great (c540-1604) by Francisco de Zurbarán, painted, 1626-1627, Oil on canvas, Museo de Bellas Artes, Seville, Spain



A denarius coin of the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius (r 161-180) which contained a reasonable amount of silver.   The denarius's first letter 'd' was used in sterling to denote pennies until British decimalization in 1971.   There had been 240d (240 pence) to the pound sterling until then.   Until the Great War, which began in 1914, British sovereigns (coins) were of 24 carat gold, and silver coins were made of silver: 6d,  a shilling (1s), a florin (2s), and a half crown (2s 6d, usually denoted in writing as 2/6 and 'spoken of as two and six' or 'half a crown').   There were also paper notes for £1 and £5 which could be taken to the Bank of England and exchanged for gold.   Like most other countries in 1914, Britain came off what was called the Gold Standard (by no means for the first time), when larger denominations became paper notes of 10s, £1, and £5.   There was an eccentric attempt in the later 1920s by Winston Churchill, as British Chancellor of the Exchequer, to restore the Gold Standard, which was abolished once and for all in 1931 as the 1930s world slump took hold, and did much to bring Adolf Hitler to power in Germany in 1933.   A final note, the shilling derives from Old English scilling and Old Norse skillingr, themselves probably descendants in nomenclature of the early Byzantine gold coin known as the solidus: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Roman_currency


Alonso de Ovalle, 1646 engraving, of Valdivia, Villagra and Alderete, Spanish conquitadores in Latin America of the 16th century:



Presidential Palace: the White House, the executive mansion of the President of the United States, located at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C, built by black slaves in the late 18th century, destroyed by the British in 1814, then repaired by black slaves.   Which is not an oblique condemnation of American attitudes at the time; Britain only abolished the trade in slaves in 1807, while preserving existing slavery in its Caribbean colonies until slavery itself was abolished by the London Parliament in 1833, effective by about 1840.   Indeed, the largest group of small shareholders in the British slave trade were Anglican clergy.   The US abolished slavery in 1865, at the tail-end of the American Civil War: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:WhiteHouseSouthFacade.JPG


St Mellitus, the first bishop of the East Saxons in 604, later Bishop of London.   At the bottom of the centre light of the stained glass is a scene showing the conversion of King Saeberht of the East Saxons.   St Mellitus became Archbishop of Canterbury, third in succession to Augustine, whose date of death is, surprisingly, not known, but is thought to have been 604. The arms of the Province of Canterbury are at the top of the centre light. At the top of the left hand light are the arms of the Diocese of London, and on the right those of the Diocese of Chelmsford.   Scenes in the outer lights are: the building of the Saxon church, the building of the pre-Conquest nave, the building of the tower, Edward IV granting the Charter to the Jesus Guild. Small medallions show the old school at the foot of Prittlewell hill and the later school next to the church.   The stained glass can be seen at St Mary's Church, Prittlewell, Southend, Essex, England: http://www.stmarysprittlewell.co.uk/window3.htm


Bamburgh castle at the coast of Northumberland, rebuilt and expanded in the 19th century, but dating back, it is thought, perhaps to Queen Bebba, in the 7th century: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Bamburgh_2006_closeup.jpg  www.bamburghcastle.com


8th Century portrait of St Augustine of Canterbury from Bede Ms – See Episode 1 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Augustine_of_Canterbury


A much later palace (15th century), Piazza del Popolo, Ravenna, Italy, the Eastern Roman Emperor's headquarters in Italy in the 6th century:  http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:PiazzaDelPopolo01.jpg


As above: the map comes from Paul Vidal-Lablache's Atlas général d'histoire et de géographie (1894):



Gregory of Tours by Jean Marcellin - stone statue, before 1853; 1st statue from Pavillon Turgot to Pavillon Richelieu, Cour Napoléon in the Louvre, Paris, France: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Gregory_of_Tours_cour_Napoleon_Louvre.jpg


Saint Augustine http://dailyoffice.org/2014/05/26/morning-prayer-5-26-14-augustine-archbishop-of-canterbury-605-usa-memorial-day/


Picture showing how the pallium was worn: Pope Innocent III wearing a Y-shaped pallium: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Innozenz3.jpg


St Paulinus of York, born in Italy, 584, died at Rochester, where he was interrred - stained glass, Rochester Cathedral:



Folio 125r of the St Augustine Gospels (Cambridge, England, Corpus Christi College, MS 286), Scenes from the Passion of Christ: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:AugustineGospelsFolio125rPassionScenes.jpg


Alonso de Ovalle's 1646 engraving of Valdivia, Villagra and Alderete, as above:   http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Francisco_de_Villagra


Clovis, first Christian King of the united Franks (baptized sometime between 496 and 508) and founder of the Merovingian dynasty of France, which his four sons split up between themselves on their father's death in 511.   Perhaps the greatest problem among the so-called barbarian successor states of the Roman Empire was the internicine struggles that took place among the heirs.   England, Scotland, and Ireland were no different as we shall see: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Clovis_I


The Mellitus window at St Mary's Church, Prittlewell, see above:  http://www.stmarysprittlewell.co.uk/newmel.htm


Saint Mellitus The first bishop of the East Saxons in 604.  At the bottom of the centre light is a scene showing the conversion of King Sebert of the East Saxons.  St. Mellitus became Archbishop of Canterbury. The arms of the Province of Canterbury are at the top of the centre light. At the top of the left hand light are the arms of the Diocese of London, and on the right those of the Diocese of Chelmsford. Scenes in the outer lights are: the building of the Saxon church, the building of the pre-Conquest nave, the building of the tower, Edward IV granting the Charter to the Jesus Guild. Small medallions show the old school at the foot of Prittlewell hill and the later school next to the church. http://www.stmarysprittlewell.co.uk/window3.htm


Modern representation of Anglo Saxons  with their weapons on choice: http://www.centingas.co.uk/SchoolVisits.html


The first page of twelfth-century manuscript copy of King Æthelberht’s law code, the first known Anglo-Saxon laws expressed in writing: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/%C3%86thelberht_of_Kent


Pope Gregory I, is traditionally credited with inspiring Gregorian Chant, or plainsong, which is not very likely, and there were numerous other musical chants around the Christian world in the sixth and seventh centuries when Gregory lived.   All were polyphonic (ie in unison) and polyphany (harmony) only started to emerge in the 12th century: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Gregory_I_-_Antiphonary_of_Hartker_of_Sankt_Gallen.jpg


King_Aethelberht of Kent, stained glass window at St Mary's Church, Hillborough, North Sheppey, Kent; picture by Penny Mayes: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:King_Ethelbert_window_-_geograph.org.uk_-_341487.jpg


Presidential Palace: the White House: see above  Seal of the President of the United States http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Seal_of_the_President_of_the_United_States.svg


Presidential Palace: President Vladimir Putin of Russia enters a grand reception room at the Kremlin, his courtiers kept politely at a distance by red ropes: http://www.abc.net.au/am/content/2012/s3497570.htm


President Vladimir Putin took the presidential oath at his 3rd inauguration ceremony, 7 May 2012: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vladimir_Putin#mediaviewer/File:Vladimir_Putin_inauguration_7_May_2012-10.jpeg


St Boniface (c 680–750), Pope Gregory I, the Great (c 540–604, pope 590–604), Adalbert of Egmond (8th century), and the priest Jeroen van Noordwijk, depicted in a 1529 painting by Jan Joostsz van Hillegom currently on display at the Frans Hals Museum, Amsterdam, The Netherlands: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Order_of_Saint_Benedict


King and later Saint Edwin of Deira, centred on York, and of Bernicia (jointly known as Northumbria); stained glass at St Mary's Church, Sledmere, Yorkshire, England: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Edwin_of_Northumbria


Denarius of Marcus Aurelius, as above: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Roman_currency


Hengest and Horsa, from A Restitution of Decayed Intelligence by Richard Verstegan (1605): http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hengist_and_Horsa


The Hugin is a modern version of a longship of the sort that may have been used by Hengest and Horsa when they sailed to England in 449.   It was a gift from the Danish government in 1949 to mark the 1500th anniversary of the Jutish landing in Kent.   It is based on the Gokstad Ship of Denmark, dating from about 890, and can be seen at Pegwell Bay, Ramsgate, Kent, England: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hugin_(longship)


Bamburgh castle, as above:  http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Bamburgh_2006_closeup.jpg  www.bamburghcastle.com


A map showing the locations of the kingdoms of the British Isles in the late seventh century: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:British_Isles_7C_kingdoms_with_Bernicia_and_Deira.gif


King Aethelberht, as above: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:King_Ethelbert_window_-_geograph.org.uk_-_341487.jpg




Episode transcript:



We have said it several times already, but we must keep reminding ourselves of the overwhelming significance that Christianity was to have in the daily lives of everyone in our period.   This Episode is about its early expansion.  




By the time of St Augustine's mission to England at the end of the sixth century, spoken of in the last episode, he and his retinue were having second thoughts as they made their way north from Rome.   Italy may have become a shadow of its past glories - and the population of Rome may have sunk to no more than 50,000, compared with a million under the Empire - but there was order through the network of bishops and churches.   The Byzantine emperors at Constantinople still ruled swathes of the country from Ravenna to Sicily where their governors - known as exarchs - ruled under an established legal system.   Roads and bridges were maintained and taxes collected.  

Imperial and ecclesiastical authority was underpinned by a civil service, backed by troops - in the case of the Church, some monks and priests were by no means above taking up arms to defeat what they saw were infractions of their conception of law and order.   But north of the Alps, in Gaul - through which Augustine had to travel - safe passage might depend on the whim of some local warlord.   Gregory of Tours,  bishop and saint, who was born in the Auvergne, in  539, actually knew the Merovingian kings of the Franks, who ruled Gaul.   He spent time at their court, and witnessed the violence and caprice of these barbarian rulers and their aristocracy.  

He was an astute observer and recorded, in his great 'History of the Franks,' what he saw of the Frankish 'badlands,' to borrow a useful modern word.   If they reached the north coast of France, crossing the channel by boat to England must have seemed insane.   Little wonder that Augustine's missionaries were afraid, and wanted to turn back.   Bede tells us:





596:  ...they were appalled at the idea of going to a barbarous, fierce, and pagan nation, of whose very language they were ignorant.   They...  sent back Augustine - who was to be consecrated bishop in the event of their being received by the English - so that he might humbly request the holy Gregory to recall them from so dangerous, arduous, and uncertain a journey.




Augustine was sent back to his group with a letter of encouragement from the pope, who also reminded the members that it was better not to have started on an enterprise than to abandon it once it had begun.   As we know, the Kentish king gave them a hearing, allowed them to preach, and was converted himself.   Following the pope's advice, the transition from paganism to Christianity was made as seemless as might be.   In 601, Pope Gregory sent Augustine the pallium - a special garment only worn by popes, archbishops, and some privileged bishops.   By this, Augustine  is accounted the first archbishop of Canterbury.   Gregory also sent more priests, including Paulinus, who would convert the Northumbrian king and found the bishopric of York.   After early misgivings, the mission was going well.




Although a salutory moment in the history of the English Church, we should keep in mind that Christianity did not make a sudden intervention into Anglo-Saxon-Jutish society as it did, say, from the end of the 15th century into Central American society with the arrival of the Spanish conquistadores.  

Christianity had been continuous among many Britons, as we've seen, from the time when Britannia was a Roman province - though some Britons left England for Wales or Lowland Scotland.   Interpretation of the archaeology along the South Coast, at London, and inland shows considerable trade between Britain and the European continent, particularly with England's largest neighbour, the Frankish kingdom.   The Franks' first king, Clovis of the Merovingian dynasty, had converted to Christianity in about 525.   Contact with Frankish Christians must have been commonplace and the Kentish monarchy may have adopted forms of organization, however rudimentary, that obtained in Frankish Gaul.  

We have noted that King Aethelberht's Frankish wife Bertha was a Christian.   His sister Ricole was probably a Christian, too, and had been married by her brother to Saeberht, whom Aethelberht had set up as King of the East Saxons.   Their tribal area seems to have encompassed Essex and adjoining areas in East Anglia.  

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle informs us that King Saeberht 'received the faith and baptismal bath' in 604.   Augustine sent Abbot Mellitus to preach to the East Saxons and Aethelberht gave him 'a bishop's seat in London.'   Concessions of this sort were likely often speculative.  

Usually it would have been upto Mellitus and his followers to shift for themselves with whatever assistance they could obtain from the king.   In fact, Aethelberht built what was to become St Paul's cathedral for the new bishop, suggesting the importance of London in the early seventh century - a topic we shall look at in the next Episode.




When the chronicles speak of kings, they generally speak of kings of peoples and not of places.   Kingship - chieftainship might be better - was a loose concept - as we mentioned in Episode 7 - meaning authority over a group of people, headed by a tribal warlord.   Often, leaders were elected by acclamation - possibly the raising of the chosen man on the shields of his chief followers.  

Accession to tribal authority did not necessarily follow strict primogeniture, and support might be withdrawn and the leader assassinated if he proved ineffective.   But family descent was very important to the Germanic incomers, the Angles and Saxons, and their leading men were believed to be of divine origin.  




St Augustine and his evangelists made landfall in Kent.   Happily for them, King Aethelberht was also Bretwalda, the English high king, according to Bede, whose influence extended as far north as the river Humber, which divides Yorkshire from Lincolnshire.   He was also the first English king to convert to Christianty - an example to the rest of the English - hardly unimportant to chroniclers, like Bede, who were all priests and who would have wanted to play up Aethelberht's importance.The coming of English kingship, in the sense that we understand it, was a very gradual process and, conceivably, Bede's use of the word 'king' may owe something to his greater understanding of imperial conventions, stemming from the former emperors of Rome.   He wrote a preface to his History, addressed to 'the most Glorious King Ceolwulf' - his friend and protector in Northumbria - whom he refers to in the text as 'your Majesty'.  

He may have adopted this style which was used in a letter from Pope Gregory to King Aethelberht, more than 125 years earlier, in 601.   Only emperors were majestic, and European kings remained merely gracious into the 16th century.   Gregory described  Aethelberht as, 'our most excellent son, the most glorious King Aethelberht, King of the English.'   It was in the interests even of popes to flatter the self-importance of local warlords: better to overplay flattery than to underplay it, as dealing with any British royal personage today remains living proof.




A ruler's authority then, as now, also depended on the symbols and rituals of office.   The modern British monarchy has honed them to perfection in the past 150 years.   Flummery works just as well today for elected political leaders.   A president of the republic of the United States lives in a palace called the White House (built by black slaves), and gives press conferences at a podium on which is imprinted 'The Seal of the President of the United States,' derived from a Grant of Arms by the London College of Arms sometime in the 17th century for the ancestor of a Founding Father.  

Red carpets are rolled out everywhere.   Journalists stand up when an American president enters the pressroom.   At least British journalists do not do that, but many of them accept honours.   A president of Russia enters a formal gathering of the nomenclatura at the Kremlin, preceded by an elaborate display of military drill by soldiers armed with glistering curved swords.   The elite, many of them wearing sparkling State decorations, are confined behind red ropes, and the president is condescendingly affable to right and to left, as he strides in to their applause.  

It is ritual with which the tsars would have felt completely at home, and is very effective.   Presidents of Russia and America are ELECTED emperors, with a military firepower that ancient emperors could not have conceived of in their wildest dreams.   Odd, therefore, that their political successors are mere 'excellencies.'  




The Church taught semi-barbarians, as Aethelberht surely must have been, how to magnify their authority through symbols and titles, and gradually to civilize them through Christianity, with its long and ever-increasing panopoly of history, tradition, learning, and message.   In 628, only thirty-one years after St Augustine first set foot in England, St Bede speaks of the newly Christianized King Edwin of Northumbria in these terms:




So royally was the king's dignity maintained throughout his realm that whether in battle or on a peaceful progress on horseback through a city, town, or countryside in company of his thegns, the royal standard was always borne before him.   Even when he passed through the streets on foot, the standard...   was carried in front of him.




A king's head on coinage is ancient.   In Britain, it dates from just before Roman times.   Early Anglo-Saxon leaders - particularly those in Kent - would have been encouraged by example to emulate their foreign royal bretheren by putting their heads on the currency as a means of publicizing their pre-eminence in wider society.  If a precious metal coinage was also sound, it commanded respect as did the king whose head appeared on it.   Such royal specie was used in international trade, thus promoting to foreign rulers hundreds of miles away the importance of the king who minted it.During the last two centuries of Roman rule, we have inferred that there was trade and social intercourse between Britain and the Angel Cyn of north Germany - and with other races, particularly the Gauls, later the Franks, or Gallo-Franks.  We have seen that a British king Vortigern called in Hengest and Horsa to help him against his enemies, and that in pretty short order they turned on him.   The Britons apparently abandoned Kent by 457 - after a catastrophic defeat at the hands of Hengest and Aesc, and 4,000 of them died at the battle of Crayford.  

By abandoning Kent, the chronicler probably meant that the British war leaders fell back, and local folk accepted the new masters.   Many of the annals of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle for the next century and more are mostly concerned with wars against British rulers.   They also speak of this or that warlord arriving by longship, variously landing on the south coast, the Isle of Wight, and in the north-east.  




The new arrivals made tribal headquarters by securing of a bridge-head.   This was not only important as a strong defensive centre for military planning, its defensive structures would also have been important to impress and to overawe the surrounding population.   In 547, the founding of a Northumbrian dynasty is remarked in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle when King Ida built Bamburgh.




So-called kingdoms were established more or less successfully in the melting pot that was the island of Britain, in the centuries after the collapse of Roman rule.   Angles, Saxons, Jutes, probably Franks, and others populated - or shared - England with the indigenous British.   Irish came to Lancashire.   Scots came from Ireland to form the kingdom of Dalriada and later Strathclyde, which periodically incorporated modern Cumbria.

The Scots eventually intermarried with the Picts from whom emerged the Canmore dynasty of kings of Scots.   Kings of the English, of the line of Alfred the Great, emerged at about the same time in the 10th century, the incentive for Anglo-Saxon unity being the constant descents of Scandinavian Viking marrauders, who gradually became settlers.   Nation-building sometimes needs a dangerous external threat to bury internicine rivalry for power.   Fighting among themselves, as we shall see, had long characterized the elites in the large island at the Edge of the World.




In the next episode, we shall continue with King Aethelberht, and try to gain an impression of what towns might have been like - of how 'civilized' England might have been.


Copyright Robert Smith, Manorial Society of Great Britain



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