Visiting the Site of England’s Conversion

Landing in London the other day, we wasted no time in locating the first available train to Minster Abbey, a lovely little place where the monastic life has been around for almost fourteen hundred years, its inspiration owing to a fellow named Benedict, who pretty much founded Western Monasticism. We planned to stay a week or so, giving us plenty of time to visit with an old friend whose vocation had brought her to Minster some years back. But also to see something of the neighborhood, especially the town of Ramsgate, gateway to the historic coast of Kent, a storied setting where a Saxon king long ago welcomed a party of missionaries sent from Rome to bring a pagan world to Christ. It was the year 597 A.D. And while their numbers were few—only forty signed on—they were led by a saint named Augustine, whom another saint named Gregory had commissioned to carry the Gospels to the extreme edge of the world. “When these islands,” Chesterton tells us in A Short History of England, “lost in a night of northern seas, were lit up at last by the long searchlights of Rome, it was felt that the remotest remnant of things had been touched…”

That light, of course, destined to dawn upon the Isle of Britain, traces finally back to God, but without the mediation of Rome—which is to say, Pope Gregory the Great—it might not have blazed at all. And while it was God’s grace that gave him the courage to send those missionaries in the first place, it was to Gregory’s everlasting credit that he felt moved to take up the tocsin. And all because of a chance encounter he had in the slave market of Rome. That was the catalyst which first awakened his eagerness to evangelize an island race in a faraway place. Seeing three fair-haired, blue-eyed English boys for sale. Where on earth had they come from? And when he was told that they were Angles or English, he punningly replied: Non Angli sed Angeli. And at once resolved to do something about it.

The story has come down to us thanks to the Venerable Bede, who is justly named the “father of English history,” and whose account of the events impinging most intimately upon the Augustinian mission are to be found in his monumental History of the English Church and People, written in the early eighth century. Such is the singular reputation of Bede that he remains the only Englishman to have appeared in the pages of Dante’s Paradiso. Not to mention the only one to have been declared a Doctor of the Church. Early on in his account he records the fact that no sooner had Augustine and his companions reached the southeastern shore of England—“bearing glad news, which certainty assured all who would receive it of eternal joy in heaven and an everlasting kingdom with the living and true God”—than they sought an audience with the king, a man named Ethelbert, who proved most gratifyingly co-operative, permitting them not only to remain at liberty within his realm, but free to preach their message of salvation.

What possessed an otherwise fierce and recalcitrant pagan chief to show such hospitality? In the annals of toleration it was truly a high point. Perhaps the influence of his wife Bertha, the queen, had something to do with the irenic stance taken by the king. She was, after all, a Christian herself, who came by her faith from her Frankish forbears (her father had been king of Paris). Raised near the city of Tours, whose most famous bishop had been St. Martin, her marriage to Ethelbert took place only on the condition that she remain free to observe the customs of her faith. And so, on the journey back to Kent, she was joined by her chaplain, a certain Bishop Liudhard, and given space in a former Roman residence built along the ancient road between Canterbury, where the king ruled, and Richborough, the coastal site where Caesar and his legions first landed four centuries before to begin the conquest of England. All this would become the queen’s place of worship, a site consecrated to the memory of the martyred bishop Martin, which survives even to this day as the oldest church in England.

Bede’s description is wonderfully revealing in its recreation of the scene:

And when, at the king’s command, they had sat down and preached the word of life to the king and his court, the king said: ‘Your words and promises are fair indeed; but they are new and uncertain, and I cannot accept them and abandon the age-old beliefs that I have held together with the whole English nation. But since you have travelled far, and I can see you are sincere in your desire to impart to us what you believe to be true and excellent, we will not harm you. We will receive you hospitably and take care to supply you with all that you need; nor will we forbid you to preach and win any people you can to your religion.’ The king then granted them a dwelling in the city of Canterbury, which was the chief city of all his realm.

Would that kings and princes everywhere spoke in such accents! And there is still more to marvel at. Because no sooner had Ethelbert allowed them the freedom to worship, and even to go out and win souls for Christ, than he himself became a Christian, following the example of so many of his own subjects, who, says Bede, “admiring the simplicity of their holy lives and the comfort of their heavenly message,” chose to be baptized. Moved thus by the witness of their sanctity, and the joy and certainty of the message they brought, a whole nation would shortly offer its homage to God. But never at sword’s point, which is quite the most telling feature in the tale. For while the king was vastly pleased to see so many of his subjects turn to God, he would not, says Bede, “compel anyone to accept Christianity; for he had learned from his instructors and guides to salvation that the service of Christ must be accepted freely and not under compulsion. Nevertheless,” adds Bede, “he showed greater favor to believers because they were fellow-citizens of the kingdom of heaven.”

That last line is very important because the distinction it makes goes to the heart of the Good News that Augustine brought to England. Which is that faith is not something to be imposed, as though it were an arbitrary exercise at the expense of another’s freedom, but rather Someone whom we are to propose because in doing so we bring others to life. Real life. A life that not only does not end in death, but is destined to go on forever and ever, catapulting us ever higher into the sheer limitless joy of the angels and the saints. So immense and far-reaching a gift does Christ offer that there is literally nothing in this world to compensate us for the loss of it. When Pope Benedict speaks of baptism as “the final mutation in the evolution of the human species,” he is not talking hyperbole.  Is it any wonder, then, that the pagans to whom Augustine first came would be open, indeed excited, to hear the message he had travelled all the way from Rome to impart?

Clearly among the fruits brought to Britain as a result of the mission begun by Augustine, one must include a great flowering of the monastic life. Indeed, the first three abbesses of Minster were canonized saints, including especially St. Mildred, who was elected near the end of the seventh century, and who was widely esteemed for her learning and love for the poor; the Norman chronicler Goscelin, writing in 1097, describes her as “the fairest lily of the English.” She died around 725, a generation before the Viking raids began that so ravaged the land and its people. The depredations from the Danes continued for hundreds of years, culminating in the abbey’s destruction sometime in the middle of the ninth century. But like an old penny that keeps popping up, the Benedictines would not go away. Not the Vikings, nor the Normans who followed soon after, nor even the Protestant usurpers who despoiled so much of English Catholic life, could altogether succeed in putting an end to the life of sanctity. One may certainly kill holy men and women; but one can neither refute nor repress holiness itself. Like a beautiful day, it will burst unexpectedly through the clouds, irradiating life like the sun.

This can be seen especially in our own time, where, amid the recurrent rhythms of prayer and work that marked the lives of those first Benedictine monks, the observance of the Holy Rule goes on, suffusing the most ordinary gestures and tasks of the day with the grace and the peace of Almighty God. The holy women of Minster Abbey will not save the British pound. Whatever the agitations of their souls, they are not about whether England should remain in the E.U. But that she remain in the Arms of God is, I suspect, the aim of much of the prayer that rises like incense before him. It will surely endure and, please God, may enable England herself, Our Lady’s own Dowry, once more to find her way home.

Editor’s note: Pictured above is a mosaic of the conversion of King Ethelbert in Westminster Cathedral, London.

Regis Martin

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Regis Martin is Professor of Theology and Faculty Associate with the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life at the Franciscan University of Steubenville. He earned a licentiate and a doctorate in sacred theology from the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas in Rome. Martin is the author of a number of books, including Still Point: Loss, Longing, and Our Search for God (2012) and The Beggar's Banquet (Emmaus Road). His most recent book, also published by Emmaus Road, is called Witness to Wonder: The World of Catholic Sacrament. He resides in Steubenville, Ohio, with his wife and ten children.

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