In 601, Pope St Gregory the Great sent a group of missionaries to England – a second wave, following on from the initial mission led by St Augustine of Canterbury – with a view to converting the Anglo-Saxons. One member of this second wave of missionaries was Paulinus, and Italian monk.
Paulinus and the others arrived in Kent (on the south east coast of England) in 604, and stayed there until 625 when, having been consecrated a bishop by the Archbishop of Canterbury, he was chosen to accompany Æthelburg, the sister of King Eadbald of Kent, on her journey to Northumbria where she was due to marry King Edwin. (There is a divergence of views as to the precise chronology; it is possible that Æthelburg and Paulinus traveled north in 624, and that Paulinus subsequently returned south for a short time in order to be consecrated.)
It had already been agreed that King Edwin had promised that he would extend full religious freedom to Æthelburg, but Paulinus was intent on secuing not just the limited goal of tolerance for the Christian queen and her retinue to remain a Christian and worship as she chose, but the far greater prize of the conversion of pagan Northumbria.
As related by Bede, Edwin’s conversion hinged on the fact that the birth of his daughter at Easter 626 (which Paulinus attributed to his own intercession) coincided with failed assassination attempt by an agent of Cwichelm of Wessex. Edwin decided to permit the baptism of his daughter Eanflæd, and promised to convert to Christianity if his forthcoming campaign against Cwichelm were a success.
Even after his victory over the West Saxons, Edwin held back from converting, and Bede recounts that his final decision to embrace Christianity came after Paulinus revealed and interpreted to him (Edwin) a dream that he had had while in exile at the court of King Rædwald of East Anglia.
However, Paulinus was certainly not the only factor in Edwin’s conversion, and probably not even the principal one. Pope Boniface V wrote to Edwin (as he wrote to other rulers), urging him to embrace Christianity. The influence of Æthelburg, Edwin’s queen, was probably even more significant.
Though one of the premier Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, Kent stood very much within the Frankish milieu, and the Franks were as keen to convert the Anglo-Saxons to Christianity as was Rome. Bede emphasizes the part played by the Roman Paulinus because he wishes to portray the conversion of England as an essentially Roman achievement (which in many ways it was), but the truth is that the half-Merovingian Æthelburg probably had far more influence over Edwin than did Paulinus.
In any case, what finally tipped the balance for Edwin was, in all probability, the evidence that adherence to the Christian God was a good way of securing military victory, and that his own conversion and that of his kingdom would secure his imperium (as Bede calls it). Mutatis mutandis, similar arguments had carried weight with the Emperor Constantine, and would in the future carry weight with Charlemagne.
Edwin and his chief men were baptized on 12 April 627. Edwin now ruled Northumbria, most of eastern Mercia, Anglesey and the Isle of Man, while his ongoing alliance with Kent meant that Wessex was effectively subjected to him. In the eyes of the men of Northumbrian, the extent of Edwin’s overlordship was, at least in part, directly attributable to his rejection of paganism and his adoption of Christianity.
Around 633/634, Penda of Mercia and Cadwallon ap Cadfan of Wales rose up against Edwin and defeated him at the Battle of Hatfield Chase. With Edwin dead (he was later canonized), Æthelburg and her family fled to Kent together with Paulinus. Just as Edwin’s victory over the pagan Cwichelm had appeared to be a demonstration of the power – and hence the truth – of the Christian God, so also his defeat at the hands of the pagan Penda seemed to prove the opposite. The Northumbrian nobles duly abandoned Christianity, and Northumbria was plunged back into the darkness of paganism.
The contribution of Paulinus to the fate of Northumbrian Christianity may even have been a negative one, for his expulsion of native British clergy from parts of Northumbria stirred up resentments which were magnified after the fall of Edwin. There were very few Roman clergy in Northumbria under Edwin, and the Northumbrian conversion may have been confined largely to the royal court – testimony, one might argue, to the failure of Paulinus to secure a deeper and broader Christianization of the kingdom.
Paulinus now remained in Kent with Æthelburg and her daughter Eanflæd, and became Bishop of Rochester – a position which he occupied at the time of his death in 644. Shrines sprung up in Rochester and Canterbury, and he was soon regarded as a saint.
At the ecclesio-poilitical level, Paulinus was in many ways a failure. The success of the conversion of Northumbria – such as it was – was more due to Æthelburg than it was to Paulinus, while the superficial and impermanent nature of the evangelization of the north may have been partly attributable to Paulinus’s methods.
Clearly, though, his exercise of his pastoral office in Rochester left an abiding impression not only in Rochester itself but throughout the Kentish kingdom. He may have been a failure as a missionary, but, as bishop, pastor, spiritual adviser to Æthelburg and other Kentish royalty, man of prayer and worker of miracles, he clearly inspired enormous affection among the people of Kent, and, after his earlier disappointments, he discovered (and followed with heroic sanctity) his true vocation as an apostle to the Anglo-Saxons.