The life of St Augustine of Canterbury, born in Rome but forever associated with the evangelisation of the English Church, is inextricably linked with that of St Æthelberht of Kent (the subject of yesterday’s blog post).
Augustine was prior of Saint Andrew’s monastery on the Coelian Hill when, in 596, Pope St Gregory the Great sent him with at the head of a party of in between thirty and forty missionary monks to convert the English – a people who, since the departure of the Roman legions, had fallen back into paganism, and whose residual Christianity (in the few pockets where it still existed) had become increasingly isolated and distanced from the faith and practice of Catholicism.
The missionaries landed near Ramsgate on the isle of Thanet in Kent in 597, where the sympathetic (though still suspicious) King Æthelberht and his Frankish Christian wife Bertha welcomed them, and enabled them to establish a center of operations in Canterbury. The subsequent conversion of Æthelberht meant that Augustine was now working within the framework of a Christian nation, and the evangelization of the Kentish people proceeded apace.
In order to advance the conversion of England beyond the borders of Kent (a kingdom covering the south-east part of England), Augustine traveled to France to be consecrated bishop of the English by Saint Virgilius, metropolitan of Arles, and received further reinforcements from Rome (Saint Mellitus, Saint Justus, and Saint Paulinus) for the purpose of extending the scope of his mission.
Persuading bishops in other parts of England and Wales to fall into line with Roman customs and practices proved difficult, and a meeting in Wessex with leaders of the Celtic Church did little to bridge the cultural and jurisdictional gap between Celtic Britons and Roman Anglo-Saxons, with the Church in Wales and Dumnonia (south-west England) refusing to recognize Augustine as archbishop.
Closer to Canterbury (where he became the first Archbishop), the mission remained fruitful, and Augustine was able to establish sees at London and Rochester, in addition to laying the foundation for the future monastery of Christ Church and building on land donated by Æthelberht just outside Canterbury the monastery of SS. Peter and Paul (later called Saint Augustine’s).
Working in close unison with Æthelberht, he was assiduous in closing down pagan shrines and replacing them with Christian churches, but was careful to pursue the Christianization of Kent by conversion of hearts and minds rather than by crude compulsion – in all of which he proved himself faithful to the wise directives given by Pope Gregory.
Gregory’s plan to create metropolitan sees at York and London with twelve suffragan bishops attached to each never materialised, and, granted the political situation within Anglo-Saxon England which saw Mercia and Wessex looking to expand westwards – and hence to make alliance with the leaders of the Celtic Church – meant that, in practice, during his lifetime Augustine’s mission was always going to be confined to Kent and to the surrounding kingdoms of south-east England.
Augustine died in 604, and was buried in what is now St Augustine’s in Canterbury. His tomb (later destroyed at the Reformation) soon became a place of pilgrimage, and the cultus of the saint was further promoted after the Norman Conquest, with Goscelin’s Vita (composed around 1090) and William of Malmesbury focusing on the miraculous far more than Bede’s account had done.