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Was Augustine’s mission to Canterbury contrary to accelted wisdom

15 September 2022

In Current Archaeology 391 [October 2022] [see https://www.archaeology.co.uk ] there is an interesting piece on a new book, in Chris Gatling’s Sherds column. In ‘A History of Christianity in Wales‘ written by four academics, we have an interesting take on Augustine’s mission to the Anglo Saxons. It is well known, or part of the church propaganda, that the wife of the king of Kent, was a Christian with French origins. She is said to have persuaded her husband to convert to the faith. In the process, the church on the continent decided to send a mission to Britain in order to convert the whole of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, which would have had the effect of expanding the kingdom of the king of Kent. The story goes that the British, as a whole, were pagan, and unbelievers. Is this true. When researching the history of St Albans it became clear that Christianity still existed in the 5th and 6th centuries and it could be supposed that Canterbury, as a result of the Augustine mission, may have actually usurped the former role of St Albans. One of the contributors to the new book, Barry Lewis, has according to Chris Catling, demolished the myth that Augustine brought Christianity to the British in AD597, and instead, he categorises the church inspired mission as an attempt by ‘an aggressive and expansionary kingdom of Kent.’ The ambition was to rule over most of southern England. Later, the king of Mercia, Offa, expanded south and took over not just Canterbury but the role of that church as the preeminent Christian church. The Kentish royal house was closely aligned with the French, just over the channel from Dover. Offa took this over as well, and it may have been the thinking behind his Kentish intrusion. Lewis continues, by saying he avoided the term ‘Celtic’ church and opted for the British church, as that is what it was. The use of the word Celtic as far as the church was concerned, was a fairly late development, and bound up with 18th and 19th century politics. This is a refreshing departure as it really was a British church and it still existed at the time of the Augustine mission – although some of the Anglo-Saxon rulers were pagan. This brings me back to the church at St Albans. According to Gildas, in the early half of the 6th century, the church in St Albans was still thriving. He does not mention Canterbury. If Gildas was based somewhere like Cirencester, he would of course have been within fairly easy access via Oxfordshire, to St Albans – or at least the former domain of the Catevellauni. Prior to the Roman invasion the Catevellauni were a powerful kingdom exercising control, in a paramount fashion, even over Kent. The offspring of the Catevellauni aristocracy were subsequently Romanised and schooled in Rome and placed in positions of power in Britain during the first few centuries of Roman rule. They may have been weakened by supporting Carausius in the mid 3rd century but the kingdom, or province itself, remained intact right up to the end of Roman rule. It  does make sense that the church in St Albans remained important right the way up to the time of the Augustine mission. There is little evidence of Anglo Saxons in St Albans and its surrounding region, in the 5th and 6th centuries. In fact, people were still living in the ruins of the Roman town, or the slowly fading away town.  Lewis is of course concerned with Wales rather than the fate of the Catevellauni, but one might wonder if the propaganda, which was political, has been caught out.

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