How did Christianity come to England?

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The official story as recorded in Bede is that the Pope sent Saint Augustine to England in 597 to convert the pagans. However I went to a very interesting lecture at the Hendon and District Archaeological Society when Chris Scull put forward a very subversive alternative scenario.

The “King of Bling”. Reconstruction drawing by Faith Vardy, of what the Prittlewell burial originally looked like.
The two gold foil crosses placed over the eyes of the Prittlewell prince.

Chris is leading the team who are writing up the very rich Anglo-Saxon burial discovered at Prittlewell, in Essex which we reported on in CA 190. The burial was so rich that the Sun newspaper, that grand arbiter of archaeology called it ‘the King of Bling’. But among the bling were various Christian objects including crosses placed over the body’s eyes when he was buried.

The trouble is that the various radiocarbon dates that have been obtained since point to a date between 580 and 600, which is a bit too early for Saint Augustine who only arrived in 597. The problem may be a little more complicated than Bede allows. The latest idea is that the conversion came in two stages: in the first stage, when the Anglo Saxons first heard about this strange new religion of Christianity, they adopted Christ as being one new god among all the others. Among religions Polytheism is the normal – there may possibly be one supreme god, but he is unknowable, so let’s not bother about him. But as there are many ways of worshiping him, so let’s worship all gods – Woden, Thor, Jupiter, Mars, Buddha, Jesus Christ, they are all the same. The sensible thing is to worship the lot of them altogether. However the Christian god is a jealous god who pushes out all others – as indeed does the Muslim god.

Thus in stage one, as revealed by the Prittlewell burial, Christianity is seen as being yet another god to be worshipped alongside all the others. Then Augustine comes along and said you have to give up all your other gods and just worship the one true god. Now this caused a very big problem. Saeberht, who was king of Essex, adopted the type one Christianity. He died in 619 and at first it was thought that he was buried at Prittlewell, but his death seems to be too late for the radiocarbon dates. So Prittlewell must have been some prince. Following Saeberht, Essex reverted to paganism – they just could not face giving up all their old gods and it was only his grandson who eventually took the momentous step of becoming fully Christian and giving up all his old gods.

So that is the new story of how Christianity came to England: do you like it?


  1. Of course, Christianity came to “England” much earlier than this, although England didn’t exist then – St Alban died sometime in the 3rdC AD, and there were 12 Bishops of London before the Anglo-Saxon takeover of London 300 years later. The Anglo-Saxons were initially pagan and illiterate and crushed the core of Christianity, but it survived in Wales and the West of England and Augustine met up with Christian leaders, supposedly at Arlingham in Gloucestershire

    • Yes but the facts are not as important as content which seems to be controversial or revolutionary even when it is empty calories. Even the author admits the purpose of this article is mere attention, not educating or enlightening. “Do you like it?”…no, no I don’t think I can.

  2. Rome adopted Christianity in 313 AD. Christ had lived some 280 years prior. It would be my gues that the news of Christ spread throughout the known world, including Britian which was a Roman colony. It makes sense that the word spread to Britian long before 490 ad: Through word of mouth. It would not have taken almost 500 years like this story assumes.
    So no I dont like this story. Its an opinion and I feel my opinion is better.

  3. Also, I believe that the Irish like St.Columba were very early christians as well. It may have spread through the british isles slowly , but it did come.Don’t forget the romans were in Britan and it might have entered that way.

    • Oh, there is no might about it. St. Padraig’s father was a deacon and his grandfather was a priest. We know that the British had, at least a percentage of Christians and we know that most British were not actually displaced by the Anglo-Saxons, but rather absorbed. Given the history of Christianity in places like Japan where Christianity survived serious persecution by going underground, it seems likely that some Christians stayed right on being Christians even if they hid it. We know about this survival in Japan because Crypto-Christians came out into the open after Japan itself was opened and the Tokugawa Shogunate was ended. We don’t have that advantage with Anglo-Saxon England so until archeologists or historians find evidence, all we can do is speculate on what is likely.

  4. Christianity was in Britannia almost from the beginning; the story is quite fascinating, and we know more and more almost with every passing year. Queen Bertha of Kent gave her private chapel (St. Martin’s Church in Canterbury, built before 400) for Augustine’s use as his missionary headquarters.

  5. Gildas the Wise ( AD425-512) wrote: “Christ the True Son afforded His light, the knowledge of His precepts, to our island in the last year, as we know, of Tiberius Caesar.” (approx 37 A.D.)

    The Jesuit writer Robert Parsons, in his Three Conversations of England, wrote: “The Christian religion began in Britain within fifty years of Christ’s acsension.”

    Polydore Vergil (Bishop of Bath and Wells in 1504), who was Italian by birth and not sympathetic to British Church history wrote: “Britain, partly through Joseph of Arimathea, partly through Fugatus amd Damianus, was of all kingdoms the first that received the Gospel.

    Archbishop Ussher: “The Mother Church of the British Isles is the Church in Insula Avallonia. Called by the Saxons ‘Glaston’ ”

    When Pope Gregory sent St. Augustine to “convert to Christianity” those in the British Isles, Augustine was met by — the Bishopric of London. A letter still in existence was sent by Augustine back to the Pope, and said in part: “God beforehand acquainting them, found a Church constructed by no human art, but by the hands of Christ Himself for the salvation of His people.”

  6. Christianity couldn’t have come to England with Augustine because at that time England along with Scotland and Wales had not yet come into existence, Britain was still a patchwork of post Roman kingdoms comprising of native Britons and incoming invaders, the Gaels, Scots or Scoti as the Romans called them, from Ireland and the Germanic tribes, Angles and Saxons from northern Europe.
    St Columba founded an abbey on the isle of Iona in the eastern part of the Ulster kingdom of Dal Riata in 563 AD, Augustine arrived in 597, 34 years later.
    King Oswald of Northumbria was converted to Christianity in Dal Riata during his exile there as a youth, he is regarded as being the first truly Christian Northumberland King and it was the Gaelic Christianity of St Columba Northumberland converted to not the Latin Christianity of St Augustine.

  7. Cursus publicus was the Roman Postal service. The following website shows the travel times for messages etc from Rome to London almost 2ooo years ago was 27.5 days. So I would assume that news of Christ reached Britian quickly

    News of Christ I believe arrived in Britian contemporaneously with in Christs lifetime.

    Procopius provides one of the few direct descriptions of the Roman post that allows us to estimate the average rate of travel overland. In the sixth century, but describing an earlier time, he writes:

    “ The earlier Emperors, in order to obtain information as quickly as possible regarding the movements of the enemy in any quarter, sedition, unforeseen accidents in individual cities, and the actions of the governors or other persons in all parts of the Empire,

    and also in order that the annual tributes might be sent up without danger or delay, had established a rapid service of public couriers throughout their dominion according to the following system. As a day’s journey for an active man they fixed eight ‘stages,’ or sometimes fewer, but as a general rule not less than five. In every stage there were forty horses and a number of grooms in proportion. The couriers appointed for the work, by making use of relays of excellent horses, when engaged in the duties I have mentioned, often covered in a single day, by this means, as great a distance as they would otherwise have covered in ten.[8]

    The Roman Pony Express.

  8. Cor Tedwys, a Celtic Christian monastery was founded in Wales in 380AD, certainly active by 450AD, making it the oldest “College” in Britain. Among its students were St David, the patron saint of Wales, Gildas the historian and (possibly) St Patrick. By the time Oxbridge Colleges were formed, it had been burnt down and refounded three times after raids by by Irish pirates, Vikings and Normans

  9. Carol Smith. The Life of St Germanus was written around AD480 and describes his visit to St Albans. The Passio Sante Albanus written a bit later has the first earliest description of the martyrdom of Sain Alban. Christianity was established in AD313 as the official religion of the empire – which included Britannia. In AD830 Abbot Ealnoth referred to a major ecclesia (greater church) at St Albans (as established by Offa) which provides the implication there was a minor ecclesia (lesser church as far as dimensions were concerned). Offa even inferred a shrine already existed – and a church, as he provided the funds to make it more suitable (as far as the ambitions of Offa were concerned, to emulate Charlemagne’s support of the church in France). In other words, there must have been a church in existence at St Albans (close to the present abbey) prior to Offa. Charles Thomas in his book of Christianity in Britain until AQD500 is pretty confident the church survived into the 5th and 6th centuries. He makes the point that the church was no more expunged by the pagan A/S than it was by the pagan Danes a few centuries later. Rodwell and Bentley have written a lot on the survival of the church in lowland England and note the Mithraic Temple was ritually closed down and reconsecrated as a Christian church. They also say many churches were built in Roman Forums and Basilicas. St Michael’s church at Kingsbury on the outskirts of St Albans is one such example. However, this is a bit of a trot from the Abbey church and monastery. Southwark cathedral was built on the site of a pagan structure of some kind and many other examples exist (at Leicester, Silchester, Bath, Dorchester, Winchester, Exeter etc). There were 3 pagan temples in the Forum at Verulamium. At the opposite end and sited centrally across the Basilica is the church of St Michael. At Lincoln St Paul’s church was also built within the Forum and courtyard and one could go on and on is this vein. They are likely to have existed right through the Gap between Germanus and Augustine. Cahill in his book, ‘How the Irish Saved Civilisation’ gave the impression Christianity only survived in monastic institutions. These tend to dominate on the western side of Britain and in Ireland. Little is recorded of what happened in lowland England. It has always been assumed a mass immigration of Germanic people arrived in the Gap and wiped out the church – or it was heretic (Pelagianism). There is no evidence Pelagianism survived in Britain any longer than it did on the continent. It was a short lived heresy. One can only assume Bede deliberately avoided mentioning an alternative church to that of Augustine (and A/S established church) as he wished to demean the Romano British section of the population. The establishment of Canterbury as the centre of Christianity in lowland England probably replaced the church that had survived elsewhere (possibly in a muted form). Bede wished to propagate this view and makes Canterbury the pre-eminent Christian establishment. Bede was a member of the elite and wrote to an audience of the A/S elite. Both Gildas and Bede mention the shrine of Saint Alban (and Bede infers there was a church to house the shrine) presumably somewhere close to the present Abbey church (or cathedral). The fact that an A/S elite controlled Northumbria, Mercia and Wessex in the time of Bede is important – but that does not mean the general population were all pagans. CJ Arnold suggested to way to judge how well Christianity survived the Gap between Britannia and Augustine was to plot on a map where Augustine and his new English Church set about building places of worship in the 7th to 9th centuries. This he did and found there was a vacuum north of London in the former civitas of the Catgevellauni and Trinovantes – and this is where St Albans is situated. I suggest St Albans was more important thatn Canterbury prior to Augustine (which is why it is mentioned by Gildas rather than the latter). It is also significant that there is very little evidence of A/S sites across most of Essex and Hertfordshire and therefore one might interpret the Christian paraphernalia in the tomb of the King of Bling as actual evidence of influence by a native Christian community. A/S burials at this time predominate in coastal regions (including Essex) and along river valleys such as the Thames. They have the appearance of an early manifestation of the Vikings – and both groups have origins in Scandinavia and North Germany.

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