‘Alter Orbis’ British Christianity & the Roman Imperium
An Address given in St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church, Southampton on 14 July 2012
When King Henry VIII chose to separate himself from the jurisdiction of the See of Rome and to assume the spiritual powers belonging to the Papacy, it became necessary to emphasise the antiquity and splendour of the British Monarchy. The preamble of one such Act of Parliament declared, “Where by divers sundry old authentic histories and chronicles it is manifestly declared and expressed that this realm of England is an empire, and so hath been accepted in the world, governed by one Supreme Head and king having the dignity and royal estate of the Imperial Crown of the same.”
Although the king and his advisors would draw on dubious chronicles, hagiographies and genealogies, as well as Arthurian and Constantinian legend, to support his position, there is a continuous tradition in support of his claim which can be traced back long before the Norman Conquest. It is my purpose in this paper to gather up the evidence and pointers of this Imperial Theme and to see what it tells us about Britain and the Early Church.
Traditionally, the Roman World (Orbis Terrarum) was viewed as tripartitite, divided into the three great continents of Europa, Africa and Asia. Britain, as befitted its geographical situation “beyond the edge” was an alter orbis, ‘another world’, the classical equivalent of the Dark Continent in the nineteenth century or the Moon or Mars to us. The two invasions of Julius Caesar in 55 and 54 BC, in the course of his Gallic Wars, resulted in no territory being annexed to Rome, but might be regarded as a political statement more akin to President Kennedy’s promise to put a man on the moon within the decade.
When Caesar departed, the indigenous tribes and their chieftains were linked to Rome by treaty. Cunobelinus, chieftain of the Catuvellauni controlled a substantial portion of south-east Britain and is called ‘King of the Britons’ (Britannorum rex) by Suetonius. The Emperor Claudius eventually conquered southern Britain, which became a part of the Roman Empire in 43 AD. In their unsuccessful struggle with Rome, resistance leaders such as Caratacus, Boudica and Calgacus laid the foundations of a native consciousness of Britishness.
For four centuries Britain was an integral part of the Roman Empire and, for the last hundred years of that association, it was an Orthodox Christian Empire to which it belonged. Historians differ about the significance of that link once Britain became independent of imperial oversight. We will examine the nature of that relationship, from the perspective of British Christianity and attempt to discover whether Romanitas – what it meant to be a Roman – in one form or another, had any continuing significance for Britain and for Christianity here.
For the urbane Romans who were despatched as governors of this remote province it was the equivalent of the North West Frontier during the British Raj, where rising Roman generals and emperors – like Vespasian and Titus – often cut their teeth. Tacitus, writing of his father-in-law, Agricola, who served three terms in Britain, the last as Governor (77-85 AD), spoke of a people ‘living in isolation and ignorance’. In the patristic age, the fact that the Gospel message had taken root in such remote regions was a proof of its power, happily exploited by Christian apologists. Tertullian, at the beginning of the third century, wrote of “All the limits of the Spains, and the diverse nations of the Gauls, and the haunts of the Britons – inaccessible to the Romans, but subjugated to Christ.” Origen, another great third century Christian apologist, saw the conversion of Britain as evidence of the universality of the Christian message, “the divine goodness of Our Lord and Saviour is equally diffused among the Britons, the Africans, and other nations of the world” and “The grace of our Lord and Saviour is ever with those who were cut off from our world in Britain, and with those who are in Mauritania, and with all under the sun who believed in His name. See, therefore, the goodness of the Saviour, how it is spread over the whole world.” As late as the early fifth century we find St. John Chrysostom boasting, “Even the British Isles, which lie outside the boundaries of our world and sea, in the midst of the ocean itself, have experienced the power of the Word, for even there churches and altars have been set up.”
The sixth century Greek historian, Procopius of Caesarea, writes a rather confused account of Britannia/Brittia, but mentions the Roman government’s inability to control it after the usurpation of Constantine III, since when it had remained in the hands of local dynasts or ‘tyrants’. He concludes the chapter on Britain with a ghost story that details the ferrying over to Brittia every night of the souls of the dead, by fishermen inhabiting the adjacent coast of the mainland, possibly a garbled version of an ancient British myth, rather like the mythical Isle of Avalon, to which the dying King Arthur was rowed after his battle with Mordred. Similarly, Plutarch located the sleeping Cronos, patriarch and ruler of the Golden Age, imprisoned by his son Zeus, on an island near to Britain.
For over two centuries Britannia was ruled by the Emperor in Rome. Between 260-274 the Roman provinces of Gaul, Britannia and Hispania seceded to form a Gallic Empire originally ruled from Cologne. Early in 287 Carausius, commander of the Classis Britanica, the English Channel fleet, declared himself Emperor of Britain and northern Gaul. He drew support from British dissatisfaction with Roman rule and had coins minted declaring himself Restorer of Britain (Retitutor Britanniae) and Spirit of Britain (Genius Britanniae) and depicting him alongside the Emperors Diocletian and Maximian as co-Augusti. Constantius I Chlorus, appointed Caesar, reclaimed the lost provinces for the empire in 293 and Carausius was assassinated by his treasurer, Allectus, who promptly proclaimed himself Emperor; an office he held for less than three years until he was himself defeated and killed by the troops of Constantius I. In the tradition of numismatic propaganda, Constantius duly issued a medallion in 296 bearing the slogan ‘Restorer of the Eternal Light (redditor lucis aeternae), a clear reference to the luminous benefits of imperial Roman rule.
Britain may have been geographically remote but its links with the Roman and later Byzantine Empire are significant and we might do well to remind ourselves that it was in the City of York in July 306, following the death of his father, Constantius I, that Constantine the Great was first proclaimed Emperor.
As the Roman Empire began its long decline and fall we see the rise of several more usurping British Emperors, all of whom were Christian. Magnus Maximus (c. 335-388) was a native of Hispania but he served under Count Theodosius in Britain around 368 and in 380 was appointed Count of the Britains (Comes Britanniarum) and defeated the Picts and Scots in 383. Proclaimed Emperor by his troops, he “gathered a very large army of Britons, neighbouring Gauls, Celts and the tribes thereabouts” and crossed over into Gaul where he defeated the Emperor Gratian (367-383), who was killed in flight.
Although allegedly baptised just before his proclamation as Emperor, Maximus became the scourge of heretics and Gibbon notes he is distinguished as “the first among the Christian princes who shed the blood of his Christian subjects, on account of their religious opinions.” In 385, at Trier, he sentenced Priscillian, Bishop of Avila and his companions to death, whilst his follower, the poet Latronianus, was exiled to the Isles of Scilly. The subsequent defeat and execution of Maximus enabled the despatch of a legion, under General Stilicho, the Imperial Regent, and his defeat of the Picts in 398. When a combined force of barbarians overran Gaul in 406 the British responded by electing their own emperors. They were short-lived successors to Maximus. Marcus, a military commander, and Gratianus, a civilian official (municeps), each enjoyed the imperial dignity for only a few months before being murdered for failing to please their supporters. Their successor, Constantine III, a common but able soldier chosen, perhaps, because of his name and its association with Constantine the Great, ruled from the Spring of 407 until September 411. He immediately crossed to Gaul where he defeated some of the barbarian raiders and probably came to an accommodation with the remainder whereby they agreed spheres of influence. Hoping to establish his own dynasty, Constantine called upon his eldest son, Constans, who had taken monastic vows, to leave his cloister and join him in Arles (Arelate) which he had made his capital. The former monk was proclaimed as Caesar, found a wife and given the task of subduing Spain, in which he succeeded. Even the Emperor Honorius was obliged to recognise Constantine as co-Emperor. However, these successes were short lived. Perhaps angry at his abandonment, the Britons revolted and expelled Constantine’s tax collectors and officials. Constans was put to death when Vienne was captured in 211. Either out of piety or in an attempt to preserve his life, Constantine sought ordination to the priesthood before formally abdicating and surrendering Arles to the Emperor Honorius’ emissaries. Having received a promise that his life would be spared, he and his youngest son, Julianus, were sent under guard to Ravenna, but thirty miles outside the city they were both executed as usurpers.
Although accused by Gildas, writing around 540, of having denuded Britain of troops, early Welsh genealogies give Maximus (referred to as Macsen/Maxen Wledig) as the ancestor of the dynasties of several medieval Welsh kingdoms, including those of Powys and Gwent. The Pillar of Eliseg in Denbighshire, erected by Cyngen ap Cadell, King of Powys, who died in 855, to commemorate his great-grandfather, Elisedd, claims descent from Britu, son of Sevira, the daughter of “Maximus the king, who killed the king of the Romans.” Indeed Maximus has long held a position of supreme importance in Welsh legendary history as the last of the Roman Emperors to rule Britain, who came to be identified as ‘the first ruler of an independent Britain, from whom all legitimate power flowed’; ‘the founder of the Celtic kingdom of the west, and so ultimately of the Welsh nation.’
Church & State in Britain
A Christian Empire and Christian Emperors presupposed a Christian establishment, in which the bishops and priests played a significant role. The chi-rho emblem now became more than a simple religious symbol and doubled-up as an emblem of the Imperial Constantinian dynasty and their successors. Dr. David Petts of Durham University suggests the possibility that the Church may have controlled metal production. He posits the theory that the church could have been granted control over elements of mineral extraction in Britain and offers the salt-pan discovered at Shavington in Cheshire, with its inscription referring to a possible bishop of Chester (Viventi [Epis]copi) in support of this hypothesis. Petts also considers the combined evidence of ingots, coinage, seal rings, belt buckles and even shields, all bearing either the chi-rho or other distinctive Christian symbols, as evidence that in the late Roman period the state was interested in projecting a Christian image, closely binding the Church and Empire together. “This appearance of obvious Christian symbols on objects carried or worn by the representatives of the Roman state would have sent a powerful signal.”
The names of very few British bishops of this period have come down to us. We have the names of three bishops who attended a provincial council at Arles in 314, perhaps representing the capitals of three out of the four provinces into which Britain was then divided. We know that at the Council of Ariminium (Rimini) in 359, when many bishops were present, “three only from Britain” claimed imperial funds to finance their travel and accommodation and an analysis of the phrasing of this report has been taken to imply that the British delegation contained many more than the three who incited comment.
St. Patrick, writing towards the end of the fifth century, was the son of a deacon, Calpurnius, who was also a decurion, a town councillor, and that Patrick’s grandfather, Potitus, was a priest. As the office of decurion tended to be hereditary, it is likely that the grandfather had also held it and the great majority of clergy were drawn from the class of city-councillors. One of the early acts of the Emperor Constantine had been to grant exemption to Christian clergy from serving on town councils, the duties of which were often heavy and could prove an expensive burden. His purpose was to free the clergy to give their full attention to their spiritual duties, but the actual effect was an instant rush of city-councillors and their families into holy orders in an effort to avoid the financial risks. As one of the duties of councillors was to collect taxation, they were not always held in the highest regard and often seen as cruelly oppressive in their exactions.
There is a clear suggestion in St. Patrick’s writings, and again in Gildas, that whilst fifth century Britain may have been Christian in name, it was worldly in spirit. This worldliness was in some measure due to the fact that Christianity was not only socially acceptable but enjoyed a privileged status as an accepted part of the establishment. The few surviving mosaics and silver hordes suggest links with landed gentry, the very class who would have been influential when imperial rule ended.
St. Patrick accepts his early captivity as a punishment for his sin. His fate was shared by thousands like him, “we drew away from God, and did not keep His commandments and did not obey our priests who kept reminding us of our salvation.” If Patrick did not openly condemn the British bishops, he may nevertheless have been wounded by their hostility. It may be them whom he characterises as ‘little masters of rhetoric’ (a diminutive of contempt). He felt that they despised him and believed him unworthy of the episcopate, that they regarded him as a stranger whose words carried no weight, and that they misconstrued his motives and objected to his ‘rusticity.’
When St. Germanus of Auxerre and Bishop Lupus of Troyes were sent to Britain by the Gallican bishops to combat the Pelagian heresy, which had taken hold in Britain, the leading teachers of the heresy “came forth flaunting their wealth, in dazzling robes, surrounded by a crowd of flatterers.” What is interesting is that no mention is made of any British bishops during their visit. E.A. Thompson comments, “I am tempted to think that the bishops, or the bishop, of the region of Britain in question had joined the heretics and that Constantius thought it discreet to suppress the fact: it would reflect no credit on the Church.” This would be supported by Prosper of Aquitaine’s reference to the fact that “Agricola, a Pelagian, the son of the Pelagian bishop Severianus, corrupted the British churches by the insinuation of his doctrine.”
Christianity and patriotism became synonyms in the struggle with Pictish invaders and Germanic and Irish immigrants. St. Patrick considered himself and all other Britons to be Roman citizens although the last Roman troops had left the island in the year 410. When Patrick attacks the British warlord, Coroticus, who would also have regarded himself as ‘Roman’, calling him a “tyrant” for sending soldiers to kill neophyte Christians and carrying off others into captivity, he refuses to recognise them as fellow-citizens (civibus meis) or even fellow-citizens of the Holy Romans (civibus sanctorum Romanorum) but prefers to call them fellow-citizens of the demons, not just because of their evil actions but because he was not behaving in the Roman manner. Romanitas in the fifth century is a cultural concept which embraces orthodox Christianity (as opposed to barbarian paganism or heresy); literacy in Latin (the only and necessary conduit for both Christian worship and teaching as well as civilised discourse) and civil law and order as opposed to the ‘anarchy’ of warlords and slave-raiders.
The idea of the continuity of a British Romano-Christian culture into the sixth century has found support from archaeologists. Dr. Ken Dark, (author of Civitas to Kingdom and Britain and the End of the Roman Empire) suggests that a sub-Roman or ‘Late Antique’ society survived in the West and North of Britain during the fifth and sixth centuries. “In these areas there is absolutely no reason to assume that major cultural disruption occurred due to political strife or warfare in the fifth century, and all the archaeological and textual indications suggest widespread cultural continuity from the fourth to sixth centuries.” He cites the classic excavations by the late Phillip Barker at Wroxeter; the adjacent site of the Legionary Fortress dug by Graham Webster showing ‘sub-Roman’ activity; Dr. Hilary Cool’s seminal study of the latest dated Romano-British artefacts and, more recently, the new excavations at Bantham (2001). Late Roman patterns, even commercial activity at the centre of the former civitas capital, seems to provide evidence “suggesting that much of the Late Roman past survived in fifth and sixth-century western and northern Britain, although doubtless much too had changed – it was a ‘sub-Roman’ or more correctly ‘Late Antique’, society (i.e. one in the mainstream of Late Antiquity), not simply a ‘Late Roman’ one.”
Writing around 540 AD, and reviewing the past two centuries of history, Gildas, like a new Jeremiah, bemoaned the loss of a post-Roman Britain that had fallen into ruin. The rulers of Britain, although kings, are ‘tyrants’ (signifying a lack of legitimacy, not cruelty or despotism) and their rule is unfavourably contrasted with Roman authority. “Ever since it was first inhabited, Britain has been ungratefully rebelling, stiff-necked and haughty, now against God, now against its own countrymen, sometimes even against Kings from abroad and their subjects.” Similarly, he dismisses the priests as fools and in a scathing attack, worthy of an Old Testament prophet, he lambasts them as “rapacious wolves.”
“Fresh from their wicked dealings … many, rather than being drawn into the priesthood, rush into it or spend almost any price on attaining it. There, they remain in the same old unhappy slime of intolerable sin even after they have obtained a priestly seat of bishop or presbyter (they never sit in it, but wallow there disgracefully, like pigs). They have grabbed merely the name of priest – not the priestly way of life. They have received the apostolic dignity, without it being suitable for entire faith and penitence for evil.”
However, the one sin of which Gildas never accuses his fellow countryman, is paganism.
The Papacy as heir to the Empire
For much of Western Europe the Roman imperium did not entirely disappear but was represented in spirit by the Roman Church, which not only filled the gap in authority left by the Western Roman emperors but also assumed the mantle of Romanitas. During the pontificate of Pope Leo I, ‘The Great’, (440-461) we see the seeds sown of a more developed view of Petrine supremacy and the universal jurisdiction of the See of Rome. For him the Roman Empire was the vehicle by which all peoples might be drawn into a Church and State working towards a common goal,
“Divine Providence fashioned the Roman Empire, the growth of which was extended to boundaries so wide that all races everywhere became next-door neighbours. For it was particularly germane to the Divine scheme that many kingdoms should be bound together under a single government, and that the world-wide preaching should have a swift means of access to all people, over whom the rule of a single state held sway.”
Leo also regarded the spread of Christianity beyond the Empire as demonstrating the superiority of Christian over pagan Rome. The Roman Empire was designed by God so that’s its frontier should be contiguous with all the nations of the earth and brought all nations under its rule so as to facilitate their conversion to the faith. Under his predecessor, Celestine I (422-432) a mission headed by Bishop Palladius had been sent to the Irish ‘believing in Christ’. He was followed by Patrick, a native Briton. Ireland had never been part of the Roman Empire but now it became part of the Church’s imperium.
Pope Leo proudly asserts that the authority of Christian Rome had surpassed the farthest boundaries limiting the power of imperial Rome,
“These men [Peter and Paul] are the ones who promoted you [Rome] to such glory that, as a holy race, the chosen people, a priestly and a royal city, and having been made the head of the whole world through the holy see of the blessed Peter, you came to rule over a wider territory for the worship of God and by earthly domination. For although you were exhorted by many victories and thereby extended the authority of your Empire by land and by sea, nevertheless what the toils was subjected to you is less than that which in you Christian peace has made obedient.” 
Professor Thomas Charles-Edwards suggests that Leo was clearly alluding to the mission to the Irish. He reminds us that the consecration of a bishop by the pope for the Irish was directly relevant to the 28th canon of the Council of Chalcedon (451) and to papal relations both with the Eastern Emperor and the See of Constantinople. In addition one of the main impulses behind the theoretical elaboration of the papal primacy was fear of Imperial domination, whereby the authority of the Bishop of Rome might appear to be based solely on powers conferred by imperial decree and the Pope to be just another imperial officer.
“The activities of Germanus and of Palladius, in Britain and in Ireland, demonstrated that a christian and papal Rome, the Rome of Peter and Paul, could intervened to safeguard and to spread the faith in an island which had thrown off Imperial authority and also in another island which had never been subject of the sway of the Emperor. The Christian faith and the authority of Christian Rome extended not only to Roman citizens, not just to Parthians, Medes, and Elamites, but to rebellious Britons and even to the barbarian Irish.”
Those who opposed Rome’s hegemony over kings and emperors, or ‘Papacæsarism’, have asserted that in the West this “was always a greater danger than its opposite (cæsaro-papism), because while the Western Empire had collapsed after 476 and split up into a number of independent kingdoms, the Western Church had remained united, making her by far the most prominent survival of Christian Romanity. Even the most powerful of the western kings did not command a territory greater than that of a Roman provincial governor (which is what they had been in some cases), whereas the Pope was not only the undisputed leader of the whole of Western Christendom but also the senior hierarch in the whole of the Church, Eastern and Western.”
Towards the end of Pope Leo’s pontificate communication between Rome and the British Isles became increasingly tenuous. Despairing of the Empire’s ability to offer protection, the British had grasped de facto sovereignty. The historian Zosimos explains, “Thus happened this revolt or defection of Britain and the Celtic nations, when Constantine usurped the empire, by whose negligent government the barbarians were emboldened to commit such devastations.” The ‘Rescript’ of the Emperor Honorius effectively granted de jure independence from Rome for Zosimos adds, “Honorius …. sent letters to the cities of Britain, counselling them to be watchful of their own security.” The mission of St. Germanus and his attempt to eradicate Pelagianism in the immediate aftermath of independence, by contrast, represents the ability of the Roman see to intervene for the good of the church in Britain when the Empire was unable to do anything.
In neighbouring Gaul we find this same desire to cling to the vestiges of Romanitas as a proof of civilisation and legitimacy. As the Franks overran Roman Gaul Syagrius, the last Roman magister militum per Gallias maintained a diminishing kingdom, centred on Soissons, between the Somme and the Loire. The historian Gregory of Tours calls him rex Romanorum. His defeat by the Salian Frankish king, Clovis I, in 486 or 487 at the Battle of Soissons, and his later assassination, has been seen by some as the loss of the last vestige of the Roman Empire in the West (outside of Italy) but the new order which replaced him actually sought legitimacy by appropriating to itself the styles and symbols of the imperium it had overthrown.
“Romanity, it was felt, could be bestowed on the western barbarian kingdoms that arose out of the rubble that was the Western Empire by the Eastern Emperor’s gift of regalia or high Roman rank (usually not the imperial rank, however) on their kings. Thus St. Gregory of Tours writes of Clovis, the first Christian king of the Franks, that he received letters ‘from the Emperor Anastasius to confer the consulate on him. In Saint Martin’s church he stood clad in a purple tunic and the military mantle, and he crowned himself with a diadem. He then rode out on his horse and with his own hand showered gold and silver coins among the people present all the way from the doorway of Saint Martin’s church to Tours cathedral. From that day on he was called Consul or Augustus.’ ”
The Emergence of England
What began as barbarian invasions of Britain soon led to settlement and eventually the hegemony of the Angles, Saxons and Jutes, who established their own kingdoms: Kent, East Anglia, Deira, Wessex and Mercia. An earlier Brythonic kingdom in the territory of the Votadini seems to have fallen to the Angles in the north, who consolidated it as the kingdom of Bernicia.
In the intervening years Britain’s separation from the vestiges of Empire became more pronounced as the Saxon incursions consolidated, but the Roman see, having in the meantime converted the Franks to Christianity, now had an entrance into the Saxon kingdom of Kent when the pagan King Æthelberht was married to a Christian Frankish princess.
The Augustinian Mission which Pope Gregory the Great sent to Kent in 597 owed much to Gregory’s sense of the Roman Imperium. His biographer, Jeffrey Richards, in examining Gregory’s world-view, suggests that his Romanitas came only second to his Christianitas, his commitment to his faith. His devotion to the Empire and the emperor was parallel to Christendom, the Christian Imperium; both divinely ordained but with essentially different, if complementary, spheres of influence. England was a remote country of which he knew relatively little but he knew it had been a former Imperial province, overrun by Germanic tribes a century and a half earlier. Charles-Edwards contends that Gregory’s plan was not merely to the English but to the whole of mainland Britain. Augustine was given authority over the British bishops as well as authority to erect two metropolitan sees, in London and in York.
“Gregory may have known very little about contemporary British Christians, but he was clear that he wished to restore a Christian Britain making full use of British bishops under the authority of his personal envoy, Augustine. The initial stimulus may therefore have been approaches by Æthelberht of Kent to his wife’s people, the Franks, which came to nothing in the short term; but the task was taken up, perhaps through communications between Burgundy and Rome, and as his mind gave shape to his schemes of conversion Gregory turned more and more to the past, to Leo the Great, to a late Roman and Christian Britain, and perhaps even to the Chronicle of Prosper, written largely in Rome, which would have told him of another papal initiative in converting the barbarian beyond the ocean.” 
Saxon Kingdoms and the Spirit of Romanitas
Bede’s Historia Ecclesiastica, an account of the conversion and progress of the English nation, is enthused with the spirit of Romanitas. The late Professor Wallace-Hadrill comments on Bede’s handling of the pre-Gregorian British Church, “His Romano-British history also exhibits a great preliminary: national disaster in the face of divine displeasure; for the Romano-British had had their own ecclesiastical history, and it was a bleak one. Gildas was right: how could such a people prosper ? They started off well enough; the curious tale of Lucius and their conversion shows that Bede accepted that a proper beginning for Christianity in Britain was by papal mandate to a king.” Having viewed the spread of the Pelagian heresy and Gildas’s picture of British decadence and vice, the collapse of their society under the assaults of the pagan Saxons, was presented as God’s final judgement.
The coming of Augustine was marked by his first message to Æthelberht which “signified that they were come from Rome, and brought a joyful message, which most undoubtedly assured to all that took advantage of it everlasting joys in heaven and a kingdom that would never end with the living and true God.” For Augustine, and for Bede, salvation and all its civilising virtues came from the Imperium of the Holy Roman Church. The letter written by Pope Gregory contained suitable allusions to the most pious Emperor Constantine’s “recovering the Roman Commonweath from the perverse worship of idols.” To Æthelberht’s queen, Bertha, Gregory wrote, “For, as through the memorable Helena, the mother of the most pious Constantine, Emperor of the Romans, the hearts of the Romans were kindled to the Christian faith; so, by the zeal of your glory, we are confident the mercy of God is operating among the people of the Angles.” Bede notes concerning Æthelberht, “Among other benefits which he conferred upon the race under his care, he established with the advice of his counsellors a code of laws after the Roman manner.”
Later, when Augustine “admonished the bishops of the Britons to Catholic peace and unity”, divine approbation for the Roman mission and its traditions was demonstrated by his working a “heavenly miracle.” By contrast, when the pagan King Æthelfrith of Bernicia massacred the unarmed monks of Bangor-Is-Coed who had assembled to aid the Britons by their prayers, it was seen as “vengeance that pursued them for their contempt.”
It is known that Æthelberht exercised some dominance over neighbouring southern kings (Bede lists him as a third Anglo-Saxon overking), standing as godfather to Kings Saeberht of Essex and Raedwald of East Anglia while Professor Michelle Brown notes that his “overlordship was vital in making inroads into certain areas of the patchwork of petty kingdoms which had been carved out by the Germanic migrants since they began arriving in Britain in greater numbers and which had assumed ascendancy over the native Romano-British populace from around 550 onwards.”
In spite of setbacks, the process of conversion moved on, with the Isle of Wight being the last part of England to accept Christianity in 686. Much of the evangelision derived from the Gregorian mission but a late flowing of the Insular Church played a significant role, especially in the north. Although the conversion of Northumbria is ascribed by Bede to St. Paulinus of York, there are alternative traditions ascribing the conversion of King Edwin to the Cymic hero, Rhun Ryfeddfawr (Roman of Great Wonder), son of Urien, King of Rheged. As a result of the exile of the Northumbrian royal family in Dál Riata and possibly, Ireland, during the pagan interlude following the defeat of Edwin, King Oswald was baptised in Dál Riata and later erected the bishopric at Lindisfarne, a daughter house of the great Columban community of Iona. Although there were cultural and liturgical differences, the kingdom of Northumbria became the centre of collaboration between the two Christian traditions. Similarly in East Anglia the Irish monk, St. Fursey worked in parallel with St. Felix, under obedience to Canterbury, in converting East Anglia.
In his account of the Synod of Whitby (664) Bede records the victory of the Roman party over the Insular church with regard to the observance of Easter. After learned debate about the differing traditions, the argument is finally swung by Abbot Wilfred’s assertion of the superiority of the Roman tradition, “You and your companions, you certainly sin, if, having heard the decrees of the Apostolic See, and of the universal church, and that the same is confirmed by holy writ, you refuse to follow them; for, though your fathers were holy, do you think that their small number, in a corner of the remotest island, is to be preferred before the universal church of Christ throughout the world?” If it marks the beginning of the triumph of the ‘Roman’ Church, it also signals the manifestation of a Romanity (which had previously only existed in incipient form) directed towards the Church. The Saxons, once converted to Christianity take on the spirit of Romanitas with enthusiasm and gratitude to Gregory for his mission, which is demonstrated by continuing loyalty to the See of Rome.
Far greater continuity may have existed between sub-Roman and Anglo-Saxon England than earlier historians have been willing to admit. The idea that the Anglo-Saxons “… instead of either mixing with the people, or else leaving them their own laws and part of their lands, they always either killed or made slaves of all the people that they could” finds little support in modern archaeological, linguistic, demographical or genetic scholarship. The image of indigenous Britons being subjected to either ethnic cleansing – Bede’s ‘exterminare’ means driven out rather than ‘destroyed’ in classical Latin – or merely driven to Britain’s western extremities, has long been questioned. In 2004 a conference organised by the Manchester Centre for Anglo-Saxon Studies brought together archaeologists, place-name specialists and other linguists, historians and geneticists who offered substantial evidence of real continuities between Roman Britain and the early Middle Ages.
Symphony of Church & State
Under Eadberht, King of Northumbria (737/8-768) a revival of seventh-century northern imperial ambitions had evidently occurred among the Northumbrians. It was characterised by the harmony of church and state, especially as the King’s brother, Ecgbert, was Archbishop of York for more than three decades (732-766). It was eulogised in the verse:
So then Northumbria was prosperous,
When king and pontiff ruled in harmony,
One in the church and one in government;
One wore the pall the Pope conferred on him,
And one the crown his fathers wore of old.
One brave and forceful, one devout and kind,
They kept their power in brotherly accord,
Each happy in the other’s sure support.
Bede’s History, finished in 732, marks the golden period of Northumbrian prosperity. Peter Hunter Blair notes that whilst Bede did indeed live on the edge of the world, the reality of which was brought home to him by living just two and a half miles inside Hadrian’s wall, which formed the most northerly sector of the imperial frontier in the time of Diocletian,
“Jerome writing in his cell at Bethlehem, Paul and Antony sharing their loaf of bread in the Egyptian desert, Augustine writing of the City of God in north Africa, Cassiodorus turning from the Italian civil service to the preservation of manuscripts in Calabria, Martin born in Pannonia to become the soldier-saint of Merovingian France, Isidore the greatest scholar of Visigothic Spain – all these men in their different ways and ages, however much they strove to withdraw from the classical world, were, nonetheless heirs to a common imperial tradition which lived long after the death of Bede, even though its nature and strength became varied by continuing change and development.”
Anglo-Saxon Influences Abroad
By the eighth century the troubled liminal province of late antiquity had emerged as a Christian Imperium in its own right. Under King Offa (757-796), the Mercian Supremacy reached its apogee and his prestige was such that Charlemagne, soon to be Emperor, addressed him as “his respected and very dear brother” when he entered into a trade treaty with him in 790. He also sent Offa and a number of English churches part of an Avar treasure-hoard captured in 795 with a request for their prayers. Like Charlemagne, Offa had his son anointed king by bishops during his lifetime, and when Charlemagne proposed a marriage alliance between his son and one of Offa’s daughters it indicated his regard. However, Offa’s counter proposal that his heir, Ecgfrith, should also marry one of Charlemagne’s daughters, proved a step too far causing the proud Frank to break off diplomatic relations. Offa is praised for his piety and efforts to instruct his people in the precepts of God by Alcuin, the Northumbrian ecclesiastic attached to Charlemagne’s court.
Alcuin was a protégée of Archbishop Ecgbert of York and was recruited by Charlemagne to teach at the Palatine Academy in Aachen where he taught the Emperor, his sons, Pepin and Louis and the ladies of the court, the liberal arts, including rhetoric, dialectic, astronomy and computus. Bringing from York his assistants, Pyttel, Sigewulf and Joseph, Alcuin revolutionized the educational standards of the Academy and made a significant contribution to the Carolingian Renaissance. He was succeeded by Johannes Scotus Eriugen, an Irish theologian, noted Greek scholar, Neoplatonist philosopher and poet. The reputation of this school and the Anglo-Saxon influence in the Carolingian Renaissance, has long been recognised by historians of the early medieval period. Nor should we understand this as simply a ‘brain drain’ from England, as Francia and Carolingian concepts also came to influence contemporary Anglo-Saxon culture.
The eighth century also saw missionaries from England spreading the faith to the pagans of the Carolingian Empire. Notable among these were the Northumbrian Willibrord and Lebuin, monk of Ripon, who carried the faith to the Frisians; as well as the Wessex evangelists, St. Boniface (Wynfrith) from Crediton and the nun Leoba from Wimborne Minster, who converted the Germans. Tolkien referred to their endeavours as “one of the chief glories of England” and ranks them “among our chief contributions to Europe, considering all our history.”
The Viking Attacks
Just as the Romano-British had suffered from the attacks of the pagan Anglo-Saxons, at the end of the eighth century coastal assaults by pagan Vikings began, and discovered rich plunder in the churches and monasteries. Lindisfarne (793) and Bede’s monastery at Jarrow (794) were among the first to fall. “Sacred vessels of gold and silver, jewelled shrines, costly robes and valuables of all kinds were carried off. English people were captured and made slaves.” Just as with the Anglo-Saxon’s own ancestors, the Vikings began to settle until the Anglo-Saxon dynasties were overwhelmed or subjugated one by one. In 866 a Viking force marched north from East Anglia, took York and conquered southern Northumbria and the following year Vikings moved on Nottingham and the Mercians sued for surrender. In 869 the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records that “the army rode across Mercia into East Anglia, and took winter-quarters at Thetford; and that winter King Edmund fought against them, and the Danish took the victory, and killed the king and conquered all that land.” Only Wessex stood among the English kingdoms. King Æthelred of Wessex and his brother, Alfred (871-899), fought off fierce onslaughts, but when Æthelred died in 480 the new king, Alfred, was forced to pay them off with ‘Danege’ (tribute), although this did not prevent their continuing assaults on his kingdom. In 878 Alfred counterattacked and defeated Guthrum, the Danish leader at the Battle of Edington. The significance of this was clearly seen by contemporary as well as later historians. In the eleventh century Life of St. Cuthbert, an apparition of the saint addresses Alfred before this battle in language similar to the Abrahamic covenant, “To you and your sons is given the whole of Albion. Be just, for you are elected king of all Britain.” The peace terms agreed required that Guthrum should convert to Christianity and that England should be divided between the Viking Danelaw in the north and east, with Wessex holding the south and west. The once great kingdom of Mercia was now divided between Wessex and the Danelaw.
Alfred’s many reforms, which justly earned him the epiphet, ‘The Great’ included the fortification of several of the former Roman cities: London, Exeter, Chichester, Bath., Portchester and Winchester, his capital.
Although the Vikings were to remain a threat for a further two centuries, their progress had been halted and the supremacy of Wessex led to a united and stronger English kingdom under the heirs of Alfred.
Alfred the Great’s (871-899) commitment as a Christian king was demonstrated not only in his reforms of the church but also in his devotion to the See of Rome. He was sent by his father, King Æthelwulf, on pilgrimage to Rome as a child of five when Pope Leo IV invested him with the insignia and robes of the consulate, seen as recognition of “a future right to rule.” As the Kingdom of Wessex expanded its influence the style of English kings also became imperial. Æthelstan of Wessex 924-939), having obtained the submission of Constantine II, King of the Scots and Owain of Strathclyde adopted the style ‘King and chief of the whole realm of Albion’ (rex et primicerius totius Albionis regni).Æthelstan and Edgar
During the reign of Athelstan’s nephew, Edgar ‘the Peaceful’ (959-975) his chief minister was the able reformer, St. Dunstan, whom he appointed as Archbishop of Canterbury and sent to Rome to receive the pallium. Although at that time the See of Rome was caught between the threats of Berengar, King of Italy, and the rising influence of the German ruler, Otto the Great, leading to the deposition of two popes whilst the papacy languished under the corrupt dominance of the Crescenti family, the prestige of the Apostolic See was not diminished. Dunstan, as representative of Rome, bolstered by the strength and prestige of Edgar’s patronage, demonstrated the beneficial symphony of church and state. Dunstan’s former Abbey at Glastonbury was granted the privilege of being received “into the bosom of the Roman church and the protection of the blessed apostles”. Edgar had been crowned in 960 or 961, but – following the model of King David – underwent a second unction at Bath in 973, after which he received the tribute of eight Celtic and Viking sub kings, whose submission was symbolised by rowing him in state on the River Dee. In 970 he had adopted the regnal style, August Emperor of all Albion (totius Albionis imperator augustus) and in a charter of 974 this had expanded to ‘Of all Britain and of the neighbouring kings basileus (totius Albionis finitimorumque regum basileus).
Some 560 years after the ending of imperial rule an Emperor and Augustus again reigned in Britain. The adoption of imperial titles, even of the Greek basileus, pronounced both continuity with the past and equality with those other ‘Roman’ emperors: the Armenian, John I Tzimiskes (969-976) in Constantinople or the Saxon, Otto the Great (962-973), reckoned as the real founder of the Holy Roman Empire. From Alter Orbis, Britain had now become a Christian Imperium equal to both Empires, contributing significantly to the development of Western Christianity under the aegis of the imperium of the Holy Roman Church, which, as heir to the ancient Empire, had conserved the spirit of Romanitas. After the lapse of another 560 years, however, history was to repeat itself as yet another tyrant, reminiscent of those of Gildas, was to consolidate his rule by cutting adrift from Rome.
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