Dictionary of Christian Biography and Literature to the End of the Sixth Century/Augustinus, St., archbishop of Canterbury
Augustinus, St., archbp. of Canterbury. The materials for the life of the first archbp. of Canterbury are almost entirely comprised in the first and second books of Bede's Ecclesiastical History, with some additional points in Gocelin's Life of St. Augustine, Thorn's Chronicles of St. Augustine's Abbey; a few letters of Gregory the Great; the Lives of Gregory the Great by Paul the Deacon and John the Deacon.
His mission to England was due to the circumstance of Gregory the Great, a monk in the monastery of St. Andrew, on the Caelian Mount at Rome, one day passing through the market-place of the city, and noticing three boys exposed for sale who told him they were Angles from Deira, a province of King Ella. By a playful interpretation of the word he was reminded of angels, delivered from wrath, with songs of hallelujah. Years passed away and the idea ripened into a mission to Britain headed by Augustine the abbot of St. Andrew's.
In the summer of A.D. 596 they set out, traversed the north of Italy, and reached the neighbourhood of Aix, in Provence, and the north of France. They crossed the English Channel and landed at Ebbe's Fleet, in the Isle of Thanet and kingdom of Kent.
King Ethelbert received the missionaries in a friendly spirit, either in the open space near Ebbe's Fleet, or, according to another account, under an ancient oak in the middle of the island. To make a deeper impression on the monarch's mind, Augustine came up from the shore in solemn procession, preceded by a verger carrying a large silver cross, and followed by one bearing aloft on a board, painted and gilded, a representation of the Saviour. Then came the rest of the brethren and the choir, headed by Honorius and the deacon Peter, chanting a solemn litany for the eternal welfare of themselves and the people amongst whom they had come. Ethelbert listened attentively to Augustine's address, delivered through interpreters, and then, in a manner at once politic and courteous, replied that the promises of the strangers were fair, but the tidings they announced were new and full of a meaning he did not understand. He could not give his assent to them and leave the customs of his people, but he promised the strangers kindness and hospitality, together with liberty to celebrate their services, and undertook that none of his subjects who might be so disposed should be prohibited from espousing their religion. Augustine and his companions again formed a procession, and crossing the ferry to Richborough, advanced to Canterbury, chanting one of the solemn litanies learnt from Gregory, and took up their abode in the Stable-gate, near the present church of St. Alphege, till the king should finally make up his mind.
Thus admitted into the city, the missionaries commended their message by their self-devotion and pure and chaste living. Before long they were allowed to worship in the church of St. Martin, which Ethelbert's Christian queen Bertha, a Gallic princess with bp. Liudhard for her chaplain, had been accustomed to attend, and they were thus encouraged to carry on their labours with renewed zeal. At last Ethelbert avowed himself ready to accept Christianity, and was baptized on Whitsunday, June 2, 597, probably at St. Martin's church.
The conversion of their chief was, as is illustrated again and again in the history of medieval missions, the signal for the baptism of the tribe. At the next assembly, therefore, of the Witan, the matter was formally referred to the authorities of the kingdom, and they decided to follow the example of Ethelbert. Accordingly, on Dec. 25, 597, upwards of 10,000 received baptism in the waters of the Swale, at the mouth of the Medway, and thus sealed their acceptance of the new faith.
Thus successful in the immediate object of the mission, Augustine repaired to France, and was consecrated the first archbp. of Canterbury by Virgilius, the metropolitan of Arles. On his return he took up his abode in the wooden palace of Ethelbert, who retired to Reculver, and this, with an old British or Roman church hard by, became the nucleus of Augustine's cathedral. Another proof of the king's kindness was soon displayed. To the west of Canterbury, and midway between it and the church of St. Martin, was a building, once a British church but now used as a Saxon temple. This Ethelbert, instead of destroying, made over to the archbishop, who dedicated it to St. Pancras, in memory, probably, of the young Roman martyr on the tombs of whose family the monastery on the Caelian Mount at Rome had been built. Round this building now rose another monastery, at the head of which Augustine placed one of his companions, Peter, as its first abbot.
Before, however, these arrangements were completed, he sent Peter and Laurence to inform Gregory of the success of the mission.
Gregory was overjoyed at the receipt of the intelligence, and after an interval sent over a reinforcement of fresh labourers for the mission, amongst whom were Mellitus, Paulinus, and Justus. They brought ecclesiastical vestments, sacred vessels, some relics of apostles and martyrs, a present of books, and the pall of a metropolitan for Augustine himself, who was thus made independent of the bishops of France. In a lengthened epistle Gregory sketched out the course which the archbishop was to take in developing his work. London was to be his metropolitan see, and he was to consecrate twelve bishops as suffragans. Moreover, whenever Christianity had extended to York, he was to place there also a metropolitan with a like number of bishops under him. As to the British bishops, they were all entrusted to his care, "that the unlearned might be instructed, the weak strengthened by persuasion, the perverse corrected with authority." Augustine, thereupon, invited the British clergy to a conference on the confines of Wessex, near the Severn, under an oak, long after known as Augustine's oak. Prepared to make considerable concessions, he yet felt that three points did not admit of being sacrificed. He proposed that the British church should (1) conform to the Roman usage in the celebration of Easter; and (2) the rite of baptism; and (3) that they should aid him in evangelizing the heathen Saxons. The discussion was long and fruitless. At last the archbishop proposed that an appeal should be made to the Divine judgment. A blind Saxon was introduced, whom the British clergy were unable to cure. Augustine supplicated aid from above, and the man, we are told, forthwith recovered his sight.
Convinced but unwilling to alter their old customs, the vanquished party proposed another meeting. Seven British bishops met on this occasion, together with Dinoth, abbot of the great monastery of Bangor in Flintshire. Before the synod assembled, they proposed to ask the advice of an aged hermit whether they ought to change the traditions of their fathers. "Yes," replied the old man, "if the new-comer be a man of God? " "But how," they asked, "are we to know whether he be a man of God? " "The Lord hath said," was the reply, " 'Take My yoke upon you and learn of Me, for I am meek and lowly.' Now if this Augustine is meek and lowly, be assured that be beareth the yoke of Christ." "Nay, but how are we to know this? " they asked again. "If he rises to meet you when ye approach," answered the hermit, "hear and follow him; but if he despise you, and fails to rise up from his place, let him also be despised by you." The synod met, and Augustine remained seated when they approached. It was enough. It was deemed clear that he had not the Spirit of Christ, and no efforts of the archbishop could induce the British clergy to yield to any of his demands. Thereupon Augustine broke up the conference with an angry threat that, if the British clergy would not accept peace with their brethren, they must look for war with their foes, and if they would not proclaim the way of life to the Saxons, they would suffer deadly vengeance at their hands. Thus, unsuccessful, Augustine returned to Canterbury, and there relaxed none of his efforts to evangelize the Saxon tribes. As all Kent had espoused the Faith, it was deemed advisable to erect a second bishopric at Rochester. Over it Augustine placed his companion Justus, and Ethelbert caused a cathedral to be built, which was named after St. Andrew, in memory of the monastery dedicated to that Apostle on the Caelian Hill at Rome, whence the missionaries had started. At the same time, through the connexion of the same monarch with the king of Essex, who was his nephew, Christianity found its way into the adjacent kingdom, and the archbishop was able to place Mellitus in the see of London, where Ethelbert built a church, dedicated to St. Paul.
This was the limit of Augustine's success. It fell, indeed, far short of Gregory's grand design; but this had been formed on a very imperfect acquaintance with the condition of the island, the strong natural prejudices of the British Christians, and the relations which subsisted between the different Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. On Mar. 12, 604, Gregory died, and two months afterwards according to some authorities, or a year after according to others, Augustine followed his patron and benefactor, and was buried in the cemetery which he himself had consecrated, beside the Roman road that ran over St. Martin's Hill from Richborough to Canterbury.
The most important modern authorities for the life of the first archbp. of Canterbury are Montalambert, Monks of the West, iii.; Hook, Archbishops of Canterbury, i.; Stanley, Memorials of Canterbury, 4th ed. 1865; Milman, Hist. of Latin Christianity, ii. 4th ed. 1867; A. J. Mason, The Mission of St. Aug. to Eng., 1897; Bp. Browne, Aug. and his Companions, 1895; Gasquet, Missions of St. Aug.; Bp. Collins, Beginnings of Eng. Christianity.