Christ cross

how Britain became Christian —

Christianity has existed in the British Isles since ancient times. Many Old English saints are also venerated by the Orthodox Church. At the same time, the phenomenon of early Christianity in England is quite different, there was a confrontation between the Celtic and Roman schools. Realnoe Vremya columnist Karim Gaynullin tells how the British solved the problem of choosing faith in the author’s column for our publication.

First mention of Christianity among the British

Christianity arrived in the territory of Great Britain and Ireland at a time when most of the territory of the British Isles was inhabited by Celtic tribes: Britons, Welsh, Proto-Irish and Picts, who became l one of the “components” of modern Scots. At this time the southern part of Britain was under Roman rule and the Celts themselves were heavily Romanized.

Medieval tradition, rooted in the stories of King Lucius, Fagan and Deruvianus, claimed that Christianity came to the British Isles during the reign of Emperor Tiberius. But this can be attributed to the category of myths of Sacred History.

In fact, the first mentions of Christianity among the Bretons in the works of Tertullian and Origen belong to the first years of the third century. At that time, Christianity was “one of the religions”, along with local pagan cults and Roman religions such as Mitraism. Then Christianity was persecuted, and even the lives of martyrs, such as Saints Alban, Julius and Aaron, belong to this time.

Britain was then a Roman province, and the improvement in the position of Christianity is also linked to its legalization by the Roman Emperor Constantine the Holy. We know that already in the 4th century British bishops took part in the work of Christian councils.

In Britain, the Pelagian heresy was born, which opposed the teachings of Saint Augustine on original sin: the fall does not affect real human nature, and man has full autonomy to choose between the good and the bad. Rome sent delegations, in which Herman of Auxerre, Bishop of Gaul, may have participated, to quell heretical sentiments.

Anglo-Saxon invasion. Photo:

How Saint Patrick established Christianity in Ireland

At the beginning of the 5th century, the Roman legions completely left Britain, the Celtic tribes drowned in internecine wars. At the same time, the Germanic tribes of the Angles, Saxons and Jutes, ancestors of the modern English, begin their invasion of the islands.

After the invasion, Germanic paganism was added to the religious map of the British Isles. Germanic tribes expelled Christian Britons to Wales and Cornwall, and from the islands to Brittany (a peninsula north of modern France). The invasions of the Germans, whether Saxons, Angles, Jutes or (later) Normans, are accompanied by the destruction of a large number of Christian archives. The Germans perceived Christianity as a Celtic religion and destroyed everything related to it, and the British Christians treated the Germans with hostility and did not want to preach to them.

Persecuted Christian missionaries from the British and Welsh continued to preach on the islands, the famous British-born Christian saint Patrick established Christianity in Ireland. Reliable evidence has been preserved about Patrick: two documents of his own composition – “Epistle” and “Confession”. Patrick was from a Christian family of Romanised Britons and did not know Latin well, as his works were written naively and simply, but he valued Mediterranean knowledge and upbringing, as evidenced by the beginning of self-reflection in his written. He and his followers laid the foundation on which the entire medieval culture of Britain and Ireland was built.

Already the Irish have begun to preach among the Anglo-Saxons and the Picts, making them Christians. Among these missionaries, we can cite Saint Columbus, who preached successfully in Scotland.

Saint Patrick with the symbol of Ireland — a cloverleaf. Photo:

“Celtic Christianity was characterized by an excellent system of church organization”

Celtic Christianity was characterized by a rather free attitude towards the title of saints, it was said that on some islands already at that time there were the remains of thousands of saints and thousands lived.

Probably, the Justinian plague epidemic of 547-548 also contributed to the success of the Christian mission. Apocalyptic moods, widespread death from terrible and painful disease intensified Christian preaching, which blamed demons, as Christians called pagan deities, from local beliefs, for diseases. There is also an opposing view: fairly Christian Anglo-Saxon rulers were among the first to revert to pagan cults in times of disasters, such as the plague, there were cases of double belief: an example is the discoveries of the archaeological excavations of a burial in the form of a tower in East Anglia attributed to King Redwald.

Many scholars isolate the phenomenon of Celtic Christianity, putting it on a par with Roman Catholicism. Celtic Christianity was characterized by an excellent system of ecclesiastical organization, close to the tribe: the monasteries were run by a married clergy, the inheritance of ecclesiastical functions was widespread, illegitimate children were treated more gently (they could inherit if they were recognized by their father), there was no parochial system, Christians did not attend regular services, but the monastic communities made “tours” by region, and the role of monasticism was incomparably higher . The role of the monks approached the role of the druids. Also, the stumbling block between the Roman and Celtic traditions was the Easter reckoning options.

In 597, wanting to simultaneously convert the conquerors of New England, the Anglo-Saxons, to Christianity, and at the same time somehow integrate the local church into the Catholic mainstream, Pope Gregory I sent a mission led by Augustine of Canterbury. The last was the Synod of Chester at Whitby, which called on the Celts to abandon their liturgical traditions. The reports of these meetings have been kept by the Venerable Bede. Augustine successfully leads his sermon among the Saxons, but the Christian Britons refuse to give up their customs and preach among the Saxons they dislike. The Venerable Bede pointed out that the new massacre committed by the Germans against the British was God’s punishment for refusing to preach the Christian word among the Saxons. The Welsh dioceses did not come under the sovereignty of the English diocese until after the Norman invasion, but the Celtic bishops were forced to leave England. The Celtic tradition was gradually supplanted and replaced by the Roman tradition.

Augustine of Canterbury. Photo:

Ethelbert, the Anglo-Saxon king of Kent, married Bertha of Kent, a Frankish Christian princess, who also facilitated the baptism. Bede in his essay separately highlights the role of Christian princesses in converting their husbands.

Ethelbert allowed Augustine’s mission to preach freely, and the mission was a success. After Ethelbert’s death, a pagan reaction began, but his daughter Ethelburga married King Edwin of Northumbia, and his retinue of missionaries led by Bishop Paulinus, sent by Pope Gregory the Great to reinforce the mission of Augustine in Kent, converted Edwin to Christianity. An extraterrestrial mission brought Roman tradition to the islands.

Paulinus preached successfully in other Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, such as Bernicia and Lindsey, many East Angles were also converted to Christianity. The active conversion of Germans to Christianity began.

Monasteries in England became centers of science

The papal legate Theodore/Theodore of Canterbury in 669-690 united episcopal and monastic life in England, which was Rome’s victory over Ireland in spiritual life. For this reason, a monastic dawn came to England, united in its Christianity and because of the sovereignty of the Roman Rite diocese, which became the owner of enormous resources that allowed it to invest in construction projects and d ‘education. New monasteries are opened and a great influence is exerted on all spheres of life. Even some German kings went to the monastery voluntarily. Monastic culture had a huge impact on the intellectual life of England, monasteries became centers of science.

Separately, it is worth mentioning the venerable monk Bede from one of these monasteries – Jarrow. He was fluent in Latin and partly in Greek, citing Virgil and Pliny. He wrote commentaries on the Bible, the lives of the saints and, above all, the “Ecclesiastical History of the English People”, the main source for all that we have listed above, covering the events of Caesar’s campaigns in 731, written in Latin. , written in a living language.

Medieval image of the Venerable Bede. Photo:

In addition to the essay on the history of England, Bede wrote works on the Christian calendar, “The Book of Time” (703) and “On the Calculation of Time” (726). Additionally, he wrote the Chronicle, or About the Six Ages of the World, where he described Christian sacred history.

Bede was born near Wearmouth Monastery, where he became a monk. In 703, he accepted the priesthood. He has about 40 works, his mathematical and exegetical works were appreciated throughout Europe and were included in the library of probably all the great monasteries.

The character of Bede is distinguished at the same time by the influence of an atmosphere of lively Celtic religious zeal and obedience to the spirit of Roman tradition. According to Fletcher, the connection of these two traditions in England at the beginning of the eighth century determined the whole nature of his activities.

He was canonized only in 1899, in the Catholic Church he is called Saint Bede, and Protestants – Venerable Bede, also translated into Russian as Venerable Bede.

And although the Anglo-Saxons adopted Christianity about a hundred years later than the Franks, they began to move much more actively in this direction, entering the family of the Mediterranean peoples and perceiving its upbringing. In a letter of 601, Pope Gregory congratulates King Aethelbert and calls him “the new Constantine”. Now the king possessed the letter as a universal means of communication and legislation, and also secured the support of the clerics, which gave him more strength in the eyes of the European states and authority from the point of view of the tribes. neighbours. In Anglo-Saxon society, speech and reason were highly valued, which was probably the main reason for the widespread perception of Christian culture and language in the Mediterranean. In the future, this will flourish in the form of Old English poetry and prose.

Karim Gaynullin


The author’s opinion may not coincide with the position of the editorial board of Realnoe Vremya.