William Sterling

Baltic Cruise Lecture 2

Lectures for Baltic and St Petersburg Cruise on the Ocean Countess July 2011


Lecture 2 The Coming of Christianity

Summary of Lecture 1

In the first lecture we looked at what Britain was like before the Anglo-Saxon invasions, why Celtic Britain was attractive to the Romans but also the difficulty the Romans had in keeping Britain. There was a Germanic presence in Britain well before the Romans left in 410 and it was not long before new Germanic peoples were coming across the North Sea: Jutes from Jutland to Kent and the Isle of Wight, Saxons from the Saxon homeland to the South and East coasts to form the kingdoms of Sussex, Wessex and Essex, and Angles from Angeln to the North and East to form the kingdoms of Bernicia, Deira, East Anglia and Mercia. By 600 the new map of Anglo-Saxon England was complete.

[SLIDE: Map.]

Christianity in Britain

All the Germanic tribes were pagan believing in their own pantheon of gods and goddesses such as Woden, Thor and Freya, just like the people they left behind and those to the north in Scandinavia. I shall look at these more in the last lecture about the Vikings as they continued to worship these gods far longer than the Anglo-Saxons.

Christianity had first come to Britain secretly via early missionaries, perhaps in the C1st but certainly by the C2nd. It is thought the first British martyr, St Alban, might have been executed as early as this but others argue it was in a later purge. Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire in 312 so by the time the Romans left in 410 it was well established in Britain.

During the Anglo-Saxon invasions the British churches quarrelled as much as the British kings. A number took up Pelagianism and Rome had to send Bishop Germanus of Auxerre (429 and 447) to preach. Missions went to Ireland and Patrick (c. 456) and others successfully converted the Irish where they gained a reputation for asceticism in places like Skellig Michael. The British kingdoms that remained unconquered by the Anglo-Saxons in the South West, Wales and the North West remained Christian but never thought to try and convert their enemies.

[SLIDES: Examples of Christian objects in Roman Britain and Skellig Michael.]

St Columba and St Augustine

Colum Cille (Columba) was a monk in Ireland who quarrelled with Finian over a copy of the psalter (or cathach). Being Ireland this led to a battle with many deaths. Columba went into voluntary exile to Scotland where he vowed to convert as many Picts as people who had been killed. In 563 he set up a monastery on Iona where he preached and trained missionaries and set up a scriptorium.

In 597, the year of Columba’s death, Pope Gregory decided to evangelise the Anglo-Saxons from Rome. He had seen some slaves in a market and was struck by their beauty. When he asked who they were and was told they were Angles (Angli) he said they were more like Angels (Angeli) – “Non Angli sed Angeli” a pun in Latin and English. He sent his friend Augustine with a small group of monks to Kent where King Ethelbert was already married to a Frankish princess, Bertha, whose parents insisted she be allowed to continue her Christianity. Ethelbert had given her the Roman church of St Martin’s outside Canterbury where she worshipped with her bishop Liudhard. Ethelbert was also the third Bretwalda so Gregory knew that if he would convert then others might follow. Ethelbert insisted on meeting Augustine in the open where his magic would not work and there is a cross to mark the spot today. Augustine was allowed to preach and eventually Ethelbert converted and allowed Augustine to build a church in Canterbury where the cathedral now stands. He also built a monastery where the ruins of St Augustine’s Abbey are and where many of the kings of Kent were buried. He also founded the see at Rochester.

Grave goods show the wealth of Kent but also that some Christian symbols were creeping in such as the fish at Crundale. When Ethelbert died in 616 his son Eadbald initially reverted to paganism but he and his successors became solid Christians. Many founded monasteries and several royal women became nuns and abbesses. Eadbald’s son Eorcenberht was married to Seaxburh of East Anglia who founded Minster on Sheppey. One of Ethelbert’s achievements was his law code which could be written down as the monks were literate. In the 680s Kent went into decline and was ruled by kings from Essex and Wessex. King Wihtred re-established independence in 692 and wrote his own law code.

[SLIDES: Iona, St Martin’s, St Augustine’s cross, Canterbury and other churches, later depictions of Ethelbert and Bertha, coins of Eadbald, various jewellery and other objects.]


The first kingdom after Kent to be converted by Augustine’s followers was Essex. King Saberht was the nephew of King Ethelbert so subject to his influence. The see of London was founded in 604 with Mellitus as the first bishop. Like Ethelbert Saberht died in 616 and his sons reverted to paganism and gave their father a pagan burial recently discovered near Southend. Christianity was only re-established after 653 with King Sigeberht who was later venerated as a saint. Two of the earliest surviving Saxon churches are in Essex at Bradwell and Greenstead, the only wooden structure to survive from the period.

[SLIDES: Various objects plus a selection from the Prittlewell grave of King Saberht, churches at Bradwell and Greenstead.]

East Anglia

The next king to take an interest in Christianity was Raedwald of East Anglia (593-624). He was an important king who according to Bede was Ethelbert’s successor as the fourth Bretwalda. Raedwald did not abandon the old pagan gods but built a Christian chapel to use alongside them. When he died his son reverted to paganism and gave his father one of the most splendid of all Anglo-Saxon burials at Sutton Hoo in a 90 foot long ship. One of Raedwald’s successors, King Anna (635-54), was renowned for his piety and his four daughters all became nuns or abbesses, including Seaxburh who was queen of Kent first.

The most famous of Anna’s daughters was Aethelthryth or Etheldreda. After two marriages she eventually persuaded her husband to divorce her so she could found the monastery at Ely in 673. She was made a saint after her death and Ely became a very wealthy pilgrimage centre.

[SLIDES: Selection from the Sutton Hoo ship burial with comparative objects from Sweden and elsewhere, Ely Cathedral and images of St Etheldreda.]


Ethelfrith the Fierce of Bernicia ruled Northumbria from 592 to 616 increasing his territory all the time. In 604 he had expelled the Deiran royal family including Edwin, heir to the throne. They had fled into exile at the court of Raedwald of East Anglia. This is where Edwin first encountered Christianity. In 616 with Raedwald’s help, Edwin defeated and killed Ethelfrith and became king of Northumbria. Ethelfrith’s sons fled into exile to the north where two at least ended up on Iona and converted to the Celtic church. Edwin’s rule was very strong and he was acknowledged as the Fifth Bretwalda. He wanted to cement his rule by marrying the daughter of Ethelbert of Kent. By this time Eadbald had reverted to Christianity and insisted his sister, Ethelburh, brought her personal chaplain, Paulinus, who in effect became the first bishop of York. Paulinus was successful in converting many Northumbrians but it was only when Edwin was saved from an assassin’s attempt on his life and defeated the West Saxon Prince Cwichelm who sent the assassin, that he converted. His daughter Eanfled was baptised at birth after her father’s escape from assassination.

The last great pagan ruler in England was Penda of Mercia (632-54) and he formed an alliance with the Celtic Christian king of Gwynedd, Cadwallon and defeated and killed Edwin at battle of Hatfield Chase in 633. After a year of chaos Ethelfrith’s son Oswald took the Northumbrian throne in 634. He was the sixth Bretwalda. His mother Acha was sister of Edwin so he could unite the two kingdoms. Oswald had been in exile on Iona and was a Celtic Christian. Aidan came to Northumbria from Iona to help with conversions and founded the monastery on Lindisfarne. In 635 Oswald sent Birinus to preach to the West Saxons and married King Cynegils’s daughter Cyneburh. In 642 Oswald was killed by Penda at Oswestry but was revered as a saint. His head was taken as a relic to Bardney by his niece, Osthryth when she was queen of Mercia much to the annoyance of the Mercians. He was succeeded by his brother Oswiu who was the Seventh Bretwalda.

Oswiu sent to Kent for Edwin’s daughter Eanfled where her mother had taken her for safety, to marry her. During Oswiu’s reign many churches and monasteries were built and crosses set up. Hild was the first abbess of Whitby which became one of the most famous houses. Wilfred was trained at Lindisfarne, Cuthbert at Melrose. In 654 Oswiu defeated and killed Penda and briefly took over as overlord of Mercia. He dedicated his daughter Aelflaed as a nun under cousin Hilda whom she eventually succeeded as Abbess. In 664 Oswiu held the Synod of Whitby to decide whether the Celtic rite (his) or the Roman rite (his wife’s) should prevail. The Roman rite won as Oswiu did not want to be locked out of heaven by St Peter. Oswiu’s sons Ecgfrith and Aldfrith reigned over a golden age in Northumbria religion and art. Wilfred was associated with Hexham, Ripon and other churches. Benedict Biscop was associated with Monkwearmouth and Jarrow where Bede worked in the early C8th and the monks produced manuscripts such as the Lindisfarne Gospels.

[SLIDES: Images of York with Edwin, Paulinus and Oswald, Lindisfarne, Durham, various crosses, Whitby, Hexham, Ripon, Monkwearmouth, Jarrow, Bede, the Lindisfarne Gospels and the Franks casket.]


The first Christian king of Wessex was Cynegils (611-42) who was converted by Bishop Birinus sent by Oswald of Northumbria. This was cemented by a marriage between Oswald and Cynegils’s daughter Cyneburh. He also tried to stay friendly with Pagan Penda of Mercia by marrying his son Cenwalh to Penda’s sister. Three years after he succeeded Cenwalh divorced Penda’s sister and was deposed by Penda staying in exile for 3 three years until he was allowed to return with co-rulers. Cenwalh was succeeded in 672 by his widow but her reign and those of her successors were very brief. West Saxon prestige was restored by Cadwalla who invaded Sussex and Kent but only reigned for three years before abdicating to go on a pilgrimage to Rome. His successor, Ine, reigned for nearly 40 years (688-726) thus establishing some stability and introduced a law code. His sister, Cuthburh, married King Aldfrith of Northumbria but as a widow for 20 years founded the abbey at Wimborne.

By the end of Ine’s reign missionaries such as Boniface were setting out from Wessex to evangelise Germany. He felled Thor’s Oak and started the conversion.

[SLIDES: Cynegils’s tomb, Wimborne, Boniface.]

In the next lecture we will examine the ascendancy of Mercia and how their triumph was rudely interrupted by the arrival of the Vikings.