The Christianization of Anglo-Saxon England

When the Anglo-Saxons inhabited Britain, they brought with them Germanic paganism. The story of the conversion of the Saxons to Christianity is one filled with political intrigue and bloody conflict.

Jan 30, 2021By Jack Crawford
anglo saxon heptarchy
Map of the Anglo-Saxon ‘Heptarchy,’ from J.G. Bartholomew’s A Literary and Historical Atlas of Europe, 1914; with Augustine preaching to King Æthelberht, from A Chronicle of England, B.C. 55-A.D. 1485, written and illustrated by James E. Doyle, 1864

 

Christianity has existed in Britain since the time of the Roman Empire when it spread across the British Isles over the process of many centuries. However, the coming of the Anglo-Saxons led to the extinguishing of Christianity in England and the resurgence of Germanic-inspired Anglo-Saxon paganism. It was not until the 7th century, and a papal mission sent by Gregory the Great, that the conversion of England began again. Through the baptism of monarchs and the establishment of royal hegemonies, the Christian faith spread throughout the elite of Anglo-Saxon England. Arguably, it was the work of missionaries that eventually ended Germanic paganism amongst the general populations of these Anglo-Saxon kingdoms.

 

Before The Anglo-Saxons: Origins Of Christianity In Britain

 

Christianity first arrived in Britain through the Roman Empire, likely via the many merchants, immigrants, and soldiers who arrived in the islands following the Roman conquest of Britain in 43 AD. By the fourth century, Christianity had become widespread thanks in large part to the 313 Edict of Milan, issued by the emperor Constantine, which legalized the practice of Christianity within the Roman Empire. Christianity was certainly highly organized in Britain, with regional bishops (the most powerful seem to have been based in London and York) and a church hierarchy that looked to the church in Gaul as its superior.

 

Stained glass depiction of Saint Patrick, from the Cathedral of Christ the Light, Oakland, California

 

At the start of the 5th century, a rebellion of the garrison in Britain ended Roman control over the province. A soldier, Constantine III, was appointed by the rebels and crowned emperor – however, when his rebellion fell apart in 409, the Western Roman Empire was too weak to reassert control over Britain. The Roman citizens of Britain were told to look to their own defenses, and Romano-British Christian culture arguably survived for some time in the west of Britain, despite subsequent Saxon invasions.

 

Christianity also survived in Ireland. Saint Patrick, who was active in the early to mid-5th century, was born into a Christian Romano-British family. At the age of sixteen, he was taken as a slave by Irish raiders from his home (which may have been in modern-day Cumbria in the north of England), and spent six years in captivity, before escaping and returning home. He later had a vision in which the ‘Voice of the Irish’ begged him to return – acting upon this he returned to Ireland as a missionary and led a hugely successful conversion campaign that turned Ireland into a Christian land. Ireland remained Christian throughout the following centuries, and Irish missionaries played a crucial role in converting the pagan Anglo-Saxons.

 

Invasion And The Coming Of Germanic Paganism

Anglo-Saxon warriors, via English Heritage

 

Following the Roman withdrawal from Britain, there was a period of Germanic settlement in Britain. It is important to note that this ‘invasion’ or ‘settlement’ was not one large monolithic movement, rather it was a series of piecemeal migrations by various Germanic groups, principally from the Frisian coast, the Jutland peninsula, and the southern coasts of Norway.

 

The Saxon peoples were not unfamiliar with Britain – they had served as mercenaries in Roman armies at various times, including in campaigns fought in Britain. There is evidence to suggest that some Saxon leaders were invited in by British rulers in order to help maintain peace and protect their realms from invasion. Although initially peaceful, the Saxon migrations soon became increasingly violent according to sources such as the mid-6th century monk Gildas. It is Gildas who details Romano-British resistance to the Angles, Saxons, Jutes, and Frisians who came to Britain, led by a Christian named Ambrosius who later came to be referred to as the legendary King Arthur.

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An Anglo-Saxon feast, from Cotton MS Tiberius B V/1, f. 4v, 11th century, via the British Library, London

 

Despite resistance, the Saxon settlers from diverse origins, who came to be known as the ‘Anglo-Saxons’ collectively, established political hegemony across most of England, leading to the creation of several kingdoms by the beginning of the 7th century. Although the sources describe massacres and displacements of the native British, it seems likely that the Anglo-Saxon rule was centered on a warrior elite who ruled over a population that remained primarily British. Slowly, this ruling class accultured to its new home, with a great deal of intermarriage. As part of this process, elements of culture such as Germanic paganism became widespread, and a new Anglo-Saxon culture developed, including Anglo-Saxon paganism and the language of Old English.

 

The Arrival Of Christian Missionaries

Pope Gregory I ‘The Great’ by Joseph-Marie Vien, in Musée Fabre, Montpellier

 

Therefore, at the end of the 6th century, Christianity in Britain seemed to have been effectively eliminated. The Anglo-Saxons were polytheistic pagans, with gods inspired by Germanic paganism: The Anglo-Saxon god ‘Woden’ is very similar to the Viking ‘Odin’, and ‘Thunor’ was the Saxon version of ‘Thor’.

 

It was Pope Gregory I who initiated the process of bringing Britain back into Christendom by dispatching a mission led by a monk named Augustine. The papal mission landed in the Anglo-Saxon Kingdom of Kent in 597, which was likely chosen because its king, Æthelberht, had a Christian Frankish wife named Bertha, despite being a pagan himself. Gradually, over the next century, Christianity spread throughout the seven Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of Britain.

 

The Ecclesiastical History of the English People, written later in around 731 AD by the English monk Bede, details how the missionary Augustine was granted permission to settle at Canterbury and to preach to the population. After a short time (likely in the year 597) he was even successful in converting king Æthelberht himself. This was a crucial step, as the population of a kingdom would be more likely to become Christian if their monarch had been baptized, and many conversions were recorded following Æthelberht’s acceptance of Christianity.

 

Christianity Spreads From Kent

Augustine preaching to King Æthelberht, from A Chronicle of England, B.C. 55-A.D. 1485, written and illustrated by James E. Doyle, 1864, via the Royal Academy of Arts, London

 

Æthelberht also persuaded his nephew, King Sæberht of Essex to convert to Christianity in 604. It is possible that this conversion was primarily political in nature, as Æthelberht was Sæberht’s overlord – by compelling his nephew to accept his new religion, the Kentish king asserted his dominance over Essex. Similarly, King Rædwald of East Anglia was baptized in Kent by Mellitus, the first bishop of London and a member of the Gregorian mission, in 604. In doing so Rædwald also submitted to Æthelberht’s political authority.

 

Rædwald’s actions post-conversion are perhaps a testament to the political nature of baptism among the Anglo-Saxon elite at this time: The East Anglian king did not give up his pagan shrines but instead added the Christian God to his existing pantheon. This act may also hint at how belief in Christianity was practically achieved by missionaries attempting to convert pagan Anglo-Saxons. By allowing the Christian God to sit alongside other pagan gods, pagan Saxons could be introduced to elements of Christian doctrine piece by piece, eventually leading to the full abandonment of the old gods, and the acceptance of monotheism.

 

The ornate helmet found at the Sutton Hoo ship burial in Suffolk, East Anglia, via the National Trust, Wiltshire. It is thought that the occupant of this incredibly elaborate burial site was Rædwald and that the helmet belonged to him. 

 

Paulinus, a member of the Gregorian mission, went north to Northumbria in 625 to convince its king, Edwin, to accept baptism. Following a successful military campaign, Edwin finally vowed to convert and was baptized in 627, although he does not appear to have attempted to convert his people. Edwin also recognized the potential this new faith had for asserting his dominance over other rulers, and by persuading Eorpwald of East Anglia to convert in 627, he successfully established himself as the most powerful ruler of the English.

 

Relapse Into Germanic Paganism

The Anglo-Saxon ‘Heptarchy’, so named because the Anglo-Saxons were divided into seven kingdoms: Wessex, Sussex, Kent, Essex, East Anglia, Mercia, and Northumbria, from J.G. Bartholomew’s A Literary and Historical Atlas of Europe, 1914, via archive.org

 

A series of deaths side-tracked conversion efforts across the Saxon kingdoms. Upon Æthelberht’s death in 616 or 618, his son Eadbald refused to be baptized and the Kingdom of Kent relapsed into Germanic paganism for a time, before converting to Christianity around the year 624. It seems likely that Eadbald’s Frankish wife Ymme was instrumental in the conversion. Frankish trade was important to Kent, and the Christian missionaries in Canterbury likely had support from the Frankish church.

 

Similarly, Sæberht’s sons Sexred and Sæward drove missionaries and the bishop Mellitus out of Essex in 616 following their father’s death, leaving Rædwald of East Anglia as the only nominally Christian king in Britain for a time. After an unsuccessful attempt by Mellitus to return to Essex following the re-conversion of Eadbald of Kent, Essex remained a pagan kingdom until the mid-7th century, when King Oswy of Northumbria persuaded King Sigeberht to convert (again, probably a political move to express hegemony).

 

A rebellion in East Anglia led to the death of Eorpwald and saw pagan nobleman Ricberht installed on the throne – he reverted East Anglia to paganism for three years. Edwin’s death led to a resurgence of paganism in Northumbria too, as his cousin and nephew, Osric and Eanfrith, reverted the kingdom back to open worship of the pagan gods.

 

Christian Revival

Saint Felix and King Sigeberht of East Anglia, from a stained-glass window at St. Peter and St. Paul church, Felixstowe, Suffolk, photographed by Simon Knott, via Flickr

 

Despite these serious setbacks, conversion efforts across the Saxon kingdoms were able to recover, primarily through regime change. In East Anglia, Richberht’s rule broke down and Sigeberht, another of Rædwald’s sons who had been in exile in Gaul, returned to rule the kingdom. Sigeberht was a Christian and brought with him a familiarity with the Gallic Church – he also brought with him the Burgundian Bishop Felix for whom he established a seat at Dommoc. Sigeberht also granted land and patronage to the Irish monk Fursey: both he and Felix enacted many conversions across East Anglia.

 

In Northumbria it was the Christian Oswald, Eanfrith’s brother, who defeated the British King Cadwallon ap Cadfan (who had killed Eanfrith and Osric in battle), retaking the kingdom and re-establishing Christianity. Oswald himself had been baptized whilst in exile with the Scots, and like Sigeberht, he brought missionaries with him to convert the population of his kingdom and personally persuaded the elites in his realm to be baptized.

 

Oswald appealed to the island monastery of Iona to provide these missionaries – Bishop Aidan was sent to Northumbria in 635, founding the monastery of Lindisfarne and spending the rest of his life traveling the length of the kingdom, converting its population until his death in 651. Not only did Aidan enjoy a close relationship with the elites of Northumbria, but his monks were active amongst the general population of the kingdom, making his conversion efforts highly successful.

 

The tidal island of Lindisfarne, also known as ‘Holy Island’, the site of Aidan’s monastery, via The Berwickshire and Northumberland Marine Nature Partnership

 

With Christianity becoming more entrenched, the rest of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms slowly converted to the new faith. In 653 Essex became Christian again when Sigeberht the Good was convinced to convert by King Oswy of Northumbria – despite relapsing into Germanic paganism in the 660s, King Sighere was the last pagan King of Essex, dying in 688. In Mercia, missionaries had been allowed to preach since King Penda’s son Peada converted in 653. Upon Penda’s death in 655, Peada ascended to the throne, and Mercia never again became pagan.

 

In Sussex, King Æthelwealh was baptized in 675, probably in order to secure a marriage alliance, and in 681 Bishop (later Saint), Wilfrid began preaching. The first Christian Kings of Wessex were Cynigils and Cwichelm, baptized in 635/6. Although the kingdom relapsed into paganism several times over the next few decades, the reign of Cædwalla (685/6-695) aided the spread of Christianity – Cædwalla was not baptized until his deathbed, but he supported and sponsored conversion efforts. His successor, King Ine, was Christian.

 

Therefore, by the end of the 7th century, Christianity had spread across Britain. Never again did any of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms openly relapse into paganism, and their kings continued to be baptized into the 8th century and beyond as Christianity became increasingly entrenched in Saxon culture.

 

Belief And Slow Process Of Conversion In Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms

The Venerable Bede Translates John by J. D. Penrose, ca. 1902, via Medievalists.net

 

Despite the narratives that we have from Bede and other writers that detail the baptismal dates of nobles and monarchs, we have very little information regarding how the conversion would actually have been achieved, either theologically or at a grassroots level amongst the general population. As mentioned earlier, the dual shrine of King Rædwald of East Anglia may offer us a clue as to how pagans came to incrementally believe in Christian doctrine.

 

However, we know that in 640 the Kentish King Eorcenberht commanded that pagan idols be destroyed, and Lent be observed by the population, an action which suggests that paganism was still widespread, despite the fact that Kent’s rulers had been Christian for some time.  This implies that although Christianity was easily spread amongst the elite in the 7th century, it may have taken decades or even centuries for the faith to be taken up by the general population. We must remember that conversion was used as a political tool as well – it was a very convenient way for a ruler to establish symbolic hegemony over his neighbors.

 

Detail from the Benedictional of Saint Æthelwold, 963-84, via the British Library, London

 

However, elite patronage was clearly crucial for the establishment of Christianity, and it was elite patronage that aided missionaries and made their efforts possible. In East Anglia, Sigeberht granted land to Felix and Fursey, allowing them to travel throughout his kingdom spreading the faith, while in Northumbria, Aidan’s establishment of Lindisfarne and his subsequent preaching could not have been possible without the goodwill of King Oswald and his nobles.

What is also striking is the Irish influence on the conversion of Anglo-Saxon England. Although the Gregorian mission succeeded in baptizing several Saxon kings, it was the traveling Irish missionaries in East Anglia and Northumbria that paved the way for the grassroots conversion of the general population. Through their foundation of monasteries, Fursey and Aidan created bases from which they could spread Christian doctrine amongst the pagan Anglo-Saxons surrounding them.

By Jack CrawfordJack is a contributing writer with a primary interest in Medieval History, in particular the early medieval period. He completed a bachelor’s degree in Medieval History at the University of St. Andrews, and a masters in Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic at the University of Cambridge.