(EUROPE: 501 to 1000 CE – continued)

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EUROPE: 501 to 1000 CE (3 of 10)

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Christianity Returns to Britain

An Anglo-Saxon called Ethelbert (Aethelbert or Aethelberht), son of the warlord Eormenric, took power in 560 in a kingdom in southern England called Kent – one of the older if not oldest Anglo-Saxon settlements in England, dating from the mid-400s or a couple of decades earlier. Contacts between the Anglo-Saxons and the people on the continent had been maintained. The young Ethelbert married the Catholic daughter of the king of Paris, Charibert, a descendant of Clovis, and Ethelbert allowed his bride, Berta, to bring to Kent a Frankish bishop as her chaplain.

More than thirty years later, Pope Gregory was hoping to make England Christian again, and he sent a group of monks to Kent to evangelize. The aging Ethelbert overcame his fear that the leading monk of the group would do witchcraft against him. That monk was Augustine – not to be confused with Augustine of Hippo who died in 430. Augustine managed to convert Ethelbert, and within a year several thousand of Ethelbert's subjects asked to be baptized as had their king.

Augustine persuaded Ethelbert to create a code of laws based on Roman law. These laws had punishments that differed according to class. Killing a nobleman brought a fine of 300 shillings, a commoner 100 shillings, a freedman from 40 to 80 shillings, and the fine for killing a slave might be 50 shillings. The fine for copulating with a maiden belonging to the king was fifty shillings, with a nobleman's serving woman twenty shillings, with an earl's serving woman six shillings. If a freeman stole from another freeman he paid a fine three times the value of what he stole and a fine to the king. Under Ethelbert, family members were considered responsible for one another, and members of an extended family might be required to help pay the fine of any family member.

War and the Hegemony of Northumbria

Augustine died in 604, and Ethelbert, after fifty-six years of rule, died in 616. Many of Ethelbert's subjects who had converted to Christianity relapsed, leaving little gained for Christianity. But Canterbury remained the center of Christianity in England.

Edwin, the Anglo-Saxon king of Northumbria, far to the north of Canterbury and Kent, married a princess from Kent – Aethelburh, the daughter of the late Ethelbert. Edwin promised to respect her faith. She had held to her father's Catholicism, and in 625 she brought with her to Edwin's capital, York, one of the missionaries who had arrived with Augustine from Rome twenty-four years before. Edwin and Aethelberg had a daughter, and Edwin agreed to his daughter being baptized a Christian and promised that if Christianity gave him a victory in a coming war that he too would convert to Christianity. Edwin returned from war triumphant, but he continued to hesitate. Finally in 627 he accepted Christianity for himself and his subjects, who apparently had little say in the matter.

As a result of his victory in various wars, Edwin the Christian became the most powerful king in England. Resenting Edwin's power was the pagan King Penda of Mercia, in the middle of England. King Penda made an alliance with the neighboring kingdom in the Celtic far west, North Wales, a kingdom under a Christian king named Cadwallon. For Cadwallon in this instance power considerations mattered more than religious differences. Together, in 632, the Christian and the pagan defeated the Christian Edwin, and Edwin's head was put on display in York.

Edwin's successor in Anglo-Saxon Northumbria was a Christian named Oswald, under whom Northumbria, in 633, rallied and defeated Cadwallon of North Wales, the last of the great battles between Anglo-Saxons and Celts. Then Oswald warred against King Penda of Mercia, and in 641 Oswald met the same fate as had Edwin: death and decapitation. But a few years later Oswald's younger brother, Oswui, rallied Northumbria again and defeated Penda. The kingdom of Northumbria remained the greatest power in England.

The Church Triumphs and Wars for Hegemony Continue

In the mid-600s Christian missionaries from Ireland began evangelizing across England. Catholicism had won prestige with the victory of Northumbria, and monotheism suited monarchy better than did a religion with many gods and numerous local shrines. The kings in England were inclined to welcome a religion whose scriptures described and supported monarchy. The king of Essex, Sigebert, influenced by Northumbria, converted to Christianity in 653, and Christianity spread into Mercia. Much of England was on its way to learning from the missionaries a sense of organization, and, within the Church, order was enhanced in 669 with the appointment of Theodore of Tarsus as archbishop over the whole of England.

But unity was not achieved. Civilization continued much as before – divided among kingdoms with no solid agreement as to who should rule where. Each of the Anglo-Saxon kings believed that his rule had origins in the god of his ancestors and that he, therefore, should not be subordinate to any another king.

Wars continued through the 700s and into the 800s. The kingdom of Mercia emerged as the dominant power in England. And with more warring, in 825 supremacy passed to the kingdom of Wessex, at Winchester.

The Scholar Bede

Accompanying the successful Christian evangelism in the latter half of the 600s, an Anglo-Saxon in the Kingdom of Northumbria named Bede (pronounced Beda), born in 673, was developing into a scholar. He was educated in monasteries and ordained as a priest in 703. He devoted his life to teaching theology, Hebrew, Greek and Latin and to writing. He wrote forty works: biblical commentaries, homilies, treatises on grammar, math, science and theology. The most important of these was the Ecclesiastical History of the English Nation, completed in 731. He specified his sources, sought firsthand evidence, and quoted pertinent and available documents. "I would not," he wrote, "that my children should read a lie." 

Concerned with dating, Bede wrote a work titled On The Reckoning of Time, which would be influential throughout the Middle Ages. He described the Earth as a sphere in explaining the change from daylight to night. He explained the changing appearance of the moon and tides in relation to the daily motion of the moon. Bede's influence extended to a new system of dating. It was Bede who started dating from "the year of the Lord" – in medieval Latin Anno Domini (AD), rather than from dates that kings ruled.


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