First Archbishop of Canterbury, Missionary


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First Archbishop of Canterbury,

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There were Christians in Britain when it was part of the Roman Empire, and this laid the foundations for an English church. The Roman Empire effectively lost control of Britain by the end of the 4th century. The Saxon invasions of the 5th century submerged the earlier Celtic culture. The Celtic church was more and more confined to the west of Britain. They found missionary work among the invading Saxons extremely difficult and they became increasingly isolated. It is Augustine therefore who is known as “the apostle of the English” for his missionary work among the Anglo-Saxons. He became the first archbishop of Canterbury in 597.

Pope Gregory the Great conceived the idea of a mission to the Anglo-Saxons in Britain, having seen, according to Bede, some fair-skinned slave boys in the market-place, and on discovering that they were Angles remarked on their angelic faces. In 596 Gregory sent a team of monks from his own monastery in Rome under the leadership of their abbot, Augustine. They nearly turned back, daunted by the prospect of living in what must have appeared a barbarous and dangerous outpost. Kent provided the obvious place to establish the mission as it was the part of Britain most influenced by Europe. The local king, Ethelbert, whose wife Bertha was a Christian, tolerated their mission and allowed them to establish themselves at Canterbury, using the old Roman Church of St Martin. The historian Bede notes:

Here they first assembled to sing the psalms, to pray, to say Mass, to preach, and to baptise, until the king’s own conversion to the Faith gave them greater freedom to preach and to build and restore churches everywhere.

King Ethelbert accepted Christianity and was baptised, as were a great many of his subjects. The conversion of King Ethelbert assured the success of the mission among the Anglo-Saxons, though efforts by Augustine to establish his primacy over the older Celtic church in Britain were unsuccessful. Because he represented the newer Anglo-Saxon culture, they regarded him with great suspicion.

Augustine was consecrated archbishop of Canterbury. So successful had his mission to the Anglo-Saxon's been that in 598 he sent to Rome for more monks.

By the time of Augustine’s death, the Anglo-Saxon church was well established in eastern and southern Britain.

BORN: Rome, Italy

DIED:26 May 604 AD, Canterbury, England