Paulinus: Deliverer of Northumbria

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How a Marriage Brought Christianity to Northumbria

The giant kingdom of Northumbria had been getting by just fine on paganism for hundreds of years. Gods and idols were worshipped with varying degrees of reverence throughout the kingdom. The king was a pagan, and his people were pagans. (Of course, they didn’t know that they were pagans because no Christian missionaries were telling them so. The Germans in Northumbria were carrying on the religious practices that they had developed as a collective people throughout generations.)

It will be recalled that the kingdom of Kent was the first of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms to convert to Christianity. In fact, the conversion of Kent was rather more swift and less difficult than the pope and his missionaries thought it was to be. In any event, Kent was leading the way, with other nearby kingdoms following or not following, as was their wont. Northumbria, far to the north, was not following well into the 7th Century.

Edwin was king of Northumbria in the first part of this century. In 625, he married Aethelburga, the daughter of King Aethelbert of Kent. Aethelbert, it will be remembered, was the Kentish king who had received Augustine in 597 and joined the Christian faith soon after.

Edwin, wanting to please his new wife, converted to her religion. He did so partly at the urging of Paulinus, a monk who accompanied Aethelburga on her journey from her ancestral home in Kent to her new home in Northumbria.

Paulinus then went to work on the rest of the kingdom. He followed the same strategy that had worked so well for Augustine and others in the southern part of the Island: Rather than tear down the pagan temples, he simply substituted Christian symbols for the pagan idols within the temples, thereby converting the religion of the temples themselves. This was so that the new focus of the people’s worship was not so much of a leap. Then, when the people were comfortable with the new symbols, they were more willing to have new churches built.

The common people were one thing. The nobility were quite another. Paulinus is said to have called a giant council of all the nobles in Northumbria. At the council, he patiently and fervently explained the rigors and rewards of Christianity. Chief among those rewards to find favor with the Germanic nobles was the idea of life after death. With such a promise leading the way, Christianity gained a whole kingdom of converts. The result was a smashing success for the new religion, including a particularly lavish ceremony of baptism for King Edwin himself in 627 at York.

The soul of Northumbria would never be the same.