Augustine of Kent

Portrait labelled "AUGUSTINUS" from the mid-8th century Saint Petersburg Bede, though perhaps intended as Gregory the Great.

Augustine of Kent or Canterbury brought a lasting Christianity to the island of Britain.

No one is exactly sure when or how Christianity first came to Britain. Most likely it arrived through the Roman army and by individual missionaries. Whatever the case, when the Roman army abandoned Britain and the Anglo-Saxons invaded, Christianity was pushed to the furthest corners of the island. The Anglo-Saxon’s religion was a form of fatalistic paganism and the ideas preached by Christ were incompatible with their warrior ways. Eventually the Anglo-Saxons settled, put down the sword and took up the plough. Centuries passed. A unique form of Christianity, know as Celtic Christianity continued to be practiced in the few places where the Germanic Invaders has failed to reach, but, despite their efforts they could make little headway in their attempts to convert the pagans.

Then in the year 596, Pope Gregory I turned his attention to Britain and decided a mission must be organized. He selected a man named Augustine, the Prior of the Monastery of St. Andrew, to lead the mission and assigned him 40 monks as an escort. The road was not an easy one in those days, but eventually the mission reached Provence. Here Augustine heard stories of the cruelty and barbarity of the Anglo-Saxons and lost heart in his mission. Leaving most of his party in Provence, he returned to Rome to talk with Gregory. Gregory commanded that the mission be continued, and Augustine obeyed.

In 597 his mission landed on the island of Thanet in the Kingdom of Kent. Kent at the time was not an Anglo-Saxon Kingdom, but instead had been settled by another Germanic tribe called Jutes. The King of Kent, Ethelbert, had married a Frankish woman who also happened to be Christian. Thus, by a stroke of luck, Augustine landed in one of the most hospitable places available. Still, it was a tense time. Augustine wrote to the King informing him of his landing and inviting him to a meeting. King Ethelbert went to the meeting, though he demanded that it be held in the open air as this would make it harder on Augustine if he attempted any magical tricks. History does not record what Augustine said to Ethelbert at that meeting, but it is hard to understate the importance of the outcome. King Ethelbert was completely won over. He invited Augustine to come and live and preach in his own town of Canterbury. By the end of the year, the King and 10,000 of his subjects were baptised in the Roman Catholic faith.

Soon thereafter, Augustine sent word of his success to Pope Gregory. The Pope ordered that Augustine be ordained Arch-Bishop. He also ordered more missionaries to Britain to help spread the Christian word. Augustine continued his work and built the first Cathedral at Canterbury. By 604 the number of Christian converts had grown to such an extent that Augustine though it necessary to create two new Bishops.

Around this time, Augustine attempted to unify the church with the Celtic Christians. A series of meetings were held, but little would come of them. It was a bitter failure for Augustine. Soon afterwards in 605, Augustine died of natural causes.

It is hard to overstate the importance of Augustine’s mission. Because of him, Christianity thrived in Britain and continues to be the strongest religion on the island.