Saint Augustine of Canterbury was the one of the most important missionaries sent to the Germanic tribes after the collapse of the Roman Empire in the West. Augustine was performing at St. Andrew's monastery in Rome around 596 when he was asked by Pope Gregory the Great to lead missionary work in Kent, England. This was an opportunity for Augustine to evangelize the Anglo-Saxon people who lived there. Britain had been Christian under the later Roman Empire, but with the withdrawal of the Roman and the subsequent invasion of the pagan Anglo-Saxons around 450, Gregory saw the need to restore Christianity to England.
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Augustine was sent to Kent with letters of introduction from Gregory and about forty monks, who would help him evangelize and serve as a body guard. Augustine was to travel to Canterbury, which was the headquarters of the Saxon king Ethelbert. During the trip, Augustine expressed his fear of the Saxon people, who had a reputation of being barbaric and fierce. However, Gregory was very encouraging and had great faith that Augustine could successfully complete the mission. Upon arrival in Canterbury, Ethelbert and his wife Bertha, the daughter of the Frankish king who was also a Christian, treated Augustine with hospitality. Even so, Augustine and the monks were screened by Ethelbert before they were allowed to enter his kingdom. After Augustine proclaimed the word of Christ, Ethelbert invited him into his capital and gave him land, housing, and the freedom to preach to the people of Canterbury.
Augustine showed great success in Canterbury as he worked with the people. After only a year, several thousand of the Saxon people asked to be baptized and converted to Christianity, including King Ethelbert. With Augustine's success in Canterbury he was consecrated as bishop, so that he could consecrate priests in England. In 601, Gregory appointed him archbishop of Canterbury which gave Augustine authority over all of the churches in England, including the York and Celtic churches. The Celtic Church had been evangelized by Saint Patrick and was not under Roman jurisdiction.
Augustine met with the members of the Celtic church around 603 or 604 in an attempt to resolve the differences between the Celtic people and the Saxon people. However, this plan failed because the Celts were afraid of the Saxon people, who had driven them out of central England. So despite Augustine's attempt, unity between the Celts and the Saxons was not achieved until sixty years later. However, Augustine had a great impact on the evangelism of early Christianity. He succeeded in converting thousands of Saxon people to Christianity and helped pave the way for the future unity between the Celtic and Saxon people. He died around 604 or 605 and was buried in Canterbury, where his life's greatest work had been accomplished.
Eliade, Mircea, The Encyclopedia of Religion (New York; MacMillan Publishing Company, 1987), pp.519-520.
Meagher,OP,S.T.M., Paul Kevin, Encyclopedic Dictionary of Religion (Washington D.C.; Corpus Publications), p.313.
Palmer, Edwin H, The Encyclopedia of Christianity (The National Foundation for Christian Religion, 1964), pp.484-485.
Venerabilis, Beda, A History of the English Church and People (London; Cox & Wyman Ltd., 1968), pp.65-92.
Edited by: Jeff Carlson
Researched by: Becky Howell
Written by: Kat Magnuson
November 3, 1998
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