Augustine of Canterbury

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AUGUSTINE OF CANTERBURY (d. 604/5), leader of the first evangelistic mission to the Saxon peoples in southeastern England and first archbishop of Canterbury. Pope Gregory the Great (590604) had conceived a mission to evangelize the Anglo-Saxons and in 596 chose Augustine, prior of Saint Andrew's monastery in Rome, to lead the expedition. With forty monks and letters of recommendation from Gregory addressed to Catholic leaders across Gaul, Augustine embarked. Within the year he reached the town now called Canterbury, which was the headquarters of the Saxon king Ethelbert (Æthelberht). Augustine was received with surprising hospitality, probably because Ethelbert had married a Christian, Bertha, the daughter of the Frankish king. Ethelbert gave Augustine lodging, land on which the mission could support itself, and freedom to preach and teach. Although Augustine and his men spoke only Latin and had to use interpreters, their message and manner of life were evidently winsome. Within a year several thousand people had requested baptism. Soon after, Augustine crossed the channel to Arles and was consecrated a bishop. Shortly after his return to Canterbury, he baptized Ethelbert, and this act set the stage for a wider Christian influence among the Saxons. In 601, Gregory appointed Augustine archbishop and sent additional helpers with instructions for him to establish his cathedral in the old Roman trade center to the northwest, called Londinium (London), and to appoint twelve suffragan bishops for the area. Augustine chose Canterbury as more feasible, but he did establish a bishop in London and one in Duro Brevis (modern-day Rochester), twenty-four miles west of Canterbury.

Far to the west of Canterbury existed another group of Christians among the Celtic people. According to optimistic instructions from the pope, "all the bishops of Britain" were to be under Augustine's care, a message that revealed Rome to be largely ignorant of the old Celtic church, which the Saxons had driven out of central England. Their church calendar, pastoral organization, and monastic procedures were different from those of Rome. In 604, Augustine arranged a meeting with some of its bishops and sought to harmonize the two groups' differences. The distinctions between the two, however, and the Celts' fear of the Saxons, formed a chasm that seemed unbridgeable. Although unable to unify the church in his day, Augustine contributed to the unity that would come sixty years later.

Limited also was the extent of Augustine's evangelization, but he did bring to Canterbury the Italian monastic tradition, as it was beginning to be modified by the rule of Benedict of Nursia. This monastic practice of daily rounds of worship, meditation, farm work, preaching, works of mercy, and operation of a school for the sons of the leading families of the area was to become an influential instrument in the conversion of England. Augustine died May 26, 604 or 605 and was buried in Canterbury. He left no writings and established only the three dioceses in the southeast, but he laid foundations for the christianization of Anglo-Saxon England.


A history written one hundred years after Augustine is the fundamental source: Bede's Ecclesiastical History of the English People, edited by Bertram Colgrave and R. A. B. Mynors (Oxford, 1969), bk. 1, chaps. 2333. For the times of Augustine and a critical evaluation of the man, see Henry H. Howorth's Saint Augustine of Canterbury (London, 1913). Good for historical context and for a reply to accusations that Augustine was a mediocre leader is Margaret Deanesly's Augustine of Canterbury (London, 1964).

H. McKennie Goodpasture (1987)

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Augustine of Canterbury

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