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Saint Augustine, Abbey of


The Abbey of Saint Augustine was first known English monastery, at Canterbury. When augustine of canterbury persuaded King ethelbert of kent to accept Baptism, the king promised to found a monastery in which the kings of Kent and the archbishops of Canterbury might be buried. When this abbey was consecrated by Augustine's successor, Abp. lawrence of canterbury, it was dedicated to SS. Peter and Paul, a dedication that bears witness to Augustine's Roman origins and papal commission. In the course of time the association of the abbey with the Apostle of the English led to the popular dedication of the abbey to St. Augustine himself. It is not now thought that the abbey was originally a Benedictine monastery, as there is no reason to believe that either Pope gregory the great or Augustine himself was Benedictine. It cannot be proved that the benedictine rule was introduced into the abbey until the accession of Abbot Sigeric c. 980. Early in the history of Canterbury the cathedral clergy was formed into a monastic chapter. In the middle of the 8th century this chapter successfully secured the right to bury their archbishop in the cathedral rather than the abbey. The monks of Saint Augustine's lamented their loss of prestige, and the two communities became bitter rivals. Even when abbots of Saint Augustine's became archbishops of Canterbury and, as in the 12th century, cathedral monks became abbots of Saint Augustine's, relations between the communities were never good.

In the 12th century the abbey initiated a lawsuit that dragged on throughout the Middle Ages, for the abbey claimed that from its foundation it had been exempted by the pope from the diocesan authority of the archbishop of Canterbury. The monks produced a long series of forged charters and papal bulls to justify this claim, and it is still not clear whether all the documents were totally fabricated or whether some genuine base may underlie them. Pope alexander iii actually granted Saint Augustine's exemption from the oath of obedience normally given by a newly elected abbot to the diocesan, but the monks strove to interpret this so widely that the abbey and all the parishes it served would be exempt from diocesan authority of any kind. Claims were constantly taken to Rome, but a series of popes avoided giving definite sentences, thus leaving the way open for a series of negotiated compromises, which seldom lasted longer than a generation. And so, when the abbey was dissolved in 1538 under King henry viii, it became apparent that the extensive literary efforts of the monks of this first monastery of the Anglo-Saxon Church amounted to little more than a voluminous history of the abbey's lawsuits.

Bibliography: thomas of elmham, Historia monasterii S. Augustini cantauriensis, ed. c. hardwick (Rerum Britannicarum medii aevi scriptores 8; 1858). w. levison, England and the Continent in the 8th Century (Oxford 1946). f. l. cross, The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church (London 1957) 232. e. john, "The Litigation of an Exempt House, St. Augustine's, Canterbury, 11821237," The Bulletin of the John Rylands Library 39 (1947) 390415. d. knowles and r. n. hadcock, Medieval Religious Houses: England and Wales (New York 1953). d. knowles, The Monastic Order in England, 9431216 (2d ed. Cambridge, Eng.1962), passim.

[e. john]

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