History of the Church: Christian Antiquity - Notre Dame

Christianity in the British Isles

I. South Britain

In the days when Julius Caesar at the head of his victorious Roman legions invaded our country, fifty-five years before the birth of our Lord, he found the ancient Britons practising a strange form of religion, called Druidism. It was so called from its priests, the Druids, a very numerous and important body of men.

They built no temples, but worshipped their gods in the open air, under groves of oaks. If, as is generally believed, they also constructed circles of massive stones, it is uncertain whether it was for worship or in honour of the dead. The most remarkable of these monuments are to be seen at Stonehenge, on Salisbury Plain, and at Avebury, in Wiltshire.

Their worship consisted in offering sacrifices, generally of animals, but in times of need or in war they would offer a man, woman, or child, whom they enclosed in a wicker cage shaped like a human being, and whom they consumed in a vast fire. They also prayed to their gods and sang hymns, and kept festivals in honour of the sun and moon, and venerated the mistletoe, which was solemnly cut down with a golden sickle during one of their great yearly festivals.

The priests, or Druids, were so learned that young men, even from distant places, were sent to Britain to be trained by them. They had no books, but all their learning was put into verse, and taught by rote. This training sometimes lasted from fifteen to twenty years.

The people were taught that there were many gods, but the Druids themselves knew that there was one only God, who would reward the good, and punish the wicked for all eternity. But a better time was coming for the poor Britons, who were a brave and simple people, loving their island home very dearly. Their country was invaded by the Romans. The Britons fought hard and suffered a great deal rather than let themselves be conquered. In spite, however, of their courageous defence, the Romans succeeded in making Britain a province of the Empire. Though this seemed a misfortune to the Britons, it was the means of bringing them the greatest of blessings—the true faith.

How and when Christianity was first preached in this island is uncertain. Old traditions say that St. Peter and St. Paul came to Britain, but the truth is that among the Roman soldiers were to be found many Christians, and they will have helped to convert the people among whom they found themselves. But, as we have seen, there are many legends about the first apostles of the faith in Britain. One quaint story tells us that St. Joseph of Arimathea came to Glastonbury soon after the Ascension, and that it was winter when he began to preach to the people. They would not listen at first, so he struck his staff into the ground, begging God to show by a miracle that he taught the true faith. The staff immediately took root, put forth branches, green leaves, and flowers whiter than the snow around. This miracle converted the simple people, and a little straw-roofed church was built and dedicated to our Lady, the first in the country which was so soon to become an Isle of Saints and to deserve the name of the Dower of Mary. Later on a fine church and monastery were built at Glastonbury, and this, the mother of churches, or the Second Rome, as it was called, became the most famous shrine in the West of England, the only one that was not destroyed when the Saxons came.

St. Bede says that when St. Eleutherius was Pope, between A.D. 182–193, a British chief called Lucius, grandson of Caractacus, and prince over a small kingdom in Wales, sent messengers to ask the Pope for Christian teachers. The Pope gladly received them, and sent two holy missionaries, SS. Fugatius and Damian. The two envoys them selves seem to have returned some time after as bishops, and to have helped to convert their native land. The faith spread very rapidly. We soon after hear of several dioceses having been founded, and Tertullian, who wrote quite at the beginning of the third century, speaks of the island having received the faith in places inaccessible to Roman arms.

Though Britain was a province of the Roman Empire, the British Christians seem to have been left in peace during the terrible days of persecution. Only during the fourth century do we hear of martyrs suffering for the faith. In spite of the favour shown to the faithful by Constantius Chlorus (the Imperial Caesar, and father of Constantine the Great), the edicts of Diocletian were put in force in Britain. Many martyrs gave up their lives rather than deny their faith. We are told of thousands having been martyred in Wales, but the most famous is St. Alban, the proto-martyr of Britain.

He was a noble pagan of Verulam; and when a holy priest was fleeing from the persecutors, he generously hid him in his house. Some days passed, and Alban, struck by the sanctity of his guest, asked for and received holy baptism. By this time the soldiers had found out where the stranger was, and presented themselves at St. Alban's house. To save the priest, St. Alban changed clothes with him, and let himself be taken before the Roman governor, who at once saw the mistake of his men. He was offering sacrifice at the time, and he ordered St. Alban to join him in the ceremony. On the saint's refusal, the judge commanded him to be cruelly scourged, but as this did not shake his constancy, he condemned St. Alban to be beheaded at once on the top of a neighbouring hill. Crowds pressed on to see the martyrdom, and as all had to pass a bridge over a little stream, the Saint feared lest the throng should prevent his receiving his crown before nightfall. So he prayed that the hour of his triumph might not be delayed, and immediately a passage opened through the waters, which stood up like walls on either side. The soldier who was to have executed him was converted, and on St. Alban's praying again, a spring burst forth at his feet. He baptized the soldier, and a few moments later both attained the glory of martyrdom.

So many miracles followed that the governor gave orders that the persecution should cease. A famous monastery was built on the spot, and the town of St. Albans grew up around it.

During the years of peace which followed the triumph of Constantine, whose mother, St. Helena is thought to have been a Briton, the faith soon became the only religion in the land. Old chronicles tell of the churches built in honour of saints and martyrs, of numerous monasteries of monks and nuns. Besides which we hear of British bishops taking part in the great Councils of the Church. Thus some were present at the Council of Arles, A.D. 314, against the Donatists; and again at Sardica, A.D. 347, where St. Athanasius tells us that British bishops were amongst those who defended the true faith against the Arians.

But now evil days were in store for Britain. Towards the end of the fourth century the Picts and Scots frequently passed the great wall built by the Romans to keep them in the north of Caledonia (Scotland), and invaded the southern or Roman part of the island. At first the Romans helped to drive them back, but as time went on barbarian tribes began to invade the Roman Empire in other places, and as they pressed on closer and closer to Rome itself, the Romans called home their soldiers from the distant provinces. The helpless Britons in vain begged them to come back. Beyond fortifying the great walls, the Romans did nothing to aid them. Continued invasions, quarrels among the British chiefs, and other evils gradually brought the country into a very sad state, and in many places religion suffered greatly.

Just at this time another terrible misfortune happened. We have seen that the Pelagian heresy was the work of a Briton, named Morgan, who was living in Italy. The heresy found its way into Britain, and Pope Celestine I. sent St. Palladius to preach against it. Then SS. Germanus of Auxerre and Lupus of Troyes, both Gaulish bishops, were asked to come and help the British bishops against the growing evil. The Pope sanctioned the mission, and the two saints, accompanied by St. Patrick, who was at this time a priest at Auxerre, traversed the country, preaching in the towns, villages, and even in the open fields. They strengthened the faith of many and converted great numbers from heresy.

At the end of one famous conference, a blind girl was brought to St. Germanus to be healed. He bade them present her to the Pelagian bishops, who refused to do anything. St. Germanus then laid on the child's eyes a reliquary he always wore, and her sight was immediately restored. No greater proof could have been given of which side held the true faith of Christ, and Pelagianism was completely overthrown.

St. Germanus remained some time to instruct the people, who had been getting very ignorant and careless in religious matters. Finding many without baptism, he had spent the whole Lent preparing them, and on Holy Saturday he administered the Sacrament with great solemnity. While the new converts were still clad in their white robes, news was brought that the Picts and Scots were upon them. St. Germanus, who had been a famous soldier in his youth, promised to lead the Britons to victory. They had no arms, and knew nothing of fighting, but they trusted to the Saint. He led them all into a deep hollow valley which the invaders had to cross, and bade them remain silent and hidden. Just as the enemy advanced, suspecting nothing, St. Germanus gave the signal, the priests cried aloud "Alleluia!" and the people responded with a mighty shout, which was re-echoed from all the surrounding hills. The terrified invaders thought a great army was in ambush, and fled as fast as their feet could carry them, throwing away all their spoils, which strewed the plain. This bloodless victory is called in old chronicles the "Battle of Alleluia."

St. Germanus having thus conquered the enemies of Britain, both spiritual and temporal, returned to Gaul, but his memory remained dear in the country for many a long year to come, and many churches were dedicated in his honour.

In spite of this victory, the Picts, Scots, and other invading tribes returned again and again, and did great mischief. Such numbers of Britons left their homes and settled in Armorica, a province of Gaul, that they gave the name of Brittany to the country. The Bretons to this day venerate the ancient British saints who founded the Church in their land.

One of the Armorican princes asked for the hand of Ursula, a British princess, in marriage. She set out with a train of maidens and attendants, but their ships were driven by storm into the mouth of the Rhine. Near Cologne, they were met by one of the bands of Huns which were desolating the Roman Empire, and all were massacred for their faith. In the ancient church of St. Ursula at Cologne are preserved the relics of the Saint and her company of virgin martyrs.

It was about this time that the Britons asked the Saxon pirates to help them against their enemies. As we know, this led to greater disasters. When the Picts and Scots were driven out, the Saxons took for themselves the lands they had helped the Britons to regain, and the poor Britons themselves were forced to flee to the western and hilly parts of the island. Thus Cornwall, Wales, and parts of Lancashire were the only British provinces remaining; all the rest gradually became the possession of Saxons, Angles, and Jutes. All these tribes were idolaters. They enslaved the few Britons who remained, and in a short time the Christian faith was forgotten, and pagan worship again reigned in the land.

But the Church still flourished in the parts where the Britons dwelt. Many famous monasteries were founded during the next hundred and fifty years, and many saints made the land glorious. St. David, patron of Wales, and St. Winifred, whose well is still famous for miracles, were among those canonized.

II. North Britain Converted

There is an old tradition in Scotland that, late in the second century, one of the chieftains, named Donald, sent to Pope St. Victor for missionaries, and that two were sent to preach to the people, many of whom became Christians. Again, in A.D. 369, St. Regulus is said to have brought relics of St. Andrew to Abernethy. But very little is known of what went on in Scotland during these far-off centuries.

About the beginning of the fifth century the story becomes clearer. In the land now called Scotland there were three different peoples. Britons dwelt in the southern part, which stretched from Antonine's wall down to that of Hadrian. This formed the Roman province of Valencia. Among these people, as in most countries where the Romans had settled, the faith had spread rapidly, and we hear of churches, and priests, and Christian families in the stories of Saints like St. Ninian, who came from this part of the land. In Caledonia, the northern half of Scotland, were the Picts, who lived on the broad, fertile plain between the wall of Antonine and the Grampians; and, lastly, the Scots, who lived still further north among the mountains. Both these peoples were wild and warlike, and, as far as we know, no apostle had preached the faith to them before the end of the fourth century.

It was in A.D. 397 that Pope St. Siricius sent St. Ninian to preach to the Picts. This saint was the son of a Britis' q prince who lived on the Solway Firth. He was a Christian from his birth, and, while still very young, showed great signs of holiness, being very fond of passing hours in prayer in the churches. When old enough, he went to Rome, and, after years of study and preparation, he became a priest. Still he continued in Rome, spending his time in prayer and good works, till at length the time came when God called him back to his own land to labour for the conversion of those among his countrymen who had not as yet received the true faith. Pope St. Siricius himself consecrated him Bishop when he was thirty-six years of age, and bade him preach to the still pagan Picts.

On his way, St. Ninian passed through Tours, Mission of where the great St. Martin was bishop, and where St. Ninian. St. Patrick was at that time a monk. St. Ninian spent some time with the two saints, and, when leaving, took with him from Tours some skilled workmen to build churches in Scotland, when it should be converted. St. Ninian preached and laboured with great success among the Picts. He brought the prince to the true faith, and with him a great number of his subjects. Then he set about building a fine stone church and monastery at Whithorn, in Galloway. This was a strange sight to the people who had never seen any but wooden buildings, and they called it the White House.

For more than thirty years St. Ninian laboured among the Picts, and great numbers embraced the true faith. He died A.D. 432, and was buried in his own cathedral.

While St. Ninian was preaching in Scotland, St. Palladius was trying to convert the Irish. But he had little success, and he crossed over to Scotland about the time that St. Ninian died. He continued the good work so well begun, and for twenty years more he preached among the Picts. Before he died the faith had spread so far that he was able to consecrate two bishops, St. Ternan for the southern people, the Picts, and St. Servanus for the Orkneys and northern tribes, or the Scots. But, the conversion of the Scots was the work of St. Columba, an Irish monk, whose story belongs to the next century.

III. Conversion of Ireland

While Christian Britain was being transformed into pagan England, Ireland was being won to the faith. The Romans had never landed there, and in the fifth century the Irish were still pagans. The great St. Patrick was to win them to the true faith. While still a boy, he was carried off by Irish pirates from his home, either in Brittany or in Scotland. He escaped after some years, and went to Gaul, to St. Martin of Tours, his uncle. Then he went to the famous monasteries of Marmoutier and Lerins, and, lastly, settled in the diocese of Auxerre, under the great St. Germanus, whom he accompanied to Britain in his mission against the Pelagians. St. Palladius, who had also been sent by the Pope on the same work, had gone on to Ireland to try and convert the people, but he had failed. Ever since his captivity, St. Patrick had yearned to preach the faith to the Irish. At last his prayer was heard, and Pope Celestine sent him to preach in Ireland A.D. 432. Within five years of his arrival, so great had been his success, that most of the chieftains and their peoples had been converted. St. Patrick founded monasteries for monks and nuns, built churches, trained up learned priests, and divided the whole land into dioceses, and placed them under bishops he himself had won to the faith. He was greatly assisted in his apostolic labours by the example and teaching of the holy virgin St. Bridget, who is regarded as the foundress of religious communities of women in Ireland. So completely did this great Saint do his work of conversion that to this day Ireland has always been Catholic. The Irish rightly hold their faith their greatest treasure, and, in spite of all the terrible sufferings which they have endured for religion during succeeding ages, they are still true to the faith taught them by their glorious apostle.