Augustine of Kent

(Augustine of Canterbury)

d. 604

The story of Augustine of Kent is essentially the story of the conversion of the first Saxon kingdom in England to Christianity. It was the work more than one man, and Augustine did not provided the impetus for the expedition, but rather accepted the mission out of deference to the Pope's wishes. Augustine himself was sincere, patient and soft-spoken in manner, and gentle of persuasion. He arrived in the Kingdom of Saxon with 40 missionaries, without weapons or any manner of defending or providing for themselves, depending only on the hospitality of the pagan king, Ethelbert. With the help of Bertha, the king's Christian wife, and much patience and industry, Ethelbert eventually submitted to baptism, and tens of thousands of his subjects followed suit.

Some background is necessary to understand the state of Christianity in England at the close of the fifth century. Christianity had been widespread in Britain during the Roman Empire, particular in the third and fourth centuries. When the Roman legions withdrew however, the Celtic civilization fell into chaos, as Anglo-Saxon pagans invaded from the sea, and the savage Picts invaded from the North. The Celtic communities who survived the onslaught were pushed into the western and northern regions, and the Celtic church survived and even grew for the next few centuries in Ireland and Scotland, but the formerly Christian regions of southern England were entirely overtaken by pagan Saxon kingdoms. The Celts were despised by their Saxon conquerors, who believed that their "gods" must be more powerful than the Christian god. They were therefore, not responsive to missionaries from the Celtic church.

The idea of sending Christian missionaries to Britain to convert the Saxon kingdoms originated with Gregory the Great, a few years before he was called to serve as pope. He had hoped to lead the mission himself, but when this was determined to be impossible, he selected Augustine and forty other Italian, Benedictine monks for the mission. In 596 they journeyed across Gaul, crossed the channel and arrived in the kingdom of Ethelbert of Kent. The king at first was not impressed by their message, but allowed them to settle in his domains on the sight of an old church at Canterbury. There they founded a monastery, but had limited success in making converts. Ethelbert's curiosity was piqued by the conduct of the monks, and also by the prodding of his Christian wife. Eventually he consented to be instructed in the faith and baptized. Once the king embraced the new creed there was a stampede of converts, and thousands were baptized the following Christmas. Augustine spent the rest of his life in England, tending to his new flock, and building up an Anglo-Saxon Christian community.

The final task of Augustine's mission to England involved an attempt to unite the Roman and Celtic churches in Britain. The churches had been separately governed for centuries, and his first attempts at reunification failed, but sixty years later, the churches were brought into communion.

Key events during the life of St. Augustine of Canterbury:

Ethelbert becomes king of King Kent, and overlord of the surrounding kingdoms.
Gregory sees Angle slaves in Rome, and dreams of converting the to Christianity.
Gregory the Great elected pope.
Augustine and his monks arrive in Kent.
  Monks are allowed to rebuild the Church in Canterbury.
  Ethelbert himself is baptized
Ten thousand Saxons are baptized on Christmas day.
Augustine attempts, but fails to bring the Celtic church in communion with Rome.
Death of St. Augustine
Celtic and Roman churches are finally united.

Other Resources

Story Links
Book Links
How England Became Christian  in  Stories from English History  by  Alfred J. Church
How England Became Christian  in  Historical Tales: English  by  Charles Morris
Boy Captives  in  Stories from English History  by  Hilda T. Skae
Saint Augustine of Canterbury in  In God's Garden  by  Amy Steedman
Saint Augustine of Canterbury  in  Our Island Saints  by  Amy Steedman
St. Augustine of Kent  in    by  

Image Links

St. Augustine of Canterbury
St. Augustine of Canterbury
 in Back Matter
Conversion of Ethelbert by Augustine
Conversion of Ethelbert by Augustine
 in Back Matter

Angles call ye them?' he said, 'Nay, Angels rather.'
 in Our Island Saints

Short Biography
Ethelbert First Christian Saxon King. Invited St. Augustine to Kent to preach in Britain.
Bertha Christian princess who married the Saxon king, Ethelbert. Helped convert him to Christianity.
Gregory the Great Increased the power of the papacy by church reforms and effective management.