After the Lombards had broken off the siege of Rome, the city regained a bit of peace under the administration of Pope Gregory. The temporary stability allowed him to focus his energies on spiritual matters. His first mission was beyond the shores of continental Europe: the former Roman territory of Britain. England later converted to Christianity in 597 AD according to the Bible Timeline.
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Christianity had declined on the island since the collapse of Roman rule and the invasion of the fierce Saxons from the coast of Europe. Villages and churches were razed as the Saxons rampaged through the southeast portion of the island. The few churches that remained intact on the northern part were now isolated from the pope’s rule. Kent and Sussex were then ruled by Saxon kings while the Angles ruled the northeast of the island, which meant that the priests sent by Pope Gregory would meet fierce opposition from the pagan tribes.
He sent a Benedictine monk he knew very well: a man named Augustine, who had served in the same monastery Gregory once led. Augustine, along with other monks, traveled through the Frankish territory of Gaul. The party had to turn back after they encountered the fierce tribes who lived beyond Italy. Augustine went back to Rome and begged Gregory to let him abandon the mission, but the pope declined the monk’s request; he encouraged Augustine and the monks with a letter to continue the journey and convert the Saxons, who held Britain.
After he saw that he had no choice but to obey, Augustine and his companions crossed the English channel in 597 AD and docked on the Isle of Thanet on the eastern coast of Kent. The place was ruled by Saxon King Ethelbert who initially viewed the monks with suspicion (and superstition) and told them to stay on the island in the meantime. Ethelbert married a Christian Frankish princess named Bertha years before, and he allowed her to practice Christianity freely in England; a situation that was agreeable to Augustine and the monks. The king was not enthusiastic about the arrival of the monks, but neither did he persecute them. According to the Venerable Bede, Ethelbert told the monks that,
“Your words and promises are fair, but because they are new to us, and of uncertain import, I cannot consent to them so far as to forsake that which I have so long observed with the whole English nation. But because you are come from far as strangers into my kingdom, and, as I conceive, are desirous to impart to us those things which you believe to be true, and most beneficial, we desire not to harm you, but will give you favourable entertainment, and take care to supply you with all things necessary to your sustenance; nor do we forbid you to preach and gain as many as you can to your religion.” -Ecclesiastical History of England
Ethelbert was baptized later in Christmas of 597 AD, and Pope Gregory sent more priests to England to assist in the conversion of the Saxons and Angles. With Ethelbert’s assistance, Canterbury became Augustine’s seat in England. He was the first bishop of Canterbury in the same year. By 604 AD, Christianity had gained a strong foothold in the land of the Saxons after the king of the East Saxons, Ethelbert’s nephew, converted to Christianity.
Picture By User:Hel-hama – Vectorization of File:Britain peoples circa 600.png drawn by User:IMeowbotborder data from CIA, people locations from The Historical Atlas by William R. Shepherd, 1926 edition, with clarifications supplied by en:User:Everyking per references used in en:Penda of Mercia. Anglo-Saxon coastline from Hill, ‘An Atlas of Anglo-Saxon England’ (1981) (the grey areas marked ‘sea, swamp or alluvium’ show where little Anglo-Saxon settlement occurred, because (according to Hill) there was at different periods either large areas of mud, marshland or open sea)., CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4684278
Venerable Bede. “Ecclesiastical History of England, by Bede.” : Book1. Accessed July 19, 2016. https://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/b/bede/history/book1.html.
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