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Anglo-saxon Church

Christianity had existed in Britain as early as a.d. 156, but the fourth- and fifth-century pagan Anglo-Saxon invasions drove the Britons, and with them Christianity, into ever-diminishing enclaves. Through hatred of the Anglo-Saxons, the Britons refused to bring them the consolation of Christianity. Their conversion finally came through two main channels, of which the more famous one was launched by Gregory the Great who sent Augustine of Canterbury* with forty monks to England. Augustine landed in Kent in 597 and its king, Ethelbert, gave him land and a disused church at Canterbury. This is the historical origin of Canterbury's subsequent claims to primacy in the English Church. Much of N England was converted from Ireland and Scotland by missionaries of the Celtic Church.* The conversion of Anglo-Saxon England was a slow process; paganism was never very far below the surface. Famine or natural disaster might see a kingdom relapse into paganism; kings relapsed as a result of personal quarrels with the church, and the ninth- and tenth-century pagan Scandinavian invasions ensured that paganism remained a problem up to and beyond 1066.

By the eleventh century a parish system had developed, and there were sixteen often large and unwieldy dioceses, some of which were coterminous with the boundaries of ancient Anglo-Saxon folk-groups and kingdoms. Kings and nobles played a great part in the affairs of the Anglo-Saxon Church. Missionaries always tried to convert and gain the support of the king first of all. A converted king would order his subjects to accept baptism-however tenuous their subsequent level of belief and understanding. Royal protection was very necessary when evangelizing in pagan areas. Grateful kings and nobles gave rich gifts of land and buildings to the church. In return, the kings expected and usually got the support of the church, which preached loyalty to the king and placed religious sanctions on those who disobeyed or plotted against the kings and generally buttressed law and order. The church assumed responsibility for the Ordeal.* Kings naturally assumed that they could appoint their nominees as bishops and abbots. Similarly, nobles who founded local parish churches or monasteries claimed the right to appoint. The church had a civilizing effect upon the Anglo-Saxons, and it gradually replaced the anarchic private wars of the blood feud by a wergild, or money compensation, and it brought literate government. The Celtic and Roman churches brought a fusion of two outstanding cultural traditions which continued right up to the Norman conquest, despite the turbulence of the Scandinavian invasions.

Monasticism was very popular, though apparently monasteries and nunneries admitted only nobility. The Scandinavian invasions supposedly caused a deterioration in monasticism, but informed critics claim that wealth and idleness were the main culprits in the eighth and ninth centuries. As it became institutionalized, the church had become also very wealthy, and some like Bede looked back nostalgically to the pioneer days of the early conversion as a “golden age.” There was a monastic revival in the tenth century, Dunstan and Aethelwold being the key figures, and it lasted into the eleventh century when books produced in English monasteries were in demand throughout the Continent. Subsequent Norman allegations of the eleventh-century church's corruption were largely propaganda and generally unfair.

See C.J. Godfrey, The Church in Anglo-Saxon England (1962).