Augustine of Canterbury

d.604?. First archbishop of Canterbury. Previously the prior of a monastery at Rome, he was sent by Gregory the Great* in 596 on a mission to convert the pagan English. He was somewhat reluctant and asked permission to turn back before finally crossing the Channel in 597 and landing in Thanet. Gregory knew, however, that the time was ripe. Ethelbert, king of Kent, whose territory lay closest to the Continent, had married a Christian princess of the Franks named Bertha, and she had brought to England with her Bishop Liuthard as her chaplain. Moreover, Ethelbert at this time was the dominant ruler among the Anglo-Saxon tribes south of the Humber. Within four years, and perhaps much sooner, Ethelbert received baptism. Augustine was then made archbishop, and Bede says the consecration took place at Arles, although the authority for this statement is unknown.

It had been Gregory's intention to make the old Roman centers of London and York the metropolitan sees of the English Church. London belonged, however, to the East Saxons, and so Augustine fixed his seat at Canterbury. Later he sent his companions, Justus (to preach west of the Medway as bishop of Rochester) and Mellitus (to convert the East Saxons as bishop of London).

Gregory's sustained interest in the details of the English mission are apparent in the very specific instructions he sent to Augustine, The latter failed (c.603) in his attempt to carry out Gregory's order to reach agreement with the leaders of the ancient Celtic Church in the west of Britain. Beyond Kent, the successful conversion of the English was carried out by other missions unrelated to that of Augustine, the most important of which was the Celtic mission from Iona.* Augustine also established at Canterbury with Ethelbert's help the monastery of St. Peter and St. Paul, where the first ten archbishops and several kings were buried.

Bede, Opera Historica (ed. C. Plummer, 1896); idem, The Ecclesiastical History of the English People (ed. B. Colgrave and R.A.B. Mynors, 1967); M. Deanesley, The Pre-Conquest Church in England (1961); J. Godfrey, The Church in Anglo-Saxon England (1962).