How England became Christian–twice

England converted to Christianity twice. Or if you want to put that in modern terms, you could probably say it was born again again.

You’ll want to keep in mind that England wasn’t England yet. It was the place that would become England when it grew up. 

Pre-England’s first brush with Christianity came when the place was still Roman, and you won’t find a clear event or date to mark its beginning. Sometime in the fourth century, though, Christianity became the trendy thing among the British elite. 

We know that in part because they built churches and started decorating their villas with Christian images, and bits of both have survived. 

The part about decorating the villas makes the shole thing sound frivolous, and some of it surely was–people are bound to be as silly in one century as they are in another, on any given topic and in roughly the same proportions. At a wild guess, I’d say it was probably your usual mix of belief, fashion, and politics. 

Irrelevant photo: nasturtiums

Non-Christian beliefs continued, though. People worshiped both Roman and Celtic gods, and their shrines went right on being used. The tradition of writing curses on lead and nailing them to walls or dropping them into springs and (I think) wells also continued. From our point of view, it was a useful tradition because it lets us drop in on the everyday stories of everyday people.


But first, a word or ten about paganism

Before we go on, let’s talk about how we’re going to describe the beliefs of the people who weren’t Christian, because if you do any reading about religion in Britain, you’ll find the word pagan getting tossed around as if it describes a set of beliefs. It doesn’t. Pagan’s a Christian word dating to about the fourteenth century, when it was first used to describe someone who wasn’t Christian. Basically, it means people who aren’t like us. But since an awful lot of religions in the course of human history have been other than Christian, that covers a lot of territory.

It doesn’t include Jews and sometimes it doesn’t include Muslims, although that depends on who’s using the word and what they think it means. But even when it doesn’t include them, neither Jews or Muslims are likely to use the word. It comes out of the wrong box of words. 

As far as I can tell, whether Muslims are in or out of the category rests on the question of whether pagan was being used as an all-purpose term of abuse or whether it was meant to describe people who worshiped more than one god. 

For a brief visit with the mindset of one set of people who took the word seriously–and I promise we won’t stay long–allow me to introduce you to a quote from an 1897 dictionary. This comes with a full-out racism warning:

Pagan and heathen are primarily the same in meaning; but pagan is sometimes distinctively applied to those nations that, although worshiping false gods, are more cultivated, as the Greeks and Romans, and heathen to uncivilized idolaters, as the tribes of Africa. A Mohammedan is not counted a pagan much less a heathen.”

If you’re going to heave, I’d appreciate it if you’d miss the rug. 

Thank you and let’s move on.

Sometime in the last century or so, Britons wanting to connect with earlier religions–at least as they understood them–began describing themselves as pagans. It drives me mildly nuts, since the original followers of those religions would never have called themselves that and I doubt we know enough about their beliefs to follow them, but never mind, the neo-pagans seem happy with it all.

This long meander is to tell you that I’ll do my damnedest to avoid the word pagan. I often use pre-Christian, but that has its own problems, among which is that it makes Christianity sound like history’s central reference point, which–well, history doesn’t work like that. 

It also doesn’t work when in the period we’re talking about a non-Christian king followed a Christian one. That would make the post-Christian king pre-Christian, at which point we’re talking complete nonsense.

If anyone knows a short, recognizable phrase that works better than anything I tossed out, do let me know.


Enough of that

Before I so rudely interrupted myself, Christianity was trending among the Romano-Celtic elite. Then the Romano-Romans left, leaving the Romano-Celtic elite to find their own way home from the party. 

There were no cabs. And since this was a party, not a meeting, no one was taking notes. That’s why it’s called the Dark Ages: We don’t know what they got up to after their Roman chaperones left. 

We have two theories to choose from: 

1. Anglo-Saxon tribes invaded what we now call England, slaughtering lots of Romano-Celts and pushing the others to the margins of Britain so they could seize the central part.

2. The Anglo-Saxons who had already settled in eastern England expanded westward, absorbing the existing population. 

Or since we had two choices: 3. Some combination of 1 and 2.

However it worked, Christianity was not trending in early Anglo-Saxon England, and not much is known about the religion the Anglo-Saxons followed. The writings that survive come from Christian sources, and what they describe sounds suspiciously Greco-Roman and probably wasn’t based on anything they actually knew. 

The internet, I remind you, had yet to be invented, which is a shame because they could have consulted Lord Google, who leads people to entirely reliable information 100% of the time. 

So we don’t know much, but perfectly respectable sources like the British Library are happy to tell us that the Anglo-Saxons were pagans.

Thanks, guys. I can’t begin to tell you how helpful that is.


The Celtic saints

While the middle of the island became “pagan,” with an emphasis on the quotation marks, Christianity kept its hold at the Celtic margins–Cornwall, Wales, Scotland. And Ireland, which is (you may have noticed) an entirely different island but played a big part in all this. 

Celtic Christianity wasn’t the Roman variety of Christianity. It was decentralized, it wasn’t impressed with the pope, and it was a good fit for cultures organized along  tribal lines, without big urban centers. It leaned heavily toward monasticism, and its monasteries were often isolated and austere, heavy on fasting, broken sleep, standing in cold water, and monks and nuns who generally made themselves uncomfortable.

Ireland and Wales in particular pumped out saints by the hundred. Or maybe that’s by the dozen. They’re hard to count. They wandered, they preached, they set up monastic communities. Some set themselves up as hermits. And although they’re called saints, what that meant was mainly that they were members of Christian orders. Or that they were literate. (Those two things might not have been so different.) Or simply that they were evangelists. 

The Celtic saints were, according to one source, happy to preach to ordinary people, but the key conversions were of the Anglo-Saxon kings, of whom there were still a fair number. Convert yourself a king and before you knew it you’d converted a kingdom. 

For kings, the attraction of Christianity wasn’t entirely (or maybe at all) religious. It brought access to Latin, the common language of Europe, and to writing itself. And once you had writing, you could have law codes, charters, traceable property rights. 

Conversion didn’t move in a straight line, though. A Christian king might be followed by a non-Christian king. A king might build a church but use it to honor both the Christian and a non-Christian god. I’ve heard an archeologist talk about finding a grave in Cornwall that showed evidence of both Christian and pre-Christian burial traditions. 

“They were hedging their bets,” he said.

But for all that, the Celtic Christian church was gradually building an organizational structure in Anglo-Saxon England, consisting of monasteries, bishops, and archbishops. 

Interestingly if somewhat irrelevantly, monasteries at this stage sometimes housed monks, sometimes nuns, and sometimes both. 


The Roman strand of Christianity

But the Anglo-Saxons were also evangelized by Roman Catholic missionaries, whose strand of Christianity was hierarchical and recognized the pope as head of the church. The two strands differed on crucial points, including what part of their heads monks should shave and the correct date for Easter–did it have to fall on a Sunday, and would it be a disaster if it fell on the same day as Passover?

The pope made efforts to reconcile the two strands by setting up a couple of meetings. One broke down when the British clerics approached the pope’s representative and he didn’t stand.

So yes, everything was handled in an admirably adult manner. 

Predictably, the doctrinal differences tangled themselves in kingly politics. Consider the Northumbrian King, Oswy, who followed the Celtic traditions but married Eafled, who’d been brought up in the Roman ones. He celebrated Easter on his date. She celebrated it on hers.

They might have lived unhappily ever after, never knowing when to give each other the chocolate rabbits or hide the Easter eggs, but at the Synod of Whitby, he decided his kingdom, Northumbria, would follow the Roman tradition. By one account, it was to foil someone’s political machinations with a few of his own. By others, it was because St. Peter held the keys to heaven. Either way, it was the beginning of the end–or possibly the middle of the end–for the Celtic strand of Christianity. By the 700s the Celtic strand of Christianity was in retreat.

The eventual dominance of the Roman strand explains why Cornwall and Wales have an endless string of saints that the Catholic Church never recognized. The histories of some are well documented, but all that’s left of others is a name, some guesswork, and a bit of befuddlement.

As for King Oswy, ask Lord Google about him up and you’ll find the King Oswy Fish Bar, the King Oswy Tandoori Restaurant, and the King Oswy Spar (that’s a convenience store). So yes, his name lives on.

67 thoughts on “How England became Christian–twice

  1. Don’t forget King Oswy Post office. Yes Hartlepool seems to have adopted Oswy as their own. I think that’s because they’re trying to gloss over the fact that they hung a shipwrecked monkey thinking it was a Frenchman, the rest of the north east won’t let them forget that.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Yeah, most of us have an incident or six in the past that we’d like to forget, although none of mine quite equal that. I’ve never tried adopting a king to see if it helps. I’ll keep it in mind, though.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. I just found your site because I wanted to know about door gaps in the restroom/toilet. My entire bucket list is a visit to the UK. It started when I was a teenager and needs to take place soon because I am 67! I am already fluent in British (I raised my children on brit coms like Are You Being Served? but have been looking for ways to truly explore the UK when I get there. I think you are going to be more helpful than all the travel agencies I’ve looked at so far.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Hi, Wendy. It would be so much fun to help. The first time my partner and I visited, we were blown away by how much visible history was–well, everywhere. In all seriousness, if you want to drop me an email ( and ask question or bounce ideas around, I’d love it.


    • As a Brit who’s lived here his whole life, I’d recommend either doing it sooner, before the Morons In Charge totally demolish the place, or later, after the rest of us who live here have come to our senses and thrown them out in favour of a more sensible bunch of folk.

      Oh, wait… you may not have the choice of ‘later’, as I suspect that it may take some considerable time to oust the MICs. My commiserations.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. “…at the Synod of Whitby, he decided his kingdom, Northumbria, would follow the Roman tradition. By one account, it was to foil someone’s political machinations with a few of his own. By others, it was because St. Peter held the keys to heaven.”

    More likely, “Happy wife, happy life.”

    Liked by 2 people

  4. A fascinating post! In my Old English class in college, one of the most striking readings was an unfortunately very short paragraph describing newly-converted Anglo-Saxon warriors riding into a pagan (for lack of a better word, sorry) religious place and smashing the statues.

    Interesting that the accounts of the pre-Christian (again, for lack of a better expression; again, sorry, I do know what you have to say about it) religion sound suspiciously Roman. Those monks were probably Norman French, and only a couple of centuries removed from purging the Roman religious practices in France. A possibly relevant point: the Roman religion(s) and Anglo-Saxon religion were of Indo-European descent, and the Indo-European religions tend to share a lot of features–polytheism, some sort of sacrificial practices, and a non-hereditary priesthood come to mind. Hinduism is the best-known form, to the best of my knowledge.

    A book that I bet you would enjoy: Catherine Nixey’s “The Darkening Age: The Christian Destruction of the Classical World.” (She’s a Brit, by the way, if memory serves.) Ever wonder why someone would knock the nose off of a perfectly good statue? She tells all.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Sounds like a book that’s worth tracking down. Thank you. The impulse to destroy the monuments of earlier cultures/religions/belief systems/governments seems to be pretty much universal. It’s shocking when other people do it to monuments you treasure. It’s completely understandable when you do it to monuments that offend the hell out of you.

      I could be wrong, but I assumed that the Christians describing earlier religious practices (notice how neatly I managed that?) were Celts–quite possibly Welsh monks writing about practices that were closer in time but still not anything they knew at first hand. But that’s entirely assumption on my part.

      Liked by 4 people

  5. Nothing like being born again…again.
    Sounds like the experience was as confusing for a country as it was for a 9 year old little girl in a Southern Baptist church in rural southeast Texas.
    And that was mighty confusing.
    Have a great weekend, my friend.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. Wow ! This is even more interesting then your usual historical posts ! What I knew of this period mostly came from reading Peter Tremayne’s Sister Fidelma Mysteries.
    Nixey’s book is available on Amazon

    (of course this is the US link )
    Considering what the Christians did to the Library of Alexandria I can’t say I’m surprised. Even as a sixth grade Social Studies teacher I would tell the kids that the worst wars were waged in the name of religion.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I’d be hard put to decide which wars have been the worst, but surely yes, they’ve been high on the list. Certainty doesn’t necessarily bring out the best in us, does it?

      I’m carrying on a one-person boycott of Amazon, so I’ll look somewhere else for the link. At the moment, I’m doing my used book shopping on Biblio and my new-book shopping on a couple of other sites that aren’t relevant to the US. It’s more work, but it is possible.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. For your information, the British Isles were home to the first churches planted outside of Jerusalem in circa 35 AC by Joseph of Arimathea and his small band of saints. These churches pre-dated the church at Antioch.

    Peter, Andrew and James arrived circa 46 AC – three years after Rome’s second invasion.

    “The apostles passed beyond the ocean to the isles called the Britannic Isles.”

    — Eusebius circa 260-340 AC ( Demonstratio Evangelica or Proof of the Gospel , book 3, chap. 7)

    “We certainly know that Christ, the true Son, afforded His light, the knowledge of His precepts, to our Island in the last year of Tiberius Caesar (Tiberius died in 37 AC)

    — Gildas the Wise, circa 550 AC (De Excidio Britanniae or On the Ruin of Britain )

    Liked by 2 people

    • We’ll have to disagree on whether Joseph of Arimathea reached Britain. From my readings, that’s unsupported by archeological evidence. Gildas is an important historical source for a period that left minimal sources, but I wouldn’t say he’s an entirely reliable one.


      • Joseph of Arimathea was Miriam’s (Mary’s) uncle (Yashua Messiah’s great uncle) and when Joseph, his father, died, his great uncle took Him under his wing, so to speak. This is why Yashua Messiah was not recognised by the locals in Nazareth as He had been away in Britain for quite a few years.

        Matthew 13:54-55 AND WHEN HE WAS COME INTO HIS OWN COUNTRY, He taught them in their synagogue, insomuch that they were astonished, and said, Whence hath this man this wisdom, and these mighty works? 55 IS NOT THIS THE CARPENTER’S SON? is not his mother called Mary? and His brethren, James, and Joses, and Simon, and Judas?

        “And did those feet in ancient time
        Walk upon England’s mountains green?
        And was the holy Lamb of God
        On England’s pleasant pastures seen?”

        William Blake

        Joseph of Arimathea was a wealthy tin and gold merchant who plied the trade routes used by the Phoenicians to the British Isles where he acquired tin and Welsh gold, highly valued by The Romans for making bronze and the pale Welsh gold much favoured by Roman women.

        This is how Joseph of Arimathea had his own tomb in which Yashua Messiah was placed after His crucifixion. Only wealthy people could afford their own tombs in those times.

        Liked by 1 person

          • Oh The Holy Scriptures are the foundation to all knowledge, this is why so many people today flounder in ignorance, including those within mainstream Christianity (The Cainite-Judeo-Christian Religion), who are worse than the lost, for they should know better, but don’t.

            It is a wretched state of affairs.

            Liked by 1 person

              • Of course. The things of God (God’s ways) are foolishness to the carnal secular mind, but that does not diminish, in anyway, the things or ways of God, that is, The Truth, for they are Spiritually discerned.

                However this heathen did have some understanding:

                “An error does not become Truth by reason of multiplied propagation, nor does Truth become error because nobody sees it.”

                – Mahatma Gandhi

                Liked by 1 person

              • If you judge others only by your own measures, you’ll find they fail to meet them. If you expand your gaze to take in what other people have to offer, though, you may find a surprising amount of wisdom and goodness from many people who don’t share your beliefs.

                Liked by 1 person

              • Oh I judge no one, there’s One in Heaven who will judge in the future and He needs no help from me. Pointing out The Truth is not judging and coming to obvious conclusions is also not judging. Judging is accusing when the true facts about a person are unknown to the accuser and he or she then accuses without knowing.

                However, if someone feels condemned by my pointing out The Truth, then they are the ones with the problem, not me. It is what it is. Offence can only be taken, not given.

                I am fully aware that there are ‘good’ people out there and bad people, too, hence there will be a great White Throne Tribunal in the resurrection when their deeds will be evaluated by God and rewards or punishments given accordingly.

                Liked by 1 person

              • Enough. I have no patience for being preached at. You’ll believe what you like–you clearly do–but I don’t find it interesting enough to hear more of.


              • Sweetheart, a person can consider religion without believing in it. A person can even be fascinated by religion and study it without believing that what it considers true is so. History fascinates me. Religion is a large part of that, and so I write about it. I find it interesting that people see the world so differently than I do, and I might be happy to discuss that with someone who could take in other people’s points of view. Your arguments, though, are all circular: This is true because the book I believe to be true says its true. It works for you. For someone coming from outside your frame of reference, it goes nowhere.

                Liked by 1 person

              • Nothing I have said in our discussion has been religious or could be interpreted as religious. As I said, God has no religion, and you will not find the word ‘religion’ in the Four Gospels. Which, in turn, means Yashua Messiah (Jesus Christ) did not come to this earth in order to start a religion, nor did He instruct His Learners (disciples) to do so either.

                ALL RELIGIONS are hu-man made or created by hu-mans to deceive mankind – the Cainite-Judeo-Christian RELIGION being the worst of all and most deceptive.

                I never argue, I just tell people The Truth and then in the main they argue against it. 100% futility or ‘kicking against the pricks’ as The Holy Scriptures describe it.

                It’s not a matter of working for me, it’s a matter of being called by The Father to His Son in order teach people The Truth. I had no say in it, I was called by The Father and that’s it – His will, His desire and by His power, I must therefore do His work.

                Liked by 1 person

              • Of course, you are not called by The Father to His Son, so anything and everything I say cannot be received or welcomed by you, nor understood by you.

                Therefore I do agree that further discussion is pointless at this time. However, in the future it will definitely resonate with you, that’s 100% guaranteed.

                Messenger Charles

                Liked by 1 person

              • It’s not a matter of belief but, rather, KNOWLEDGE, accumulated over 40 years of hard knock experience and study.

                However I respect your withdrawal from the discussion.


    • It’s related, so sure. For myself, I’m neither religious nor Christian, so no, sorry, it’s not a call I can get involved in. I tend to see these divisions as more or less inevitable. People take a set of teachings–religious or secular–as a starting point, but then inevitably they have to interpret them, think about what they mean in changed circumstances, and they disagree on that. I don’t suppose it’s inevitable that they fight about it, but it does seem to happen more often than not.

      Liked by 2 people

    • It’s not Christianity, it’s a fake or counterfeit. Denominations = demon-inations or divisions and the Godhead is not divided nor were the original Apostles who started The Way and The Faith. All were likeminded in their mission.

      The corruptions came with Hellenising philosophers out of Alexandria in the late first century (disciples of Philo) who changed The Truth and original Christian Message into satanic religious garbage – the rest is history.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I do NOT think that Anglican, Protestant, Catholic, Orthodox, Pentecostal, Presbyterian, Lutheran, Baptist, Apostolic, Methodist, and so on, is fake or counterfeit. I just see them as the sheep of God that scattered anywhere. I miss them getting back together. I just hope they can unite under The Great Commandment of Jesus.
        Like Ellen Hawley said to you above: “If you judge others only by your own measures, you’ll find they fail to meet them”.
        I think this discussion will never end, so I’ll end it here.

        To Ellen Hawley,
        Let’s come together to spread the love and affection. If you agree, then you are my fellow that indirectly doing of what Christians want to do.

        Liked by 1 person

        • After 1,700 years of denominational (demon-inational) division, when do you believe this mythical unifying will take place? Just curious, when Paul gave explicit instructions to the first century Christians:

          Romans 15:5 (KJV) Now the God of patience and consolation grant you to be likeminded one toward another according to Christ Jesus:

          Philippians 2:2 (KJV) Fulfil ye my joy, that ye be likeminded, having the same love, being of one accord, of one mind.

          1 Corinthians 1:10 (KJV) Now I beseech you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that ye all speak the same thing, and that there be no divisions (denominations) among you; but that ye be perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment. 

          Liked by 1 person

          • @Thetruthnotdoctrine,
            Okay, I’m just answering your question, not arguing.
            Your question: “When do you believe this mythical unifying will take place?”
            Answer: When human able to overcome their own EGO and sectarian minded.

            I tell you, Jesus NEVER taught (and told) us to create multiple denominations for His followers. How DARE human to do that.
            Please watch and feel the suffering of Jesus in order to build His church at the link I provided above. If that makes you touched, please collect the scattered sheep. I beg you to support my call and spread it to the world. Anyone can share it without my permission. I don’t know why as if I felt the divine whisper when I publish it.
            Thanks for your question.

            I’m sorry Ellen Hawley. I think this is a bit out of the context of your post.

            Liked by 1 person

            • So after 1,700 years of rebellion with their denominational religion(s) do you think these people are going to miraculously change their attitudes and mindsets (repent) and become likeminded?

              Which of their erroneous cults would be chosen as the one they all agree to unify around?

              Furthermore, how can they change when they are strangers to The Truth and have nothing in common with the first century, non-trinity believing, egalitarian church?

              Liked by 1 person

              • @Thetruthnotdoctrine,

                Answer to your #1 question:
                Yes, if we all want it and throw away our EGO. I’m not pessimistic. I started with myself and my family. I’m feel free and feel alright to go to any church regardless of their denomination. I will attend if they invite me to pray together, and vice versa. All in my mind is I go to the Father’s home and pray to Him, the same Father for them too. So, do it first, don’t expect others first. Forgive first, don’t expect others first.

                Answer to your #2 and #3 questions:
                Allow me to quote the sentences from my post, as follow.
                “The greatness of God (infinite) is beyond human knowledge (finite). Please remember the story about St. Augustine and a child by seaside whose want to pour the entire ocean into a small hole.”

                The ocean is like the Greatness of God. The small hole is like the human knowledge.

                “Differences in doctrinal or understanding of God’s Words is the result of the finite human knowledge, plus their EGO that tends to defend their own arguments. Therefore I’m begging you please forgive the human limitation.”

                ENOUGH for your questions BEFORE you do the same like my answer to your #1 question above.


              • What do these Holy Scriptures mean to you?:

                Matthew 7:21-23 (KJV) Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into The Kingdom of God; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven. 22 MANY will say to me in that day, Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in thy name? and in thy name have cast out devils? and in thy name done many wonderful works? 23 And then will I profess unto them, I never knew you: depart from me, ye that work iniquity.

                Or these Holy Scriptures?:

                Matthew 7:13 (KJV) Enter ye in at the strait (narrow and difficult) gate: for wide is the gate, and broad is the way, that leadeth to destruction, (Spiritual ruin) and MANY there be which go in thereat: (brackets mine)


              • My questions were in reply to your non-answer.
                “Yes, if we all want it and throw away our EGO. I’m not pessimistic.”

                After 1,700 years of ego and you’re not pessimistic!!!???? Unbelievable!! Now you know why I answered you with two further questions.


    • I stopped by your site, I wish you well, but leaving comments like this that aren’t at all connected to the post or the blog where you leave them makes you look like a spammer. If you can leave a comment that’s interesting (and relevant) enough, you may find that people stop by to see who you are.


    • One of the interesting things about blogging, for me, is that groups of people get to know each other through the comments they leave–not just on each other’s blogs but on other people’s. On this particular post, two Christians are arguing scripture with each other. I have no interest in it at all–I’m not a Christian and I’m not religious–but since it’s related (very slightly–they’ve wandered all over the place) to the topic and since they’re both interested, I’ve let them go and stayed out of it myself. So dig into other people’s blogs, my friend. Find people who share some of your interests (the internet’s awash with poetry blogs), and see where the conversations take you.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Effect is there was youngsters hipyism fifty years back the youngster used to big hair with torn paint travel in world leaving their religious concept.Now those guys not seen on earth now days for last so many years their fasion shows furstation from religion.where they go try to adopt religion.very astonishing never seen any where

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Pingback: How England became Christian–twice — Notes from the U.K. | Vermont Folk Troth

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