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.
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.