Thursday, 24 April 2014

The Story of St Mellitus

Mellitus (Canterbury Cathedral)

24 April is the anniversary of the death in 624 of Mellitus, first Bishop of London in the Anglo-Saxon period and third Archbishop of Canterbury. Mellitus arrived in England in 601, as part of the second wave of missionaries sent by Pope Gregory to support Augustine in his attempt to convert the Anglo-Saxons. With him came Justus (about whom I wrote here) and Paulinus (whose adventures in Northumbria you can read about here). Mellitus seems to have been the most senior of the party, since he is the addressee of the famous papal letter in which Gregory told the missionaries not to destroy the Anglo-Saxons' pagan temples, customs and sacrifices, but to replace them.

Thanks to Bede, we have a detailed account of Mellitus' activities once he arrived in Kent, and of the many trials and tribulations of the new church. We begin in Book II of the Historia Ecclesiastica (quotations are taken from A History of the English Church and People, trans. Leo Sherley-Price (Penguin, 1974), ch.3-7):

In the year of our Lord 604, Augustine, Archbishop of Britain, consecrated two bishops, Mellitus and Justus. Mellitus was appointed to preach in the province of the East Saxons, which is separated from Kent by the river Thames, and bounded on the east by the sea. Its capital is the city of London, which stands on the banks of the Thames, and is a trading centre for many nations who visit it by land and sea. At this time Sabert, Ethelbert's nephew through his sister Ricula, ruled the province under the suzerainty of Ethelbert, who, as already stated, governed all the English peoples as far north as the Humber. When this province too had received the faith through the preaching of Mellitus, King Ethelbert built a church dedicated to the holy Apostle Paul in the city of London, which he appointed as the episcopal see of Mellitus and his successors.

Augustine also consecrated Justus as bishop of a Kentish city which the English call Hrofescaestir after an early chieftain named Hrof. This lies nearly twenty-four miles west of Canterbury, and a church in honour of St. Andrew the Apostle was built here by King Ethelbert, who made many gifts to the bishops of both these churches as well as to Canterbury; he later added lands and property for the maintenance of the bishop's household.

So far, so good for the new church, with Augustine established in Canterbury, Mellitus in London and Justus in Rochester. The church founded for Mellitus has since been rebuilt many times over, of course, but it still bears the name by which its first bishop knew it: St Paul's.

Augustine died in 604 and was buried at what is now St Augustine's Abbey in Canterbury:

The ruins of St Augustine's today (more here)

He was succeeded by Laurence, a member of the original Augustinian mission, who not only sought to consolidate the new faith's position in England but also tried to extend it to Scotland, writing to the bishops of the British church to urge them to 'maintain the unity of the universal church' by following Roman practice. ('The present state of affairs shows how little he succeeded', says Bede.) But the new church in England was not secure, and was dangerously dependent on the personal support of King Ethelbert - which became a problem when Ethelbert died in 616:

The death of Ethelbert and the accession of his son Eadbald proved to be a severe setback to the growth of the young church; for not only did [Eadbald] refuse to accept the faith of Christ, but he was also guilty of such fornication as the Apostle Paul mentions as being unheard of even among the heathen, in that he took his father's wife as his own. His immorality was an incentive to those who, either out of fear or favour to the king his father, had submitted to the discipline of faith and chastity, to revert to their former uncleanness. However, this apostate king did not escape the scourge of God's punishment, for he was subject to frequent fits of insanity and possessed by an evil spirit.

The death of the Christian King Sabert of the East Saxons aggravated the upheaval; for when he departed for the heavenly kingdom he left three sons, all pagans, to inherit his earthly kingdom. These were quick to profess idolatry, which they had pretended to abandon during the lifetime of their father, and encouraged the people to return to the old gods. It is told that when they saw Bishop Mellitus offering solemn Mass in church, they said with barbarous presumption: "Why do you not offer us the white bread which you used to give to our father Saba (for so they used to call him), while you continue to give it to the people in church?" The bishop answered, "If you will be washed in the waters of salvation as your father was, you may share in the consecrated bread, as he did; but so long as you reject the water of life, you are quite unfit to receive the Bread of Life." They retorted, "We refuse to enter that font and see no need for it; but we want to be strengthened with this bread." The bishop then carefully and repeatedly explained that this was forbidden, and that no one was admitted to receive the most holy communion without the most holy cleansing of baptism. At last they grew very angry, and said, "If you will not oblige us by granting such an easy request, you shall no longer remain in our kingdom." And they drove him into exile, and ordered all his followers to leave their borders.

This is interesting, and not only because it provides what may be the first recorded instance of an Anglo-Saxon nickname ('Saba' for 'Sæberht')! For all that Bede calls the sons' demand 'barbarous presumption', it's not surprising that they would struggle to understand Mellitus' refusal to give them the 'white bread' he gave their father, with its apparently magical 'strengthening' power.

After his expulsion, Mellitus came to Kent to consult with his fellow-bishops Laurence and Justus on the best course of action; and they decided it would be better for all of them to return to their own country and serve God in freedom, rather than to remain impotently among heathens who had rejected the faith. Mellitus and Justus left first and settled in Gaul to await the outcome of events. But the kings who had driven out the herald of truth did not remain long unpunished for their worship of demons, for they and their army fell in battle against the West Saxons. Nevertheless, the fate of the instigators did not cause their people to abandon their evil practices, or to return to the simple faith and love to be found in Christ alone.

This was a tipping-point for the new church, and could have been the end of Augustine's mission - but for a miraculous dream:

On the very night before Laurence too was to follow Mellitus and Justus from Britain, he ordered his bed to be placed in the church of the blessed Apostles, Peter and Paul, of which we have spoken several times. Here after long and fervent prayers for the sadly afflicted church he lay down and fell asleep. At dead of night, blessed Peter, Prince of the Apostles, appeared to him, and set about him for a long time with a heavy scourge, demanding with apostolic sternness why he was abandoning the flock entrusted to his care, and to which of the shepherds he would commit Christ's sheep left among the wolves when he fled. "Have you forgotten my example?" asked Peter. "For the sake of the little ones whom Christ entrusted to me as proof of his love, I suffered chains, blows, imprisonment, and pain. Finally I endured death, the death of crucifixion, at the hands of unbelievers and enemies of Christ, so that at last I might be crowned with him." Deeply moved by the words and scourging of blessed Peter, Christ's servant Laurence sought audience with the king [Eadbald] early next morning, and removing his garment, showed him the marks of the lash. The king was astounded, and enquired who had dared to scourge so eminent a man; and when he learned that it was for his own salvation that the archbishop had suffered so severely at the hands of Christ's own Apostle, he was greatly alarmed. He renounced idolatry, gave up his unlawful wife, accepted the Christian faith, and was baptised, henceforward promoting the welfare of the church with every means at his disposal.

The king also sent to Gaul and recalled Mellitus and Justus, giving them free permission to return and set their churches in order; so, the year after they left, they returned. Justus came back to his own city of Rochester, but the people of London preferred their own idolatrous priests, and refused to accept Mellitus as bishop. And since the king's authority in the realm was not so effective as that of his father, he was powerless to restore the bishop to his see against the refusal and resistance of the pagans.
Bede makes it clear that the new church could do nothing without the support of the king, and that where the king's authority stopped, there was nothing the bishops could do. Laurence died in 619 and was buried near Augustine, and Mellitus, unable to return to London, succeeded him as Archbishop of Canterbury. Bede tells us:

Although Mellitus became crippled with the gout, his sound and ardent mind overcame his troublesome infirmity, ever reaching above earthly things to those that are heavenly in love and devotion. Noble by birth, he was even nobler in mind.

I record one among many instances of his virtue. One day the city of Canterbury was set on fire through carelessness, and the spreading flames threatened to destroy it. Water failed to extinguish the fire, and already a considerable area of the city was destroyed. As the raging flames were sweeping rapidly towards his residence, the bishop, trusting in the help of God where man's help had failed, ordered himself to be carried into the path of its leaping and darting advance. In the place where the flames were pressing most fiercely stood the church of the Four Crowned Martyrs. Hither the bishop was borne by his attendants, and here by his prayers this infirm man averted the danger which all the efforts of strong men had been powerless to check. For the southerly wind, which had been spreading the flames throughout the city, suddenly veered to the north, thus saving the places that lay in their path; then it dropped altogether, so that the fires burned out and died. Thus Mellitus, the man of God, afire with love for him, because it had been his practice by constant prayers and teaching to fend off storms of spiritual evil from himself and his people, was deservedly empowered to save them from material winds and flames.
The site of this lost 'church of the Four Crowned Martyrs' in Canterbury isn't known, but if it was near the Archbishop's Palace it was probably close to the site of the present-day St Alphege's Church:

I was there last week, and the blossom was out all around the city, just as it must have been in the April Mellitus died, 1390 years ago.

Bede concludes:
Having ruled the church five years, Mellitus likewise departed to the heavenly kingdom in the reign of King Eadbald, and was laid to rest with his predecessors in the same monastery church of the holy Apostle Peter on the twenty-fourth day of April, in the year of our Lord 624.

That is, he was buried at what later became known as St Augustine's Abbey, where his two predecessors and King Ethelbert were also buried. The sites of the archbishops' tombs can still be seen amid the ruins of the abbey:

These brick foundations (protected by a modern canopy) are believed to be the only visible remains of Augustine's original church. This was where the tombs of Augustine, Laurence, Mellitus and Justus stood until the end of the eleventh century, when the Norman rebuilding of the monastery meant that their bodies had to be moved. By this time, all were regarded as the abbey's saints (along with St Mildred of Thanet) and the translation of their bodies into the new Norman church in September 1091 was a splendid occasion; it was commemorated by a series of Lives of the early archbishops composed by Goscelin, which were recorded in several beautiful manuscripts.

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