Sein Austin bro3te Cristendom þus to Engelonde,
Wel a3te we is day holde 3if we were wel understonde.
His day is toward þe ende of May, for þulke day he wende
Out of þis live to Jesu Crist þat after him þo sende...
Nou bidde we 3erne Seint Austin þat to Cristendom us bro3te
þat we to þe joie come to wan oure Louerd us bo3te.
(St Augustine brought Christianity to England;
Well ought we to keep his feast-day, if we well understand.
His day falls towards the end of May, for on that day he journeyed
Out of this to life to Jesus Christ, who sent for him then...
Now let us pray gladly to St Augustine, who to Christendom us brought
That we may to that joy come to which our Lord us bought.]
May 26, as this Middle English Life of Seint Austin (in the South English Legendary) tells us, is the feast of St Augustine of Canterbury. St Augustine, 'apostle of the English', first archbishop of Canterbury, led the mission sent by Gregory the Great from Rome to convert the English, and died on 26 May in 604. In this post are some extracts from medieval texts dealing with St Augustine, from throughout the medieval period - just a small sample, illustrating the central place of Augustine's mission in the story of English Christianity.
Augustine landing in Thanet (from St Augustine's, Ramsgate)
It was Bede, of course, who established the narrative of St Augustine's mission from Rome as fundamental to the English church's understanding of its own history and identity, and the influence his telling of this origin story had on later medieval writers can hardly be overestimated. So it's with Bede that we must begin, in Book I of the Historia ecclesiastica (chapter 25):
Augustine, thus strengthened by the confirmation of the blessed Father Gregory, returned to the work of the word of God, with the servants of Christ, and arrived in Britain. The powerful Ethelbert was at that time king of Kent; he had extended his dominions as far as the great river Humber, by which the Southern Saxons are divided from the Northern.
On the east of Kent is the large Isle of Thanet containing, according to the English way of reckoning, 600 families, divided from the other land by the river Wantsum, which is about three furlongs over, and fordable only in two places, for both ends of it run into the sea. In this island landed the servant of our Lord, Augustine, and his companions, being, as is reported, nearly forty men.
They had, by order of the blessed Pope Gregory, taken interpreters of the nation of the Franks, and sending to Ethelbert, signified that they were come from Rome, and brought a joyful message, which most undoubtedly assured to all that took advantage of it everlasting joys in heaven and a kingdom that would never end with the living and true God.
The traditional site of St Augustine's landing, Pegwell Bay, Thanet
The king, having heard this, ordered them to stay in that island where they had landed, and that they should be furnished with all necessaries, till he should consider what to do with them. For he had before heard of the Christian religion, having a Christian wife of the royal family of the Franks, called Bertha; whom he had received from her parents, upon condition that she should be permitted to practice her religion with the Bishop Luidhard, who was sent with her to preserve her faith.
Some days after, the king came into the island, and sitting in the open air, ordered Augustine and his companions to be brought into his presence. For he had taken precaution that they should not come to him in any house, lest, according to an ancient superstition, if they practiced any magical arts, they might impose upon him, and so get the better of him. But they came furnished with Divine, not with magic virtue, bearing a silver cross for their banner, and the image of our Lord and Saviour painted on a board; and singing the litany, they offered up their prayers to the Lord for the eternal salvation both of themselves and of those to whom they were come.
Preaching to Ethelbert
When he had sat down, pursuant to the king's commands, and preached to him and his attendants there present the word of life, the king answered thus: "Your words and promises are very fair, but as they are new to us, and of uncertain import, I cannot approve of them so far as to forsake that which I have so long followed with the whole English nation. But because you are come from far into my kingdom, and, as I conceive, are desirous to impart to us those things which you believe to be true and most beneficial, we will not molest you, but give you favourable entertainment, and take care to supply you with your necessary sustenance; nor do we forbid you to preach and gain as many as you can to your religion."
Accordingly he permitted them to reside in the city of Canterbury, which was the metropolis of all his dominions, and, pursuant to his promise, besides allowing them sustenance, did not refuse them liberty to preach. It is reported that, as they drew near to the city, after their manner, with the holy cross, and the image of our sovereign Lord and King, Jesus Christ, they, in concert, sung this litany: "We beseech Thee, O Lord, in all Thy mercy, that thy anger and wrath be turned away from this city, and from the holy house, because we have sinned. Hallelujah."
Processing to Canterbury
As soon as they entered the dwelling-place assigned them they began to imitate the course of life practiced in the primitive church; applying themselves to frequent prayer, watching and fasting; preaching the word of life to as many as they could; despising all worldly things, as not belonging to them; receiving only their necessary food from those they taught; living themselves in all respects conformably to what they prescribed to others, and being always disposed to suffer any adversity, and even to die for that truth which they preached. In short, several believed and were baptized, admiring the simplicity of their innocent life, and the sweetness of their heavenly doctrine.this post).
There was on the east side of the city a church dedicated to the honour of St. Martin, built whilst the Romans were still in the island, wherein the queen, who, as has been said before, was a Christian, used to pray. In this they first began to meet, to sing, to pray, to say mass, to preach, and to baptize, till the king, being converted to the faith, allowed them to preach openly, and build or repair churches in all places.
When he, among the rest, induced by the unspotted life of these holy men, and their delightful promises, which, by many miracles, they proved to be most certain, believed and was baptized, greater numbers began daily to flock together to hear the word, and, forsaking their heathen rites, to associate themselves, by believing, to the unity of the church of Christ. Their conversion the king so far encouraged, as that he compelled none to embrace Christianity, but only showed more affection to the believers, as to his fellow-citizens in the heavenly kingdom.When Augustine died in 604 he was buried in the monastery he had established in Canterbury, which became known by his name. For more on St Augustine's, its glorious history and evocative ruins, see this post.
For he had learned from his instructors and leaders to salvation, that the service of Christ ought to be voluntary, not by compulsion. Nor was it long before he gave his preachers a settled residence in his metropolis of Canterbury, with such possessions of different kinds as were necessary for their subsistence.
Site of Augustine's tomb in the ruins of St Augustine's
More than two centuries after Bede, this is how the Anglo-Saxon homilist Ælfric describes Augustine's arrival (in his sermon on St Gregory, which can be found here):
On ðam dagum rixode Æþelbyrht cyning on Cantwarebyrig riclice, and his rice wæs astreht fram ðære micclan ea Humbre oð suð sæ. Augustinus hæfde genumen wealhstodas of Francena rice, swa swa Gregorius him bebead, and he, ðurh ðæra wealhstoda muð, þam cyninge and his leode Godes word bodade: hu se mildheorta Hælend, mid his agenre ðrowunge, þysne scyldigan middaneard alysde, and geleaffullum mannum heofonan rices infær geopenode. Þa andwyrde se cyning Æðelbriht Augustine, and cwæð, þæt he fægere word and behat him cydde, and cwæð, þæt he ne mihte swa hrædlice þone ealdan gewunan ðe he mid Angelcynne heold forlætan; cwæð þæt he moste freolice ða heofonlican lare his leode bodian, and þæt he him and his geferan bigleofan ðenian wolde; and forgeaf him ða wununge on Cantwarebyrig, seo wæs ealles his rices heafod-burh.This follows Bede so closely that I won't translate it (I just thought you might like to see the story in Old English!) but the final sentence here reads "After this, Augustine established from among his companions bishops over all the cities of the English people, and they have continued flourishing in the faith of God up to this present day". This sense of unbroken continuity is central to later interpretations of Augustine, as we shall see again.
Ongann ða Augustinus mid his munecum to geefenlæcenne þæra apostola lif, mid singalum gebedum and wæccan and fæstenum Gode ðeowigende, and lifes word þam ðe hi mihton bodigende, ealle middaneardlice ðing swa swa ælfremede forhogigende; ða þing ana þe hi to bigleofan behofedon underfonde, be ðam ðe hi tæhton sylfe lybbende, and for ðære soðfæstnysse ðe hi bodedon gearowe wæron ehtnysse to ðoligenne, and deaðe sweltan, gif hi ðorfton.
Hwæt ða gelyfdon forwel menige, and on Godes naman gefullode wurdon, wundrigende þære bilewitnysse heora unscæððigan lifes, and swetnysse heora heofonlican lare. Ða æt nextan gelustfullode ðam cyninge Æðelbrihte heora clæne lif and heora wynsume behat, þa soðlice wurdon mid manegum tacnum geseðde; and he ða gelyfende wearð gefullod, and micclum ða cristenan gearwurðode, and swa swa heofonlice ceaster-gewaran lufode: nolde swa-ðæh nænne to cristendome geneadian, forðan ðe he ofaxode æt ðam lareowum his hæle, þæt Cristes ðeowdom ne sceal beon geneadad, ac sylfwilles. Ongunnon ða dæghwomlice forwel menige efstan to gehyrenne ða halgan bodunge, and forleton heora hæðenscipe, and hi sylfe geðeoddon Cristes gelaðunge, on hine gelyfende…
Augustinus gesette æfter ðisum biscopas of his geferum gehwilcum burgum on Engla ðeode, and hi on Godes geleafan ðeonde ðurhwunodon oð ðisum dægðerlicum dæge.
Augustine establishing a church
Here's Augustine being given a starring role in the Old English poem known as the Menologium, where he is the only saint buried in Britain to be so honoured:
þætte drihten nam
in oðer leoht Augustinus,
bliðne on breostum, þæs þe he on Brytene her
eaðmode him eorlas funde
to godes willan, swa him se gleawa bebead
Gregorius. Ne hyrde ic guman a fyrn
ænigne ær æfre bringan
ofer sealtne mere selran lare,
bisceop bremran. Nu on Brytene rest
on Cantwarum cynestole neah,
[On 26 May] the Lord took
into the other light Augustine,
joyful in heart, he who here in Britain
humbly brought men
to the will of God, as the wise one bid him,
Gregory. I never heard of such a man before,
of anyone who ever brought
such splendid teaching across the salt sea,
brilliant bishop! Now he rests in Britain,
in Kent, near the throne,
in the glorious monastery.
Goscelin's 'Translation of St Augustine' (BL Cotton Vespasian B XX, f. 95v)
The following is a hymn to St Augustine which may have been composed in Winchester in the late tenth or early eleventh century (text and translation from Hymns of the Anglo-Saxon Church, ed. Inge B. Milfull (Cambridge, 1996), pp.320-1):
Caelestis aule nobiles
mundique recti principis
concorditer ferant deo
laudum trophea precluo,
qui maxima clementia
genus humanum tartara
terendo vite reddidit
&, ut hanc sciret, indidit.
Apostolos nam colligit,
Gregorius de quis venit,
qui filium dat Anglicis
non de carnali semine,
sed spiritali vimine,
emisit, ut Cristi decus
conferret acris plebibus.
Quod ut perægit omnibus
deo iuvante nisibus,
vocatur ex tholis poli,
ut colletetur angelis.
Hinc te precamur, artifex
opime rerum, supplices,
ut huius ore militis
tuis tuum des servulis.
Sit glorie nitor patri,
sit filio lux & iugis,
sit procedenti flamini
ab his venustas luminis.
Let the nobles of the celestial court and of the true prince of the world offer unanimously praises in honour of his victory to the most glorious God,
who in his surpassing mercy brought the human race back to life and taught it to know that life, when he crushed Hell.
For he gathers apostles to himself. From these Gregory is descended, who gives his son Augustine to the idolatrous English;
he sent out his son, not by the seed of the flesh, but by spiritual growth, to bring the glory of Christ to fierce nations.
As soon as he has carried that out with all effort and with the help of God, he is summoned from the vaults of heaven to share there the joy of the angels.
Therefore we suppliants pray to you, excellent maker of created things, to give your humble servants what is yours according to the speech of this your soldier.
Glory and splendour be to the Father and perpetual light be to the Son. Glowing beauty be to the Spirit that proceeds from them.
Antiphon to Gregory and Augustine, from late 11th-century Canterbury (BL Egerton 874, f. 69v)
In the eleventh century and afterwards, various miracle-stories became attached to Augustine of a rather more colourful nature than the sober histories of Bede and his imitators. The most lively - yes, that seems the best word! - is told for us by the chronicler of the Middle English Brut (from here):
When Seynt Austyne come ferst into Engeland, he arryuede in þe Ile of Tenet, and so passede fourth, & come vnto Kaunterbery, and þere soiournede. And Kyng Adelbright of Kent, þat was of þe lynage of Engist, faire vnderfong seynt Austyn & his felowes wiþ michel honour, & ham fonde al þat ham nedede; & ferþermore he 3af ham a faire place þat now is callede þe Abbay of seynt Austynus, in whiche place he liþ himself shrinede. This Kyng Adelbright was a gode man, and wiþ godewel herde seynt Austynus predicaciouns, and 3af him leue to preche þrou3 al his lande of Kent, to tourne & to conuerte to him al þe peple þat he mi3t. Hit bifelle so afterwarde, þrou3 Goddes grace, þat in litel tyme þe kyng himself was conuertede to Gode, and all his peple of his lande was baptisede. And in the menewhile þat þe peple turnede ham to God, seynt Austyn come to Rochestre, and þere prechede Goddes worde. þe paynemys þerfor him scornede, and caste on him righe tailes, so þat al his mantel was hongede ful of righe tailes; and for more despite þai caste oppon him þe guttes of ryghe & of ffisshe; wherfore þe gode man seynt Austyn was sore agreuede, and prayede to God þat alle þe childerne þat shulde bene borne afterwarde in þat citee of Rouchestre moste haue tailes.
[When St Augustine first came to England he arrived in the Isle of Thanet, and from there passed on and came to Canterbury, and remained there. And King Ethelbert of Kent, who was of the lineage of Hengist, graciously received St Augustine and his companions with great honour, and supplied them with all that was necessary to them; and furthermore he gave them a noble place which is now called the Abbey of St Augustine's, in which place he himself lies enshrined. This King Ethelbert was a good man, and with good will heard St Augustine's preaching, and gave him leave to preach throughout his kingdom of Kent, and bring and convert to him all the people he could. It afterwards happened, by God's grace, that in a short time the king himself was converted to God, and all the people of his kingdom were baptised. And when the people were being converted to God, St Augustine came to Rochester, and there preached the word of God. The pagans scorned him for that, and threw ray-tails at him, so that his mantle was all hanging with ray-tails; and for even greater humiliation they threw on him the guts of rays and fish. And at that the good man St Augustine was very angry, and prayed to God that all the children who were to be born thereafter in the city of Rochester should have tails.]
And that's why the people of Rochester have tails! (In other sources the same story is told about Dorchester in Dorset, about Kent generally, or about all Englishmen; take your pick of calumnies...)
Augustine preaching (Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford)
Another miracle story attributed to Augustine appears in a late medieval poem attributed to Lydgate; it's too long to quote here, but it involves St Augustine exorcising a tithe-dodging ghost, and you can read it here. Let's instead close with the section of this poem which extols the glory of St Augustine, Britain's 'day-star':
I meene Austyn that was fro Rome sent,
By Seyn Gregory in to this regioun,
Graciously arryued up in Kent,
Famous in vertu, of gret perfeccioun;
His liff was lyk his predicacioun,
As he tauht, sothely so he wrouhte:
By his moost hooly conversacioun.
Into this lond the feith of Crist he brouhte.
Thoruh al the parties and provynces of the lond,
Of Cristis gospel he gan the seed to sowe,
Unkouth myracles wrouhte with hys hand,
Worshipped he was bothe of hih and lowe;
Withouten pompe grace hath his horn so blowe,
Thoruh his merites that the hevenly soun,
He callid was as it is wel knowe,
Cristes Apostil in Brutis Albioun.
He was Aurora whan Phebus sholde arise,
With his briht beemys on that lond to shyne,
Callyd day-sterre moost glorious to devise;
Our feith was dirkid undir the ecliptic lyne;
Our mysbeleeve he did first enlumyne,
Whan he outsprad the brihte beemys cleere,
Of Cristes lawe by his parfit doctryne,
Thoruh al this land to make his liht appeere.
This was doon by grace or we wer war,
Of tholygoost by the influence,
Whan foure steedys of Phebus goldene char,
List in this regioun holde residence;
Who droff the char to conclude in sentence,
By goostly favour of the nyne speerys,
Til blissed Austyn, by goostly elloquence,
Was trewe Auriga of foure gospelleeris.
Or Austyn cam, we slombryd in dirknesse,
Lyk ydolastres blyndid in our siht.
Of Cristes feith was curteyned the cleernesse,
Tyl Sol justicie list shewe his beemys briht;
Of his mercy to clarefye the liht,
Chace away our cloudy ignoraunce,
The lord of lordys of moost imperial myht,
Tavoyde away our froward mescreaunce.
First fro the Pope that callid was Gregory,
Awstyn was sent; who that list adverte,
Tyme and date be put in memory,
To Cristes feith whan he did us converte,
Our goostly woundys felte as tho gret smerte;
Deed was our soule, our boody eek despised,
Tyl Awstyn made vs cast of cloth and sherte,
In coold watir by hym we wer baptised.
Kyng Ethelbert regnyng that tyme in Kent,
Touchyng the date whan Awstyn cam first doun,
Noumbryd the tyme whan that he was sent,
By Pope Gregory into this regioun,
Yeer of our Lord by computacioun,
Compleet five hundryd fourty and eek nyne,
As cronyclers make mencioun,
In ther bookys fully determyne.
Thus he began by grace of Goddis hond,
Wher God list werche may be noon obstacle,
By his labour was cristened al this lond,
Feith of our lord wex moor cleer than spectacle;
Whan tholygoost made his habitacle
In tho personys that wern in woord and deede,
By Awstyn tournyd, God wrouhte a gret myracle,
To make hem stable in articles of the creede.
This poem was written nearly a thousand years after St Augustine landed in Kent, but the sense of continuity is as strong here as in Bede, and in the Life of St Austin's assertion that Augustine "to Cristendom us bro3te": it was "this land" to which Augustine came; until his coming "we slumbered in darkness", and "by him we were baptised".
Augustine (BL Stowe 12, f. 250)