Another thing” is a series of occasional posts, each presenting a particularly interesting, beautiful or unusual object on display at one of the museums or sites on our tours (and occasionally on our recces).
Well, then: here’s my first entry for the Another Thing series.
And you may find it less than impressive. Direct your attention, if you will, not to the wall, but to the grey plaque. Yes, that’s it. You may be thinking something along the lines of this: ‘It’s mundane, uninteresting and self-evidently modern. Please don’t invite him back.’ I’ll agree with you that it certainly doesn’t look like much; a nondescript slablet under a shadowy awning that, if you were blithely wandering around this site without knowing it (and if, ahem, you lacked an Expert Guide) you might easily walk past and ignore it as being unlikely to arouse much interest.
But I want to make the case that it, and those around it, are worth looking at. I want to persuade you that, when I first saw it and the hairs on my arms stood on end, I wasn’t just being ridiculous. I’m going to suggest that the most interesting objects and the most interesting things on sites aren’t always the most beautiful, the biggest, or the ones with the biggest interpretation boards and crowds beside them.
We stand in the lovely county of Kent, in Canterbury. Our site is not the famous cathedral, but the less well-known and rather ruined abbey of St Augustine. Augustine, of course, is the Roman monk sent by Pope Gregory to evangelise the English, a task which he began, with some hesitancy, after landing at Thanet in spring 597. Augustine and his forty monks stand, thanks partly to the enduring later power and authority of the archbishopric of Canterbury but also to the literary efforts of the Northumbrian scholar-monk Bede, at the head of the story of Christianity in England.
They certainly weren’t the first Christians in the territory of what is now England – there is a good body of evidence for the religion in Roman Britain. They weren’t even the first Christians in England in the sixth century – Celtic-speaking Christians maintained abbeys in regions not yet ruled by the Anglo-Saxons, and the Frankish wife of the King of Kent, Bertha, was herself Christian. But it is this moment which is retrospectively treated as the great beginning of it all in literature, and in cultural memory.
The story, then, is this (if you want to follow a more original version, you can find it at the end of Book 1 and start of Book 2 of Bede’s Ecclesiastical History - try this pdf download, chapter XXIII onwards): Augustine and his monks presented themselves at Canterbury on Gregory’s mission to restore Christianity to Britain, the eastern parts of which were now ruled by the pagan English. Welcomed by the king, Aethelberht, and Bertha his wife, he was allowed to establish his cathedral and a suburban monastery (St Augustine’s, where further churches were built) in the remains of the ancient Roman town of Canterbury. Bertha already had a church there outside the walls for her Frankish bishop, supposedly built in the shell of a derelict Roman church. In due course, Aethelberht converted, becoming the first Christian Anglo-Saxon king. Under Kentish auspices, members of Augustine’s party were sent out to other regions under Kentish control or influence: Justus to Rochester in Kent, Mellitus to the kingdom of the East Saxons and their town of London, where he built the first church of St Paul’s. Aethelberht died in 616, and a brief apostasy followed under his son Eadbald (not an unknown trope in Judaeo-Christian writing), but he was brought back to the faith by Laurentius (or Lawrence; more on that later). Such was Kent’s influence that Christianity was carried, often with Kentish princesses, to other Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, notably Northumbria, through the seventh century. England definitely entered the world of European, Roman, Christian civilisation.
Now, there’s a lot about this that’s unhistorical, romanticised, agenda-driven and therefore untrustworthy as a description of events. Modern historians and archaeologists have broadened and deepened the picture. We know that Kent was rather different from its Anglo-Saxon neighbours at this time, richer and better-connected to the continent. Its graves show a distinct input of fine imports from Francia over the channel. So we can see why it would be the first of these kingdoms to attract papal attention once the mission to evangelise had been decided upon. We can also be fairly sure that Frankish rulers regarded parts of England as subject, or tried to will that into being. That might explain why the comfortably distant Roman missionary Augustine was more acceptable as an agent of conversion to King Aethelberht than Bertha’s Frankish bishop, who might make cross-channel overlordship look uncomfortably close. So, yes, we can read a more historical, less epic version of these events (and I’ve only scratched the surface), but that only makes the recasting of them more interesting.
Let’s return to that apostasy story. With the reaction after Aethelberht’s death – which we might see as much anti-‘foreign’ as anti-Christian – the position of the new church is presented as looking very shaky indeed. Bishop Mellitus was driven from London by the East Saxons and forced to flee to Gaul. Archbishop Laurence, we are told, wavered until St Paul himself appeared to him as he slept in the church of St Peter and Paul and beat him for failing to emulate his own endurance for the faith. A chastened Laurence displayed his supernatural wounds to the apostate Eadbald, won him back to the church and baptised him. Mellitus and Justus safely resumed their sees, and Anglo-Saxon, English, British (and so on) history took a new direction. Canterbury became a centre of Christian learning and Roman civilisation, and the kings of Kent displayed their civilised credentials by issuing Roman-style law codes – the first English written laws (in English, too, not Latin!).
All this makes Canterbury a fairly signal place in early Anglo-Saxon history, and – even if you allow for the careful shaping of the story – a place where an awful lot that has later importance was happening in a concentrated period. And that brings us back to our nondescript slab in its mundane row under its unimpressive roof. Look more closely and we see the name Mellitus – the first bishop of London, the founder of St Paul’s and the third archbishop of Canterbury. Next to him are Justus, his successor as archbishop and Laurence himself. That’s why the goosebumps happen. It’s not often in Anglo-Saxon history – especially early Anglo-Saxon history – that you can see structures and objects linked to named, known individuals and important events. Here, you’re in the midst of some of the main characters in the most pivotal story in Bede. And we’re not done yet. Turn around and take a few steps, and you find Augustine himself. Again, the spot isn’t glorious in its appearance or magnificently marked, but when you know the story and the connections, I wouldn’t exchange it for seeing any ten crowns.
Not far off, the graves of the early Kentish kings – the lawgivers Wihtred and Hlothere. Modern markers, but no less significant for all that. This is one of the greatest concentrations of burial spots for mediaeval historical figures to be had in England. And it all links back to the use of the reputation of Augustine and his contemporaries later on. St Augustine’s abbey became the burial ground for the Kentish kings and archbishops of Canterbury after the conversion, for a time. Eventually, archbishops and kings were buried elsewhere, but their role in history and religion made these early ones important, not least when St Augustine’s abbey wished to assert its autonomy from its mighty neighbour, the cathedral visible not far away. So the graves remained important. The original Anglo-Saxon churches – three in a line – were remodelled, and two eventually built over and replaced by a great Norman abbey, but the authority they gave it saw them incorporated, to remain important focuses until the dissolution of the monastery by Henry VIII.
Today, it’s the ruin of that monastery that dominates the site, though you can see fine remains of sculpture and burials from the older churches (and a great VR reconstruction) in its excellent new museum. Though heavily ruined, the later mediaeval church is an excellent site, and you can now stand in it with the knowledge that in its nave you stand on the site and amid the scant remains of that church of St Peter and Paul where Laurence took his supernatural beating, regained his resolve and – if we are to believe – changed the course of history.
Much of the third church still stands incorporated into a medieval successor, over in the right distance in the above picture. But that’s not the limit of our ability to visit this early story in outside Canterbury’s walls. If you leave the confines of the site here, and walk a little further on, you might be lucky enough to find the church of St Martin open, and see its bold claim to be the oldest church in the English-speaking world. It’s another part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site. If you walk around outside, you’ll notice (more easily on the exterior) the Roman masonry incorporated into the later structure. If you’ve not been nodding off, that might ring some bells. Do go inside; to complete our story (and ignore other interesting things within), go along and look at the coffin in the niche.
The Latin inscription proclaims itself to be the resting place of Bertha, though it is in fact later and she was buried with the kings. It does connect this, her church, built into a Roman building as Bede describes (whether it was an ancient church or not), and you have a fair claim to be standing in the oldest Christian church in the English-speaking world, patronised by its first known Christian queen. Now, the academic historian in me, the dominant bit, knows and will tell you at great length that there’s more to the story, and we need to look beyond and beneath the recreated story, and question how significant and genuine this connection really is. But at times like this the Little Boy historian surfaces, for a little while, gets excited and thrills at standing in places so pregnant with historical importance. Goosebumps.
Canterbury is not yet part of a Peter Sommer Travels itinerary, but a visit to the site and the other cultural riches of Kent is an easy add-on to our Exploring Wessex tour, and a great complement to its historical content.