Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Augustine

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AUGUSTINE, St. (d. 604), was the first archbishop of Canterbury. A famous story tells how the Roman deacon Gregory was attracted by the sight of some fair-haired boys exposed for sale in the slave-market of Rome, and vowed to convert these Angles into angels. Pope Gregory I carried out the design which he had formed, and sent to England a body of monks headed by Augustine, of whom we only know that he was prior of Gregory's monastery of St. Andrew in Rome. Augustine does not seem to have had much of the missionary spirit. He had not gone far before he returned to the pope, with a request from his comrades that they should not be compelled to undertake so dangerous a journey. Gregory I sent back Augustine with words of exhortation and encouragement. He had already secured for his missionaries a safe-conduct from the Frankish rulers of Gaul; and Ethelbert, king of Kent, had married a Frankish wife, Bertha, daughter of Charibert, king of Paris. Thus Augustine was not called upon to go into an entirely unknown land, nor one where Christianity was unheard of. Bertha was a christian, and on her marriage had stipulated that she should remain so. She brought with her as chaplain Liudhard, bishop of Senlis, and was allowed to use for christian services the ruined church of St. Martin outside Canterbury, which survived from Roman times (Bede, H. E. i. 26).

Thus Augustine came to England neither unexpected nor unbefriended. He and his company of forty monks landed in Thanet, and announced their arrival to Ethelbert. After a little consideration Ethelbert crossed to Thanet, and summoned the missionaries to his presence. They found him seated in the open air for fear of magical arts. They advanced to meet him in procession, bearing a silver cross and a picture of the Crucifixion, and chanting the litany. Augustine, by means of an interpreter, preached to the king, who answered, 'Your words are fair, but of doubtful meaning; I cannot forsake what I have so long believed. But as you have come from far we will not molest you; you may preach, and gain as many as you can to your religion.' Ethelbert gave a worthy example of good sense and tolerance. He allowed Augustine to come to Canterbury, which the monks entered in procession, chanting the litany.

They worshipped with the queen in St. Martin's church, and the influence of their self-denying life rapidly attracted followers. When Ethelbert saw that there was little opposition to Christianity amongst his people, he also was converted. The old churches were rebuilt, and numbers of the Kentish men were baptised. Now that success was assured to the mission, Augustine went to Arles, and was consecrated 'Bishop of the English.' In Canterbury he founded the monastery of Christchurch, on the site of an old Roman basilica, which he restored. This foundation of Augustine's was destroyed by fire in 1067, and the present cathedral was begun by Lanfranc in 1070. The other foundation of Augustine was the monastery of St. Peter and St. Paul, the patron saints of Borne. This, the modern St. Augustine's, was built outside the walls of Canterbury. It would seem that Augustine wished to keep separate his episcopal seat and the seat of the monastic system on which his missionary work was founded. Augustine does not seem to have been a man of great energy or decision. The traditions of his monastic training had sunk deeply into his mind. He was beset by small difficulties of organisation, and referred to the pope for instructions. His inquiries of the pope and Gregory's answers (Bede, H. E. i. 27) present the picture of a painstaking official, who had great trouble in adapting his former principles to the altered circumstances in which he was placed.

Augustine would have rested content with the conversion of the Kentish kingdom; but Gregory I had greater schemes. In 601 he sent Augustine the pallium, together with a supply of sacred vessels, vestments, relics, and books. He unfolded a complete plan for the ecclesiastical organisation of England. Augustine was to be bishop of London and head of the southern province, and was to have under him twelve suffragans. He was, as soon as possible, to send a bishop to York, who should likewise appoint twelve suffragans, and was to be of equal dignity with the bishop of London. With these letters Gregory I sent a new body of missionaries, and a series of instructions to Augustine which are marked with extreme sympathy for missionary difficulties (Bede, H. E. i. 30). At the same time he urged Ethelbert to use his influence in spreading Christianity amongst the other English kingdoms.

Ethelbert and Augustine both considered that the best mode for the spread of Christianity in England was to unite the Kentish church with the church that still existed in the west of Britain. Aided by Ethelbert, Augustine crossed the territory of the West Saxons to the borders of the Hwiccas, and summoned the Welsh clergy to a conference at a place called, in Bede's time, Augustine's Oak, which is generally identified with Aust on the Severn (Bede, H. E. ii. 2). The Welsh church differed from Roman usage in the date of the celebration of Easter, the ritual used at baptism, and a few other points, of detail. The first discussion led to no agreement; even a miracle wrought by Augustine failed to convince the obstinate Britons. Before coming to a second conference they agreed to be guided by a sign as to the acceptance of Augustine's teaching. If he rose to greet them, they would listen to him with humility ; if he remained seated, they would regard it as an indication of haughtiness, and would refuse to be led by him. When they arrived Augustine did not rise. True to their intention, they refused to listen to him. The conference broke up with a solemn warning from Augustine that they who would not join with brethren should fall before enemies, that those who would not preach life to the English should suffer death at their hands.

After the failure of this attempt at union with the Welsh, Augustine moved Ethelbert to allow him to extend his missionary enterprises. In 604 he sent Justus, as bishop of Rochester, over the Kentish kingdom, west of the Medway, and Mellitus to preach to the East Saxons. Mellitus was so successful in converting king Sabert and his people that Ethelbert built the church of St. Paul. The organisation of the missions of Mellitus and Justus seems to have been the last act of Augustine. He died on 26 May 604 (Wharton, Anglia Sacra).

Nothing that we know of Augustine leads us to rank him as a remarkable man. Bede tells many traits of Aidan and Cuthberht which fill us with respect for their character. In the case of Augustine he only mentions the miracles whereby he established his prestige. Augustine's questions to Pope Gregory I show a small mind busied about trifles. Even the point by which the Welsh clergy judged his character shows a decided want of tact and conciliatory power. Augustine succeeded in the conversion of Kent, because everything was prepared to assure his success. He was a zealous monk, and the exhibition of monastic life was effective amongst the English. The greatest credit to Augustine is that Gregory I chose him for his work, and that he diligently carried out Gregory's directions and sought his advice. We cannot rank him higher than a capable official of the Roman church.

[The authority for Augustine is Bede's Historia Ecclesiastica, bk. i. ch. 23-bk. ii. ch. 3. Bede incorporates the letters of Pope Gregory, which may also be found in Gregorii Epistolæ, Op. ii. The Acta Sanctorum, 26 May, contains a Life of Augustine by Gocelin, an Augustinian monk (circa 1090), which adds little to Bede. Of modern writers, Bright, Early Church History; and Green, The Making of England.]

M. C.