The Saxon Cathedral at Canterbury and The Saxon Saints Buried Therein/Introduction
AS it is impossible to fix with precision the beginning of Christianity in Britain, so it is impossible to fix the date of the earliest buildings in which that religion was practised. We are certain, however, that Christianity had made considerable progress in the country before the time of Constantine the Great (306–337). This Emperor by the celebrated Edict of Milan (A.D. 313) granted to all Christians the same liberty to live according to their own laws and regulations as that possessed by the older religions.
At this time Britain was a Roman province. The unsuccessful expeditions of Julius Caesar undertaken between fifty-five and fifty years before Christ were followed after an interval of nearly one hundred years by a further invasion under Claudius Caesar, A.D. 43. Thereafter, for nearly forty years incessant warfare took place between the legions of Rome and the Britons. At the termination of that time nearly the whole area of what we now call England, Wales and the southern part of Scotland became subject to Rome; being governed by Romans; occupied by a Roman army, by no means consisting of Italian Romans; colonized by Roman citizens and visited by Roman Emperors. This Roman civilization founded cities; built temples, palaces; villas, and baths; constructed roads and aqueducts; Britain became as highly civilized as almost any other part of the Roman Empire.
Christianity had reached Britain by way of France (then called Transalpine Gaul) before the conclusion of the second or soon after the beginning of the third century. No churches are recorded to have existed in France before the second century; we may therefore conclude that none existed in Britain until some time later, but whatever may have been the case, in the terrible persecution of Diocletian at the beginning of the fourth century all the conventicula or churches were destroyed, and it was not until a few years later, viz. after the promulgation of the Edict of Milan (A.D. 313) that churches were again publicly erected and used. In all probability these buildings were of wood, hence their total disappearance; but a few apparently were built of stone; or were heathen temples converted to Christian worship, such as the western portion of the chancel of the church at Stone, near Faversham.
Of the more substantially built churches in the south we have two notable examples, those of Calleva (Silchester) and Durovernum (Canterbury); but there were doubtless others, as in A.D. 597 King Ethelbert on his conversion gave permission to St. Austin to "build and repair" the churches throughout the land, implying that they existed but were in ruins.
From A.D. 313 for about one hundred years the Church in Britain flourished, and extended to Ireland and Scotland; the seed being planted in the former by St. Patrick, a Scot, but educated by St. Martin, Bishop of Tours and consecrated by Amator, Bishop of Auxerre; and in the latter by St. Ninian, a British Christian, trained in Rome, who, when consecrated Bishop, established himself at Whithorn on the Solway, where he built a church of stone instead of wood, as was "customary amongst the Britons," which he dedicated to St. Martin. At the end of one hundred years, namely in A.D. 410, the Roman army was recalled from Britain, and then began incursions by Picts and Scots from the north, and Saxons, Angles and Jutes from overseas; culminating in 457 in the conquest of Kent by Hengist, and by the end of another 150 years in the country being divided unequally into east and west. In the former were the pagan Angles, Saxons and Jutes, and in the latter the remnants of the British Church, cut off by a barrier of heathendom from Western civilization for the space of 150 years.
It is not surprising, therefore, to find after the invasions of these barbarians, "sea-wolves that live on the pillage of the world" as a contemporary Roman poet sang, that the wooden churches were burnt; and that of those few which happened to be of stone merely the shell or foundation was left, as at Canterbury and Silchester.