St. Augustine of Canterbury

The Roman monk St. Augustine of Canterbury (died ca. 606) is known as the Apostle of England. He brought Christianity to England in the 6th century and became the first archbishop of Canterbury.

Gregory the Great, before he became pope, had seen in a slave market in Rome some young boys captured from the Angle tribe. He was said to have been so impressed by their light complexion and fair hair that he remarked, "These are not Angles, these are angels." When Gregory became pope, his desire to convert the Angles to Christianity led him to commission a group of monks to take the gospel message to England. To lead the mission, Gregory chose a man for whom he had gained respect when they shared a cell in the monastery of St. Andrew in Rome, a monk named Augustine.

Until this time Augustine had followed the quiet and disciplined monastic life of work, prayer, and study of Scriptures. Out of a sense of duty he responded to Pope Gregory's directive and left the peace of the monastery with a contingent of 20 monks. They landed in the southeastern corner of England in 597.

King Ethelbert of Kent received the monks with some curiosity but, suspicious that Augustine might possess magical powers, insisted on meeting them outdoors, where he would not be as vulnerable. The King was impressed by Augustine's courage and straightforwardness. Within a year, at Christmas of 597, Ethelbert agreed to accept baptism and became a Christian himself. Ten thousand of his people followed his example, giving Augustine a base out of which to operate.

Augustine continued to receive help from Rome, and more monks came to preach under his direction. Pope Gregory sent relics, vestments, books, and answers to Augustine's questions. After being appointed bishop over all of England in 601, Augustine tried to coordinate his activities with the Christian groups among the Celts and the Britons. On the Pope's advice Augustine did not destroy pagan temples but used them as churches once the idols had been removed and the buildings purified with holy water. King Ethelbert built Augustine a monastery and encouraged the missionary to make his headquarters at Canterbury in Kent rather than London in Essex, as Pope Gregory had suggested.

Augustine met with relatively little immediate success in his relations with the other Christian groups in England, who wanted to remain independent of Kent and were not happy that the Pope had sent a Roman to supervise their activities. But the seed he planted in southeastern England was to grow throughout the entire British Isles, involving them inextricably in the course of European Christianity. Augustine died sometime between 604 and 609.


Further Reading on St. Augustine of Canterbury

Cardinal Gasquet, The Mission of Saint Augustine (1924), is a thorough study of Augustine's work in England. Also a full-length study is Sir Henry H. Howorth, Saint Augustine of Canterbury (1913).