Wednesday, 19 August 2009

Geoffrey Ashe: The Saints and the Kings

Geoffrey Ashe, Mythology of the British Isles (Methuen Publishing Ltd., 2002)

The English Inheritance: The Saints and the Kings [pp. 299-303]

Gregory, a Roman monastic founder, afterwards pope, was walking one day through the city’s slave market. He noticed some fair-haired, blue-eyed lads and asked what country they had come from. They were heathen Angles from Deira, the southerly portion of Northumbria. ‘Not Angles but angels,’ Gregory commented, ‘if they had the Faith.’ He planned a mission and even set out himself, but was prevented, first by a message from the Pope saying he was needed in Rome, later by his own election to the papacy.

As pope he dispatched a mission led by another monk, Augustine, which arrived in the island in 597. Augustine made his first contact with King Aethelbert of Kent, at that time Bretwalda. Aethelbert’s queen, Bertha, a Frankish Christian princess, had ensured that he would be granted a hearing. Aethelbert received the clergy in the open, because he feared that if he met them indoors they could use magic against him. With growing trust, however, the king housed them at Canterbury and finally adopted the new religion. While he made no attempt to impose it on his Kentish subjects, they gradually conformed. Augustine founded a Canterbury bishopric which was to become the Church’s headquarters in England. Progress, however, was slow and slight. Aethelbert arranged a conference with the Welsh bishops, but they had little interest in evangelising the old enemy, and Augustine’s attitude estranged them. They declined to cooperate in expanding his mission. Overtures to other kings by his aides and successors established only limited bridgeheads.

Many suppose that St Augustine converted England. Many even suppose that there were no Christians in this island before 597. The latter belief is manifestly false, and the former, though not manifestly so, is false none the less. Augustine’s only solid success was in Kent, and England’s Christianisation came from several sources, over nearly a hundred years.

The most promising extension from Kent, which happened in 625, was almost totally abortive. A priest from Canterbury, Paulinus, travelled north as chaplain to Aethelbert’s daughter, who was marrying the Northumbrian king Edwin, the fifth Bretwalda. After much wavering, Edwin summoned a council to debate a change in religion. He was persuaded when a councillor compared human life to the flight of a sparrow through firelight in a hall from darkness into darkness again - and urged the value of a doctrine that shone light into the obscurity before and after. But Edwin and his nobles had not been Christian very long when a Welsh invasion threw the north into anarchy. Edwin fell in battle, the queen and Paulinus fled, and hardly any of the neophyte Christians remained. The northern Angles’ true conversion was due to Celtic monks from Columba’s community, led by the humble and endearing St Aidan. They came at the invitation of King Oswald, who had taken refuge in Iona during the invasion, become a Christian there on the Celtic model, and returned to clear out the Welsh.

Oswald reigned at Bamburgh, formerly Din Guayrdi, perhaps the home of Lancelot. Once, when he and Aidan were at dinner, the king’s almoner reported that a number of his poor subjects were outside. Oswald handed the almoner a silver dish and told him to give them the food on it, and break up the dish itself so that each could have a fragment of silver. Aidan touched the king’s right hand and exclaimed, ‘May this hand never perish!’ and it never did; after his death it was enshrined in a silver casket and remained uncorrupted. Oswald died fighting Welsh and heathen Mercians in Shropshire, where Oswestry, Oswald’s Tree, commemorates a cross he set up. Miracles were worked by earth from the spot where he fell, and pilgrims carried so much away that they scooped out a pit. Oswald was revered as a saint in many places. He is the celestial patron of Zug in Switzerland.

The differences between Romans and Celts, notably over the fixing of Easter, came to a head in 663 at the Synod of Whitby. This was held at a religious community of Celtic type, with inmates of both sexes under an abbess, St Hilda. Oswald’s brother Oswy, who had followed him as king of Northumbria, presided. Wilfrid, abbot of Ripon and a strong advocate of Roman ways, appealed to the practice of the Church everywhere else, in conformity with the Pope, St Peter’s successor. As he put it, ‘The only people stupid enough to disagree are these Scots and their obstinate adherents the Picts and Britons, who inhabit only a portion of these two islands in the remote ocean.’ Colman, for the Celts, cited St Columba and others.

Arguments and precedents were tossed back and forth, till Wilfrid quoted Christ’s words to Peter, appointing him as the gatekeeper of heaven. Oswy turned to Colman: ‘Is it true that Our Lord said this to Peter?’ Colman acknowledged that it was. Oswy persisted: ‘Did he say anything like that to Columba?’ ‘No.’ ‘Then,’ said Oswy, with a smile of relief at having found a way to close the dispute, ‘I must rule in favour of Peter, or he may not let me in.’ So Rome won. Peripheral rumblings and mutterings lingered on, but the Church in England was henceforth united in its administration and practice, and governed from Canterbury.

Meanwhile, the slowly advancing West Saxons, themselves Christianised, had reached Glastonbury. The British monastery passed peaceably into their hands. It was the first institution in which the old and new people came together, with Christian continuity from ‘Arthurian’ times. Kings of Wessex made it a temple of reconciliation. After a while it attracted Irish scholars. The way was prepared for that fusion of traditions which gave the medieval Abbey its role in the formation of Arthurian legend.

Glastonbury’s first major patron was King Ine, a successor of Cerdic. In the ninth century it was a successor of Ine, Alfred the Great, who set England on course towards political unity, for which religious unity had laid the foundation. Alfred’s name, ‘Elf-rede’, hints at inspiration from good fairies. When he was crowned in Wessex, the other Anglo-Saxon kingdoms had been overrun by marauding Danes, and little remained of Wessex itself. It was told in later days how Danish victories reduced Alfred to a wandering resistance leader; how he refused to give up; how he spied out the camp of the Danish chief Guthrum disguised as a minstrel; how he took refuge in Athelney in the Somerset marshlands near Glastonbury; how, when deep in thought, he let a cottager’s fire burn some cakes which she had set him to watch, not knowing who he was; how the Virgin Mary appeared to him with words of encouragement; how he raised a final army, routed Guthrum at Ethandune, and forced him to retreat; how he commemorated the struggle by having a White Horse cut, or even two; how he recovered southern England and founded a navy. Let it be added that because he kept Wessex in being when the rest of the kingdoms were effaced from the map, his heirs were able to extend their domain with no rivals, and to become sovereigns of a united England, destined, for better or worse, to draw the Welsh and Scots into a united Britain.


What may be called the ‘St Augustine delusion’ is the last of the modern myths requiring notice, and one of the stubbornest. In its crude form it really does assert that there were no Christians in Britain till 597, and then Augustine arrived, and converted all of the population that mattered. The crudity is sometimes toned down, but much of the delusion persists. An ironic feature is its stark contradiction of the other myth about Britain’s early Christianity, that a separate and admirable Celtic Church flourished over most of the British Isles, till intrusive ‘Romans’, who had never had any jurisdiction before, enslaved and perverted it.

Neither account is anywhere near to being true. Augustine’s Kent was at one pole of the conversion process, Aidan’s Northumbria at the other, and the rest of the kingdoms were subjected to various influences over a long period, some from Kent itself and the continent, some from the north, some from Ireland. The Historia Brittonum claims that despite the Welsh bishops’ holding back, a Cymric northerner named Rhun, a son of Urien, played a leading role in the first Northumbrian mission and officiated in some way at the baptism of Edwin.

Anglo-Celtic Christianity had much to be said of it, and the uniformity following Whitby brought both gain and loss. Thanks largely to the redoubtable Wilfrid, rapid advances were made in art and architecture. The appointment in 669 of a learned Greek, Theodore of Tarsus, as Archbishop of Canterbury, helped to give the Church a firm structure and intellectual force. In the early eighth century, Bede of Jarrow was easily the foremost scholar in Europe. But the freer, more imaginative Celtic spirit lost ground. The prevalence of the continental outlook, with its fierce rejection of the old gods and all that went with them, may be part of the reason why the Anglo-Saxons fell so far short of Celtic achievement in the creation of mythology.

Alfred the Great was genuinely extraordinary. Besides his dogged resistance to the Danes, and final triumph at Ethandune (probably Edington near Westbury, where the horse is), he gave the crown of the West Saxons a new kind of lustre, and impressed himself on history as a personality. When at peace, he lived in a modest-sized manor at Cheddar, not only hawking and hunting but acquiring enough expertise in both pursuits to give advice to his falconers and kennelmen. He collected Anglo-Saxon poems and songs, welcomed travellers, and listened to their reports of distant countries. To promote his subjects’ education he founded a school for the sons of nobles (sending his own to it) and brought foreign scholars to his court, including a Welshman, Asser, who became his biographer. Part of his programme was to inform the people about their own past, and to this end he sponsored a compilation of traditions which was the first version of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. He learned Latin, and presided over the translation of important books into ‘the language which we can all understand’ - an obvious thing to do, yet nobody had done it, and it was many years before anything comparable was done abroad.

He issued a code of laws drawn from the best of Kent and Mercia, as well as Wessex. Those he added himself were humane, limiting the custom of blood-feud, for instance. It will be remembered that according to Geoffrey of Monmouth, he copied laws from the ancient Britons; not so, but proof of the prestige which his code still possessed in Geoffrey’s time. That had been shown already by its adoption or imitation in other parts of England and Wales. To plan his work he invented a kind of clock, a graduated candle inside a transparent casing, which admitted air but kept out draughts so that the candle burned at a regular rate.

Several Welsh princes placed themselves under Alfred’s protection or became allies. Thanks to the Danes’ extinction of the other kingdoms, and their own waning, his son and daughter established their rule in Mercia, and his grandson Athelstan took over Northumbria. Athelstan routed a coalition of Scots, Irish and Norse, and was uncontested sovereign of the whole of England.

Alfred deserved the honour of a national epic, yet no one composed it. As a hero of legend Arthur leaves him so far behind that there is no comparison. The few Alfred legends, such as the anecdote of the cakes - probably bannocks - and his acceptance of the housewife’s rebuke, suggest that he was recalled as not only ‘great’, but human, good-natured and free from pride. Still, he had to wait a long time for a poetic celebration with any value. It came at last in G. K Chesterton’s Ballad of the White Horse, which conserves popular fiction about the Uffington horse being Alfred’s, by acutely postulating a pre-Alfred original which he restored. The Ballad is a perceptive and colourful mini-epic, with passages as fine as any poetry in English inspired by Arthur. Alfred’s companions in the poem rightly include representatives of Celtic and Roman traditions as well as Anglo-Saxon.

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