From the start of the 7th century, the pagan kings of Anglo-Saxon England began a gradual, contested and frequently bloody process of conversion to Christianity. It’s easy to fall into old-fashioned ‘good-vs-evil’ narratives, which frequently rest on extremely dodgy assumptions: the reality was far more complex. The spiritual struggle of the conversion from paganism to Christianity in Anglo-Saxon England was a heady mixture of realpolitik and spiritual salvation that is utterly alien to our modern times.
A Timeline of Christianity in Anglo-Saxon England
There were Christians in Britain from the Roman period onwards. Druidism – the polytheistic civic religion of the pre-Roman Celts of Britain – was violently stamped out by the Romans, since its pan-tribal institutions were a threat to Roman dominance. Although the Roman state religion was nominally Christian in the later Roman Empire, most Romano-British probably practised a combination of traditional Roman polytheism, plus folk vestiges of old local gods. Three British bishops attended the Council of Arles in 314 CE, which implies a reasonably well-organised (if small) Christian following in England, and contemporary official persecutions of Christians seem to have been largely ignored by local Roman governors.
But following the withdrawal of Roman administration from the island in the 410s CE, Germanic peoples from modern-day Denmark and northern Germany – the Angles, Saxons and Jutes – rapidly invaded and colonized the fragmented post-Roman territory. The Anglo-Saxons brought their Germanic gods with them, establishing seven pagan kingdoms known as the Heptarchy.
The Gregorian Mission
Roman Catholic attempts to convert the Anglo-Saxons began with the mission of Pope Gregory I in 597 CE – although there was already a seepage of Christian theology across the Channel from the Frankish kingdom, for example with Saxon King Æthelbert of Kent taking a Christian Frankish wife and establishing a church at Canterbury. The Gregorian mission was highly successful – King Æthelbert agreed to convert, probably motivated by close ties to the Franks, and so did King Sæberht of Essex. But in both cases, their sons violently reversed their policy – in the case of Sæberht’s sons, they expelled the Bishop of London under threat of death.
The conversion of King Rædwald of East Anglia in 604 was more longlasting although it was not universally popular, even amongst his inner circle. The mixed pagan and Christian iconography in the spectacular Sutton Hoo burial is a major component of the theory that it is King Rædwald who is buried there.
The rest of the 7th century saw see-sawing between pagan and Christian dominance. In 635, Aidan, an Irish monk, became Bishop in Northumbria at the invite of King Oswald, and he established the famous monastery at Lindisfarne. The Venerable Bede marks the ‘official’ end of paganism in England at the Battle of the Winwaed, where the pagan King Penda of Mercia was decisively defeated by Oswiu of Northumbria – but there’s much evidence that Penda actually practised significant religious toleration amongst his people.
Regardless, struggles between Christian and pagan kings were gradually eclipsed by wrangling over power within the Church. For example, in King Offa of Mercia (who built the anti-Welsh rampart known as Offa’s Dyke) persuaded the Pope to invest a new Bishop within his lands at Lichfield. The Bishop, of course, was chosen by Offa, and it brought him much wealth and prestige. Christian monasteries were established through Anglo-Saxon England, centers of learning as well as worship, and literate church bureaucrats helped to produce the first systems of written law and property rights. By the dawn of the 9th century, the Church was stable and flourishing. But – wait, is that a Viking longship on the horizon…?
The End of the Dark Ages
The spread of Christianity across Anglo-Saxon England marks the end of the ‘Dark Ages’. Historians from the Victorian era used this controversial term to characterize pre-Christian England as an era of pagan viciousness and violence dominated by ‘barbarians’ (another loaded word) – a parenthesis between the glory of Rome and the heroic imperialism of the chivalrous Crusaders. This view was, of course, heavily colored by their contemporary search for historical antecedents in which to root the racist foundations of colonialism. Today, historians still use the concept of the ‘Dark Ages’, but altogether differently: to refer to the pre-literary European era characterized by fragmentary or incomplete written sources. This generally correlates (although not perfectly) with the spread of Christian theology: churchmen’s written texts are often key primary sources in the Early Medieval period.
However, the ‘end of the Dark Ages’ and the creation of historical texts were rarely the prime motivator of pagan kings’ conversion to Christianity in Anglo-Saxon England – they were a by-product of the spread of clerical literacy, which had far more worldly origins.
The Power of the Church
Throughout the Medieval period, the overwhelming majority of the population could neither read nor write. However, the spread of Christianity in Anglo-Saxon England saw the spread of clerical literacy: a small class of monks and religious bureaucrats who could read and write in Latin. This was for several reasons. Partly, it was because the Roman Catholic Church was a pan-continental organisation: before the Great Schism of 1054 CE which saw the split of the Eastern Orthodox Church with its own See in Byzantium, Rome was the center of theological power for all Christians. Its temporal power involved the investiture of bishops and clergy across the known world, and it was itself an enormous political entity with huge amounts of land and wealth. It could not have achieved this without the ability to communicate across great distances in writing.
During the transition from paganism to Christianity in Anglo-Saxon England, the forms of political patronage and organizational bureaucracy wielded by the Church were a significant draw for nobles mulling conversion: they opened up new ways to acquire the allegiance of their subjects and to exercise political power.