Born in the first third of the sixth century, Augustine, the prior of the pope’s own monastery on the Caelian Hill in Rome, was sent by Pope Gregory the Great at the head of a small band of Benedictine monks as missionaries to the English people. Arriving on the shores of England in 597, they were welcomed at Thanet by the pagan Kentish king, Ethelbert, and his Christian Frankish wife, Bertha, and the king granted them a dwelling in his capital city of Canterbury. In his Ecclesiastical History of the English People, the Venerable Bede writes that as the monks approached the city, bearing before them a silver cross and an icon, “the likeness of our Lord and Savior painted on a board”, they sang this prayer:
We pray Thee, O Lord, in all Thy mercy, that Thy wrath and anger may be turned away from this city and from Thy holy house, for we are sinners. Alleluia.
Once in Canterbury, Bede tells us that the monks “began to emulate the life of the Apostles and the primitive Church.” He writes,
They were constantly at prayer; they fasted and kept vigils; they preached the word of life to whomsoever they could…They practiced what they preached, and were willing to endure any hardship, and even to die for the truth which they proclaimed.
Their mission to the Kentish people met with great success. Conversions followed rapidly – so rapidly, in fact, that extant sources tell us that Augustine and his monks were hard-pressed to keep pace. In a letter to Eulogius, the Patriarch of Alexandria, Pope Gregory wrote that on Christmas Day of 597, over ten thousand converts were baptized in and around Canterbury. (Even allowing for some exaggeration, this indicates that large numbers of the Kentish people became Christians through the Augustinian mission.) Around 601, Ethelbert, who had remained friendly to Augustine and his monks and sympathetic to the Gospel from the beginning of the mission, was converted to faith in Christ and was baptized, becoming the first Christian king in England.
When, at Ethelbert’s invitation, Augustine and his monks took up residence in Canterbury they assembled to worship, to celebrate the Eucharist, to preach, to pray and to baptize in an old church in the city, built perhaps two centuries before and dedicated to Saint Martin of Tours. This old church, which was probably already in use by Liudhard, Queen Bertha’s chaplain (it was perhaps he who had dedicated the church to Saint Martin), stood as a reminder of an earlier Christian presence in Britain, a presence that predated the invasions of the Angles, Saxons and Jutes in the fifth and sixth centuries and went back to the days of Roman Britain.
Augustine established Canterbury as his episcopal see, but it is not clear form the extant evidence when he was consecrated to the episcopate. Writing about a century later, Bede states that Augustine was consecrated by the Etherius, the archbishop of Arles, in Frankish Gaul, after the conversion of Ethelbert. However, contemporary letters from Gregory the Great refer to Augustine as a bishop prior to his arrival in England, one of these letters referring to Augustine consecration as having occurred before leaving Gaul for England.
With the king’s strong support, Augustine established episcopal sees at Rochester and at London, then the capital of the kingdom of the East Saxons (Essex) and under the overlordship of the Kentish king, thus establishing Canterbury as a metropolitan see, with jurisdiction over other episcopal sees, a jurisdiction that eventually extended to the whole of England, though Augustine’s own mission barely extended beyond Kent.
Before his death, Augustine consecrated Laurence as his successor. Augustine died on May 26, 605 and was buried in Canterbury, in the portico of what is now St Augustine’s Church. His body was later translated to the abbey church, which became a place of pilgrimage and veneration.
O Lord our God, by your Son Jesus Christ you called your apostles and sent them forth to preach the Gospel to the nations; We bless your holy Name for your servant Augustine, first Archbishop of Canterbury, whose labors in propagating your Church among the English people we commemorate today; and we pray that all whom you call and send may do your will, and bide your time, and see your glory; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
The icon of Saint Augustine of Canterbury is taken from Aidan Hart’s gallery of icons and is reproduced here with his generous permission.