One of the second group of monks sent to England by Pope Gregory the Great in 601, Paulinus became the first bishop of York through a favorable political opening. Edwin, the king of Northumbria, of which kingdom York (Roman Eboracum, then British Ebrauc) was the chief city, sent a request to Eadbald the king of Kent, to marry his sister Ethelburga. Eadbald’s first answer was that a Christian woman could not be given in marriage to a pagan husband. But when Edwin answered that Ethelburga and her entire household should have complete freedom of conscience, and that he might even become a Christian himself, consent was given to the marriage. Paulinus was consecrated a bishop by Archbishop Justus on the 1st of July, 625, and traveled north with Ethelburga and her household as her chaplain, with the hope that the conversion of the Northumbrian people to the Gospel would soon follow.
The first baptisms were of Edwin and Ethelburga’s infant daughter and twelve others of the royal household on the feast of Pentecost in the following year. After papal epistolary pleadings with both the king and his queen to influence her husband, Edwin himself converted to the Christian faith after a vision during a period of exile from his kingdom. Having called together a council of the chief nobles of his kingdom in 627, Edwin was counseled by the pagan high priest, Coifi, to give careful consideration to the new teaching, frankly admitting that, “in my experience, the religion that we have hitherto professed seems valueless and powerless”. He further counseled the king that, “if on examination you perceive that these new teachings are better and more effectual, let us not hesitate to accept them.” The other councilors gave similar advice. Edwin then granted Paulinus permission to preach, renounced idolatry, and professed his acceptance of the faith of Christ. On Easter Day, the 12th of April, 627, the king was baptized in the timber Church of Saint Peter the Apostle in York. The king’s baptism was preceded by Coifi’s desecration of the pagan shrines where once he had presided as high priest and followed by the baptisms of many of his nobility “and a large number of humbler folk” (Bede, Ecclesiastical History). Paulinus, with the assistance of his deacon, James, administered these baptisms in various places in what would become Yorkshire and Lincolnshire. For the next six years, Paulinus preached throughout the kingdom of Northumbria.
Paulinus’ ministry in Northumbria was cut short by the death of Edwin in battle with the pagan king Penda of Mercia and his Christian ally, Cadwallon of Gwynedd, in the year 633. Ethelburga returned to Kent, and Paulinus, thinking that there was no future for Christianity in Northumbria without the king, returned south with her. He was appointed Bishop of Rochester, where he served for the rest of his life.
With the later succession of Edwin’s nephew, Oswald, to the rulership of Northumbria, Christian missions returned to that northern kingdom with the coming of Aidan and his monks from Iona, where Oswald had been converted to the Christian faith and educated in exile during Edwin’s reign. What seed was planted by Paulinus’ Romano-Kentish mission to Northumbria was saved and brought to full flower by the Irish mission.
In his Ecclesiastical History, the Venerable Bede gives a report of Paulinus’ appearance which had been told to him by an abbot who heard the description from an elderly man who had been baptized, many years before, by the saint: “a tall man having a slight stoop, with black hair, an ascetic face, a thin hooked nose, and a venerable and awe-inspiring presence”.
Paulinus died on the 10th of October, 644. The day has been observed as his feast in northern England and in English monasteries from shortly after his death.
prepared from The Oxford Dictionary of Saints
and Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People
God our Saviour, who sent Paulinus to preach and baptize, and so to build up your Church in England: Grant that, inspired by his example, we may tell all the world of your truth, that with him we may receive the reward you prepare for all your faithful servants; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
The icon of Saint Paulinus of York (and Rochester) is taken from the website of the Angelus Workshop.
The sparrow appears in the icon in recollection of a parable or simile in Bede’s Ecclesiastical History. Bede puts the parable in the mouth of one of Edwin’s councilors, though it has also been attributed to Paulinus himself (perhaps the councilor had heard the parable from Paulinus).
“When we compare the present life of man on earth with that time of which we have no knowledge, it seems to me like the swift flight of a single sparrow thorugh the banqueting-hall where you are sitting at dinner on a winter’s day with your thegns and counsellors. In the midst there is a comforting fire to warm the hall; outside, the storms of winter rain or snow are raging. This sparrow flies swiftly in through one door of the hall, and out through another. While he is inside, he is safe form the winter storms; but after a few moments of comfort, he vanishes from sight into the wintry world from which he came. Even so, man appears on earth for a little while; but of what went before this life or of what follows, we know nothing. Therefore, if this new teaching has brought any more certain knowledge, it seems only right that we should follow it.”