In 596, England’s network of small Anglo-Saxon kingdoms was universally pagan. A century later it was officially Christian. The conversion to Christianity, fronted by St. Augustine’s late sixth-century mission, was completely bloodless and apparently voluntary, in stark contrast with the forced conversion of the continental Saxons by Charlemagne. However, exactly how this conversion came about is, to a certain extent, shrouded in mystery. Our main source, Bede’s Ecclesiastical History, was written over a hundred years after the events he is describing and is undermined as reliable historical evidence by its didactic and propagandist nature.
Unfortunately, the missionaries that came to England did not write testimonies. However, we are able to look at the advice given to later continental missionaries such as Boniface. Through a combination of Bede’s writings, the continental experience, archaeological evidence and intelligent guesswork, it may be possible to build up some sort of a picture of why the Anglo-Saxon aristocracy were willing to accept Christianity. With any voluntary conversion, we would expect the main reason behind it to be the success of missionary persuasion.
Yet equally important is the willingness of the person who is being persuaded to be converted. As we shall see, openness to ‘new’ ideas can be perceived either as a prerequisite for successful conversion or as a result of intelligent persuasion techniques. It is necessary, therefore, to look both at what was said or implied by the missionaries and at why the Anglo-Saxon kings accepted their arguments. It is important to remember that the impetus behind St. Augustine’s mission which resulted in the first conversion (that of King Aethelbert of Kent) came from Rome.
The kings of England did not ask to be converted; rather it was decided by Pope Gregory that they should be. Thus before we consider the possible attractions of Christianity, we must examine the Church’s motives behind the conversion. Bede and other Christian writers would have us believe that they were entirely spiritual. This is not far from the truth: Christianity is a proselytising faith, the followers of which believe their religion to be eminently superior to all others.
However, Christianity in the early Middle Ages was also associated with the resurgence of Rome as an imperial power, albeit in barbarian hands. It was in Gregory’s interest to extend his Christian ’empire’ by renewing control of a former Roman province such as England. Having the support of powerful Christian kings was important both to the spread of Christianity (mass baptism would have been impossible without the backing of a king) and to the security and prosperity of the new Christian empire. 1 Missionaries too had material as well as spiritual incentives behind their work.
Augustine and others were given privileged, official status and the protection that came from operating under the aegis of a powerful patron (Gameson). The determination of the pope and individual missionaries to win the support of the Anglo-Saxon kings influenced how they put their message across. Both Gregory and his missionaries understood that their presentation of Christianity was crucial to its acceptance. The spiritual benefits from conversion would have to be explained alongside a subtle demonstration of the material benefits associated with conversion.
To put it bluntly, distilling the ‘true’ message of the gospels was not the sole task of the missionaries. Christianity had to be presented to the Anglo-Saxon aristocracy in a way specifically designed to appeal to them in order for them to accept it. What was important was that the Anglo-Saxon kings became nominally Christian and believed themselves to be Christian, not whether they were ‘true’ Christians. Hence the conversion process was to be gradual and its methods flexible. The spiritual arguments for conversion were based on the idea of rationality.
Bishop Daniel of Winchester (d. 745) writing to the Anglo-Saxon missionary Boniface (d. 754) listed various arguments the latter might use to convert pagan Germans. 2 Many were rational, in particular the logical fallacy of worshipping as gods beings who were born as humans. It is probable that missionaries wishing to convert the Anglo Saxons in the previous century will have used similar tactics. Bede tells us that Sigbert, King of Essex, was persuaded by Oswy of Northumbria that manmade idols could not possibly be gods as God was invisible and omnipresent. As Richter points out, this story is unreliable, but demonstrates the methods of persuasion that were used. An account by the Whitby Anonymous describes how Paulinus preaching to Edwin of Northumbria and his court used the shooting of a bird to demonstrate that idols were useless and could be destroyed without danger. This type of image-based persuasion would have been essential if we bear in mind that missionaries probably did not speak the same language as the people they were trying to convert; clearly, it could be just as powerful as oral persuasion.
As well as highlighting what was claimed to be the illogical nature of paganism, the missionaries may have emphasised the potential spiritual fulfilment that could be gained from converting to Christianity. Bede describes how one of Edwin’s followers compared earthly existence with the flight of a sparrow through a lighted hall and suggested that if Christianity could dispel some of the darkness before and after, it was worthy to be considered.
This is one situation where intelligent persuasion techniques come first; that is to say, in creating a need for adopting a new faith where there was not one before by causing people to doubt that the old faith successfully answered the most fundamental questions on existence. In addition to these theological arguments, Bede attributes the acceptance of Christianity to the fact that the Anglo-Saxons (in this case, Aethelbert) were impressed by both the pure lifestyle of the missionaries and the miracles that they performed.
The second reason, explains Gameson, is a great deal more plausible. He makes the point that the emissaries came from a more sophisticated and materially advanced culture and therefore may have been able to do things that seemed extraordinary by Anglo-Saxon standards. It is not difficult to imagine the Anglo-Saxons being impressed by the prestige and superior material culture of the missionaries- something that the missionaries themselves were well aware of. St. Augustine arrived bearing a silver plate and an icon of Christ on a wooden board.
Queen Etheburga (wife of Edwin) was sent a silver mirror and a comb ornamented with gold. Daniel of Winchester, perhaps drawing on the experience of the conversion of the Anglo-Saxons advised Boniface to get his audience to reflect on the circumstance that while ‘the Christians possess fertile lands, and provinces fruitful in wine and oil and abounding in other riches, they have left to them, the pagans that is, with their gods, lands always frozen with cold’. 4 David adds that Boniface must ‘bring before [the pagans] the might of the Christian world’.
Similar techniques are likely to have been used to convert the Anglo-Saxons, who, bordering Gaul would have been well aware of this might and probably were slightly envious of it. B. Yorke describes how Frankish culture was very fashionable in Kent in the late sixth and early seventh centuries, the kingdom being the first area to adopt the status symbols of the Frankish royal court such as gold and garnet jewellery or the crystal balls which women worse suspended from the waist.
Interestingly, she goes on to explain that other Anglo-Saxon kingdoms soon followed suit, citing the a rich female burial of the late sixth century from Chessell Down cemetery in the Isle of Wight, which includes a crystal ball and a brooch worn on the shoulder that had been imported from Gaul. Campbell mentions how pottery of a Frankish origin has even been found round the northern shores of the Irish sea. Anglo-Saxon kings must have been impressed by the wide influence of their Merovingian counterparts and may have associated the Frankish conversion Christianity (which brought with it links with Rome) with their domestic and foreign power.
The missionaries, too, may have realised that they could play on the Anglo-Saxon kings’ pride, lust for fame and desire to augment their own power. Pope Gregory compared King Aethelbert to Constantine in advising him to convert “for He whose honour you seek and maintain among the nations will also make your glorious name still more glorious even to posterity”. Christianity, we must remember, was not simply a religion: it was an entire package. With it came culture, stone buildings, and, perhaps most significantly, Latin and literacy.
Writing was associated with administration, in particular, codes of law. In these law codes, the king was deliberately connected with God. For example, Ine in his code of 688 styles himself “by the grace of God king of the West Saxons”. In Rome, the pope was becoming more imperial; perhaps the Anglo-Saxon kings hoped to follow in that mould. Higham goes so far as to assert that religious conversion was a deliberate and calculated tool designed to augment royal tradition.
Certainly, conversion to Christianity led to an increase in power (and wealth in the form of tax and monasteries- something that Bede is reluctant to mention) of the Bretwalda. Claims of divine right to rule, however, were nothing new. Before the arrival of Augustine, kings were already using Woden and other gods to underpin their authority, for instance, in alleging that they were descended from them (Yorke). Furthermore, there may have already been substantial royal involvement in ritual before conversion, something which Bede chooses to ignore, presenting paganism as something controlled almost entirely by priests.
However, as Yorke points out, the lack of archaeological evidence for temples and the fact that in pagan Sweden in the ninth century kings performed rituals in halls, indicate that Bede may have been mistaken. We have to admit that we know very little about Anglo-Saxon paganism. We also know next to nothing about whether there was any survival of Romano-British Christianity. A familiarity with Christianity from the survival of Romano-British Christianity could explain why the Anglo-Saxon aristocracy was so quick to accept conversion. There is some evidence for continuity.
For example, near Aylesford there is a settlement called Eccles (via British, from the Latin ecclesia) which indicates that a pocket of Christians survived there long enough for the name to have been adopted into German speech. Also, Aethelbert put at his new (Frankish Christian) wife, Bertha’s disposal a church built in Roman times near Canterbury. This suggests that there were people in Kent who could identify a Christian church in the late sixth century. Possibly it even indicates the presence of a Christian community at Canterbury.
Bertha is the first Frankish-Anglo-Saxon queen we know of (there may have been other before her) and highlights the importance of marriage in conversion. Bertha’s family insisted that Aethelbert let her practise her religion and bring with her a bishop, Liudhard. Edwin of Northumbria had been allowed to marry his wife, Ethelberga on the condition that he converted to Christianity (Paulinus, would-be missionary, arrived in her entourage). Having a Christian wife would have encouraged a king to be well-disposed towards Christianity.
Once converted, the hierarchical nature of Anglo-Saxon kingship (the concept of over-kings and subject-kings) meant that kings could also convert each other. For example, Aethelbert persuaded Sigbert of Essex to convert. Bearing in mind how the spread of Christianity in Kent corresponded with an increase in Aethelbert’s power (not to mention the floundering of Christianity on his death) we could say that the Christianisation of Anglo-Saxon England was advanced by kings wishing to assert hegemony over their neighbours.
The importance of feud to the Anglo-Saxons is also crucial in this respect. This king-on-king conversion was made possible by the fact that there was a lot of movement and communication between kingdoms. P. Wormald describes how the situation in Beowulf (where there are always messengers and guests moving between courts) probably reflects the situation in real life. Beowulf is also significant in that it shows a continuation of some pagan beliefs and practices (such as cremation and, more broadly, a heroic tradition) alongside Christian beliefs.
The Christianity that the missionaries introduced was of a deliberately flexible nature, which enabled the values and structure of Anglo-Saxon society to stay the same. Anglo-Saxon aristocrats continued to trace their lineage back to the pagan gods, while Raedwald apparently worshipped Christian and pagan gods in the same temple. An important example of assimilation is the alleged transformation of a pagan festival into Easter. Since assimilation is not inherent in Christianity in itself, the conversion of the Anglo-Saxon kings owes a great deal to how the religion was presented by the missionaries.
Above all, the Anglo-Saxon aristocracy converted not simply for spiritual reasons, as Bede (whose task, we must not forget was to compile a ‘catalogue of good examples’ for Christians of his own day) would want us to believe, but out of a desire to ‘keep up’ with the rest of Europe, and especially Gaul, a country they had become close to in many respects. In explaining why non-spiritual reasons for conversion was so significant, the experiences of converting the continental pagans (in particular the advice given to Boniface) prove invaluable.