Medieval Church and Life 1– Early Medieval Conversion, Rome

Before moving on to explore the post Reformation celebration of St Blaise’s Day, it is worth exploring the development and role of the Church, its Saints and Pilgrimage, in Medieval life. This will allow a better understanding of the impact of the Reformation on society and provide opportunities to explore how wool workers might have developed new traditions to fill the gaps left by the loss of a structure and traditions over 500 years old at that time, with whole ways of life vanishing overnight.

We start by examining the conversion of the Pagan Anglo-Saxons by the Roman and Celtic Churches, a process that spanned the best part of a century and created a significant amount of religious flux, best demonstrated by the Franks Casket, which shows a mixture of the Norse, Germanic and Christian beliefs of the time.

The Franks Casket – Shows a mixture of Norse, Germanic and Christian images, indicating a world of shifting beliefs

Why Christianity?

Roman Britannia became, like the rest of the Empire, Christian, when Constantine converted in 4th Century. However after the withdrawal of Roman rule in the late 4th / early 5th centuries and the incursions of the Anglo-Saxons, the fledgling church was pushed to the fringes of society, both physically and spiritually (BBC 2011). Christian enclaves did remain in Wales, Cornwall and St Albans ands through the migration of Christian leaders like St Patrick, Ireland becomes Christian; yet no attempt was made to Christianise the Pagan invaders. Hence new territories formed under these new overlords, reverted to Paganism, reviving and adding to the pantheon of the old Gods. By the 6th Century however, Christian missionaries, both from the native “Celtic” church and Rome started to be welcomed by Kings.

Benefits of Adopting Christianity to the Anglo-Saxon Elite

A Saxon Ship – Used for Trading with the Franks

Trade: During the period when the Anglo-Saxons colonised England, Roman Christianity was flourishing in mainland Europe, yet dwindling to almost nothing in the majority of the English Kingdoms. The Christian Kings of the Franks, were suspicious of their compatriots across the English Channel, having little respect for heathens who clung to outmoded beliefs. The conversion of Aethelberht of Kent, who was also head of the 7 Saxon Kingdoms, opened up trade routes, which the other major coastal kingdoms of Sussex and Wessex also wanted to exploit. However the lack of a shared belief system to made it difficult to build trust and relationships, especially as deals were often confirmed by the swearing of oaths. The Anglo-Saxon merchants throughout England were shrewd and hence appreciated that worshipping the same Gods, brought them respect and enhanced opportunities for trade, thus Christianity helped the economy to prosper (Martz 2011).

War: When Christian Kings won battles over Pagan rivals, they were able to claim their victory was God given. For example King Oswald set up a cross and encouraged his greatly outnumbered men to pray and be baptised, before a crucial battle with the Pagan King Cadwallan; Oswald won and became in effect the High King of the seven Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms. He followed this great victory by requesting that the monks of Iona, sent a priest to help consolidate the conversion of his people, who had seen that “The God” was more powerful than “The Gods” and would show them more favour in battle (Keifer 1999). During this time, Priests became part of the Royal entourage, their role to fight spiritually, through prayer and worship, whilst their King and his men fought their physical battles.

ull-page miniature of St Dunstan at work, from Smaragdus of St Mihiel’s Expositio in Reglam S Benedicti, England (Canterbury), c. 1170 – c. 1180, Royal MS 10 A XIII, f. 2v – See more at:

Law: As the church and state became increasingly allied, Kings were able to exploit the ability of clerics to read and write, the burghal hideages, are an early example of law making and set out the size and number of inhabitants of towns, within the Seven Kingdoms (Bibbs 1999). Writing also allowed Kings to communicate more easily and forge alliances. As a result of these many benefits learning was encouraged amongst their subjects. Alfred the Great, in writing the preface to the Doom Book – book of judgement, set out the links between the Laws of God, and the laws of man. His intention was to create a uniform law code across his dominions comprised of a blend of Mosaic law, The Sermon on the Mount, The Ten Commandments and other biblical principles with the best of the laws of his ancestors, that ensured safety and justice for all (The Reformation Society 2015). This law code was only made possible by the partnership of Church and State, as without monks to copy his laws and distribute them and run schools, they would have proved inaccessible to the majority of his subjects. Written laws could also be maintained after the death of their originators and offer stability during the transfer of power.



 As trading links developed with both mainland Europe and other Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms, Kings started to take wives from outside of their territories and those of their immediate neighbours. Some of these Queens, such as Bertha of Kent or Athelberht of Northumbria, brought their own priests with them and their Kings swore to allow them to practice their religion, as part of marriage contracts (. In both cases their husbands later converted to Christianity, with Ethelbert of Kent, welcoming Augustine’s original mission in 596. The forty men originally lived apart on an Island but overtime and with discussion won Athelberht’s trust and he granted Augustine permission to dwell in Canterbury and preach to the towns people. Impressed with the piety of these monks and one hopes, his Queen, Athelberht later converted and gave Augustine permission to spread his mission throughout the Kingdom of Kent (Gascoine from 2001).

The Miraculous 

Many of England’s early Saints are reported to have worked miracles or used positive outcomes of potentially disastrous situations to demonstrate that the power of their God exceeded that of the Anglo-Saxon pantheon. Athelberht was said to have been impressed by the miracles of Augustine and his mission. But Edwin, King of Northumbria, had a personal experience of the miraculous, escaping death at the hand of an assassin, very soon after becoming a father. Paulinus, his wife’s Christian bishop, advantageously used the episode to demonstrate the power of prayer:

“The king returned thanks to his gods for his preservation; but Paulinus told the king it was the effect of the prayers of his queen, and exhorted him to thank the true God for His merciful protection of his person, and for her safe delivery. The king seemed pleased with his discourse, and was prevailed upon to consent that his daughter that was just born should be consecrated to God.” (Butler, 1711-13).

Apostolic Way of Life

Bede claims in his History that the Pagans were drawn to the simple, faithful way of life of the Augustinian Missionaries. He describes this thus:

“As soon as they entered the dwelling place assigned them, they began to imitate the course of life practiced in the primitive church : applying themselves to frequent prayer, watching, and fasting; preaching the word of life to as many as they could; despising all worldly things, as not belonging to them; receiving only their necessary food from those they taught; living in all respects conformably to what -they prescribed to others, and being always disposed to suffer any adversity, and even to die for that truth which they preached. In short, several believed and were baptized, admiring the simplicity of their innocent life and the sweetness of their heavenly doctrine.” (Robinson 1905)

The Promise of An Afterlife

Anglo Saxon Rood, Romsey Abbey, Hants

The Anglo-Saxon polytheist culture, did not provide its followers with the hope of an afterlife. Bede relates the following story, of the conversion of King Edwin of Northumbria, who had a Christian Queen, and his followers. Edwin held a conference that included both Christian and Pagan priests and believers, in order to obtain counsel from his nobles, prior to agreeing to be baptisted by Paulinus, his wife’s Bishop. Bede possibly uses this account to stress the value of being Christian – that this earthly life is not the end and that death is a new beginning. The debate was opened by Coifi, the Pagan High Priest who stated that the religion he promoted seemed to show little return for virtue and constancy, he was followed by one of Edwin’s nobles who is reported to have said:


“The present life man, O king, seems to me, in comparison with that time which is unknown to us, like to the swift flight of a sparrow through the room wherein you sit at supper in winter amid your officers and ministers, with a good fire in the midst whilst the storms of rain and snow prevail abroad; the sparrow, I say, flying in at one door and immediately another, whilst he is within is safe from the wintry but after a short space of fair weather he immediately vanishes out of your sight into the dark winter from which he has emerged. So this life of man appears for a short space but of what went before or what is to follow we are ignorant. If, therefore, this new doctrine contains something more certain, it seems justly to deserve to be followed”(Robinson 1905).

After requesting more information from Paulinus, Coifi himself destroyed the Pagan temple. Edwin gave Paulinus permission to preach the gospel, convert and baptise his subjects. According to Butler’s Life of The Saints (1711 -13), Edwin’s baptism in 627 in a newly founded Church, lead to Paulinus creating York as his episcopal See, which still forms one of the 2 Archbishoprics of England, with Canterbury, the home of Augustine’s original Church (Robinson)

A Flexible Approach

The process of conversion was also aided by Pope Gregory’s flexible approach to developing a Church that met its potential congregation in the middle. He encouraged his early missionaries, Augustine and Mellitus, to adapt Pagan practices as opposed to the destruction of shrines and Temples and banning of festivals seen in mainland Europe. Gregory’s policy was based on the premise that “all roads leading to Rome” (Chaney 1960). Therefore the early Saxon churches were built on existing sacred sites and festivals were adapted to the closest Christian alternatives, Yule became Christmas and Oestra, Easter. Magical rituals were adapted to become rituals of the Church, and animal sacrifice was discontinued; possibly replaced by Holy Communion, the memorial of the ultimate sacrifice, that did not require physical repetition.

References and Bibliography

BBC (2011) Christianity in Britain [online] Accessed 1/12/2015

Bibbs H (1999) The Faith of the English Kings [online] Accessed 2/12/2015

Bradley I (1999) Celtic Christianity, Making Myths and Chasing Dreams Edinburgh University Press, (Edinburgh)

Butler A Rev. (1711 -13) The Lives of the Saints, Vol X: October 1886 [online] Accessed 2/12/2015

Chaney, WA (1960) Paganism to Christianity in Anglo-Saxon England The Harvard Theological Review Vol. 53, No. 3 (Jul., 1960), pp. 197-217 [online] Accessed 2/12/2015

Gascoigne, B. “History of The Papacy” HistoryWorld. From 2001, ongoing. [Online]

Accessed 1/12/2015

Kiefer JE (1999) Oswald, King of Northumbria, Martyr, August 5 642 [online] Accessed 1/12/2015

Martz T (2011) The Adoption of Christianity by the Irish and the Anglo-Saxons: The Creation of Two Different Christian Societies. Colonial Academic Alliance Undergraduate Research Journal Vol 2 (11-11-2001) [online] Accessed: 2/12/2015

Robinson,JH (1905) Readings in European History. Ginn, Boston IN Halsall P (1996) Medieval Source Book: Bede: Conversion of England [online] Accessed 2/12/2015

The Reformation Society (2015) King Alfred the Great, The Reformer King [online] Accessed 2/12/15

Medieval Church and Life 1– Early Medieval Conversion, Rome