The Roots Of Heritage
by Mary Essberger


Generally speaking, the idea has spread around that English history begins with ‘1066 and All That’. Upon reflection most people will indeed recall various events which eventually they admit must have happened before the Normans arrived in this country; incidents such as King Canute’s vain commands to the unheeding tide, King Alfred’s absent-minded burning of the cakes, his incursions into the Danish camp disguised as a minstrel, and the famous battle of Ethandune. Further consideration will perhaps evoke vague memories of the Roman legions who once marched the roads of Britain from South to North, or of the building of Hadrian’s Wall and other architectural features which the findings of archaeologists have forced us to acknowledge in these later days. Memories may also surface of a British queen called, variously, Boadicaea, Boudicc, Budicca, Vudig, etc and of one Caractacus (Caratacus, Caradoc, Carodoc, Caradog), King of the Silures, and of his famous speech before the Emperor Claudius, which earned him and his family a ten-year ‘free exile’ in Rome in place of execution. Some dim recollections may ultimately be unearthed of the great Julius Caesar having come to these shores long before the birth of Christ set the date-lines for Western history.

Since the average school curriculum over the last half-century has tended, somewhat arbitrarily, to begin with the Norman Conquest, over one thousand years of our history has been virtually lost to us, even though a considerable amount is actually recorded by our own early historians and by those of other nations. One thousand years is a long time in a history which has not yet reached the year 2000. It is, in fact, rather more than half our history!

When we try to study the history of Christianity in this country, we come up against a similar, unfortunate sort of void. In the minds of all too many people, clergy as well as laity, it is firmly implanted that Christianity came to these shores in AD 596/7, when Gregory I sent Augustine to evangelise the Angles. The term ‘Angles’ should in itself convey a warning to us, as it should have done to the Italian missioner himself, since the Angles were the ruthless pagan invaders who had been seeking to settle in the south-eastern parts of the island during the previous two centuries.

Quite apart from the evangelization of the fair-skinned, heathen Angles, part of Gregory’s intention had been to regain contact with the isolated Christians of the British Church, and to bring them once more into a closer unity with the mainstream body of the Universal Church of Rome.

By some almost unbelievable oversight, the monk Augustine seems to have had very little knowledge or appreciation of the history of the Church in Britain. A cultured and scholarly man as regards theology, Augustine was first and foremost a Roman, with a deep underlying political sense of the essential pre-eminence of his Church and of his own native country. He seems to have felt he was being torn from more attractive work in his beloved homeland to be sent to this small, cold, grey island, in order to convert rather repellent heathens and bring them all within the fold of Rome. That appears to have been the sum total of his appreciation of the situation. Of human psychology he would seen to have had little understanding, and of the practice of the gentler Christian virtues he showed even less. Marked up against I Corinthians 13 his score is remarkably low.

But to the Kentish King, Ethelbert, Augustine appeared almost as a direct and personal sign from heaven. In actual fact, his Frankish queen had already paved much of the way, for Ethelbert had long meditated upon accepting Christianity, both from entirely admirable reasons of policy, and also because Queen Bertha’s chaplain had used spiritually persuasive arguments in regard to the Christian faith. With the arrival at his court of a highly placed emissary from Rome, it seemed to the Saxon king that the moment was most propitious. In one stroke he could attain both his spiritual and his secular desires. So, with due pomp and solemnity Ethelbert was baptized in the old, half-ruined church of St Martin at Canterbury, which thereafter began its rebirth and a slow, but steady, growth towards its final state of primacy amongst the episcopal sees of England.

Had Augustine done only a little research before he left Rome he would have saved himself and King Ethelbert years of frustration and disappointment. He would have realised that it was still within living memory in many parts of Britain, let alone in the tales of grandparents and great-grandparents, that the heathen hordes of Angles had butchered Christian priests, burned churches, books and furnishings, and had massacred or taken off into slavery the original inhabitants of the land. Those memories might have escaped the notice of the Saxons, now busily occupied with establishing their newly acquired farms and villages, but they were still a raw, burning wound in the minds of the Britons and of the Christians from the south-eastern parts of Britain, who had gradually been driven back into the Western fastnesses of the land. He might also have remembered the part which British bishops had played in the great Church Councils of Arles, Sardice, Illyria and Ariminium only a couple of centuries earlier, when the Church had been alarmed by the heresies that threatened to pollute the pure waters of the Faith. Then British bishops had made the long journey to attend those Councils in order to defend Christianity. They had made a good showing, those early British bishops, and the Church had reason to be grateful for their support. Less helpful, perhaps, might have been his remembrance that the noxious Pelagian heresy had sprung from the teachings of one Norgan, or Pelagius, a British monk from the monastery at Bangor – and you do not have a full-blown, recognised theological college of over one thousand students arising out of an historical vacuum, however regrettable the ideas stemming from one individual member of the faculty may be.

There were others things he might have appreciated, also, which could have saved centuries of bickering between the two Churches – and often for quite the wrong reasons, at that! But that sort of knowledge stems more from a gracious and understanding heart than from a well-stocked brain. There is little in Augustine’s career or writings to indicate that he possessed much of the Christian virtue of sweet-reasonableness. He was an impatient, hasty man … faint-hearted, too, we realise, when up against difficulties, for when the journey through Gaul had its less pleasant moments he had wished to turn back to Rome, home, and tome, and was only urged onwards to fulfil his charge by the persuasive insistence of the good Gregory, whose letters remain to us as a model of diplomacy and encouragement.

Yet even from the very terms of his mission it should have come as no shock to Augustine to find that on the far side of Britain, well beyond the boundaries of the Kentish Kingdom, there was a thriving Church with adherents, which had long and proud traditions of its own, and which persisted in claiming Apostolic foundation. This was more than he, a Roman of the Romans, could stomach! Almost Islamic in his single-minded conviction, his battle-cry could well have been described as “There is no Church but Rome, and Augustine is its prophet!” Quite apart from any questions of charity, his cold lack of simple courtesy did nothing to endear either himself of his Church to the British bishops when they were summoned to meet with him. (NOTE 1) The rift which emerged that day widened into an abyss through the succeeding years until finally at the Synod of Whitby, in 663, the two branches of Christ’s Church went their separate ways and began the sad tale of disunity which we today are beginning to recognise as a disgrace and stumbling block to those outside the Church.

Because of Augustine’s intransigence, what should have been comparatively harmless points of debate erupted into violent and unreasonable controversy. Perhaps the British bishops remembered also the Emperor Honorius’ rejection of the urgent pleas of the British in 410, when, stripped of the support and defence of the Legions, they had appealed to him, only to be told that it was impossible to send assistance, and ‘the cantons’ should take steps to defend themselves.’ (NOTE 2) With the withdrawal of Roman protection, Picts, Scots and the Saxon hordes had poured over the unhappy island in regular, almost daily tides. Gildas tells us of a further plea for aid which was made to ‘Aetius, three times Consul’, and which was also rejected. At the time Rome was having troubles enough of her own and had neither time nor men to spare for the plight of the British. Only the mysterious figure of one named, or nick-named, Arthur emerged from the dimness of his Romano-British background to rally and forge the forces of the Britons into a weapon which, for a merciful half-century or so, checked the flood that otherwise would have completely annihilated the Christian faith in Britain.

It is therefore not altogether surprising that the British bishops were wary now of Roman advances, and especially since the Roman missioners were working hand-in-hand with the very foes by whom their people had been butchered and harried for nearly two centuries.

If he had been at all sensitive, Augustine of all men should have understood the problem. Three times within the years 410-477 the great city of Rome itself had been sacked by the savage northern hordes of the Huns, Visigoths and Vandals. Augustine himself had probably heard at first-hand accounts of the siege of Rome by the Goths for a whole agonizing year in 537-538. In his eyes the long tradegy of Britain might seem trivial by comparison with the lot of his beloved Imperial City, and not worth a second thought. But to the British the past was a very real wound in the soul, and to see the emissary from Rome consorting and consulting with the newly-converted Saxon king and then haranguing them, who had kept the Faith, was to arouse their bitterest suspicion and vigilance.

When, after a couple of conferences, the arrogance of Augustine aroused the worst traits in the British temperament, the two sides were left in a state of enmity usually seen only between opposing sides in a war. Augustine threatened the bishops, harangued them as an ill-advised schoolmaster might storm at a class of fourth formers, and not as equal speaks with equal. One sentence from Augustine’s speech shows clearly his unloving, bullying attitude: “If you will not have peace from your friends you shall have war from your foes!” he declared. The Saxon armies, in their new-found status as converts, would have the might of Rome’s spiritual influence behind them in their battles, and the British Chritians would have no sympathy, spiritual or corporeal, shown them! After that, so far as the British were concerned, they saw little difference where Augustine was involved between friend and foe, and those words made the breach permanent. The conference broke up in disorder.

Unless we see the picture in perspective we shall continue in mistaken and distorting beliefs in the origins of Christianity in Britain which have for so long surround the Augustine mission. ‘Apostle of the English’ he may justly be called, if by that we mean the Angles and Saxons mainly inhabiting Kent and the Easts Coasts; those heathen people to whom Gregory had directed the mission. But the truth is that Augustine’s actual work was hardly a personal triumph. Apart from gaining an already half-converted Saxon king for Rome, and alienating the representatives of the British Church on the Western side of Britain, he did little else. The work of building up the faith in Britain was continued through years of patient hard work by other missionaries from Rome whose qualities seem to have been more truly Christian than those of their leading missioner. The glow of sanctity and missionary zeal with which enthusiasts have surrounded the figure of Augustine for so long could well have had some of its lustre extended to the faithful monks who did most of the work with which he is wrongly accredited. The eight years he spent in these islands make poor showing against the years of others of his monks.

It is through the works of writers of the first few centuries after Christ, and the patient research of modern archaeology today, that we are able to examine just what was known to the world of the Church in Britain during the first six centuries. Perhaps this is so near a miracle that we do not at first sight always recognise its nature. As early as the eleventh century we find Rhigyfarch, the writer of “The Life of St David”, telling us that even the old charters and documents used in his day were rare survivals, and many of the old MSS which had survived were ‘eaten away alond the edges and backs by the continuous gnawing of worms and the ravages of the passing years.’ And if that was true in the middle years of the eleventh century how much more has it become so over the intervening years? Not only do moth and rust and such natural hazards consume, not only do thieves break in and steal, but century after century priceless old MSS and books and records have suffered hazard by pillage and fire, by flood and vandalism, by those who hoarded unsystematically and those who threw-out and lacked discrimination or appreciation of what they handled. The debt we owe to those who did seek to preserve and codify, protect and transcribe, is a tremendous one that is quite overlooked by the majority of people.

To this must be added the difference in languages, the difficulties in translation , which is often more than a simple transliteration of words, but the more important interpretation of the thought being conveyed, and the taking into account of the culture and behaviour patterns of the various peoples concerned. A simple modern example of the kind of problem the true translator has to face is found in undertaking Bible translations. In the case of the well-known phrase in Rev 3.v.20: ‘Behold, I stand at the door and knock ….’ it was realised that to make a straightforward transliteration in the case of dialect used by one S American tribe would have been disastrous. To them any who knocked on a door by night would have been either a thief or someone with some malign purpose in mind. Why else would he be afraid to call out, unless it was that he feared his voice might be recognised? Any well-intentioned person would stand outside and call to the inmates. So in that version of the New Testament the verse appears a ‘Behold, I stand at the door and call …’ Equally, for desert tribes who have never seen a ship with sails and anchor, it would be meaningless to speak of Christ as ‘an anchor for the soul’. To them it is translated as ‘a tent-peg for the soul’, which makes sense to people who understand the need for secure pinning of their dwelling-places!

As years pass the difference in the meaning of a word in its own culture gradually takes place also. The word ‘legend’ has suffered this sort of fate. Originally the legende were those things which were written down, the things that were worthy of being recorded (NOTE 3). In other words, they were the history or records of the times. As this distance of time they may often appear confused and confusing. Copyists’ errors, mistaken spellings in names and places, differing linguistic versions of the same name, do not make the task easier. We find Dyfrig, Dubrig, Dubricius, Dubric, all referring to the same person, and later versions come through to us as Devereaux, so different in appearance under its heavy camouflage, yet, oddly enough, still retaining its root meaning of ‘child from the waters’.

Given loss by the various accidents of life and fortune, combined with the dryness of age and the disfiguring of mildew, let alone clerical error due to failing sight of flickering rush-light, we may well be astonished not that records are sketchy and vital statistics omitted, but rather that so much still remains to us and has been saved and preserved by the patient skill of unknown, loving hands. By comparing the scattered fragments of our heritage with the ‘legends’, and then with the facts which are increasingly being revealed to us by archaeology today, its is possible to see the shape of things long lost, just as an Egyptologist can build up a picture of the features and form of one long dead, the state of his health, part of the history of his life, and usually of the manner of death, and all this from the desiccated remains of a nameless, shapeless mummy.

It is, therefore, right to take account of ‘legend’, (using the word now in its popular sense) so long as we endeavour to examine the original roots so far as it is possible so to do. Again, it is necessary to check whether there are hints in written records or in the state of history of the times which may account for the birth of the story. At the same time it is necessary always to be ready to draw a line, from the angle of Truth, to those parts where the written sources of the day contradict the legend with reliable evidence to the contrary. The life and death of S Clement, third Bishop of Rome, is such an example, where the name has been confused with two members of the noble gens Falvius, one of whom was called Clemens, and both of whom were executed. (NOTE 4)

One of the great sins of hagiographers has always been ‘to gild refined gold, to paint the lily, to throw a perfume on the violet …’ (Shakespeare: King John, Act iv, Scene II.) Over the years, incidents already notable in their own right, have suffered grievously at such hands; their aim was to make them ever more impressive by the addition of improbable and unnecessary feats, by multiplication of numbers, and by additional and imaginary examples of miracles and so on. Gradually this tendency changed the basic truth into an obvious phantasmagoria, or what is commonly now meant by ‘legend’.

The ‘tall story’ in old legends therefore needs examination in order to seek to set if in the context of time, and then to ponder deeply upon it and its real meaning. Very often something can be discerned which looks suspiciously like pure truth underlying the fictional surface, or else simple facts unknown to the ignorant or to later hearers provide an explanation. Only one example will be given here, but doubtless others will spring to mind after due reflection.

Numerous stories exist of saints who ‘came sailing over the sea on his shirt, so he did, so he did ….’ Artists have not helped the situation by portraying it graphically: a wild sea, lowering clouds, and the saint sitting (or more often kneeling) upon a neatly spread out shirt, which forms a sort of magic carpet on the swell of the waves. The general unreality of the scene makes the saint himself a highly improbable figure who can conveniently be relegated to the mental drawer marked ‘Fairy tales, romance, etc.’ Perhaps the truth is so simple that it has been overlooked. As G K Chesterton puts it: ‘We have gone round and round the hill, And lost the wood amongst the trees’. (The Wise Men.)

Even today men are frequently marooned at sea, and have eventually been picked up floating on a frail raft, or even a couple of barrels lashed together, with a rough mast attached, and a shirt, or even a pair of trousers, providing the only form of sail available. There is nothing particularly ‘miraculous’ about it, in the sense of being ‘un-natural’. What has happened in the case of the saint’s story usually is that it has been handed down in a sort of verbal shorthand, explicit details becoming omitted because at the first telling they were fully understood and self-explanatory. Then, at some later telling, some listener, perhaps a young boy or girl, has, in a half-dreamy reverie, heard only the words ‘shirt’, and ‘sailing’, losing the visual memory of a raft, or log, with the shirt used as a sail. In all sincerity he has handed on the tale to others with the sense of awe and wonder engendered years before in his own childish mind. Now it is not the miracle of the saint’s ultimate preservation which is being passed on, but the idea of an action highly unlikely under natural law!

There is one other factor in the search for the history of the Early Church which adds its own particular voice to research, and needs to be taken into account; only in this instance it is the voice of silence rather than of words.

In all stages of the Church’s growth, even down to modern times, there is comparatively little recorded of the earliest work in any mission field. S Paul may be regarded as an exception to the rule solely because he had as his travelling companion S Luke, who was not in the first instance an evangelist, but a doctor, whose training ensured that he would be predisposed to the keeping of meticulous daily records. This may be seen by the fullness of detail given when S Luke is accompanying the Apostle, and the plainer, more matter of fact style he adopts for the parts where he has not been an eye-witness and is simply recording what he has been told. It is only when the mission becomes established that the records proliferate, often in the second or third generation from its inception.

This is exactly what we find in the earliest days of the Church, just as in all other centuries. Those earliest missioners were too busy finding their way, (in all senses), trying to settle amongst the people they found, learning to communicate with them, perhaps enduring great privation, persecution and hostility, for there to be time to write up a diary of their activities, even allowing for the availability of writing materials. Those first disciples were concerned with living in, and through, the present moment, day to day, hour by hour, seeking to hand on the message of the Good News to those around them, who often were most reluctant to hear it!

Silence, therefore, as regards the activities and personal problems of the early Christian missionaries is just what might be expected in the first fifty to one hundred years after Christ’s death. It is as much a testimony to Truth as was our Lord’s silence during His trials. And to those few writings we possess from the first few centuries there is one more testimony which should be added. To early Christian writers such as Clement, Irenaeus, Tertullian, etc, Truth was paramount. To them the Truth was Christ Himself. It was sacred; they did not take it as light-heartedly as men do today. It had to be preserved, inviolable, respected, handed on as a sacred trust. So when we deal with the first two or three centuries after Christ we can be fairly certain that there will be no deliberate falsification or elaboration presented to us by the great and accepted Christian writers of the day. Apart from sifting through the documents of their day they also had on hand sometimes those who had known the apostles personally, or who had been taught by their immediate disciples, so that it was still possible to check on the facts. Days and dates, as in respect of Easter Sunday, for instance, were indeed less easy to check on. Do we always recall the actual day of the week, or month of the year, of some far off event in our own lives? It is the occasion we recall most often, the happy celebration, the searing pain of parting, but not necessarily the date. Thus the facts are usually to be trusted when conveyed to us by reliable historians of the day, but they, as we, knew how unreliable is the human memory with regards to date and day.

When, for instance, Tertullian, writing in c 190 or so, says: ‘The extremities of Spain, the various parts of Gaul, the regions of Britain which the Roman arms have failed to penetrate, have received the Christian faith,’ we can accept the statement as plain fact. Tertullian’s training as an advocate ensures his accuracy both in the examination of MSS, records, hearsay, etc, and the deductions to be made from them. As an ecclesiastical historian he has always been regarded as accurate and reliable. With such early writers we are dealing with facts and not fiction. With later, and with medieval writers, we have to exercise caution, but even then there is usually a grain of truth underlying the more elaborate fabrications.

Perhaps a little should be said concerning Robert Parsons, or Persons, S J, on whose work, “The Treaties of the Three Conversions of England from Paganism to Christian Religion,” this book is based.

Parsons was born in 1546 at Nether Stowey, in Somerset, of humble parents. Largely through the help of his parish priest who recognised his high level of intelligence, he was educated first at Taunton, and then at St Mary’s Hall, Oxford. In 1574 he was forced by various circumstances to resign his fellowship, and in 1575 he left England, with the intention of going to Padua to study medicine. On the way there, however, he stopped at Louvain, where he met Fr William Good, the old monk from Glastonbury whose story is familiar to all who know this history of the Dissolution of that Abbey. Under the influence of that fine old man Parsons seems to have experienced a very real conversion. He entered the Roman Catholic Church, went to Rome, and on 24 July 1575 was accepted into the Jesuit novitiate. Three years later he was ordained a priest.

In 1580 he was chosen to lead the first Jesuit mission to England, together with the gentle Edmund Campion, who was captured and martyred at Tyburn in 1581. Parsons was able to escape to the continent; he was proscribed against in 1583 and never returned to England. He became an adviser of Popes and other highly placed personages, and, since he does not seen to have adhered very firmly to the strict Jesuit rule against interference in politics, it is perhaps not surprising to find him as a trusted counsellor to King Phillip II of Spain, whose attempts to regain England for Catholicism ended so disastrously for him in the defeat of his Armada in 1588. The more permanent of Parsons’ achievements are the foundation of the famous school for English Roman Catholic boys at St Omer, in 1592, and that in addition to various other works he also wrote “The Spiritual Directory”, probably his best know work, and one which still stands as a handbook of spiritual devotion and guidance used by many Catholics today. Through his school at St Omer, he may also be claimed as the founder of Stonyhurst College, the great Roman Catholic public school in Lancashire, when it moved there from France in 1794.

“The Three Conversion of England” was written at the accession of King James I, to whom it is dedicated, in order to refute the claims of the Magdeburgians and other Protestant sects, and, in particular, the writings of Sir Francis Hastings and of John Fox in his “Acts and Monuments”.

It is largely to the early Christian writings that Parsons quotes and accepts as reliable that we shall be looking for our basic facts, and only thereafter to the legends, usually localised, since this book is an attempt to gather together those forgotten facts of our Christian history here in Britain which remain to us. It is, in fact, an attempt, not to bolster up any theory or tale, no matter how beautiful or dearly loved, but to set out the Truth so far as facts enable us to do so, since the Christian Gospel is about Him who has said that He is the Truth.

(add into introduction)

There is one other point which ought to be writ large and clear in letters of gold since it was recorded and established in our archives less than 500 years ago, in the Great Chamber at Whitehall. It was there that in 1554, before Phillip II of Spain and Mary Tudor, Queen of England, together with the assembled Lords and Commons, the great Cardinal emissary of the Pope of Rome, in his speech restoring England to the Catholic Faith made this statement:

· “The See Apostolic from whence I come hath a special respect to this realm above all others, and not without cause, seeing that God Himself, as it were, by providence hath given to this realm prepgative of nobility above all others, which to make plain unto you, it is to be considered that this island first of all islands received the light of Christ’s religion”

On the next day, in the great Abbey of Westminster, when Phillip and Mary and all the full Court and Commons were gathered there for the Act of Reconciliation, the Cardinal repeated once more the same claim in the following words:

· “Once again God hath given token of His special favour to the realm, for as this nation in the time of the Primitive Church was the first to be call out of the darkness of heathenism, so now they are the first to whom God has given grace to repent of their schism …”

As it mentioned in the Notes on chapter V, No 7, at the end of this book, it is remarkable that the Cardinal made these statements in from of King Phillip, the most powerful Catholic monarch of the day, clearly anticipating, and receiving, no contradiction to the facts he stated, and it argues strongly for the grounds on which he based them and could clearly bring evidence to support his words is called upon to do so. It is also worth noticing that he, a Roman Cardinal, refers to ‘the time of the Primitive Church’, a term which argues for its recognition and establishment even before the Church in Rome took on its widespread authority.

The superior dignity and antiquity of the Church in England had never been disputed in any way until 1409, when, for political reasons, it was disputed by the Ambassadors of France and Spain at the Council of Pisa. Previously the precedence of British bishops at Church Councils had never been questioned, since it was accepted from the words of the earliest British Christian historians, Gildas the Wise, (AD 425-512) that “the Light of Christ shone here in the last year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar”, usually accepted as being AD37. At the Councils of Pisa (1409), Constance (1417) , Sienna (1424) and Basle (1434) it was contended that the Churches of France and Spain must yield to that of Britain in points of antiquity and precedence, since the Church in Britain had been founded by Joseph of Arimathea “ statim post passionem Christi” – ‘immediately after the Passion of Christ’. The evidence may be studied in a rare quarto printed in 1517, by one Theodore Martin, Louvan, when Sir Robert Wingfield, British Ambassador to the Emporor Maximilian, had all the findings carefully detailed and recorded under the title of “Disputatio super Digitatem Angliae et Galliae in Concilio Constantiano”. Not only bishops, but ambassadors retained this privilege, with the British King holding the title “Most Religious King”, whereas the French King was “Most Christian King”, and the Spanish King “Most Catholic King”. From Henry IV’s time (1409) right down to both King Charles I and Oliver Cromwell’s time the royal licence was given for this claim to be recorded and printed, and this at a time when nothing might be printed unless it were under licence, so we may gauge how strongly the Glastonbury Tradition of the coming of Joseph of Arimathea must have been upheld by the church, the nation, and historians through 16 centuries. By comparison, the two to three centuries when the claim has been ridiculed seems almost like the mindless jingle of a child’s game.

Perhaps in our day it might be no bad thing to examine once again our roots and our traditions. We need both pride and humility in our national life today. Just possibly in meeting once again our ancestors and knowing whence we sprung, we might find both once more.

All the quotations used in the Chapter Headings of this book are taken from ‘The Three Conversions of England’, written by Robert Parsons (or Persons), S J, and relate to those passages, mainly in the first volume of that work, which speak of the coming of the Christian Faith to these shores in the years before the coming of St. Augustine and his Mission, the third and last step in the conversion of this land.