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Medieval Sourcebook:

Bede (673-735): Ecclesiastical History of England

Pope Gregory I, Angles, Angels and the English Mission, 587


The Monk Gregory and the Slave boys from England

It is reported that some merchants, having just arrived at Rome on a certain day exposed many things for sale in the slave boys market place, and abundance of people resorted thither to from England buy. Gregory himself went with the rest, and among other things some boys were set to sale, their bodies white, their countenances beautiful, and their hair very fine. Having viewed them he asked, as is said, from what country or nation they were brought, and was told, from the island of Britain, whose inhabitants were of such personal appearance. He again inquired whether these islanders were Christians, or still involved in the errors of paganism, and was informed that they were pagans, then, fetching a deep sigh from the bottom of his heart, he said, ''Alas, what a pity that the author of darkness is possessed of men of such fair countenances ; and that being remarkable for such graceful outward appearance, their minds should be void of inward grace." He therefore again asked what the name of that nation was, and was answered that they were called Angles. "Right," said he, "for they in Latin have angelic faces, and it becomes such to be coheirs with the angels m heaven." Then he proceeded, " What is the name angels angeli of the province from which they are brought? " It was replied that the natives of that province were called Deiri. "Truly are they De ira,'' said he, " withdrawn from wrath and called to the mercy of Christ." " How is the king of that province called?" They told him his name was Aella, and he, alluding to the name, said, AEllaluia, the praise of God the Creator mut be sung in those parts." Then repairing to the bishop of the Roman apostolical see (for he was not himself then made pope), he entreated him to send some ministers of the word into Britain to the nation of the English, by whom it might be converted to Christ.

Although no mission was sent out at this time, after Gregory became pope he retained his interest in the conversion of the heathen inhabitants of England, and eventually it became practicable to send out the wellknown expedition under Augustine, whose reception in England is described in the next extract.text.

The Mission of Augustine 587

Augustine, thus strengthened by the confirmation of the blessed father Gregory, returned to the work of the word of God, with the servants of Christ, and arrived in Britain. The powerful Ethelbert was at that time king of Kent. He had extended his dominions as far as the great river Humber, by which the Southern Saxons are divided from the Northern. On the east of Kent is the large Isle of Thanet, containing, according to the English way of reckoning, six hundred hides, divided from the other land by the river Wantsum, which is about three furlongs over, and fordable only in two places, for both ends of it run into the sea. In this island landed the servant of our Lord, Augustine, and his companions, being, as is reported, nearly forty men.

They had, by order of the blessed Pope Gregory, taken interpreters of the nation of the Franks, and sending to Ethelbert, signified that they were come from Rome, and brought a joyful message, which most undoubtedly assured to all that took advantage of it everlasting joys in heaven, and a kingdom that would never end, with the living and true God. The king, having heard this, ordered them to stay in that island where they had landed, and that they should be furnished with all necessaries, till he should consider what to do with them. For he had before heard of the Christian religion, having a Christian wife, of the royal family of the Franks, called Bertha, whom he had received from her parents upon condition that she should be permitted to practice her religion with the bishop Luidhard, who was sent with her to preserve her faith.

Some days after, the king came into the island and, sitting in the open air, ordered Augustine and his companions to be brought into his presence. For he had taken precaution that they should not come to him in any house, lest, according to an ancient superstition, if they practiced any magical arts, they might impose upon him, and so get the better of him. But they came furnished with divine, not with magic virtue, bearing a silver cross for their banner, and the image of our Lord and Saviour painted on a board; and singing the litany, they offered up their prayers to the Lord for the eternal salvation both of themselves and of those to whom they were come. When they had sat down, pursuant to the king's commands, and preached to him and his attendants there present the word of life, the king answered thus : " Your words and promises are very fair, but as they are new to us, and of uncertain import, I cannot approve of them so far as to forsake that which I have so long followed with the whole English nation. But because you are come from far into my kingdom, and, as I conceive, are desirous'to impart to us those things which you believe to be true and most beneficial, we will not molest you, but give you favorable entertainment, and take care to supply you with your necessary sustenance ; nor do we forbid you to preach and gain as many as you can to your religion." Accordingly he permitted them to reside in the city of Canterbury, which was the metropolis of all his dominions, and, pursuant to his promise, besides allowing them sustenance, did not refuse them liberty to preach. It is reported that as they drew near to the city, after their manner, with the holy cross and the image of our sovereign Lord and King, Jesus Christ, they sang in concert this litany : " We beseech thee, O Lord, in all thy mercy, that thy anger and wrath be turned away from this city, and from thy holy house, because we have sinned. Alleluiah."

There was on the east side of the city a church dedicated to St. Martin, built whilst the Romans were still in the island, church in wherein the queen, who, as has been said before, was a Christian, used to pray. In this they first began to meet, to sing, to pray, to say mass, to preach, and to baptize, till the king, being converted to the faith, allowed them to preach openly and build or repair churches in all places.


Source. Edward P. Cheyney. Readings in English History Drawn from Original Sources. New Edition. Boston: Ginn and Company, 1922. pp. 46-49.


This text is part of the Internet Medieval Sourcebook. The Sourcebook is a collection of public domain and copy-permitted texts related to medieval and Byzantine history.

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