Augustine comes across as an inexperienced but diligent disciple carrying out in Britain the directions of his superior in Rome.
Augustine arrives in England
“Your words are fair, but of doubtful meaning; I cannot forsake what I have so long believed. But as you have come from far we will not molest you; you may preach, and gain as many as you can to your religion.” These were the words of greeting in the summer of 597 of King Ethelbert, Isle of Thanet, to the Italian monk Augustine sent there by Pope Gregory the Great to evangelise the English. Patrick Duffy outlines Augustine’s story. See also St Gregory the Great (3rd September).
An Italian monk sent by Pope Gregory the Great
Augustine was believed to have been a pupil of Felix, bishop of Messana, Sicily. He became a monk and later prior of St Andrew’s monastery on the Coelian Hill in Rome. Pope Gregory chose him to lead a party of around 30 monks to evangelise England. They sailed first to Provence, but warned of the dangers of England, soon returned to Rome. Gregory encouraged Augustine with letters of recommendation, so he set out a second time.
Cautiously received by King Ethelbert 597
Arriving at the island of Thanet in Kent on the south-east coast, Augustine was cautiously received by Ethelbert, the pagan king of Kent, whose wife Bertha, a sister of the Frankish king, was already a Christian. Ethelbert gave Augustine a place to live in Canterbury and permission to preach; after some time he accepted baptism himself.
Bishop of the English
In the following year Augustine went to Arles where he was consecrated bishop of the English by St Virgilius of Arles. Augustine sent two of his monks back to Rome to report to Pope Gregory on the success of his mission so far. They returned from Gregory in 601 bringing more missionaries and the pallium for Augustine (symbolising his metropolitan jurisdiction). Pope Gregory also instructed him to consecrate twelve suffragan bishops for his own metropolitan area and to set up one in the north with twelve more bishops. He gave further instructions to set up a second metropolitan centre at York with its own twelve suffragan bishops and though this did not take place in Augustine’s own lifetime, it was how the organisation of the Church in England eventually progressed.
Canterbury as the primatial see
Augustine founded Christ Church, Canterbury, as his cathedral and it became the primatial see of England. He also set up the monastery of Saints Peter and Paul (known after his death as St Augustine’s and where the early archbishops were buried). In 604 Augustine established the episcopal sees of London and Rochester, with Roman monks Mellitus and Justus as bishops.
Correspondence between Pope Gregory and Bishop Augustine
The surviving letters between Pope Gregory and Bishop Augustine show the former as the wise instigator of the project of evangelising the English. Augustine comes across as an inexperienced but diligent disciple carrying out in Britain the directions of his superior in Rome.