• Henry Hopwood-Phillips

The Birth of the British Church

It’s not certain how Christianity got to Gaul let alone Britain. Perhaps the most prominent theory is that the faith entered Marseilles (via the city’s eastern trading routes) and then surged up the Rhone valley, establishing itself in Lyons before AD 150. Given the exchange in frontier recruits between the Rhine and Britain – as well as the British corn ships that Ammianus informs readers sailed up the Rhine – it would be natural for Britain to have got its Christianity from either the Rhine, the Atlantic seaboard or both.

How Britain was evangelised appears to have befuddled even near-contemporaries in the following centuries. Indeed, no fewer than six apostles were ascribed to the island in a frenzy of continental speculation (all little more than conjecture and perhaps of a similar nature to the pinning of St James to Spain described here). Of a piece with these imaginative narratives is the tale of Lucius – King of Britain – who apparently appealed to the late second-century Pope Eleutherius for conversion. Inserted into the Liber Pontificalis in the seventh century, the legend probably gave the papacy a backstory of intervention for the Augustinian mission (596).

From this hazy start, British Christianity emerges blinking into history. The Diocletian persecution gave the island its first martyr in Alban of Verulamium. In 314, three British bishops attended the Council of Arles. They were “Eborius de civitate Eboracensi [York], Restitutus de civitate Londinensi [London]” and “Adelfius de civitate colonia Londinensium [an error for Lindensium i.e. Lincoln].” Moreover, if the Britons don’t appear to have been prepared to travel to Asia Minor for Nicaea (325) or Dacia for Serdica (343) at least they were present at Ariminum (Rimini) for the council in 359. Besides, although it’s fashionable to think Nicaea represented the universal Church today, in reality it had very few Western participants (but I’ll write on that another time).

While Lupus of Troyes and Germanus of Auxerre garner lots of attention (thanks mainly to the latter’s references to Anglo-Saxons) another Gaul – in fact, an ex-Roman legionary – Victricius of Rouen (d. 407) adjudicated an (unknown) major dispute in the early British Church. Not that the flow of great men was one way. The Britons produced celebrities like the heretical Pelagius and, as well as the orthodox Faustus (abbot of Lerins and later bishop of Riez) and Fastidius (bishop of London). In the North, too, figures like St Patrick and Ninian (who founded Casa Candida in 401) loomed large.

These early Christians were surrounded by the symbols of Roman Christianity, most obviously the Chi-Rho which appears at Hinton St Mary (Dorset), Chedworth (Gloucestershire), Harpole (Northamptonshire) and the Water Newton treasure (Cambridgeshire), as well as on objects such as the silver cup of Corbridge (Northumberland), silver rings found in Dorset, bronze objects at York, “vivas in deo” gold rings and Chi-Rho-stamped lamps found all over the country.

The remains of Roman churches also exist. Silchester, for example, contained a fourth-century church (see here). St Albans may have had Roman churches at Insula XVI, XI and Verulam Hill. And equivalents exist at Icklingham, Colchester and Lullingstone Villa too. More famously, Bede noted that St Martin’s at Canterbury was built in the Roman period (though the current church is early Saxon i.e. the Kentish folk appear to have rebuilt or renovated a Roman ruin). More interestingly, the churches appear to have fallen into ruin as the empire receded. Perhaps they were mostly urban in nature and so suffered the fate of Romano-British cities. In any case, monasteries took their place and gave British Christianity the monastic preponderance it clearly possessed in its confrontations with Wilfrid at Whitby (664).

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