Augustine of Canterbury (birth unknown, died May 26, c. 604) was a Benedictine monk and the first archbishop of Canterbury. He is considered the Apostle to the English and a founder of the English Church. Pope Gregory sent him to evangelize the English. He was selected to go to England because of his inspirational preaching and witnessing abilities. Augustine persevered against popular resistance and was able to convert King Ethelbert of England to Christianity. Augustine baptized thousands within the ministry. In 603 he consecrated Christ Church, Canterbury, and built the monastery Saints Peter and Paul, later known as St. Augustine's.
He was the prior of the abbey of St Anthony in Rome when he was sent by Pope Gregory the Great to convert the Anglo-Saxon tribes in 596. The Kingdom of Kent was targeted by the pope because its king, Æthelbert, had married a Christian Frankish princess named Bertha. Augustine was accompanied by Laurence of Canterbury-who would become the second archbishop-and a group of forty other monks. After the mission turned back to Rome before reaching its destination, Gregory insisted on its completion and Augustine landed in Kent in 597. They achieved some initial success shortly after their arrival, converting Æthelbert to Christianity. Æthelbert gave the monks his protection, permitted them to establish themselves at Canterbury and to preach the Gospel in England.
Augustine left for Arles some time later, to be consecrated the archbishop of the English by Virgilis of Arles. He returned to establish his episcopal see at Canterbury. At the same time, he founded the monastery of SS. Peter and Paul, which would later become St Augustine's Abbey.
Augustine continued to meet success in his efforts, and founded two other episcopal sees in England, at London and at Rochester. He was however unsuccessful in extending his authority to the Christians in Wales and Dumnonia. The Britons in those areas were suspicious of the newly arrived Augustine, and he seems to have been insufficiently conciliatory for them to agree to recognize him as the local archbishop. In 601, Augustine was formally given jurisdiction over Britain as its archbishop by Gregory.
Augustine, working toward Christian unity, tried to reach an agreement with the Celtic bishops. These bishops were from an earlier attempt to establish Christianity in England who had been driven north and west by earlier invasions by Germans. These bishops did not cooperate with Augustine, and refused to give up their existing traditions regarding baptism and the dating of Easter.
King Æthelbert's wife Bertha, daughter of Charibert, one of the Merovingian kings of the Franks, had brought a chaplain (Liudhard) with her. Together, in Canterbury, they built a new church that dated from from Roman times -dedicating it to St. Martin of Tours (possibly St. Martin's). St. Martin was a major patronal saint for the Merovingian royal family. Æthelbert himself was a pagan, but allowed his wife to worship God her own way. Probably under influence of his wife, Æthelbert asked Pope Gregory I to send missionaries.
Æthelbert permitted the missionaries to settle and preach in his town of Canterbury and before the end of the year he was converted and Augustine was consecrated bishop at Arles. At Christmas 10,000 of the king's subjects were baptized, in what is now referred to as the 'Miracle at Canterbury' or the 'Baptismal miracle at Canterbury'. After his death, the king would become known as St Æthelbert.
Augustine sent a report of his success to Gregory with certain queries concerning his work. In 601 Mellitus, Justus and others brought the pope's replies, with the pallium for Augustine and a present of sacred vessels, vestments, relics, books, and the like. Gregory directed the new archbishop to ordain as soon as possible twelve suffragan bishops and to send a bishop to York, who should also have twelve suffragans-a plan which was not carried out, nor was the primatial see established at London as Gregory intended. Augustine consecrated Mellitus Bishop of London and Justus Bishop of Rochester.
More practicable were the pope's mandates concerning heathen temples and usages: the former were to be consecrated to Christian service and the latter, so far as possible, to be transformed into dedication ceremonies or feasts of martyrs, since 'he who would climb to a lofty height must go up by steps, not leaps'.
Later Life and Legacy
Augustine reconsecrated and rebuilt the church at Canterbury as his cathedral and founded a monastery in connection with it. The chair of St. Augustine was established. He also restored a church and founded the monastery of St Peter and St Paul outside the walls. He founded The King's School, Canterbury-the world's oldest school.
At the time of Augustine's death, in the first decade of the seventh century, his mission barely extended beyond Kent. There were setbacks after Augustine's death, but ultimately England became Christian again, and although the credit for this must be shared between the Roman and Celtic churches, ultimately the Roman church proved the stronger influence on English Christian life.
Augustine's body was originally buried, but later exhumed and placed in a tomb within the Abbey Church where it became a place of pilgrimage and veneration. During the reformation, the Church was destroyed and the body was lost.
- Attwater, Donald, and Catherine Rachel John. The Penguin Dictionary of Saints. 3rd edition. New York: Penguin Books, 1993. ISBN 0-140-51312-4
- Evans, G. R. The medieval theologians. Oxford: Blackwell, 2001. ISBN 9780631212027
- Green, Michael A. St. Augustine of Canterbury. London, England: Janus Pub., 1997. ISBN 9781857563665
- Matthews, Gareth B. The Augustinian tradition. Philosophical traditions, 8. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999.
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