Posted by: stpowen | March 10, 2015

The People’s Reformation (1) Setting the Scene

Earliest Times.

Psalm 75:1. ‘We give thanks to You, O Lord, we give thanks! For Your wondrous works declare that Your name is near.’

In setting the scene for the People’s Reformation, we need to travel, very swiftly, from the introduction of Christianity in Britain to the time of its complete subjugation to Rome. There is very little information about the lives of ordinary Christians during these years so inevitably we shall be looking at kings and Popes. In subsequent articles, we shall (DV) be concentrating our attention increasingly upon the little people.

Nobody knows when Christianity first came to the Roman Province of Britannia. Legends abound concerning the Apostle Paul having visited these shores, and of Joseph of Arimathea having settled in Glastonbury; of prisoners taken by Aulus Plautius (the Roman general who commenced the conquest of Britain under Claudius in 43 AD) coming to faith in Rome and bringing Christianity back with them to Britain. We even hear of a British prince with the suspiciously Roman-sounding name of Lucius coming to faith before the close of the 1st Century; yet evidence for all these is lacking. What we do know is that around 200AD, the Church Father Tertullian {1} wrote of, ‘Districts of Britain, not penetrated by the Romans, which have been brought under the sway of Christ.’ He appears to be referring to what we now call Scotland. The assumption must be that by 200 AD, Christianity had become so well-established in England, that the Gospel had been spread to the areas to the north. Another Church father, Origen writes similarly {2}. There is no other evidence for the presence of Christianity in Britain at that time, but it would be ridiculous to suppose that both Tertullian and Origen might have lied. They spoke of what they knew and we should accept their testimony.

So who was the first Christian missionary to Britain? We cannot tell, but doubtless the faith was spread either by the Roman legionaries who came and settled in the newly-conquered land, or by traders, either from Gaul or further afield. Or maybe British traders going abroad heard the Good News of Christ and brought it back to Britain. Travel in the Roman Empire was easier than it would be again in Europe for 1,000 years or more. There were no international borders to cross; no frontiers, and for many years, in the providence of God, the Pax Romana shielded the people from conflict. The roads too were of a higher standard than they would be again until the invention of tar macadam. The new faith was spread quickly and easily across the Empire almost before anyone realised it.

The first names that we hear of are those of ordinary people who became martyrs for Christ. Of Aaron and Julius of Caerleon we know nothing save that they died for their faith. Of Alban of Verulamium (now St. Albans) we know a little more. He was a Roman soldier who gave succour and protection to a fellow-Christian at the cost of his life. According to the Venerable Bede, these ,martyrdoms took place in the last great Roman persecution of the Church which took place under Diocletian at the end of the 3rd Century, but that persecution, which was so terrible in many parts of the Empire, was much milder in Gaul and Britain due to the policy of Constantius, father of Constantine the Great. It is possible therefore that Alban and the others perished in an earlier persecution under the Emperor Decius.

With Constantine, of course, came the freedom of the Church, and we find three ‘bishops’ or overseers of the British churches attended a Synod at Arles in France in AD 314. Their names were Eborius of York, Restitutus of London and Adelphius who may have come from Lincoln. This tells us that Christianity had spread and was established over much of Britain, and its leaders were well-known enough to receive invitations to conferences. British church leaders attended another synod in 354, this time at Rimini, and in greater numbers. All but three of them were sufficiently well-off to be able to waive their expenses for the trip.

But this happy state of affairs was not to last. The Roman Empire soon began to decay. In 383, Magnus Maximus removed the legions from around Hadrian’s Wall, and around 410, the great Roman General Stilicho summoned the last of the legions back from Britain to help defend Italy. One reaction to the danger from the North was to send a missionary by the name of Ninian (Bede calls him a bishop) to the wild Pictish nation who inhabited Scotland.

It is very difficult at this time to find anything much in the way of detail about the lives of ordinary Christians. There is simply no data. All we can say with a degree of confidence is that Christianity had spread over Britain by the time that the Roman legions departed. The British people were thoroughly integrated with the Roman rulers and made enthusiastic use of the benefits of Roman civilization- the excellent roads, the baths, the sophisticated banking and business infrastructure and so forth. There was also a degree of unity in the Church at this time. We have seen that British delegates attended two ecumenical councils in the 4th Century. There is likely to have been a Episcopalian structure in Britain, though there is a tendency with Bede and others, writing a few centuries later, to read Roman Catholic structures into their accounts. We should not imagine that such structures existed in Roman Britain at the end of the 4th Century. The first bishop of Rome to call himself ‘Pope’ was Leo the Great (450-461). Episcopacy had been growing among the churches during the 2nd Century, and the Bishop of Rome, being the bishop of the capital city, one of the very few that could claim (almost certainly wrongly) to have been founded by a Apostle, tended to have a certain pre-eminence. The Council of Nicaea (325) gave equal status to the churches of Rome, Constantinople, Antioch and Alexandria, and granted their bishops the title of ‘Patriarch.’ It was in 381, at the Council of Constantinople, that the Bishop of Rome was first recognized formally as pre-eminent among other Bishops.

How much of all this Episcopal manoeuvring affected the churches in Roman Britain is not clear. Soon they had something much more serious to worry about. Following the removal of the Roman legions, the British had been doing a fair job of resisting invasion from the Northern Picts and the pagan Saxons from Denmark. In around 445 however, Vortigern, the King of Kent, invited two Jutish chieftains, Hengist and Horsa, to help him in his struggle against Saxon invaders. This was a fatal mistake with the direst consequences for British Christianity. The Jutes turned on their hosts and usurped the kingdom of Vortigern, though they were in turn conquered by the Saxons who swarmed into the country, dispossessing the British Christians. In 446, a plaintive message was sent to the Roman General Aetius, who was battling with Attila the Hun in France: “The barbarians drive us into the sea, and the sea throws us back on the barbarians: our only choice lies between two kinds of death- massacre or drowning”{3}.

Although the British resisted manfully at various points (it is from this time that the legend of King Arthur comes), they were slowly pushed back into Wales and Cornwall. In the rest of the country, Christianity seems to have been pretty much rooted out. The ordinary Romano-British Christian had the choice of flight to the west or of being reduced to servitude by their conquerors. Christian buildings all seem to have been destroyed and replaced by pagan temples. If Christianity continued at all in southern England, there is no trace of it today. If it survived, as probably it did, it will have been celebrated quietly and secretly, out of the gaze of the pagan conquerors.

Before all this, however, the Gospel had been brought to Ireland, which never became part of the Roman Empire. A young lad called Succat, living towards the end of the 4th Century somewhere on the coast of Britain, was kidnapped by Irish raiders. Although he eventually escaped and was able to return home, God filled his heart with the desire to preach Christ to his erstwhile captors, and in due course he returned to Ireland, and was successful in converting large portions of that country. Succat is better known today as St. Patrick. He is too famous to be part of this story, which seeks to concentrate on ordinary people rather than heroes, but he is important because it was from Ireland that the Gospel returned to Britain.

In 563, some one hundred years after the death of Patrick, an Irish Christian named Columba set sail with his companions from Northern Ireland with the intention of bringing the Gospel to Scotland. Settling on the tiny Hebridean island of Iona, Columba established first a chapel and then a school of theology which became a missionary college. From there the Gospel went out into Scotland, finding there some indigenous Christians whose ancestors had been converted by the ministry of Ninian. Brude, king of the Picts, was converted and many of his people with him. Soon the greater part of Scotland professed Christ, and not content with this, the missionaries from Iona spread the Gospel into central Europe. Only into Anglo-Saxon England did the missionaries fail to come at this time. The natives were felt to be too wild and intractable.

In 593, shortly before the death of Columba, missionaries from Rome, sent by Pope Gregory I under the leadership of a man named Augustine {4} arrived in Kent at the Court of Ethelbert, king of the Jutes. They arrived at a propitious time, for Ethelbert had married Bertha, a Christian princess from what is now France, and part of the marriage agreement was that she should be able to practise her religion. Indeed, she had brought with her a Frankish bishop for that purpose. So Augustine and his party received a friendly welcome and Ethelbert gave them permission to preach throughout his kingdom. Soon, Ethelbert and 10,000 of his subjects had been baptized, and Augustine had set up his headquarters in Canterbury, becoming, in retrospect, the first Archbishop.

So there were, by 600, three strands of Christianity within Britain, though the bulk of England remained pagan. In Wales, Cornwall and the Lake District, there remained the native British or Celts. In Scotland, there were the churches set up first by Ninian and then by Columba, and in the South east, the Saxon Christians, so recently evangelized by Augustine and his followers. The differences between them were not so great as might be supposed. The Church of Gregory I was not Roman Catholic as we would know it today. It knew nothing of Mariolatry, of indulgences, of veneration of saints or icons, or of transubstantiation. Nor was the authority claimed by Gregory that of a Pope. At this time the Bishop of Rome was one of five ‘Patriarchs,’ the others being the Bishops of Jerusalem, Constantinople, Antioch and Alexandria. Indeed, Gregory wrote a stiff letter to his colleague in Constantinople when the latter styled himself ‘Universal Bishop’ {5}, utterly refuting any primacy among Bishops and declaring, “Whoever styles himself universal presbyter, or desires that title, is by his pride the forerunner of Antichrist.” Gregory did, however, wish to bring the Celtic churches under his authority, and this was the policy of Augustine and his successors.

Nor should the Celtic churches be thought of as ‘Protestant.’ When they objected to various practices of Rome, they did so not on the authority of Scripture, but on that of their own traditions. Certainly Columba and his followers were even more keen on monasteries than the Roman churches! The abbot tended to be a more powerful figure than the bishop. The discussions between the churches seem to have focused on the date of Easter and the tonsure of the monks, but the real difference was that of authority. The Celtic churches saw no reason why they should submit to bishops appointed by Rome when they already had their own bishops. The native British churches, moreover, wanted nothing to do with the Anglo-Saxons who had dispossessed them of most of their nation.

In 601, Augustine convened an assembly of Bishops at a place called Wigornia (possibly either Worcester or Hereford) and demanded the submission of the Welsh Christians to Rome. He was refused, and another synod fared no better. Not long after Augustine’s death in 604, however, the pagan Saxon king, Aethelfrith attacked the centre of Welsh Christianity at Bangor, slaughtered the Christians there and razed the town to the ground. One centre of opposition to Rome had thus disappeared. But it was at around this time that the fragility of the Roman conversion of Kent was revealed. The king, Ethelbert, had embraced Christianity and 10,000 of his subjects had been baptized. Now Ethelbert’s son, Eadbald, reverted to paganism, and his subjects with him. How thoroughly had Augustine and his monks done their work of discipleship? For a brief time it seemed that the missionaries might be cast out of the land. But after a few years Eadbald himself was baptized and the kingdom settled down again. Augustine’s missionaries had already brought their faith to Essex, but that kingdom too reverted to paganism and was not recovered until 653, by Celtic missionaries .

For around this time, Celtic Christianity finally moved into the North of England. King Oswald of Northumbria had been exiled to Scotland in his youth due to family reverses, and had been soundly converted by the Christians of Iona. In 633, he regained his kingdom and then asked for a Scottish missionary to help him to convert his subjects. It was not enough for him merely to command their baptism; he desired to save their souls. The first man sent from Iona was a failure; he found the Northumbrians too wild and obstinate. The second was a man named Aidan, and with the help of Oswald, the people quickly came to Christ. It is said that because Aidan did not speak the Saxon language well, Oswald himself would stand at his side and act as translator for him. Before the death of Oswald in battle in 642, Northumbria had soundly converted and Christianity had also been introduced to the kingdom of Wessex, when Oswald married the king’s daughter. Aidan had become Bishop of Lindisfarne, and from there the faith of the Celts spread southwards until the whole of England professed Christianity and for a while the Roman version of the faith still flourished only in Kent, though Wessex soon had a Bishop sent from Rome settled in Dorchester, and he led them to follow the Roman practices.

At Lindisfarne, the Gospels were reproduced in Latin, though there were only a few that could read them at this time. Of more practical benefit were the songs of Caedmon. This Caedmon was a swineherd living near the monastery at Whitby when he was discovered to have a great gift for song and poetry. He was taken into the monastery by abbess, Hilda, and soon composed songs in English commemorating the Creation, the Fall, the Exodus, the birth of Christ and of His and the Apostles’ teaching. These songs constituted a sort of Bible for the ordinary people, the words of which they could memorize and sing for themselves. In this way, the Gospel reached the illiterate mass of the population.

Things were about to change however. Oswy, Oswald’s successor as king of Northumbria, had married a princess, Eanfleda, who had been brought up in Kent and therefore followed the Roman method of dating Easter. So, as Bede tells us, whilst Oswy had ended Lent and was celebrating the Resurrection of our Lord, his wife was still observing Palm Sunday. Something had to give, and Oswy summoned representatives from the Ionan and Roman churches. Colman, who had recently become Abbot of Lindisfarne spoke on behalf of the Celtic churches and Wilfred, Bishop of Ripon represented Rome. The discussion {6} focused on the dating of Easter, and Wilfred claimed the authority of the Apostle Peter for his view, “To whom our Lord said, ‘You are Peter, and……I will give to you the keys of the kingdom of heaven.’” This was enough for Oswy. He declared, “Well, I must tell you that I am in no mind to go against this doorkeeper, but desire to obey his ordinances in everything, to the best of my knowledge and power. Otherwise, when I come to the doors of the kingdom of heaven, I may find no one to open to me, if I earn the displeasure of the one who so clearly holds the keys.” So England, later followed by Scotland, and eventually by Wales and Ireland, moved under the sphere of the Church of Rome.

At first, this change made very little difference to the ordinary English Christian, save that he celebrated Easter a week later than he would otherwise have done. The Popes of the 8th and 9th Centuries were mostly weak and corrupt, and they took little interest in far-away England. With only one exception, the Archbishops of Canterbury were Englishmen until the Norman Conquest. The Venerable Bede, whom we have mentioned before, died in 735, leaving to posterity his translation into Old English of the Gospel of John, the first such translation of the Scriptures. For the first time English men and women could hear the word of God read to them in their own tongue. Various other portions of Scripture were translated over the years until in 878, Alfred the Great, the only English king to bear that appellation, commanded the translation of the whole Bible and is believed to have rendered personally the first 50 Psalms into English. During this time, England was a centre of learning and piety. According to F.F. Bruce {7}, the study of Greek flourished in Saxon England when it had been lost in mainland Europe, and educated Englishmen were sought out by Continental monarchs {8}.

We hurry from Alfred all the way to the Norman Conquest. As every schoolboy knows (or used to know), in 1066 William of Normandy invaded England, and having defeated king Harold at the Battle of Hastings, he overthrew the whole of Saxon England. The language of the court became French and that of learning and the Church was Latin. So far as writing is concerned the English language almost disappears for 300 years, though doubtless it was still spoken by the mass of Englishmen, now reduced to servitude. At much the same time there was a revival of the Papacy, which had fallen into almost terminal decrepitude. This has become known as the Cluniac Revival after the monastery of Cluny in France. This monastery established a purer form of monastic life and planted a number of daughter monasteries over France and Germany. At the start of the 11th Century, the abbots of Cluny were more influential than the popes. Part of their aim was to encourage strong Christian monarchies which would govern according to Christian principles. This ‘top down’ approach has been shown not to work in the long run, but for a period it seemed to be successful.

In 1046, the Holy Roman Emperor Henry III arrived in Rome in order to be crowned by the Pope. To his consternation he found that there were actually three Popes squabbling for power amongst themselves. Henry was a product of the Cluniac revival and he acted swiftly, deposing all three Popes and imposing his own, more worthy candidate. This act has been called the “Cleansing of the Papacy” and it led to a series of reforming Popes culminating in a man called Hildebrand who became pope in 1073 as Gregory VII. These reforms included much needed changes such as the suppression of simony, but also doctrinal innovations such as the celibacy of priests (contra 1 Timothy 3:2) and the doctrine of Transubstantiation. Under Hildebrand, the Church of Rome became much closer to what we see today, but claimed much greater powers. When he became pope, he declared, “I am Peter’s vicar; he now lives in my body.” He also published in 1075 a “Papal Decree” which stated amongst other things:
Only the Roman pope is rightly called universal
The pope alone can depose and reinstate bishops.
The pope is the only one whose feet all princes must kiss.
The pope may depose emperors.
The pope may be judged by no one.
The Roman Church has never erred, and (as Scripture testifies), it never shall err to all eternity.

William I, the new king of England, supported certain of the Hildebrandine reforms, but he had not gained the throne at immense risk in order to be subject to someone else. He deposed Stigand, the Saxon Archbishop of Canterbury and installed an Italian, Lanfranc, in his place. But he also insisted on nominating all ecclesiastical offices himself and demanded that all decisions of synods should be countersigned by himself. Hildebrand, who had faced down the Holy Roman Emperor over a similar matter, thought better of opposing William and the matter was left for a time.

The appointment of the Italians Lanfranc and Anslem as successive Archbishops of Canterbury signalled the rise in the influence of the Church of Rome in Britain after the Norman Conquest. Although William and his sons, William II and Henry insisted on keeping Church appointments under their own control, William, however, permitted the establishment of Church courts running in parallel with civil courts. The original intention was that the Church courts would deal only with strictly religious matters, but their power grew steadily over the years until the English clergy were largely outside of English justice. A clergyman who was guilty of a crime worthy of death under English law would be tried in a Church court and if found guilty, merely be fined. The only way that a civil court could punish a priest was if a Church court stripped him of his priesthood and this almost never happened. No wonder it was said in England that, “The devil looks after his own.”

King Henry II (1154-1189) was determined to bring the clergy under control by abolishing or reforming the Church courts, but he was opposed firmly by his Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Becket. There followed the well-known story of Henry crying out in exasperation with his Archbishop, “Will no one rid me of this meddlesome priest?” Four of Henry’s knights took their master at his word, rode to Canterbury, entered the cathedral and bludgeoned Becket to death beneath the altar (1170).

The result of this gruesome murder was a frisson of horror that went all through Europe. Henry denied ordering the outrage, but Becket was regarded as a martyr and his tomb became a great site for pilgrimage throughout the Middle Ages. Henry was forced by Pope Alexander III to humble himself by doing public penance and to give up his attempt to reform the Church courts.

Worse was to follow from the English monarchy’s point of view. Henry’s son John, who became king in 1199, wished to appoint his own candidate to the post of Archbishop of Canterbury. However, Pope Innocent III, perhaps the most powerful and autocratic of all the Popes, rejected his candidate and appointed Stephen Langton to the position. John refused to accept Langton and the upshot of this spat was that in 1208 Innocent placed England under an ‘Interdict.’ This meant that no church services, no masses, no spiritual happenings of any sort could take place, only funerals, and baptisms when the candidate was not expected to live. King John, as readers of A.A. Milne will know, was not a good man. He was not in the least concerned about attending church. He blustered, threatening to expel all the clergy from England if the interdict continued, but Innocent was firm. The stalemate continued for four years until in 1212, Innocent lost patience, excommunicated John, released the English barons from their oaths of fealty and called upon the other kings of Europe to join in a crusade to dethrone John. John was already having problems enough with his barons and caved in completely. Indeed, he surrendered his entire kingdom to the Pope, England become effectively the property of the Papacy. A special annual tax was levied on the English clergy by the Church of Rome and John accepted Langton as Archbishop. The whole nation lay at the feet of the Roman Pope. Innocent wrote triumphantly to John:

‘…..Over all [God] has set one person whom he has appointed as his vicar on earth, so that all men should obey his vicar and strive to live as one fold with one shepherd, even as every knee bows to Jesus in heaven, on earth and under the earth. All secular kings venerate this vicar for God’s sake, so that they doubt if they are reigning properly unless they serve him faithfully.
To this, my dearly beloved son, you have paid wise attention; and by the gracious inspiration of him in whose hand lie the hearts of kings which He turns wherever He pleases, you have chosen to submit yourself and your kingdom in a secular sense to him who already ruled them spiritually [i.e. The Pope] , so that the kingdom and priesthood might be united like body and soul in the single person of Christ’s vicar. He has condescended to work this miracle……….so that the provinces which have been under the spiritual teaching authority of the Holy Roman Church from oldest times should now also accept her as their secular sovereign. God has chosen you as a suitable servant to bring this about by a devout and free act of will; and on the general advice of your barons, you have offered and surrendered yourself and your kingdoms of England and Ireland, with all their rights and al that pertains to them, to God and His apostles, St. Peter and St. Paul, and to the Holy Roman Church, and to us and our successors, to be our right and property, giving us an annual payment of a thousand marks…….’


{1} Tertullian, Against the Jews, 7.
{2} Origen, Homily on Luke, 1.
{3} Gildas, Ruin and Complaint of Britain, 20.
{4} Now known as St. Augustine of Canterbury, and not to be confused with the great Augustine of Hippo.
{5} First Letter to John of Constantinople.
{6} According to Bede, History of the Church, III:25.
{7} F.F. Bruce. The Spreading Flame.
{8} This had been discussed back in the 8th Century, but did not become really widely accepted until the 11th Century. It was not officially sanctioned until the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215.
{9} Innocent III, Letter to King John of England. Quoted by N. Needham, 2,000 Years of Christ’s Power Vol. 2 (Grace Publications, 2,000).


  1. At first glance (all I have had so far!) this looks as though it is going to be really interesting. Thanks, Martin!

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