Early Churches in Britain


St Martin's Exterior

Christianity came to Britain by the third century AD.  The first recorded martyrs in Britain were St. Alban and Aaron and Julius, citizens of Carlisle, during the reign of Diocletian (264-305 AD).   After the legalization of Christianity during the fourth century AD, Christianity grew in Britain.  When the Romans left in 407 AD, however, Celtic Christianity became more isolated and developed its own theologies which differed from the Roman Church.  The presence of the pagan Anglo-Saxons pushed the Celts to the west and north of Britain.

Glasgow Cathedral

The Celtic church differed from the Roman Church in three main ways:  the Baptism rites differed, the determination for the date of Easter, and the style of tonsure the priests wore.  While the Roman Church custom decreed that priests’ and monks’ tonsure (shaven area of head) lie in a round circle at the crown, the Celtic priests shaved the front of their heads. The Celts also pursued the peregrination (a wandering exile from home) as penance for their sins-example included St Patrick and Columba. 

St Martin's Interior

          In 597 AD Pope Gregory sent Bishop Augustine to return the Celtic Church of Britain and Ireland into the Roman fold.  Twenty years before, the Anglo-Saxon Ethelbert of Kent married the Frankish princess Bertha.  Ethelbert who had promised she could continue her Christian worship gave her an old Roman building in Canterbury to serve as her royal chapel.  St. Martin of Tours is one of the oldest churches in existence in Britain.  Augustine was welcomed by Ethelbert and though he did not convert until later, he allowed the Bishop to proselytize the pagan Anglo Saxons. 

St Perter's On the Wall Essex Built 654 AD

The Venerable Bede wrote in his “Ecclesiastical History of the English Nation” of Queen Bertha’s chapel: “In this church they first began to meet, to chant the psalms, to pray, to say Mass, to preach, and to baptise, until when the king had been converted to the faith they received greater liberty to preach everywhere and to build or restore churches.”  Bede also records the meeting of Augustine and the Celtic Church leaders near the border of Kent at what became known as Augustine’s Oak.  A series of Synods (Most notably, the Synod of Whitby in 664) eventually brought the Celtic Church into compliance with the Roman Church.

St Alphaege Canterbury

     Also pictured is St. Alphege’s which was built around 1070 by Archbishop Lanfranc of Canterbury. When Danes under Earl Thorkell invaded in 1011 they took Alphege captive. The witan (council) agreed to pay the Danes the exorbitant sum of £84,000 to leave. The Danes wanted an extra £3000 to free Alphege, but the Archbishop urged his countrymen to refuse the ransom. The Danes killed Alphege in a rage by throwing beef bones at him. He was eventually buried in Canterbury Cathedral, near the high altar. It was rebuilt in the 12th century, and again in the 13th and 15th centuries. St Alphege ceased being used as a church in 1982. Also pictured is the 12th century Scottish cathedral in Glasgow and St Peter on the Wall which was built in 684 AD.

Tomorrow, the Norman Conquest   Rita Bay

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