See of Canterbury Is Established Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The See of Canterbury facilitated the conversion of the Kentish kingdom to Christianity by bringing England back into the Catholic Church and firmly reestablishing English ties to the Continent.

Summary of Event

Although the Church in England Christianity;England England;Christianity was sufficiently well established by the fourth century to be represented by bishops at church councils on the Continent, it survived the Anglo-Saxon invasion only in remote areas in the west and north and, like other aspects of English culture, failed to influence the heathen Germanic settlers to any significant extent. Nearly a century and a half after the first settlements, the conversion of the English was undertaken by an abbot named Gregory Gregory the Great , who would later become Pope Gregory the Great. Saint Bede the Venerable recorded that Gregory’s interest in the English was aroused by the sight of English youths sent to Rome to be sold as slaves. Gregory was impressed by their fair complexions and was moved to inquire about their origin, expressing a desire that their people be saved from the darkness of heathenism. As a consequence of this encounter, Gregory is said to have sought permission to undertake the mission himself. The pope granted permission, but popular demand forced Gregory to abandon the project and remain in Rome. [kw]See of Canterbury Is Established (596-597) [kw]Canterbury Is Established, See of (596-597) Canterbury, see of England;596-597: See of Canterbury Is Established[0190] Organizations and institutions;596-597: See of Canterbury Is Established[0190] Religion;596-597: See of Canterbury Is Established[0190] Gregory the Great Augustine of Canterbury, Saint Æthelbert I Bertha Paulinus, Saint

Canterbury Cathedral in Kent, England.


In 595, five years after he became pope, Gregory wrote to a priest to arrange for the education of Anglo-Saxon boys in monasteries in Gaul, perhaps so that they could later contribute to missionary work in their native land. In the following year, he dispatched a missionary party from Rome to preach to the English in Kent, the chief kingdom south of the Humber River. Augustine Augustine of Canterbury , prior of Saint Andrew’, a monastery that Gregory founded and where he served as abbot, was put in charge of a party of about forty monks. In southern Gaul, the mission lost heart and sent its leader back to ask Gregory to give up his plan. The pope ordered the group to continue and gave Augustine absolute authority by making him abbot over the monks. Gregory also provided commendatory letters to influential secular and ecclesiastical officials in Gaul so that the dangers of the journey might be lessened.

In 597, Augustine and his party arrived in Kent and met King Æthelbert I Æthelbert I on the Isle of Thanet. Æthelbert was acquainted with Christianity, for he had married a Christian Frankish princess, Bertha Bertha , some nine years before. Bertha had brought with her a priest, Luithard, and had continued to practice her religion in her new country, using a church that had survived from Roman times. Moreover, Kentish merchants engaged frequently in trade with their Frankish neighbors and must have brought back information about Christianity. Whatever the influence of these political and economic ties may have been, Æthelbert received Augustine with hospitality and granted the missionaries permission to preach, endowing the group with land for churches.

Some scholars speculate that Æthelbert welcomed the mission from Rome so quickly because it provided him with a means of showing his independence from the growing power of the Franks, giving allegiance to Gregory in Rome instead. Scholars disagree about the date of Æthelbert’s conversion. Some place it in 597, soon after Augustine’s arrival; others believe that it was postponed until as late as 601. The date of Augustine’s consecration as archbishop of Canterbury is also in dispute. Most scholars agree that it took place at Autun late in 597, when the success of the mission seemed assured, but a few maintain that Augustine was consecrated before he arrived in Kent.

The work in Kent apparently went well, for in one of his letters written in 598, Gregory mentioned that ten thousand Anglo-Saxons had been baptized. This information he doubtless received from messengers whom Augustine sent to Rome that year to report on the progress of the mission and to request additional help and answers to questions about the new church. Gregory’s response to Augustine was delayed until 601, when he sent competent men to join the mission, a pallium for Augustine, letters to Æthelbert and Bertha urging their support of the church, answers to Augustine’s questions, and instructions for the episcopal organization of all England. In answering Augustine’s questions, the pope instructed his archbishop to bring the native church in England under the authority of Rome because, during its long isolation from Rome, it had developed practices that differed from those of the Western church as a whole and that distinguished Celtic from Roman Christianity. Gregory’s desire for a Christian England, unified in its acceptance of Roman Catholic doctrine and having a well-defined and efficient episcopal structure, was not realized for many years. In addition, the archbishopric he established at Canterbury did not play a major role in the Catholic Church in England until more than seventy years after Augustine’s landing. Augustine and his successor, Lawrence, attempted to extend the Christian faith outside Kent into the neighboring kingdoms of Essex and East Anglia, but the results proved to be superficial and short-lived.

A later mission to Northumbria Northumbria;Christianity Christianity;Northumbria under Saint Paulinus Paulinus, Saint was dramatically successful for a brief period but was brought to an end by a resurgence of heathenism. The manner of Paulinus’s conversion of the Northumbrians, however, remained significant in the development of Christianity in England. In his instructions to Paulinus regarding the best way to proceed in his mission, Gregory counseled him not to destroy the pagan temples or their customs and observances but rather to transform what he found, baptizing or Christianizing the old observances to make them new.

The story is told memorably by Bede. A Northumbrian counselor, listening to Paulinus preach, counsels his king that this life on earth is like warriors feasting in a hall when, at one door, a sparrow flies in from the dark and cold, circles the warmth and light for a few minutes, and then is gone out the other door into darkness again. Christianity, the counselor argues, unlike their paganism, offers an answer to what lies beyond the two doors. The chief priest then rides into the temple and pulls down the idols worshiped there, but the temple remains and is consecrated to Christian worship.

Most of the work of conversion outside Kent fell to others, primarily to the Irish, who, like the Britons, were adherents of Celtic Christianity Christianity;Celtic . Augustine’s effort to enlist the support of the Celtic church merely aggravated hostility in southern England between the two churches. Here, too, the lead was eventually taken by others.

Augustine’s success was limited to the establishment of the See of Canterbury. With its establishment and survival, written learning and written law, Latin architecture, liturgy, and civilization were established in England. Despite a strong revival of heathenism under Eadbald, Æthelbert’s successor, the see remained occupied and the succession of archbishops was uninterrupted until 664. Christianity in Kent was soon well established.


Although it did not play a major role for many years, the see was the traditional center for Roman Christianity in England and provided a model to others in its organization and in its school for bishops. When, in 669, Theodore arrived from Rome to fill the vacancy at Canterbury, he made use of the foundations that had already been laid for the organization of the Church under the leadership of Canterbury and for the establishment of centers of learning that were to make England the intellectual leader of the Western world in the eighth century.

Canterbury’s emergence from its struggle for primacy with the rival see of York in the later Middle Ages and its close association with the English monarch as spiritual father, adviser, and consecrator elevated its power further in English national life until the advent of the Reformation in the sixteenth century, when the monarch emerged not only as protector of the Church but as its head as well. In succeeding centuries, the see of Canterbury continued to be inseparably linked with king and country in national life.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bede. A History of the English Church and People. Translated by Leo Sherley-Price. New York: Penguin, 1981. Originally written in Latin in the eighth century, this work constitutes the chief source of written information about the early English Church.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Edwards, David L. Christian England: Its Story to the Reformation. New York: Oxford University Press, 1980-1984. A multivolume narrative giving a long-range view of the English Church, from the Romans through the Reformation.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gallyon, Margaret. The Early Church in Eastern England. Lavenham, England: Terence Dalton, 1973. Gallyon provides a scholarly but readable account of the earliest missions in Kent, Sussex, Essex, and East Anglia, including those of Augustine and Saint Wilfrid. Illustrated.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Godfrey, John. The Church in Anglo-Saxon England. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1962. A general and fairly comprehensive account of the early English Church.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Green, Michael A. St. Augustine of Canterbury. London: Janus, 1997. Historical analysis of Augustine’s journey to England, his missionary work, and the reverberating effects on the history of religion and life in Britain.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hillerbrand, Hans J., ed. The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Reformation. 4 vols. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996. Covers the Reformation in the context of European church history and theology.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Sims-Williams, Patrick. Religion and Literature in the West of England, 600-800. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990. Although it does not specifically cover the founding of the See of Canterbury, this work demonstrates how a concentrated examination on the regional level of all the evidence can reconstruct a fuller picture.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Yorke, Barbara. Kings and Kingdoms of Early Anglo-Saxon England. London: Seaby, 1990. Yorke provides a detailed discussion of the origins of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms and the relations between king and church.

Categories: History