Project Canterbury

S. Augustine's, Canterbury: Its Rise, Ruin, and Restoration.

By G. F. Maclear.

London: Wells Gardner, Darton & Co., 1888.

[1] S. Augustine's, Canterbury.



A.D. 597-A.D. 1066.

'"Turn from this City, O Lord," they sang, "Thine anger and wrath, and turn it from Thy Holy House, for we have sinned." And then in strange contrast came the jubilant cry of the older Hebrew worship--the cry which Gregory had wrested in prophetic earnestness from the name of the Yorkshire King in the Roman market-place, "Alleluia."'--GREEN's Making of England.

THE stranger who is borne rapidly along the railway through the luxuriant hop-grounds and cherry-orchards of Kent, cannot fail to be struck with the air of antiquity that meets him as he draws near the ancient city of Canterbury. Like the Cathedral at Cologne, the Canterbury Minster is visible from a considerable distance long before any of the rest of the town can be seen, and marks the spot which has been the resort of crowds of pilgrims. But there is another [1/2] building, not so conspicuous to the view of the traveller, which has an equally remarkable history, and is one of the most ancient centres of early Christian teaching--the Monastery of S. Augustine. Its foundation connects itself with the story, so old and yet so ever fresh, of the meeting in the market-place of Rome between Gregory the Great, then a Roman deacon, [(1) One of the seven regionary deacons of Rome, and Abbot of the religious house he had founded on the Clian Hill.] and a group of slaves from our island. Every one has heard how, amongst the newly arrived [(2) Bede, H. E. ii. 1. The date of Gregory's meeting with the English slaves at Rome is fixed between 585 and 588 by the fact that after his long stay at Constantinople, he returned to Rome in 585 or 586. On the other hand, Ælla, whom the slaves owned as their King, died in 588.--GREEN's Making of England, p. 216, n.] bales of goods, he noticed three boys distinguished for their fair complexion, their fair faces, and their light flaxen hair. 'What is the name of the nation from which these slaves are brought?' asked Gregory of the trader. 'They are Angles,' was his reply. Struck with pity, he answered, playing with the word in poetic humour, 'Rightly are they called "Angles," for their faces are the faces of angels, and they ought to be fellow-heirs with the angels of heaven.' 'And from what country,' he proceeded, 'do they come?' 'From Deira,' [(3) The country from the Humber to the Wear.] said [2/3] the merchant. 'De ira!' was the untranslatable reply of the deacon. 'Rightly are they called "Deirans." From the ire of God are they plucked, and to the mercy of God are they called.' 'And what is the name of their King?' 'Ælla,' was the answer. The word reminded him of the Hebrew expression of praise, and he answered, 'Alleluia shall be sung in. Ælla's land.'

Years passed away, but Gregory never forgot that moving sight. Once he set out himself secretly from Rome, and was pushing on towards the Alps that he might cross over to the land of those 'angel-faces,' when he was recalled by the united voice of the Roman people to become Pope himself in 590. Six years passed away, and then he found himself able to carry out his dream of winning over Britain to the Faith. The marriage of Bertha with Æthelbert, the Kentish King, who had established his sway over a large part of the island, gave him the opportunity he had sought, and after cautious negotiations with the Frankish rulers of Gaul for the protection of his missionaries, he sent Augustine from the Benedictine Monastery of S. Andrew on the Clian Hill, to undertake the arduous but glorious task. With forty companions Augustine set out, and after a tedious journey over the Alps and through Gaul, landed at Ebbe's Fleet, in the Isle of Thanet, and at the [3/4] invitation of Æthelbert entered the rude city of Canterbury, then embosomed in thickets, bearing before them a silver cross with a picture of Christ, and chanting a solemn Litany. Taking up their abode in the Stable Gate, near the present Church of S. Alphege, the little band laboured on, and on the Feast of Whit-Sunday the King was baptized. Augustine then restored the church in the city, which had been built by Roman believers, and dedicated it in the name of the Divine Saviour, our Lord Jesus Christ. Then he purified and consecrated, in the name of S. Pancras, [(1) In order that by the selection of this saint, he might keep in memory the spot where he had himself lived for so long a time at Rome, for the Monastery of S. Andrew was situated on the ground which had once been the property of the noble family to which S. Pancras belonged.--See Pauli's Pictures of Old England, p. 9.] a small temple, midway between the city walls and the Church of S. Martin, selecting for the patron-saint of his church the youthful martyr who had been put to death for his faith during the Diocletian persecution. He next founded a monastery not far from the city, towards the east, 'In which,' says Bede, 'Æthelbert built the church of the blessed Apostles, Peter and Paul, and endowed it with various gifts.' [(2) Bede, H. E. i. 33.] From this beginning rose the establishment afterwards known as the Abbey of S. Peter, S. Paul, and S. Augustine. The main [4/5] object both of the King and S. Augustine was to provide in the new monastery an appropriate burial-place, not only for themselves, but their successors in all future ages. The site, therefore, was chosen without the walls, [(1) By the side of the great paved Roman road, which then ran from Dover to Canterbury over S. Martin's Hill.] for the rule of Roman and of Saxon Britain, as well as of Rome itself, forbade the burial of a dead man within the city, [(2) As also, so Thomas of Elmham seems to think, in fancied imitation of our Lord Himself, who 'suffered without the gate.'--Thomas of Elmham, Hist. Mon. S. Aug., Ch, 10, Rolls Series.] and thus the spot in which were buried the remains of the first primate of England and the first Christian English king, served to remind the far-travelled companions of Augustine in their remote mission of the Appian Way in the great capital of the West, as the church of S. Pancras was intended to remind them of the Clian Hill and their distant homes.

Augustine died on the 26th of May, 605, with the joint titles of Abbot and Archbishop. He was succeeded by Peter, the first sole Abbot, and one of his companions. Being drowned soon after on his passage to France, whither he had been sent on a mission by the King, he was succeeded, in 607, by John, another of the associates of the first primate. In his time the Church of the Abbey was completed, and on its [5/6] consecration by Laurentius, in 613, the remains of Augustine were transported thither from the open cemetery where they had been first interred, [(1) While the bodies of his Queen Bertha and her chaplain Luidhardt were laid in the porch of S. Martin.] and the name of the first primate of England was occasionally substituted for those of the two great Apostles. Æthelbert endowed the Abbey with large and rich possessions, and Gregory provided the materials for the first Library of the brethren, sending amongst other volumes two MS. Gospels, written in Roman uncials with gold on a purple ground, one of which is preserved in the Bodleian Library at Oxford, and the other at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge.

The first four Abbots were the companions of the Mission of the founder. The fifth, Petronius, was of Roman birth. He was succeeded, in 655, by Nathanael, who had come to England with Mellitus and Justus. The seventh, Abbot Adrian, was sent to England by Pope Vitalian as companion and adviser of Archbishop Theodore, lest any shade of Greek heterodoxy should be introduced by the new primate into Britain. Adrian was an African by birth, and had been Abbot of the monastery of Niridia, near Naples. He was learned in sacred literature, and [6/7] skilled in the Latin and Greek languages, [(1) Bede, H. E., iv. 1.] and governed the Abbey from 673 to 708. Greek was, of course, the native tongue of Theodore of Tarsus, and with the new Abbot by his side, a famous school was established at Canterbury, where the scheme of instruction embraced not only Latin and Greek, but 'the astronomy, .the arithmetic, and the poetic art of the time,' [(2) Green's Making of England, p. 305.] and the two eminent men gathered round them a crowd of disciples. One of these scholars was Albinus, Adrian's successor. To him we owe a great debt of gratitude. We have Bede's own assurance that it was he who had the chief hand in inducing him to write his history of the English Church, [(3) Bede, H. E., Preface.] and who supplied him with information concerning Kent and the adjoining regions.

But Adrian and Theodore had a still more eminent pupil. This was Aldhelm, of princely blood, [(4) A kinsman of the royal house of Wessex, and probably a son of one of the West-Saxon Kings.--Green's Making of England, p. 336.] from the district of the West Saxons. Born about the middle of the seventh century, and educated first under Maidulf, an Irish wanderer, in the woodlands of Malmesbury, he removed to Canterbury, and made [7/8] himself master of all the knowledge of his day. On his return to Wessex he became Maidulf's successor, and greatly promoted the spread of the Christian faith in the West of England. His exertions made Wessex during the first half of the eighth century a rival of Northumbria, and he occupies a very important position in the history of English literature. 'He was the first Englishman who cultivated classical learning with any success, and the first of whom any literary remains are preserved.' [(1) Bishop Stubbs in Smith's Dict. Eccl. Biog., i. 78.] Moreover, he was the first singer of his race, and the English songs, with which he attracted groups of hearers around him, were the means of winning not a few to the faith, and led the way in that upgrowth of popular poetry which was soon to fill the land with English verse. Thus, while 'Cambridge was a desolate fen, and Oxford was a tangled forest in a wide waste of waters,' [(2) Stanley's Memorials of Canterbury, p. 26.] classical knowledge and English learning flourished in the mother school of Canterbury. Albinus is said to have become afterwards Abbot of Tournay, but it is more probable that he died Abbot of S. Augustine's, and was buried in the church of S. Mary under the Abbey. Cuthbert, the great friend of the eminent missionary S. Boniface, obtained permission for the burial of the Archbishops [8/9] of Canterbury in their own Cathedral Church instead of at S. Augustine's. The circumstances of his interment were remarkable. The bell tolled for his decease in 758, and the monks of S. Augustine's came in procession to the palace to carry off the body of the deceased prelate and inter it in their church. Now for the first time they heard that Cuthbert had died three days before, and had been laid in his grave at Christ's Church in the dead of night. This excited great wrath, and on the death of Bregwin, his successor, Jambert, the Abbot of S. Augustine's, went with a number of soldiers to claim the body. Finding, however, that the monks of Christ Church had repeated the stratagem which had succeeded so well in the case of Cuthbert, he complained loudly of the injustice, and appealed to the Pope for redress. Admiring his courage, or hoping in this way to settle the dispute between the rival Abbeys, the monks of Christ Church elected Jambert Archbishop, and all his successors were buried there.

Of Jambert's successors in the Abbacy little is known beyond their names and the dates of their appointment. Meanwhile the Monastery had become a centre of greater influence than that which was attached to it as the burial-place of Kings and Archbishops. Owing its existence to the missionary S. Augustine, it [9/10] laboured to develop missionary work throughout the neighbouring regions, and to be a centre of light to the kingdoms around. But this was not all. The brothers of the monastery did not keep the faith to themselves. When the Teuton of the Continent began to cry from his native forests, like the Macedonians of old, 'Come over and help us,' the sons of the early evangelised English Church were prepared to go forth in their turn and emulate the zeal of their Celtic predecessors. Wilfrid and Willibrord, Egbert and Willehad, and many others, Teutons themselves, devoted themselves to evangelising the Teutons of Frisia and northern Germany. Shortly after the year 710 we find Winfrid, or, as he was afterwards known, S. Boniface, sent by King Ina to consult Archbishop Birhtwald and attend a Council summoned by that prelate. We may be sure he would visit the famous monastic school at Canterbury, and strengthen those early impressions which were already beckoning him on to his subsequent career of self-devotion and his death by martyrdom on the shore of the Zuyder Zee. [(1) See his letter written afterwards to the Bishops, Clergy, and principal Abbots in England, begging for aid in his Mission on the Continent.--Ep, xxxii, Migne, Patrologia, Sæc, viii.] The disciples of Adrian and Theodore, of Albinus and Aldhelm, little knew how much depended [10/11] on their labours. They knew not, they who toiled here in Kent, that God had given these half-barbarian islanders among whom they had cast in their lot, a treasure far more precious in their iron and coal fields than silver and gold, and that these dark, intractable minerals [(1) See Bishop Lightfoot's Sermon, preached at Bedford, on the 'Mustard Seed and the Leaven.'] would in the lapse of centuries become the chief means alike of locomotion and manufacture, so that their ships should anchor in all ports, and their tongue be heard in all lands, and their customs, institutions, modes of thought, be transplanted to the most diverse regions of the globe. They knew not, they never dreamt, that in spite of many faults in their natural character, these peoples possessed a spirit of enterprise and a stubbornness of determination, which could fit them to occupy not only a high and lordly place in Europe, but to colonise half a new-found world, 'to inherit India, to fill the islands of unknown seas, to be the craftsmen, the traders, the colonists, the explorers of the earth, and with their brethren on the Continent to be the fathers of a nobler and grander Europe than any that history had yet known.' [(2) Dean Church's Christianity and the Teutonic Races, pp. 99, 101.] All this was hidden from their sight, while Abbot succeeded Abbot in the monastery of S. Augustine, of [11/12] many of whom little is known beyond their names and the dates of their appointment. But it was not hidden from the providence of God.

In 978 we stand on somewhat surer ground. In this year Elfnoth, the 35th Abbot, re-dedicated the church in the names of S. Peter, S. Paul, and S. Augustine; and now the comparatively peaceful times during the reigns of the Saxon Kings were succeeded by the troubled period of the Danish invasions. Almost all Æthelbert's successors had added something to the rapidly increasing possessions of the Abbey, and in Thorn's Chronicle we have long lists of deeds of gift, and confirmations of rights, privileges, and immunities. In the time of Elmer, the 38th Abbot, the Danes invaded England, and harassed the shores of Kent. The Abbey, however, remained secure, and escaped the general pillage and slaughter. Some few, indeed, bolder or more mischievous than the rest, attempted, we are told, to pillage the shrine, and one tore off the rich pall from the altar of S. Augustine, and drew upon himself a terrible, if not a miraculous, punishment. The Danes, therefore, found it safer, and perhaps more profitable, to protect than to pillage. Cnut the Mighty, on his arrival, was ever a generous friend to the Abbey, and almost to the exclusion, it is said, of all others, bestowed upon it many gifts, and chose from the society [12/13] bishops and abbots for many places. Ulfric, the 40th Abbot, was sent by Edward the Confessor to the Council of Rheims in A.D. 1046; and while on a mission at Rome, some years after, obtained from the Pope authority to occupy in councils a place and dignity next to the Abbot of Monte Casino, the great head of the Benedictine Order.

Project Canterbury