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Sunday, 16 October 2011

Saint Augustine of Canterbury

Saint Augustine (d604) was a respected Abbot of St Andrew Monastery in Rome who in 595 was chosen by Pope Gregory to convert England to Christianity.

Augustine's mission came about when Pope Gregory I spotted some Angles (British) boys who had been bought to Rome. On being told they were pagan "angli" the pope exclaimed "They are not Angles but Angels". Inspired he instructs the respected abbot, Augustine to lead a mission to convert Britain. "Certainly do not destroy the temples of the idols that the English have", he wisely recommended, "sprinkle them with holy water and let altars be constructed."

On their way to England every step of the way, Augustine and his party of 40 read the terrifying stories of the cruelty and barbarity of their future hosts. Augustine was "struck with a cowardly fear." By the time they reached Aix-en-Provence in France, the stories had become so frightening that for a time they turned back before Pope Gregory persuaded them to proceed on.

Augustine landed in Kent at Ebbsfleet, Isle of Thanet accompanied by his party of 40 monks in 597. The King of Kent Æthelberht's Frankish wife, Bertha was a Christian and he considered the claims of the Catholic missionary for a time before converting and on June 2, 597 he was baptized.

Sculpture of Æthelberht on Canterbury Cathedral in England

Æthelberht permitted the missionaries to settle and preach in his capital of Canterbury where they used the church of St Martin's for services.

On Christmas Day 597 Augustine of Canterbury and his fellow missionary monks baptized in Kent more than 10,000 Anglo-Saxons.

Augustine sent a report of this encouraging progress to the pope and Gregory responded by dispatching more missionaries to help with the work.

He was Mediterranean looking, tall, distinguished. Augustine's lofty stature and patrician presence attracted every eye for he was "taller than any of the people from his shoulders and upwards."

Augustine founded Kings School Canterbury. It is the oldest still existing school in Britain and maybe in the world.

The Bible sent by Pope Gregory to Augustine for his English trip can be found in Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge.

Augustine was the first Archbishop of Canterbury and made Canterbury the seat of authority for the church in England. He provided the basis from which the Church of England parish system has grown.

Augustine died on May 26, 604. His body was originally buried in the portico of what is now St Augustine's, Canterbury, but it was later exhumed and placed in a tomb within the abbey church, which became a place of pilgrimage and veneration.

Augustine's gravesite at Canterbury

The only surviving writings of Augustine are questions he asked Pope Gregory on behalf of the Anglo Saxons such as "Can expectant mothers be baptized?" He referred to the English in those writings as "uncouth."

The Benedictine Abbey he established at Canterbury became the center of learning and scholarship for all Europe.

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