About twenty minutes’ drive from my house is St Augustine’s golf course, near Ramsgate in Kent. If you make a mess of your approach to the green on the eighteenth hole, your ball may end up in a small enclosure between the fairway and a minor road. This enclosure, bound by an elderly wooden fence and low edges, contains a large stone cross, about ten feet high.
The cross was erected in the late nineteenth century by the Earl Granville, a prominent Victorian politician and local worthy, to mark the spot where – according to long-standing local tradition – the missionary St Augustine first met King Ethelbert of Kent in 597, and first preached to the people of Kent.
This Augustine, not to be confused with his North African namesake the bishop of Hippo, author of The Confessions (who died in 430), had been dispatched by Pope Gregory the Great to spread Christianity among the Anglo-Saxons, who were relative newcomers to what is now England, having arrived during the fifth and sixth centuries.
You can see his tomb, and those of his immediate successors, at the ruined St Augustine’s Abbey in Canterbury.
In the old-fashioned textbook version of English history, this meeting has an important place. It is viewed as the real beginning of English Christianity. The book 1066 And All That – a hilarious satire on such history – has it as follows: “The conversion of England was thus effected by the landing of St Augustine in Thanet and other places, which resulted in the country being overrun by a Wave of Saints”.
Of course it’s a bit more complicated than that.
Roman Britain had a significant Christian presence, including the well-known if possibly misunderstood heretic Pelagius, an exact contemporary of the other St Augustine (of Hippo). Even after the departure of the legions around 410, and the subsequent defeat of the Romano-British and Britons by invading pagan Anglo-Saxons, British Christians continued to practice in the emptier and wilder western areas of Great Britain, notably Cornwall and Wales.
Irish missionaries had also made inroads into several parts of the island, especially in Scotland and northern England. Ethelbert’s queen Bertha was a Christian, the daughter of the King of Paris, and Kent had close links to some of the Christian kingdoms on the continent.
All the same, the conventional view does contain a lot of truth. Augustine’s arrival was a clear starting point for the large-scale conversion of the English peoples to Christianity, and a necessary condition for the later uniting of them into one English kingdom, and their integration into the mainstream of European culture.
By the time of the Holy Roman Emperor Charlemagne, in the later eighth century, there were English scholars at the imperial court. King Alfred the Great, born a century after Charlemagne, corresponded with Rome, even though by then the cultural life of England had been badly damaged by the Viking invasions.
This interaction would not have been possible without the Augustinian mission, even if it was not the only influence on the growth of Christianity here.
At a time when questions of national identity and heritage are very much up in the air, and a new multicultural England is coming into being, Augustine of Canterbury is a great symbol of a national unity and history founded not on ethnicity, but on the universal faith of Christianity, and the shared belonging to a place.
For this reason, we should cherish him.
Niall Gooch is a regular Chapter House columnist. He also contributes to UnHerd.