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St Paulinus, the ‘awe-inspiring’ priest who helped convert an English king

Paulinus (died 644) played the principal role in the conversion of Northumberland, which by 625 had become the most powerful of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, stretching from the Humber to the Firth of Forth, and from the North Sea to the Pennines.

Unusually for someone of that period, we have an idea of Paulinus’s appearance. The Venerable Bede described him as “tall, with a slight stoop, black hair, a thin face, a slender aquiline nose, at once venerable and awe-inspiring in appearance”.

Probably he had once been a priest in Rome. Certainly he was a member of the second mission which Pope Gregory sent to Kent, in 601.

For the next 24 years nothing is known about Paulinus. Evidently, though, he built a reputation, for when, in 625, Princess Ethelberga of Kent married the pagan King Edwin of Northumbria, Paulinus travelled north with her.

Perhaps he had been the mastermind behind this match’s deeper purpose, to secure the conversion of Edwin. This proved difficult, for the king had prospered as a heathen. Even encouraging letters sent to Edwin and Ethelberga by Pope Boniface V did not prove conclusive. Bede describes how the king “used to sit alone for hours, deliberating which religion he should follow”.

In 626 Paulinus claimed some Christian credit for the safe birth of a daughter to Edwin and Ethelberga. The baby princess was baptised, and the king promised to follow suit if his forthcoming campaign against the West Saxons proved successful.

Yet after the enemy was put to flight Edwin still hesitated. Clearly worried about the political implications of conversion, he called a council.

One of his advisers made a powerful speech in which he compared the heathen life to the passage of a lone sparrow which momentarily flies out of the wintry storms into the warm and hospitable banqueting hall, before winging out again into the darkness.

After that the pagan high priest, no doubt heavily lent upon, renounced his religion, and destroyed his idols.
On Easter Day, April 12 627, in a timber chapel erected at York, King Edwin was finally baptised, “together with all the nobility and a large number of humbler folk”.

Subsequently Paulinus became the first Bishop of York. He pursued his Northumbrian mission for six more years, during which the temporary wooden chapel began its evolution into York Minster.

Paulinus also preached in Lincolnshire. Such was his prestige that, around 630, he was called upon to consecrate a fellow Italian, Honorius, as Archbishop of Canterbury.

In October 633, however, King Edwin was slain in battle by the forces of the paganissimus King Penda of Mercia. Paulinus fled with Queen Ethelberga back to Kent, where Archbishop Honorius returned the favour by installing him as Bishop of Rochester.