Paulinus, the first Bishop of York, was a Roman missionary who came on a mission in 601 to the Anglo-Saxons. He next appears in the history books in 625, disappearing for the next 20 years, probably in Kent, the first of the Saxon kingdoms to turn Christian under King Ethelbert (under his son, it reverted again briefly).
In 625 Paulinus accompanied King Eadbald of Kent’s sister on her journey to marry King Edwin of Northumbria, then the most powerful of the seven kingdoms. It would be, for the faith, a marriage of great importance, with Edwin and most of his subjects converting to the faith.
Paulinus also included St Hilda of Whitby, who would become one of the most important figures in the Anglo-Saxon Church.
Bede described Paulinus as “a man tall of stature, a little stooping, with black hair and a thin face, a hooked and thin nose, his aspect
both venerable and awe-inspiring”.
Paulinus persuaded the then pagan Edwin that the birth of a daughter, at a time when a Wessex-backed assassination attempt failed, was down to his prayers, and the king called a council on the subject of whether to convert. Edwin’s conversion would include, as later recalled by Bede, one of the most poignant passages of speech in medieval Europe. Debating whether they should abandon the old gods for the new, one counsellor spoke up: “The present life man, O king, seems to me, in comparison with that time which is unknown to us, like to the swift flight of a sparrow through the room.” The sparrow, he said, briefly moved through a warm room before going off into a dark room. “So this life of man appears for a short space but of what went before or what is to follow we are ignorant. If, therefore, this new doctrine contains something more certain, it seems justly to deserve to be followed.”
But it was not until Edwin was in exile, and had a dream that he would return to power when someone – Paulinus – laid their hand on his head, that he fully embraced God.
Edwin died in 633, and his kingdom reverted to paganism. Paulinus fled to Kent where he was made Bishop of Rochester. He remained there for another 11 years, and is buried in the cathedral, succeeded by Ithamar, the first Anglo-Saxon to become a bishop. When a new church was built by the Normans, his relics were transferred and remain there still.
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