History of the Church in Britain


Christianity arrived in the British Isles not long after the Resurrection and Ascension of Jesus Christ.  An old legend says that St Joseph of Ariamathea brought Christianity to Britain about A.D. 50, and there are even some old Welsh stories that St Paul preached in the islands in the AD60s.  Whatever the truth of the old legends, Tertullian, writing in c. A.D. 200 speaks of ‘part of the island of Britain are subject to Christ, which are not under the rule of Caesar.’  This suggests that by the close of the second century Christianity had spread beyond the lowlands of Roman Britain into the hill country of the North and West.

Ancient records also record three British Bishops as being present at the Council of Arles in A.D. 313, which indicates that Romano-British Christianity was sufficiently well established by the start of the fourth century to be able to spare it bishops for a long journey into Gaul (France) and to finance the trip.  However, this brief period of prosperity was short-lived, as the legions withdrew from Britain in the 390s and the islands was left to shift for itself in the face of raids from the North and from the German tribes living around the Rhine delta – modern day The Netherlands and north Germany. 

The Romanized Celts of Britains put up a successful defense against these raiders for fifty years after the departure of the Romans using mounted infantry.  Even after the Jutes, Angles and Saxons had gained a toehold in the southeast of Britain, the Christian Britons continued their successful defense for another fifty years, with one of their generals gaining postumous fame as “King Arthur.”

The Age of the Saints

The best known British saint of fourth and fifth centuries was Patrick, the Apostle to the Irish.  He was born somewhere around 383 near the northern frontier of Roman Britain.  His father was a deacon and his grandfather a priest, but young Patrick was indifferent to religion until after he was kidnapped and enslaved in an Irish raid c.387AD.  Patrick had plenty of time to reflect watching sheep on the hills of County Antrim, and he was converted and eventually escaped to Gaul (France) where he studied for the priesthood under his relative, St Martin of Tours, and was eventually consecrated as a Bishop and sent back to Ireland as its second Missionary Bishop in 431AD.

Patrick adapted the forms of Christianity somewhat to work in Irish society.  There were no major cities, so his bishops lived in monasteries and toured around the country preaching and administering the sacraments.  He also used a system of discipleship to train leaders for the Irish Church.  Following Jesus’ example, Patrick took twelve of his earliest converts and trained them as missionaries and ordained them Bishops to preach the Gospel throughout Ireland.  They in turn chose disciples, trained them and sent them.  Thus by the time of Patrick’s death in 461AD Ireland was a largely Christian Country and was set to be the last refuge of civilisation during the Dark Age of the Barbarian Invasions.  After St Patrick’s death, Abbeys became relatively more important and bishops less so.  As a result the normal diocesan structure more or less disappeared being replaced by the Clan monastery which had a bishop on the staff.

During the same period St Kentigern (Mungo) continued the work of evangelizing Galloway (SW Scotland) and St Maughold converted the Manx to Christianity so that by 550AD northern and western Britain, and Ireland had been fully Evangelized.  Slightly later, St Columba, exiled from Ireland in the worlds first recorded copyright dispute, began to convert the Gaelic speaking in habitants of Western Scotland from a monastic centre on Iona that remains a pilgrimage site to this day.

 However, in the South and East, where the Angle and Saxon invaders had overcome the native population, the prevailing religion was paganism, and it was not until the end of the sixth century that anything was done about it.  The Venerable Bede relates how St Gregory the Great saw some blonde haired youths for sale in the slave market in Rome, and on asking where they came from he was told that they were Angles, whereupon he made the appalling pun (no better in the original Latin!) that they were “not Angles, but Angels!”  However, there did grow within him a resolve to send a mission to these northern tribes, not just for the sake of their own souls, but also as the first part of a more extensive design to convert the tribes of Germania who lived east of the Rhine.

It was not until 595 that St Gregory was able to put his resolve into effect when he sent Augustine, Prior of St Andrew’s-without-the-Walls accompanied by a dozen other Benedictine monks to Kent.  King Ethelbert had married a Frankish, Christian, princess, and this seemed to give the Church an ‘in’ in the kingdom of Kent.  Augustine was none too happy about his mission and wrote a letter to Gregory asking to be relieved of his mission.  Gregory replied offering advice and encouraging him to continue so that Augustine and his fellow monks eventually landed in Kent in early 596.  Ethelbert met them in the open for fear of witchcraft, but he did give them permission to preach throughout Kent.  As Kent was the dominant Saxon kingdom this also opened doors for Augustine and his fellows in Essex.  Augustine travelled westwards to meet with the remaining British bishops.  The site is unknown, but it is tempting to think of it being either near Glastonbury or Caerleon, both of which are early Christian sites in Britain.  Unfortunately, Augustine remained seated to greet the British bishops, and they took umbrage at his hauty demeanor and refused to have anything else to do with him.

By 601 the Roman mission to the Saxons was sufficiently well established for dioceses to be erected in Rochester, to serve western Kent, and London, to serve Middlesex.  This pattern development continued with sees being established in Winchester (Wessex, 632),  Selsey (Sussex, 632); Dunwich (East Anglia, 635); and Lichfield (Mercia, 669).  The kingdom of the Hwicca received a Bishop at Hereford c.640, whilst in the northern kingdom of Northumbria a short-lived Roman effort under Paulinus was replaced by a more permanent Celtic mission under first Aidan, then Cuthbert.

By the 670s, the English had been very largely converted to Christianity.  However, a breach remained between those of the Celtic obedience in the North, and those of the Roman obedience in the South and Midlands.  This was healed partly by the Synod of Whitby (664AD) in which the Celtic missionaries agreed to comply with Roman useage concerning the date of Easter and the tonsure.  Gradually, the North came fully into line with Roman custoims, and York was, in accordance with St Gregory’s original plan, erected into an Archbishopric.  During a period of Mercian dominance of the English political scene in the eighth century attempts were made to have Lichfield erected into an Archbishopric, but this lasted only until the eclipse of Mercian power just before 800 AD.

Decline and Rebirth

The first recorded incursion of the Vikings into England occurred in 793 A.D. when the monastery on Lindisfarne in Northumbria was sacked and the monks murdered or enslaved.  In a relatively divided England, the Danes and the Norse were able to raid with near impunity, and pick off the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms one-by-one.  Northumbria, the Earldom of Lindsey, much of Mercia, East Anglia, and Essex, all fell under Viking control so that by 878AD only Wessex, and the small kingdom of Kent remained in English hands.   Alfred the Great’s defense of what remained is the stuff of legend, and in the process he fought the Danes to a stalemate which resulted in the partition of the kingdom into ‘Danelaw’ – the area north and east of the old Roman road from London to Chester – which became an Anglo-Danish area; and the area south and west of that line, which consisted of Wessex, Kent, Sussex, and about half of Mercia, which increasingly came to regard itself as “Enge-land” – England.  However, Christian flowed back from England into Scandinavia as a number of English, especially Anglo-Scandinavian priests, were taken back to Denmark and Norway to assist in the conversion of the Vikings’ mother countries to Christianity.

The Danish invasion of the North massively disrupted the church, and monastic life.  The Bishoprics of Lindisfarne, Lindsey, Leicester, North Elmham, and Dunwich either disappeared, or fell into abeyance for a time.  Some dioceses were amalgamated – for instance, Dorchester and Leicester – others were quietly forgotten about – such as Dunwich.  Others migrated to safer locations. Lindisfarne moved to Chester-le-Street and eventually to the great fortress of Durham.  Selsey, to the less visible Chichester.  The Danes living in England gradually converted to Christianity, and under Athelstan, Danelaw was gradually conquered and taken into “Engeland.”  In turn, England was conquered by Sven Folkbeard and Cnut in the 1010s, and was part of the Norse “Empire” for about twenty years ending with the death of Hathacanute in 1042. 

The late 10th and early 11th centuries saw a regeneration of the English Church.  The intellectual and spiritual lead was taken by the Benedictine who produced such great figures as Alphege and Dunstan during this period.  The beginning of the parochial system are laid during this period, and generally speaking, an air of normalcy returned to English Church life.  However, it was equally clear that the English Church was somewhat out of step with newer trends in western Europe.  To give a very obvious example, the vast majority of priests outside of the monasteries were married – even some Bishops, such as Stigand, the last pre-Conquest Archbishop of Canterbury –  had a wife and children for which to provide.  The English liturgy was also somewhat old fashioned and remained the Romano-Gallican hybrid it had been since Augustine of Canterbury time.  It was also the case that the king, rather than the Pope, was firmly in the driving seat when it came to Episcopal appointments.  Thus when Edward the Confessor died, and the succession was contested by Harold Godwinson, Earl of Wessex, Harald Hardrada of Norway, and William the Bastard, Duke of Normandy, the Papacy threw its weight behind the Norman claimant who promised to bring the “schismatic” English Church into line.

The future of England, and the English Church was decided by the flight of an arrow, and the indiscipline of the Tyrd.  Seeing William of Normandy’s troops fall back for the third time, they charged, and as their formation disintegrated, they were cut to ribbons by Williams knights.  Harold Godwinson was killed, and William of Normandy was crowned two months later, on Christmas Day 1066, as King of England.  The iron boot of the Normans (who were descended from the Northmen – Vikings – who had seized a good chunk of northern France a century before) soon  brought England into line with the rest of the Norman world.  Feudalism replaced the old Anglo-Saxon arrangements concerning land, the Church was brought into line with the latest Roman reforms, Castles were built, and the old Anglo-Saxon and Anglo-Danish nobles were replaced with Normans.  For example, in my home town, the Anglo-Dane Ulf Funesc was replaced by a Frenchman Gilbert de Gand.  The clergy were increasingly expected to put away their wives – which led to the classic mediaeval problem of clerical concubinage; the liturgy was reformed to conform to the Franco-Norman version of the Roman Rite; and new monastic orders were introduced from France – the Cluniacs, Cistercians, Savignacs, and then later the Carthusians.  English bishops were quickly replaced with Norman, though old Wulfstan of Worcester hung on until the end of the century.  The modest Anglo-Saxon churches and cathedrals were gradually replaced with great Norman Churches with St Paul’s Cathedral and Winchester Cathedral – dominating the two great royal centres of England – being the largest.  Winchester retains its original Norman proportions behind the later Perpendicular skin that transformed the old church between 1440 and 1520.  This architectural megalomania made the point, just as surely as the new castles did, that regime change had taken place.

However, some things did not change.  The king still appointed the Bishops – much to the Pope’s chagrin.  However, the Anglo-Normans were a useful tool to the Papacy, so the matter was allowed to slide until Henry II finally caused something unspeakable to happen in the form of the slaying of Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury.  Thomas Becket and Henry had been drinking and wenching buddies as young men – despite the former already being in Holy Orders.  However from Henry’s point of view Thomas Becket ‘got religion’ when he became the Primate of All England, and a tremedous conflict erupted between the two men.  Thomas stuck up for the rights of the Papacy; Henry for the rights of the monarchy.  In the end, Henry fell into a rage, crying out ‘who will rid me of the turbulent priest?’  Four knights took Henry’s words as their cue, and Thomas Becket was assassinated in Canterbury Cathedral on the 29th December 1170.  As Henry’s fingerprints were all over the crime, he was forced to do abject penance, and to conceed much to the Papacy.  It was an arrangement that was to stick in the craw of English kings for generations to come.  This was also the period in which England’s first two Universities were founded Oxford (c.1180) and Cambridge (c.1220) to ensure that both Church and State were supplied with educated clergy.

In practice, high mediaeval church politics became a matter of Pope and King reaching a series of accomodations.  The king would usually fill senior appointments with men acceptable to the Papacy.  Just occasionally a senior English cleric would die in Rome, or Avignon, and the Pope would ‘make provision’ for the English diocese thus vacated.  Edward III was irritated by Papal taxation and Papal appointments to English dioceses and so had Parliament pass the Act of Praemunire, which imposed limits on Papal power in England.  The ability of John Wycliffe (c.1320-84,) the proto-Lutheran reformer, to allude trial for heresy also demostrates that the English Church was not on a tight Papal leash in this period.  Parish life was very large centred on the daily round of Matins, Mass and Evensong, with an increasing number of guilds and chantries providing outlets for private piety.  The friars attracted the devotion of man people – as well as the hostility of Chaucer’s Wife of Bath! – as the old monastic orders began to decline. 

So what we are left with is a picture of a very diverse and popular Church at the end of the Middle Ages.  Great Churchmen such as William Wareham, Richard Fox, and Thomas Wosley were every bit as influential in the Court as in the Church, and it seemed as though the old partnership of Throne and Altar would go on forever.  This view, however, took no account of the Renaissance, or 16th century Realpolitik!

The new learning reached England only slowly.  Dean Collet of St Paul’s was one of the few English humanists in the early part of Henry VIII’s reign, and Erasmus, after teaching for a year in Cambridge, retreated back to the Netherlands complaining of ‘bad beer and worse scholarship’ on the part of the more orthodox of the two English Universities.  The Lutheran explosion found some echo among those who remembered John Wycliffe, and a small group of University men who met at the White Horse Tavern in Cambridge in the 1520s, but, for the most part the English Church was an orthodox, traditionalist backwater when compared to France or the Holy Roman Empire.  All this was to change as Henry VIII’s search for an heir grew ever more urgent.

The King eventually sought an annulment of his marriage to Catherine of Aragon, but as the Papacy was at this time dominated by the Hapsburg dynasty, this was not forthcoming.  Instead, Henry VIII effectively “nationalized” the Church by ending Papal Jurisdiction in England.  This was achieved by a series of Parliamentary Acts passed between 1532 and 1534 which restrained Appeals to Rome, Papal Provision (appointments) to English Church posts, and so forth.  Although Henry appointed Thomas Cranmer (1489-1556) – the Architect of the English Reformation – as Archbishop of Canterbury in 1533, he had little stomach for reform.  An urgent need for cash led to the dissolution of the Monasteries in two phases 1536-38 and 1540-42, whilst the Church slowly standardized on the Sarum Use of the Roman Rite throughout England.

Serious efforts at reform did not take place before Henry VIII’s death on January 27th 1546/7.  Even then, reforms were introduced slowly with certain ceremonies being suppressed in 1547, celibacy of the clergy being abolished in 1548, and the English form for the Administration of Holy Communion being introduced within the Latin Mass later the same year.  1549 saw the first Book of Common Prayer, with the Ordinal following in 1550.  Further revisions to the Prayer Book were undertaken in 1552, and the Forty-Two Articles of Religion – the basis of the later 39 Articles – were introduced in 1553.  This was to be the high water mark of Reformed influence on the Church of England as in the 1552 BCP, traditional vestments apart from the surplice were abolished, and the altars were replaced with simple Communion Tables.

However, 1553 was also the year of Edward VI’s death, and despite a half-hearted attempt to put Lady Jane Grey on the English throne, Henry’s will prevailed, and his elder Catholic daughter, Mary Tudor (1516-1558) became Queen.  Mary tried to turn back the clock by reversing all of her half-brother, and father’s reforms and changes to the Church.  She re-founded a handful of monasteries, and deposed the Protestant clergy, many of whom fled to Germany and Switzerland.  Those who remained were mainly allowed to disappearing into the woodwork, which was the fate of Anne Boleyn’s former chaplain, Matthew Parker.  Others were singled out for punishment Bishops Farrer, Hooper, Latimer, and Ridley were convicted of heresy and burnt to death, and so was the hesitant Archbishop Cranmer who thrust his ‘unworthy right hand’ into the fire first – as this was the hand that had signed the recantation he retracted on the way to the stake.  In all Mary I burned 288 Protestants to death between 1555 and 1558.  Whilst this was ‘small potatoes’ compared to the heresy hunts in Spain, the Spanish Netherlands, and France, it nonetheless gave the English a lasting aversion to the Roman Church.

Mary I died, probably of ovarian cancer, in November 1558, with Cardinal Pole of Canterbury following her in death the next day.  The new Queen, Elizabeth (1533-1603) Tudor was a committed Protestant, though she had “trimmed” during Mary’s reign to keep her head upon her shoulders.   Elizabeth’s policy was to introduce a ‘consensus’ Protestant settlement.  Her earliest acts were to restore her Father’s breech with Rome.  Positive measures were slower in coming.  The 1552 BCP was modified in a Lutheran direction and became the standard for worship via the Act of Uniformity of that year.  She started to appoint protestant Bishops to replace Mary’s Catholic appointees who refused to serve, and eventually in 1562/3 Convocation revised the 42 Articles of Religion to become the familiar 39, except that Article XXIX was suppressed until 1571 as being offensive to Lutherans.  However, the declining influence of the Lutheran party and Pius V’s Bull “Regnans in Excelsis” brought an end to attempts to reconcile the Catholic Party, so Elizabeth gave her consent to the publication of the 29th Article.

The Church of England was, during Elizabeth’s reign, strongly Reformed.  The major influence on English theology for the past generation had been the Rhineland Reformers, men such as Martin Bucer.  Their theological position was strong Augustinian, which is to say that they were followers of the 4th-5th century Doctor of Church, St Augustine of Hippo.  As a result key Augustinian concepts such as the sufficiency of Scripture, Justification by Faith, and Predestination came to the fore, often in very harsh and uncompromising terms.  However, this emphasis on the Early Fathers led to a renewed study of the Doctors of the Church, especially the Four Latin Doctors – Ambrose, Augustine, Jerome, and Gregory.  This in turn led to an increasing interest in the Greek Doctors, a movement which was led by Richard Hooker (1554-1600) and Lancelot Andrewes (1555-1626).  Hooker is very much the bridge between the Reformed outlook of the Elizabethans, and the more flexible views of later generations, and his chief contribution to the theological debate was ‘Of the Lawes of Ecclesiastical Polity’ the first five volumes of which were published between 1594 and 1600.  The great characteristic of Hooker’s work was his view that doctrine had to rest upon Holy Scripture, with our interpretation being informed by Tradition and (right) Reason.  Although this position is often liked to a three legged stool, Hooker’s view is actually rather closer to a child’s tricycle with Scripture being the big wheel at the front with the pedals which imparts both power and direction, whilst tradition and reason are the two wheels at the back which stabilize the Church and stop it from falling into heresy and superstition.

The early 17th century was to prove a very disturbed time, but it was notable for two enduring achievements.  The first was the publication of the 1604 Canons, which set the form of Anglicanism for the next 361 years.  They tended to steer a middle course by not insisting on the use of Mass vestments, but still required distinctive clerical dress by the use of the gown, tippet and Canterbury Cap in the street, and the surplice and tippet at the reading desk and altar.  Copes were retained in the cathedrals, and whilst parish church worship tended to conform to Reformed norms – a spoken service and sermon interspersed with metrical psalms – cathedral worship was usually more big city Lutheran in character with through composed settings of the service, and a moderate amount of ceremonial.

The other great achievement of this period was the Authorized Version of the Bible, known in the USA as the King James Version.  This came about as a result of the Hampton Court Conference between Puritan Calvinists and Church Calvinists organised by James I.  The one proposal that everyone could agree on was the making of a new translation of the Bible without notes and glosses.  The work occupied seven years – 1604-1611 – but it was to take until 1660 for the Authorized version to displace the Genevan translation as the main English version of the Bible in the home, or the Bishops’ Bible of 1568 in the Church.  There was also a minor revision of the Book of Common Prayer in 1604, which was the one the first colonists in Virginia brought to North America in 1607.

The political situation in England consistently deteriorated between 1621 and 1640 ending with an open Civil War between the Crown and Parliament.  In the Church, the High Church Calvinism of Elizabeth I’s church was gradually replaced with the new ‘Arminian’ theology of men like Lancelot Andrewes (1555-1626); Richard Neile (1562-1640); and William Laud (1573-1645).  Unlike the Dutch Arminians, the English variety tended to be strong sacramentalists who set great store by the doctrines of Baptism Regeneration, the Real Spiritual Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, and Apostolic Succession.  These ideas were deeply unpopular with the Puritans, which, coupled with the increasing assertiveness of the middle class produced a toxic political and religious brew that ended with the Beheading of Charles I on 30th January 1648/9 and the creation of the Commonwealth under the guiding hand of the Lord Protector, Oliver Cromwell (1599-1658).  Cromwell’s regime gradually deteriorated into a sort of military dictatorship, whilst England’s experiment with freedom of religion degenerated into anarchy.  By 1660 it seemed as though everyone was ready to stop experimenting and return to monarchy and the National Church.

Charles II came into his own again on May 29th 1660, and by implication, the Established Church of England resumed its role in the nation’s life on the same day.  Attempts were made to accommodate moderate dissenters from the Anglican position, but it seemed that the Cavaliers were determined to have it all their own way.  Some minor changes were made to the Book of Common Prayer, and one or two moderate Presbyterians accepted High Office in the Church, but in the main it was a victory for Laudian High Churchmanship.  Charles seems to have not been one to make windows into other men’s souls, so in England and Wales at least, Protestant Dissenters were largely left alone.  This ‘pudding time’ or heyday for the High Churchmen lasted only from 1662 to 1685 when the accession to the throne of the Roman Catholic James II really rather spoiled the fun.

James was a dour individual who soon alienated the bulk of the Tory interest in England.  He had converted to the Roman Church in 1672, but his children his first marriage – Mary and Anne – were Anglican being also the daughters of Anne Hyde, the daughter of the Cavalier Earl of Clarendon.  This presented the moderate Tories with a solution to their problems with James.  Depose him, and install the Protestant Mary, and her Dutch Calvinist husband as Protectors of the Realm.  William of Orange prepared his invasion fleet, and driven by ‘The Protestant Wind’ he arrived in Torbay, on the coast of Devon, on November 5th 1688.  James fled, and was inconveniently recaptured before being allowed to escape again!  The throne was declared vacant due to James’ flight, and William and Mary were declared joint monarchs as they were both descendants of James I.

James II fought in Ireland in 1689-90 laying siege to Enniskillen and Londonderry, but was ultimately defeated at the Battle of the Boyne (7-12-1689) and the Battle of Aughrim (7-1-1690) by William of Orange’s Army which consisted of French Huguenots and Dutch Protestants.  Many Huguenots settled in Ireland and names like Trench and Chenevix occur many times over in the clergy lists of the Church of Ireland.  In addition, Huguenot Boulangers often became ‘Baker’ in Ireland bringing a new Protestant Middle Class to the Emerald Isle.  William did, however, force the appointment of one High Churchman – the remarkable Thomas Wilson, Bishop of the tiny diocese of Sodor and Man from 1697 to 1758.  But for the most part, William preferred clergy who would accommodate the moderate Dissenters in an enlarged Established Church, and these Latitude Men, Burnet, Tenison, and Tillotson, etc.. were to have tremendous influence during his reign from 1688 to 1702.  However, after William’s death – his horse stumbled on a mole hill and pneumonia set in; hence the Tory toast to the ‘Little Gentleman in Black Velvet’ – Anne succeeded to the throne, and the High Church Tories carried the day for much of her reign. But Anne died without an heir in 1714, and was succeeded by Georg, Elector of Hannover.

George I was middle aged, boorish, and Lutheran, but a very good monarch.  His primary interest remained Hannover, and as a result, Parliament increasing controlled the political life of England and Scotland.  George’s benign inattention was good for England, and whilst he went about forming marriage alliances with Lutheran Europe, Britain laid the foundations of Empire.  The Church saw the appointment of consistent Whigs to high office, but High Church Whigs – like John Potter – were as likely to make it up the greasy pole of preferment as Latitudinarians.  It was one way in which George I’s lack of knowledge was actually a help.  George I died in 1727 and was succeeded by his son, George II who was also middle aged, boorish, and Lutheran, but was married to the formidably intelligent Caroline, whose liberal disposition brought the heyday of the Latitudinarians.  However, after her death things were more balanced, and the High Church party began to reassert itself – especially after the death of Frederick, Prince of Wales, as George the grandson of George II was the first Anglican Wettin.

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