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The history of British Christianity in the early days has for a long time been recognised as an important subject. Roman Britain being a cosmopolitan place with merchants from all over the empire and soldiers from various countries serving there, it is not clear who first introduced Christianity in Britain. But it is believed to have been introduced towards the end of the 2nd century. The native people from Britain were Celts, and they were theists. Their colonisers, Romans, were also theists and allowed British people to continue worshipping their old gods. Into this ungodly and superstitious world, Christianity was introduced. It was brought about by the Roman artisans and traders arriving in Britain to spread the story of Jesus alongside other pagan deities.
Unlike other Roman, cults, Christianity required exclusive loyalty from its followers. Because of this intolerance to other gods and the secrecy surrounding the worship, the Roman authorities were angered leading to persecution of Christians forcing them to worship in secret. However, things changed in 313D when Roman Emperor, Constantine thought of harnessing Christianity to bring unity to his emperor in order to succeed in the military.
Consequently, Christians were allowed to worship, and persecutions ended. This made possible spread of Christianity throughout the Roman Empire. The 4th century was a key turning point in the history of Britain. Christianity became well known even though it had not won the hearts of many because of the pagan belief which still thrived. Even though it seemed like paganism would overpower Christianity, following the invasion and conquering of England by Saxons and Angles after Roman soldiers left, Christianity still managed to survive in Wales, Ireland and Cornwall. By 6th century, it had spread to Ireland to Scotland.
Christianity in Saxon England
Conversion of Saxons to Christianity was partly done by the Celtic church and partly by the Romans. The Celtics were to convert North England (Northumbria) while Romans went to the South in Kent. In 596AD, Pope Gregory sent a group of 40 Roman missionaries, led by Augustine, their monk to Kent. They arrived in 597AD and converted the king Ethelbert (his wife, Berta was already converted), to Christianity. He, in turn directed, 10,000 of his subjects to be baptised once and that is how Christianity spread to Essex and East Anglia. Canterbury was made the capital of Ethelbert's kingdom which was to be the centre of Christianity in Roman Britain. On the other, in 627, King Edwin of Northumbria was baptised, (thanks to his wife Ethelburgh, a Christian who may have influenced him) and many of his subjects followed suit. Unfortunately, the king was killed in a battle in 632AD, and what followed was the return of paganism by the people of Northumbria. They were again converted by Celtic monks from Scotland. King Edwin was succeeded by Oswald (634-642) and Oswy (642-670) who both ensured Christianity was spread in Northumbria.
The Whitby Council
After Northumbria got converted for the second time, there was a disagreement between the Celtic Church and Rome and the bone of contention was the date of Easter celebration. A church meeting was held at Whitby in 664 AD in a bid to find a solution to the problem. This was another major turning point in the history of Christianity in Britain. King Oswy was celebrating Easter while feasting according to the Celtic calendar while his wife, a Roman Christian, fasted during the same period. This conflict bothered the King, and he was determined to end it. Finally, the decision of the Northumbrian King was that the Roman rather the Celtic customs is followed in England. Venerable Bede, in his book: Ecclesiastical History of the English People, Augustine's mission to King Ethelbert of Kent helped set the future of Christianity in Britain by creating a strong coalition between Christianity and the state.
The Normans Conquest
The Viking invasion England in 1871 AD marked the beginning of attacks which threatened the existence of the Christian faith. Monasteries and churches were raided and priests fled for their lives. In the late 9th Century, the Danes changed from attack to conquest Thanks to Alfred, the Christian King of Wessex (Southern England) who changed the course of things. He helped secure victory over the Viking warrior, Guthrum in the Eddington battle, creating a new learning system that would bring literacy to the country people. In the 10th century, there was a religious restoration; lords gave out chapels on their land where the locals could be able to attend church services and this marked the beginning of the parish system still in existence up to date. It was the Norman Conquest that helped strengthen the power of the England Church.
The change started at the top with the head of the English church, Archbishop Stigand being removed and replaced with Lanfranc, a Norman who had been one of William's advisors prior to England invasion. After a very short time, all the English bishops were replaced by Normans. William the conqueror launched a building project at both the parish and monastic levels. As a result, new stone bishop's palaces and churches were built in towns, often next to the royal palaces, a symbol of unity between religion and political power and marking of weaker powers of the monarchy.
Problems facing the Christian Church in Britain and how they were solved
Although modern Britain is synonymous with religious tolerance, that was not the case during the early years. The few Jews who lived in Britain after the Norman Conquest were treated very badly by the Roman Britain. This was not unprecedented, but an extension of the persecution the church went through for religious or economic reasons. Concerning religion, the Catholics warned that the Jews were not Christians and that mingling with them would undermine the purity their beliefs as Christians. On economic reasons, it is believed that the Jews were French hence they were assumed to be belonging to the group who conquered Britain and many of them were money lenders who became wealthy by charging high interest rates on loans.
The Catholic Church regarded charging interest on loans as a sin (usury) and Christians were forbidden from being involved in such practices. Hostility against the Jews grew in the 13th century and whenever a crime was committed even without evidence, Jews were normally blamed for it. Despite the King's attempts to protect them, attacks on Jews took place in 1278 and many of them were hanged. In 1290, British parliament convinced Edward I to eject the Jews from Britain. Again many Jews were robbed of their belongings as they tried to leave England (Smith, Lecture Notes, Week 3, Par. 4).
The Church in the middle Ages
In the middle Ages, religion was an important part of everyday life. All children were baptized unless they were from Jewish and everybody attended Sunday mass which was read in Latin, a language the natives did not comprehend. Christianity had an influence on all aspects of every person's life. From the coat to the grave, the church could either be your friend or enemy and eventually a determinant to your destination: heaven or hell. In the middle Ages monks and nuns gave food to the poor, they were in charge of hospitals where the sick were attended to as well as providing accommodation for pilgrims and other travellers. Apart from the monks in the 13th century, there were also friars who also took vows but instead withdrawing from public life, they were preachers of the gospel. Franciscan friars were normally called grey friars because of their grey outfits (Clayton, David & Douglas, 2008, p. 105). Middle Age merchants and craftsmen were organised into unions which protected their interests. The unions performed plays based on biblical stories which were meant to make the people laugh.
In the 14th and 15th century, the Virgin Mary and Saints were given the importance in religion and Christians were devoted to them. It is also during this century that the rich paid for chantries, chapels where special prayers were held for the dead in the belief that this would shorten the period the dead would spend in purgatory before going to Heaven. A famous Christian of the 14th century, John Wycliffe, helped in translating Latin Bible into English. Wycliffe died a natural death but his followers (also called Lollards) were persecuted (Clayton, David & Douglas, 2008, p. 105). In 1401, a law which allowed heretics to be burnt to death was passed, but this did not deter the Lollards from meeting in the 15th. In 1425, the British church leaders not only burnt Wycliffe's books but they also dug his body, burnt it and scattered the ashes.
Reformation in England
At the reformation, there was a division among those who wanted to continue following the Papal rule as well as the protestant churches who opposed it. England church was among those who separated with Roman Catholic and the cause of the separation was that the Pope refused to annul the marriage between Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon. Under the rule of Edward VI, the son to King Henry, the church went through further reformation under the conviction that Protestants were more loyal to the teachings of the Bible and the early church than supporters of the Pope.
During the reign of Mary Tudor, the church once again gave in to the authority of the Pope but this was reversed when Elizabeth I was crowned in April 1559 as the head of England Church. She helped restore Protestantism to England (Clayton, David & Douglas, 2008, p. 285). During her rule, religious settlement emerged giving the England Church the distinct identity, which it has maintained to date. The religious settlement was note accepted by everybody; some Catholics continued to practice their religion in hiding. The result was a church that retained greatly, the continuity with the medieval periods in terms of its use of the catholic creeds, its pattern of ministering, building aspects of its liturgy and the shape of its liturgical practice. Therefore, the England Church can be said to be both Catholic and reformed (Clayton, David & Douglas, 2008, p.278-285).
The history of how Christianity was introduced in Roman Britain, its growth and development as well as the reformation are not only important to students, historians and scholars of Great Britain but this information is also indispensable to everybody who has an interest in knowing the history of Christianity in England.