We owe to Venerable Bede, whose feast was the day before yesterday, the stories that bring Augustine of Canterbury alive. So far as we know, Bede (d.735) was a stay-at-home scholar and monk, who lived in monasteries around Sunderland but corresponded with popes and fellow scholars across Europe. He perhaps understood some of Augustine’s great reluctance to leave Rome for England.
Despite his dilly-dallying, Augustine made it to Canterbury in 597, at the repeated and insistent order of Pope Gregory, following the invitation of King Ethelbert and his Christian wife, Bertha the Queen. She had taken over the old Roman church of Saint Martin on the edge of the city where her chaplain celebrated the Eucharist for her and her French entourage.
Now Augustine met Ethelbert a few miles away, near where Minster Abbey is today, the home of Sister Johanna, our writer.
Bede tells us:
they came endued with Divine, not with magic power, bearing a silver cross for their banner, and the image of our Lord and Saviour painted on a board; and chanting litanies, they offered up their prayers to the Lord for the eternal salvation both of themselves and of those to whom and for whom they had come.
When they had sat down, in obedience to the king’s commands, and preached to him and his attendants the Word of life, the king answered: “Your words and promises are fair, but because they are new to us, and of uncertain import, I cannot consent to them so far as to forsake that which I have so long observed with the whole English nation. But because you are come from far as strangers into my kingdom, and, as I conceive, are desirous to impart to us those things which you believe to be true, and most beneficial, we desire not to harm you, but will give you favourable entertainment, and take care to supply you with all things necessary to your sustenance; nor do we forbid you to preach and gain as many as you can to your religion.”
Accordingly he gave them an abode in the city of Canterbury, which was the metropolis of all his dominions, and, as he had promised, besides supplying them with sustenance, did not refuse them liberty to preach. It is told that, as they drew near to the city, after their manner, with the holy cross, and the image of our sovereign Lord and King, Jesus Christ, they sang in concert this litany: “We beseech thee, O Lord, for Thy great mercy, that Thy wrath and anger be turned away from this city, and from Thy holy house, for we have sinned. Hallelujah.”
Antonela’s picture shows Augustine baptising the King from a window in St Martin’s church. Bede’s text from Project Gutenberg.