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CHRISTIANITY IN ANCIENT BRITAIN (Part 1)
Scripture references are to the New International Version, UK edition (NIV-UK), except where indicated.
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Live as free men, but do not use your freedom as a cover-up for evil (1 Peter 2:16)
IT WAS A Roman soldier that offered Jesus vinegar in the hours before his death. Crucifixion is slow, leaving its victims parched and thirsty. The legionary was moved by mercy, not scorn, to give from his own rations, for vinegar, or sour wine, was the drink of the Roman infantry. There are no records, but perhaps the fame of Christ’s humble virtue was carried abroad with the Roman army.
The white cliffs of Dover were always a welcoming sight to home-coming Britons, but a warning to hostile invaders. In 55 B.C. a Celtic army on the chalky hilltops spied Julius Caesar and two legions in some eighty ships approaching Britain’s southern shore. The Britons were not ignorant of the Empire’s desire for conquest. Trade and traffic with Gaul and the Mediterranean had brought advance news of the expedition. Perhaps some Britons had already fought the Roman legions across the Channel.
Caesar’s invasion was short-lived. An unexpected high tide damaged the Roman fleet, and Caesar was not prepared to stay in Britain over the winter. Fortune had favoured the Britons. The island had given them a defensive advantage.
Shakespeare gives an apt description:
This precious stone set in the silver sea,
Which serves it in the office of a wall,
Or as a moat defensive to a house,
Ten years after Christ’s crucifixion the Romans returned, at the dawn of an age when the gospel of God’s love would spread throughout the world. It is interesting to consider what God may have had in mind for the British Isles.
God is not absent from the world. The Psalmist, likening the turbulent nations to great waters, describes God’s intervention among men as footsteps in the sea, ‘Your path led through the sea, your way through the mighty waters, though your footprints were not seen’ (Psalms 77: 19).
The Romans Arrive in Britain
In A.D. 43, at the command of Emperor Claudius, four legions were sent to conquer Britain. The Romans remained for over three centuries. Little is known of the native people at the time of the conquest, as they left no written records. The Celtic Druids forbade any records of their wisdom and religion. They insisted on committing all learning to memory. This was not primitive ignorance, for excavations of pre-Roman graves and settlements have yielded works of fine craftsmanship. And not satisfied with simple utility, the Celt fashioned intricate designs into every day items, cooking pot handles and cart axle pins all bear marks of the artist.
Roman writings give some insight into the religion of Britain at the time of the invasion. The Druids believed in life after death, a fact which Julius Caesar observed gave the Celts fierce courage in battle. Like the law which God gave Moses, the Druids practised the rites of propitiatory sacrifice.
These aspects of learning, art, justice and piety combined in the freedom-loving Celt to prepare the way for Christianity in these Isles. When the gospel came, teaching redemption from death by the life of one man Jesus, granting liberty to become a son of God – a liberty bound only by the truth and its spirit – then the Celtic nations of Britain and Ireland seemed to submit willingly to its influence.
Christian Emblems of Roman Britain
During a stormy night in 1939, strong winds felled a tree uphill from the river Darenth in Kent. Beneath the loosened top soil lay the scattered fragments of a Roman mosaic. The fragments led to the discovery of Lullingstone Roman Villa, lost for over fourteen centuries. The wall paintings survived largely intact. One room appears to have been adapted for Christian worship, its plaster frieze bearing a large Chi-Ro monogram accompanied by the letters, alpha and omega. (Chi and Ro are the first two letters of the Greek word for Christ.)
At Hinton St. Mary, Dorset, a blacksmith discovered a large floor mosaic with a centrepiece depicting Jesus using the same Chi-Ro emblem. The finds at Hinton St. Mary and Lullingstone can be dated with confidence to the time after Constantine the Great was proclaimed Emperor in York in A.D. 306. The Chi-Ro symbol was chosen by Emperor Constantine as an emblem for his Christian faith. It was during his reign that he gave the edict of Milan, granting Christians and others ‘full authority to observe that religion which each preferred’.[fn2]
In the fourth century, a Briton placed a lead curse tablet in the sacred spring of Sulis-Minerva at Bath. Having had his purse stolen, he petitioned the goddess to bring the thief to justice, with the Latin plea, ‘seu gentilis seu christianus quaecumque’.[fn3] This translates as whether a gentile or a Christian whomsoever. From Richborough in the South to Catterick in the North, the archaeology of Roman Britain has revealed similar artefacts, including twenty or more collections of silverware and pottery decorated with Christian symbols or inscriptions.
These finds are surprising in themselves, for they reveal a refinement to the simple and unadorned religion of Christ and the apostles. The New Testament binds men to consecrate their hearts and not cups or books or places. Primitive Christianity need not leave any trace but in the good words and deeds of its adherents. The Apostle John exhorted the church to ‘not love the world or anything in the world’ (1 John 2: 15). The silver and holy rooms of Roman Britain are a sign of an advanced and established Christian society, not a nascent sect.
The rise in popularity of Christianity after Constantine's edict introduced a political motive to confess the Christian Faith. To be Christian would in some measure win the Emperor's favour. The increase in numbers would have moved congregations to organise, co-operate and seek harmony in their teaching and mission. The church of Roman Britain after Constantine was different to the one before. The mark of the early British church was simplicity, the reasonableness of the gospel vouchsafing the integrity of her witnesses. Such is the story of St. Alban.
Christianity Established in Roman Times
The name ‘Alban’ suggests a Scot, and the act of hospitality he showed is characteristic of that nation. Alban gave refuge to a Christian priest hiding from the Roman governor. In return for food and shelter, he received Christian instruction, even to the point of personal conviction. When the soldiers came to his home seeking the fugitive, Alban put on the hooded cloak of the priest and surrendered himself in his place. This brave substitution enraged the Roman judge, who threatened Alban with the punishment intended for his teacher. The intimidation only strengthened Alban’s resolve. Alban confessed he also worshipped and adored the living and true God who created all things. The guards led Alban outside the town and across a river to be executed. He became Britain’s first (known) Christian martyr. The year of Alban’s death is reckoned to have been during Diocletian’s persecution of Christians in A.D. 303.
Even before this time the gospel must have entered the British Isles, by whom or how, history has left no trace. The British Christian monk Gildas claimed the light of Christ had reached these Isles during the reign of Tiberius Caesar,[fn4] thus sometime before A.D. 37. Bede, in his history of the English Church and People has Lucius, a king of Britain, convert to Christ in A.D. 167.[fn5] Tertullian, a North African Christian scholar, writing some time around A.D. 200 declared that ‘the places of the British, not approached by the Romans, were subject to Christ’.[fn6]
There is a legend that Joseph of Arimathea with his son and ten others sailed to Britain and built a church at Glastonbury, putting the arrival of Christianity here within fifty years of Jesus’ crucifixion. There is no trace in ancient writings of the legend and the mediaeval accounts that survive are entwined with improbable circumstances. The legend is given life by Glastonbury’s history. A British monastery pre-dates the Saxon abbey built there in A.D. 708 and in 1892 archaeologists uncovered the remains of a Celtic settlement.
After the conquest, society flourished under Roman rule. The Britons adapted to the influx of commerce and technology. The Celts, once confined to their tribe, could now cross from coast to coast on newly built roads. With the increase in travel came an increase in trade, which brought with it taxation and law. The Romans invested in grand civil works, amphitheatres, baths, forts and temples. The Britons prospered and softened under Rome’s influence.
The Ruin of Roman Britain
By A.D. 400 Christianity in Britain and Europe had lost some of its preserving influence. When Rome fell to Alaric and his Goth army, Britain’s ruling classes were thrown into disarray. The departure of the Latin elite restored the nation’s independence. The Emperor Honorius could spare neither men nor money, leaving Britain free to govern herself.
In the ensuing half-century of self rule, northern raids by the Picts and Irish overwhelmed the integrity of British rule. The fall of Roman Britain centres around one man – Vortigern. The history is shady and for reasons not recorded, the nobility and land-owning classes of Britain were unable to raise an army equal to the threat. Vortigern hired Saxon mercenaries to bolster the British forces. The Saxons, being greedy for land, took advantage of the fragmented British, and later betrayed their paymasters, overrunning Britain in a bloody revolt. The apocalyptic scenes are described by Gildas in his letter The Ruin of Britain dating from the sixth century. His sermon vividly describes Britain’s fall:
All the major towns were laid low by the repeated battering of enemy rams; laid low, too, all the inhabitants – church leaders, priests and people alike, as the swords glinted all around and the flames crackled. It was a sad sight. In the middle of the squares the foundation-stones of high walls and towers that had been torn from their lofty base, holy altars, fragments of corpses, covered (as it were) with a purple crust of congealed blood, looked as though they had been mixed up in some dreadful wine-press.[fn7]
Confronted with the wreck of flourishing Christian Britain, the thinking mind is pressed to ask why? The time of Roman peace had spread Christianity abroad in the hearts and minds of the Celts, yet the exaltation and refinement of Roman society had vitiated the church. Gildas casts the invasion as a chastisement from God upon the Britons. God is not the author of sin, but when He withdraws His favour, calamity results (Deuteronomy 31: 17, 18). The Saxon raids pushed the Roman Britons back to Cornwall, Wales and southern Scotland.
Secluded in the hills and valleys and separated from Latin influences by a land of pagan Saxons, Britons gained time to understand their fall. From the ruins arose an age of monasticism and evangelism. The spirituality of this movement lives in the writings from that age. Time has preserved a wealth of letters and biographies of such as Saints David, Ninian and Brigid.
(Part 2 will appear in the End-February 2010 Newsletter)
Notes to Part 1
[fn1] William Shakespeare, King Richard II, II. 1. 47;
[fn2] Rev. C. F. Cruse, The Ecclesiastical History of Eusebius Pamphilius, (London: Henry G. Bohn, 1858), p. 406.
Paul Halsall, Galerius and Constantine: Edicts of Toleration 311/313,
The Internet Medieval Sourcebook, (January 1996),
< http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/source/edict-milan.html > [accessed 5 February 2010].
[fn3] Peter Brown, Aspects of the Christianisation of the Roman World, The Tanner Lectures on Human Values, (November 1993),
http://www.tannerlectures.utah.edu/lectures/documents/Brown95.pdf > [
accessed 5 February 2010 ] (p. 7 of 80)
[fn4] Gildas, The Ruin Of Britain, ed. by M. Winterbottom and J. Morris, 2nd edition, (Chichester: Phillimore & Co. Ltd, 2002), 8.1, p. 18.
Bede, A History of the English Church and People, ed. by Leo Shirley-Price, 2nd edition, (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1968), 5.24, p 332.
George Smith, The History of the Religion of Ancient Britain, (London: Longman, 1865), p. 124.
Roger Pearse, An Answer to the Jews, The Ante-Nicene Fathers (Vols 3 & 4), (December 1999), <
http://www.tertullian.org/anf/anf03/anf03-19.htm#P2021_691723 >, [accessed 5 February 2010], 7.4.
Gildas, The Ruin Of Britain, ed. by M. Winterbottom and J. Morris, 2nd edition, (Chichester: Phillimore & Co. Ltd, 2002), 24.3, p. 27.
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