I recently posted about the annihilation of the church in Roman Britain. Writing the history of that church is largely a story of reporting negatives – not something that historians like to do, but sometimes we have no choice. (Let me stress again that I’m talking about the wealthier south and east of the island, not the north, west, or Wales).
It is profoundly depressing to realize how pathetically little survives of all the Christian literature that must once have existed in Roman Britain: not a word of all the Bibles and liturgical books, all the controversial texts and letters, all the administrative correspondence and church records. Did some erudite Londoner c.420 sit down to write a dazzling multi-volume History of British Christianity? If so, we have not a trace of it. We do have excerpts from Pelagius, and of course the writings of Patrick, the British boy who was enslaved by pagan Irish raiders and eventually sought to convert his new country. But the losses are enormous, and irretrievable.
From the whole fifth century, literally one British official record survives, and that is an appalling extract from a letter pleading for Roman intervention in 446. It reads: “The barbarians drive us to the sea; the sea throws us back on the barbarians: thus two modes of death await us, we are either slain or drowned.” That could serve as the epitaph of the dying church.
We actually do have some potent survivals of this old church, but each in its way is a monument of despair and desolation. Probably facing barbarian invasion in the late fourth century, a major local church in eastern England desperately hid its magnificent collection of silver liturgical goods, giving some hint as to how visually splendid British churches must already have been. Drawing analogies from the country’s spectacular Roman villas, these churches and basilicas would have had magnificent mosaics, although nothing remains. But the fact that this Water Newton treasure was never reclaimed until its discovery in 1975 suggests that the church must have been wiped out.
At a guess, all the British Christian gold and silver that was not safely hidden ended up being melted down and turned into brooches and jewelry for Anglo-Saxon chieftains.
Only in a few cases do we see even vague hints of continuity. The clearest is at St. Alban’s itself, which somehow retained Roman memories: perhaps the pilgrimage survived even through the worst years. The Romans called it Verulamium, the English called it Verlamacestir, or Verlam-fort. Still in the eighth century, the Northumbrian historian Bede had heard that this was the site of a church of wonderful workmanship. “In which place, there ceases not to this day the cure of sick persons, and the frequent working of wonders.” Can we assume that old-established British believers were increasingly joined by newer Anglo-Saxon converts? Place names such as “Eccles” (Latin ecclesia) may mark an enduring church, but even those instances are rare in the south and east.
In his book Christians and Pagans, Malcolm Lambert writes that whatever survived of the older Christianity “had no prestige within the lands of prime conquest: it was the religion of the defeated. Germanic paganism was the religion of the conquerors” (57).
Augustine of Canterbury also tells an odd story of meeting some people who venerated a certain Sixtus, but they had no idea whether he was a martyr, or, frankly, what this Christianity was all about. The Pope told Augustine to build a church on the site and dedicate it to a Roman Pope named Sixtus, thus obliterating the identity of one of the last British Christians whose name we know – perhaps a man once celebrated as a martyr for the faith.
It’s a grim story, and one that must make us appreciate all the glories that do survive of historic Christian civilization elsewhere, despite all the wars and catastrophes.