Anglo-Saxon Church

New Catholic Dictionary illustration of an 'Anglo-Saxon Church Tower at Earls Barton' that accompanied the article 'Anglo-Saxon Church'Article

The church of the Teutonic tribes from northwestern Germany who invaded Britain south of the Rivers Forth and Clyde in the 5th century, displacing the Celtic inhabitants towards Wales and Cornwall. The invaders set up a number of independent kingdoms, often at war with each other; they were evangelized, as the chances of peace or alliance might offer, in the following order

  • Kent (See of Canterbury founded in 597
  • Rochester, 604)
  • Essex (London, 604)
  • Northumbria (including the district called Deira; York, 625)
  • East Anglia (Dunwich, 630)
  • Mercia (Lichfield, 656)
  • Wessex (Winchester, 669)
  • Sussex, the neighboring kingdom to Kent, was the last to be converted (Selsey, 708)

The Christian Celts who remained in Britain were too insignificant in numbers to convert their heathen conquerors, and the Celtic Church in Wales and Scotland seems to have made no effort to preach to the Saxons.

Pope Saint Gregory the Great, happening to see some fair-haired youths in the Roman slave-market, being told they were Angles from Deira, said: “Not Angles, but angels: de ira Dei (from the wrath of God) they shall be saved.” On the first opportunity he sent the Roman monk Saint Augustine to convert Kent, and Augustine became the first Archbishop of Canterbury. Northumbria was evangelized by the Irish Saint Aidan, a monk of Iona, Scotland, who followed the Celtic traditions regarding the keeping of Easter, which differed from the Roman custom. He founded the monastery of Lindisfarne, from whence came the brothers Saints Cedd and Chad, who were the apostles of Essex and Mercia respectively, Saint Cuthbert, who labored in the north, and Saint Wilfrid, who converted Sussex and reconciled Northumbria to the Roman Easter. In the interests of anti-papal controversy, too much has been made of the divergent customs of the Roman and Celtic missionaries; the latter were thoroughly loyal in spirit to the See of Rome. At the Synod of Whitby, 664, Oswiu, King of Northumbria, elected to stand by “the Roman Keybearer” (Saint Peter).

The following councils and synods, presided over by bishops or legates appointed from Rome, promoted unity and restrained the mutual interference of the clergy: Hertford, 673; Hatfield, 680; that of 747, held at an unknown or unidentifiable place, made a thorough reform of the clergy; the Synod of Cealchythe (Chelsea?), 787, recognized tithes, and made Lichfield an archbishopric. Ethelwolf, King of Wessex, gave the Church a tenth of his lands. His son, Alfred the Great, showed great devotion to the papacy and in his code of laws he, conjointly with Guthrum, the Danish ruler of East Anglia, declared apostasy a crime, and commanded the payment of Peterspence. Saint Dunstan, Archbishop of Canterbury, 960-988, aided by Saint Ethelwold of Winchester and Saint Oswala of York, sought to replace the secular clergy by monks to remedy the custom of married clergy, and to establish a more intimate communication with Rome; henceforward the archbishops went to Rome to receive the pallium. King Canute made a pilgrimage to Rome, 1026-27, legislated in favor of the Church, and insisted on the payment of Peterspence.

Under King Edward the Confessor there were appointed to English sees many foreigners, who were probably more devout and capable than any English priests available at the moment; competent Englishmen were not passed over; the papal legate who visited England in 1062 appointed the great native churchman, Saint Wulstan, to the See of Winchester. Latin was used in the liturgy and in the canonical hours; the books were the Roman service books without any important additions of native growth. There was a strong likeness to the ritual of southern Italy, probably due to Adrian, Abbot of Saint Augustine’s, who brought the traditions of Monte Cassino to England. Interesting customs were: churchyard procession on Palm Sunday; dialogue beside the Sepulcher on Holy Saturday; episcopal benediction after the Pater Noster; multiplication of Prefaces;. lay communion under both kinds. These were not peculiar to England, although some of them originated there. As regards the veneration of Our Lady, the Anglo-Saxons were far removed from the principles of the Reformation. Aldhelm and Alcuin sang her praises in Latin, Cynewulf in Anglo-Saxon; a 10th-century litany contains the following supplications to the Blessed Virgin (in Latin):

Holy Queen of the World,
Holy Saviouress of the World,
Holy Redemptress of the World,
Pray for us.

MLA Citation

  • “Anglo-Saxon Church”. New Catholic Dictionary. CatholicSaints.Info. 30 July 2012. Web. 14 December 2018. <>