The official story as recorded in Bede is that the Pope sent Saint Augustine to England in 597 to convert the pagans. However I went to a very interesting lecture at the Hendon and District Archaeological Society when Chris Scull put forward a very subversive alternative scenario.
The “King of Bling”. Reconstruction drawing by Faith Vardy, of what the Prittlewell burial originally looked like.
The two gold foil crosses placed over the eyes of the Prittlewell prince.
Chris is leading the team who are writing up the very rich Anglo-Saxon burial discovered at Prittlewell, in Essex which we reported on in CA 190. The burial was so rich that the Sun newspaper, that grand arbiter of archaeology called it ‘the King of Bling’. But among the bling were various Christian objects including crosses placed over the body’s eyes when he was buried.
The trouble is that the various radiocarbon dates that have been obtained since point to a date between 580 and 600, which is a bit too early for Saint Augustine who only arrived in 597. The problem may be a little more complicated than Bede allows. The latest idea is that the conversion came in two stages: in the first stage, when the Anglo Saxons first heard about this strange new religion of Christianity, they adopted Christ as being one new god among all the others. Among religions Polytheism is the normal – there may possibly be one supreme god, but he is unknowable, so let’s not bother about him. But as there are many ways of worshiping him, so let’s worship all gods – Woden, Thor, Jupiter, Mars, Buddha, Jesus Christ, they are all the same. The sensible thing is to worship the lot of them altogether. However the Christian god is a jealous god who pushes out all others – as indeed does the Muslim god.
Thus in stage one, as revealed by the Prittlewell burial, Christianity is seen as being yet another god to be worshipped alongside all the others. Then Augustine comes along and said you have to give up all your other gods and just worship the one true god. Now this caused a very big problem. Saeberht, who was king of Essex, adopted the type one Christianity. He died in 619 and at first it was thought that he was buried at Prittlewell, but his death seems to be too late for the radiocarbon dates. So Prittlewell must have been some prince. Following Saeberht, Essex reverted to paganism – they just could not face giving up all their old gods and it was only his grandson who eventually took the momentous step of becoming fully Christian and giving up all his old gods.
So that is the new story of how Christianity came to England: do you like it?