Kings and the Kingdom

Today, the third of February, is feast day of St. Laurence (Laurentius) of Canterbury.  He was an early figure of the branch of Christendom we might style “Germanic”: St. Laurence, though a Roman monk, was part of the first Roman mission to the Anglo-Saxons of Britain and later became the second archbishop of Canterbury.  He also can, through accounts of his life, show us the integral and sometimes messy relationship between Church and State in an era which is, to us today, only dimly remembered.

St. Laurence (d. 619), called by Bede a presbyter, accompanied the monk Augustine on his mission to the Anglo-Saxons of Britain.  Commissioned by Pope Gregory the Great, who had long dreamed of converting the tow-headed barbarians of Britain, the missionaries were welcomed by King Ethelbert of Kent and given Canterbury as a headquarters.  The account of the first encounter between the missionaries and King Ethelbert makes plain the strangeness of these visitors to their wary host:

Some days after, the king came into the island, and sitting in the open air, ordered Augustine and his companions to be brought into his presence. For he had taken precaution that they should not come to him in any house, lest, according to an ancient superstition, if they practiced any magical arts, they might impose upon him, and so get the better of him. But they came furnished with Divine, not with magic virtue, bearing a silver cross for their banner, and the image of our Lord and Saviour painted on a board; and singing the litany, they offered up their prayers to the Lord for the eternal salvation both of themselves and of those to whom they were come. When he had sat down, pursuant to the king’s commands, and preached to him and his attendants there present, the word of life, the king answered thus: ­ “Your words and promises are very fair, but as they are new to us, and of uncertain import, I cannot approve of them so far as to forsake that which I have so long followed with the whole English nation. But because you are come from far 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 will not molest you, but give you favourable entertainment, and take care to supply you with your necessary sustenance; nor do we forbid you to preach and gain as many as you can to your religion.” Accordingly he permitted them to reside in the city of Canterbury, which was the metropolis of all his dominions, and, pursuant to his promise, besides allowing them sustenance, did not refuse them liberty to preach. (Historia I.XXV)

Two things to note in this story: first, the dependence of the missionaries upon the goodwill of the king, and second, the kings unwillingness to abandon religious practices he regards as inherently English.  A sustained reading of Bede shows that the first fact remained important through the history of the Anglo-Saxon church: royal and noble patronage were vital, and a bishop too eager to make the king’s business his own would find his intrusions most unwelcome. (St. Wilfrid’s famous feud with King Ecgfrith of Northumbria is the clearest example of this.)  However, the second fact also remained troublesome, with notable instances occurring in Bede’s account of St. Laurence.

Before Augustine of Canterbury’s death, he went ahead and anointed Laurence as his successor: Augustine feared that leaving his episcopal see empty even for a short time might destabilize the English church.  It seems that Augustine should have feared empty thrones more: after his death, so too died Ethelbert of Kent and Sabert of Essex, and those Christian kings left heirs who were still unconverted and also hostile to Christianity.  The sons of Sabert, in particular, saw the church’s authority in matters spiritual as an affront to their royal dignity: they refused baptism, for which they saw no need, but resented being excluded from communion:

And being often earnestly admonished by him, that the same could not be done, nor any one admitted to partake of the sacred oblation without the holy cleansing, at last, they said in anger, “If you will not comply with us in so small a matter as that is which we require, you shall not stay in our province.” (Historia II.V)

This sudden hostility caused some of St. Laurence’s bishops to flee across the channel to Christian France, and St. Laurence planned to follow, but chose to have a prayer vigil first:

LAURENTIUS, being about to follow Mellitus and Justus, and to quit Britain, ordered his bed to be laid the night before in the church of the blessed apostles, Peter and Paul, which has been often mentioned before; wherein having laid himself to take some rest, after he had poured out many prayers and tears to God for the state of the church, be fell asleep; in the dead of night, the blessed prince of the apostles appeared to him, and scourging him a long time with apostolical severity, asked of him, “Why he would forsake the flock which he had committed to him? or to what shepherds he would commit Christ’s sheep that were in the midst of wolves? Have you,” said he, “forgotten my example, who, for the sake of those little ones, whom Christ recommended to me in token of his affection, underwent at the hands of infidels and enemies of Christ, bonds, stripes, imprisonment, afflictions, and lastly, the death of the cross, that I might at last be crowned with him?” Laurentius, the servant of Christ, being excited by these words and stripes, the very next morning repaired to the king, and taking off his garment, showed the scars of the stripes which he had received. The king, astonished, asked, “Who had presumed to give such stripes to so great a man?” And was much frightened when he heard that the bishop had suffered so much at the hands of the apostle of Christ for his salvation. Then abjuring the worship of idols, and renouncing his unlawful marriage, he embraced the faith of Christ, and being baptized, promoted the affairs of the church to the utmost of his power. (Historia II.VI)

In this skeptical era, we may look askance at this story of visions and miraculous stigmata.  But the king, Eadbald son of Ethelbert, has (I think) a telling reaction, and one that parallels the attitude of Sabert’s heirs : “Who would presume to give stripes to so great a man?”  For Eadbald, St. Laurence is the man who gave orders to his father, and who has tried to give orders to him.  Doubtless this assertion of ecclesiastical authority rankled Eadbald, as it did the sons of Sabert.  Yet this man, who presumed to command kings, was flogged like a slave.  This, I suspect, is what jarred Eadbald so, and led to his repentance: ocular evidence of an authority beyond his own.

The authority of bishops to command was not the only threat the posed to the traditional Anglo-Saxon kings, as can be seen in Bede’s account of King Redwald of Essex, who even St. Laurence failed to fully convert:

Redwald had long before been admitted to the sacrament of the Christian faith in Kent, but in vain; for on his return home, he was seduced by his wife and certain perverse teachers, and turned back from the sincerity of the faith; and thus his latter state was worse than the former; so that, like the ancient Samaritans, he seemed at the same time to serve Christ and the gods whom he had served before; and in the same temple he had an altar to sacrifice to Christ, and another small one to offer victims to devils; which temple, Aldwulf, king of that same province, who lived in our time testifies had stood until his time, and that he had seen it when he was a boy. (Historia II.XV)

Here we see Redwald adopting Christ as yet another of his gods, to be propitiated in the same manner as the other gods.  More importantly, though, it is Redwald’s temple and Redwald’s sacrifices: Redwald is his own bishop, serving as a spiritual authority for his people as well as a secular authority.  In other words, Redwald is Church and State: his co-opting of Christianity allows him access (he thinks) to the Christian god without submission to the ethnically Roman, politically Kentish archbishop.

* It is also the feast day of several others saints, notably St. Werburh (Werburga) and St. Ansgar (Oskar).*  My selection of St. Laurence is based solely on my interests and don’t necessarily reflect the relative prominence of this saint in this era or those past.

1 thought on “Kings and the Kingdom

  1. Good stuff, David. I’ve thought since I started doing the Anglo-Saxon boogie that some attention to that period and that place is a handy corrective to ecclesiologies and theologies-of-the-state that hold up the “early church” as something roughly analogous to post-Enlightenment religious consumerism and portray the complex relationships between kings and bishops in the sixth and the fourteenth century (and those between) as some sort of unilateral “invasion” of kings into the business of the bishops or vice versa.

    I still think that Anabaptist ways of relating to Church and King are the most adequate to Scriptural revelation and to the realities of the modern state, but I will say that knowing the reality of Anglo-Saxon episcopacy has made me respect greatly those bishops’ efforts to be faithful in a world that remains confusing.

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