Butler’s Lives of the Saints – Saint Augustine, Apostle of the English, Bishop and Confessor

[Saint Augustine of Canterbuy]Article

A.D. 604

The Saxons, English, and Jutes, pagan Germans, who in this island began in 454 to expel the old Britons into the mountainous part of the country, had reigned here about one hundred and fifty years, when God was pleased to open their eyes to the light of the gospel. 1 Saint Gregory the Great, before his pontificate, had desired to become himself their apostle; but was hindered by the people of Rome, who would by no means suffer him to leave that city. This undertaking, however, he had very much at heart, and never ceased to recommend to God the souls of this infidel nation. When he was placed in the apostolic chair, he immediately turned his thoughts towards this abandoned part of the vineyard, and resolved to send thither a select number of zealous labourers. For this great work none seemed better qualified than Augustine, then prior of Saint Gregory’s monastery, dedicated to Saint Andrew in Rome. Him, therefore, the pope appointed superior of this mission, allotting him several assistants who were Roman monks. The powers of hell trembled at the sight of this little troop, which marched against them armed only with the cross, by which they had been stripped of their empire over men. Zeal and obedience gave these saints courage, and they set out with joy upon an expedition, of which the prize was to be either the conquest of a new nation to Christ, or the crown of martyrdom for themselves. But the devils found means to throw a stumbling-block in their way. Saint Gregory had recommended them to several French bishops on their road, of whom they were to learn the circumstances of their undertaking, and prepare themselves accordingly. But when the missionaries were advanced several days’ journey, probably as fair as Aix in Provence, certain persons, with many of those to whom they were addressed, exaggerated to them the ferocity of the English people, the difference of manners, the difficulty of the language, the dangers of the sea, and other such obstacles, in such a manner that they deliberated whether it was prudent to proceed: the result of which consultation was that Augustine should be deputed back to Saint Gregory to lay before him these difficulties, and to beg leave for them to return to Rome. The pope, well apprized of the artifices of the devil, saw in these retardments themselves greater motives of confidence in God; for where the enemy is most active, and obstacles seem greatest in the divine service, there we have reason to conclude that the work is of the greater importance, and that the success will be the more glorious. Souls are never prepared for an eminent virtue and the brightest crowns but by passing through great trials. This, though often immediately owing to the malice of the devil, is permitted by God, and is an effect of his all-wise providence to raise the fervour of his servants for the exceeding increase of their virtue. Saint Gregory, therefore, sent Augustine back with a letter of encouragement to the rest of the missionaries, representing to them the cowardice of abandoning a good work when it is begun; exhorting them not to listen to the evil suggestions of railing men, and expressing his desire of the happiness of bearing them company, and sharing in their labours had it been possible. The temptation being removed, the apostolic labourers pursued their journey with great alacrity, and, taking some Frenchmen for interpreters along with them, landed in the Isle of Thanet, on the east side of Kent, in the year 596, being, with their interpreters, nearly forty persons. From this place Saint Augustine sent to Ethelbert, the powerful king of Kent, signifying that he was come from Rome, and brought him a most happy message, with an assured divine promise of a kingdom which would never have an end. The king ordered them to remain in that island, where he took care they should be furnished with all necessaries, whilst he deliberated what to do. This great prince held in subjection all the other English kings who commanded on this side the Humber; nor was he a stranger to the Christian religion; for his Queen Bertha, a daughter of Caribert, king of Paris, was a Christian, and had with her Luidhard, bishop of Senlis, for her director and almoner. After some days, the king went in person to the isle, but sat in the open air to admit Augustine to his presence; for he had a superstitious notion that if he came with any magical spell, this would have an effect upon him under the cover of a house, but could have none in the open fields. The religious men came to him in procession, “carrying for their banner a silver cross, and an image of our Saviour painted on a board; and singing the litany as they walked, made humble prayer for themselves, and for the souls of those to whom they came.” Being admitted into the presence of the king, they announced to him the word of life. His majesty listened attentively; but answered, that their words and promises indeed were fair, but new, and to him uncertain: however, that since they were come a great way for his sake, they should not be molested, nor hindered from preaching to his subjects. He also appointed them necessary subsistence, and a dwelling-place in Canterbury, the capital city of his dominions. They came thither in procession, singing, and imitated the lives of the apostles, serving God in prayer, watching, and fasting; despising the things of this world, as persons who belonged to another, and ready to suffer or die for the faith which they preached. There stood near the city an old church of Saint Martin, left by the Britons. In this was the queen accustomed to perform her devotions, and in it the apostolic preachers began to meet, sing, say mass, preach, and baptize, till the king being converted, they had license to repair and build churches every where. Several among the people were converted, and received the holy sacrament of regeneration; and in a short time the king himself, whose conversion was followed by innumerable others.

Bede says that Saint Augustine after this went back to Arles to Etherius, bishop of that city, from whose hands he received the episcopal consecration; but for Etherius we must read Virgilius, who was at that time archbishop of Arles, Etherius being bishop of Lyons. 3 The reason why he went so far, seems to have been because the Archbishop of Arles was not only primate, but apostolic legate in Gaul; and Augustine probably wanted his advice in many things. The saint had baptized the king, and was himself ordained bishop before October, 597, within the space of one year; for the letter of Saint Gregory to encourage the missionaries in France to proceed, was dated on the 10th of August, 596. In 598 the same pope wrote to Eulogius, patriarch of Alexandria, that Augustine had been ordained bishop, with his license, by the German prelates; so he calls the French, because they came from Germany. He adds: “In the last solemnity of our Lord’s nativity, more than ten thousand of the English nation were baptized by this our brother and fellow-bishop.”

Saint Augustine, immediately after his return into Britain, sent Laurence and Peter to Rome to solicit a supply of more labourers, and they brought over several excellent disciples of Pope Gregory; among whom were Mellitus, the first bishop of London; Justus, the first bishop of Rochester; Paulinus, the first archbishop of York; and Rufinianus, the third abbot of Augustine’s. “With this colony of new missionaries, the holy pope sent all things in general for the divine worship and the service of the church, viz. sacred vessels, altar-cloths, ornaments for churches, and vestments for priests and clerks, relics of the holy apostles and martyrs, and many books,” as Bede writes. 4 Saint Augustine wrote frequently to Saint Gregory, whom he consulted in the least difficulties which occurred in his ministry; which shows the tenderness of his conscience; for in many things which he might have decided by his own learning and prudence, he desired to render his conscience more secure by the advice and decision of his chief pastor. The same pope wrote to the Abbot Mellitus, 5 directing the idols to be destroyed, and their temples to be changed into Christian churches, by purifying and sprinkling them with holy water, and erecting altars, and placing relics in them; thus employing the spoils of Egypt to the service of the living God. He permits the celebration of wakes on the anniversary feasts of the dedications of the churches, and on the solemnities of the martyrs, to be encouraged among the people, the more easily to withdraw them from their heathenish riotous festivals.

The good King Ethelbert laboured himself in promoting the conversion of his subjects during the twenty remaining years of his life; he enacted wholesome laws, abolished the idols, and shut up their temples throughout his dominions. He thought he had gained a kingdom when he saw one of his subjects embrace the faith, and looked upon himself as king only that he might make the King of kings be served by others. He built Christ Church, the cathedral in Canterbury, upon the same spot where had formerly stood a heathenish temple. He also founded the abbey of Saint Peter and Paul without the walls of that city, since called Saint Augustine’s, the church of Saint Andrew in Rochester, etc. He brought over to the faith Sebert, the pious king of the East Saxons, and Redwald, king of the East Angles, though the latter, Samaritan-like, worshipped Christ with his idols. Ethelbert reigned fifty-six years, and departed to our Lord in 616. He was buried in the abbey-church of SS. Peter and Paul, which himself had founded. He had been baptized in the church of Saint Pancras, which Saint Augustine had dedicated, and which had been a pagan temple, on that very spot where he built soon after Christ Church, as is mentioned in an old manuscript preserved in the Library of Trinity Hall in Cambridge, quoted by Spelman and Tyrrel. Saint Ethelbert is commemorated in the Roman Martyrology on the 24th of February.

Saint Gregory, in the year 600, sent, with many noble presents, a letter of congratulation and of excellent advice to king Ethelbert. He in the same year sent to Saint Augustine the archiepiscopal pall, with authority to ordain twelve bishops, who should be subject to his metropolitan see; ordering that when the northern English should have embraced the faith, he should ordain a bishop of York, who should likewise be a metropolitan with twelve suffragan bishops. But particular circumstances afterwards required some alterations in the execution of this order. The fame of many miracles wrought by Saint Augustine in the conversion of the English having reached Rome, Saint Gregory wrote to him, 7 exhorting him to beware of the temptation of pride or vain-glory, in the great miracles and heavenly gifts which God showed in the nation which he had chosen. “Wherefore,” says he, “amidst those things which you exteriorly perform, always interiorly judge yourself, and thoroughly understand both what you are yourself, and how great a grace is given in that nation for the conversion of which you have even received the gift of working miracles. And if you remember that you have ever at any time offended your Creator either by word or deed, always have that before your eyes, to the end that the remembrance of your guilt may crush the vanity rising in your heart. And whatever you shall receive or have received in relation to the working of miracles, esteem the same not as conferred on you, but on those for whose salvation it hath been given you.” He observes to him, that when the disciples returned with joy and said to our Lord, In thy name be the devil subject unto us, they presently received a rebuke: rejoice not in this, but rather that your names are written in heaven.

Saint Augustine ordained Saint Mellitus bishop of the East Saxons in London, and Saint Justus bishop of Rochester; and seeing the faith now spread wide on every side, he took upon him, by virtue of his metropolitan and legatine authority, which the pope had conferred upon him over all the bishops of Britain, to make a general visitation of his province. He desired very much to see the ancient Britons, whom the English had driven into the mountains of Wales, reclaimed from certain abuses which had crept in among them, and to engage them to assist him in his labours in converting the English. But malice and an implacable hatred against that nation blinded their understandings and hardened their hearts. However, being on the confines of the Wiccians and West-Saxons, that is, on the edge of Worcestershire, not far from Wales, he invited the British bishops and doctors to a conference. They met him at a place which was called at the time when Bede wrote, Augustine’s Oak. 8 The zealous apostle employed both entreaties and exhortations, and required of them three things: First, That they should assist him in preaching the gospel to the pagan English: Secondly, That they should observe Easter at the due time: and, Thirdly, That they should agree with the universal Church in the manner of administering baptism. But they obstinately refused to comply with his desires. Whereupon Saint Augustine proposed, by a divine impulse, that a sick or impotent person should be brought in, and that their tradition should be followed, as agreeable to God, by whose prayer he should be cured. The condition was accepted, though very unwillingly; and a blind man was brought, and presented first to the British priests, but found no benefit by their prayers or other endeavours. Then Augustine bowed his knees to God, praying that by restoring the sight to this blind man, he would make his spiritual light shine on the souls of many. Upon which the blind man immediately recovered his sight, and the Britons confessed that they believed that the doctrine which Augustine preached was the truth; but said, that without the general consent of their nation they could not quit their ancient rites and customs. Wherefore they desired that a general synod of their country should be held. Accordingly a second more numerous council was assembled, in which appeared several British bishops (their annals say seven) and many learned men, especially from the monastery of Bangor, which stood in Flintshire, not far from the river Dee; not in the city of Bangor in Carnarvonshire. A little before they came, they sent to consult a famous hermit among them, whether they should receive Augustine or reject his admonitions, and retain their ancient usages. He bade them, so to contrive it, that Augustine and his company should come first to the place of the synod, and said, that if he should arise when they approached they should look upon him as humble, and should hear and obey him; but if he should not rise to them that were more in number, then they should despise him. They took this ignorant and blind direction, and instead of weighing the justice and equity of the archbishop’s demands, his right, and the truth of his doctrine, committed this important decision to a trifling casual circumstance or punctilio. They had before confessed that he taught the truth, and he had convinced them both by reasons and a miracle, that he only required of them what charity and obedience to the church in points of discipline obliged them to; nevertheless, revenge and malice against the English made them still stand out and have recourse to the most idle pretence. Strong endeavours to do wrong God usually punishes with success. It so happened that when they entered the place of the synod, Augustine did not rise from his seat; whether this was done by inadvertence, or because it might be the custom of the countries where he had been not to use those compliments in public places, or at least in synods, any more than in churches. But whatever was the occasion, nothing could be more unreasonable than the conclusion which the Britons drew from this circumstance. Had the inference been just, the archbishop did not lose his right, nor was his doctrine the less true. His humility and charity were otherwise conspicuous. He was come so far for their sake, and out of humility was accustomed to travel on foot. Nor did he in this conference mention his own dignity or authority: he seems even to have waived the point of his primacy; which from his charity we cannot doubt but he would have been glad to have procured leave to resign to their own archbishop of Saint David’s, had the Britons been willing on such terms to have conformed to the discipline of the universal church, and lay aside their rancour against the English. However, upon this ridiculous pretence did that nation remain obstinate in their malice. 10 Which Saint Augustine seeing, he foretold them, that “if they would not preach to the English the way of life, they would fall by their hands under the judgment of death.” This prediction was not fulfilled till after the death of Saint Augustine, as Bede expressly testifies, 11 when Ethilfrid, king of the northern English, who were yet Pagans, gave the Britons a terrible overthrow near Caer-legion or Chester, and seeing the monks of Bangor praying at a distance, he cried out after the victory: “If they pray against us they fight against us by their hostile imprecations.” And rushing upon them with his army, he slew twelve hundred of them, or, according to Florence of Worcester, two thousand two hundred. For so numerous was this monastery that being divided into seven companies, under so many superiors, each division consisted of at least three hundred monks, and whilst some were at work others were at prayer. Their obstinate refusal of the essential obligation of charity towards the English was a grievous crime, and drew upon them this chastisement; but we hope the sin extended no further than to some of the superiors. This massacre was predicted by Saint Augustine as a divine punishment; but those who accuse him as an instigator of it are strangers to the spirit and bowels of most tender charity, which the saint bore towards all the world, who knew no other arms against impenitent sinners and persecutors than those of compassion, and tears and prayers for their conversion. And long before the accomplishment of this threat and prophecy in 607, Saint Augustine was translated to glory, as appears from several circumstances related by Bede himself, though the year of his death is not expressed by that historian, nor in his epitaph, which seems composed before the custom of counting dates by the æra of Christ was introduced in this island, though it began to be used at Rome by Dionysius Exiguus, an abbot, in 550.

Saint Augustin, whilst yet living, ordained Laurence his successor in the see of Canterbury, not to leave at his death an infant church destitute of a pastor. He died on the 26th of May; and as William Thorn says, from a very ancient book of his life, in the same year with Saint Gregory, viz. 604; which Mr. Wharton proves from several other authorities. Goscelin, a monk of Canterbury in 1096, besides two lives of Saint Augustine, compiled a book of his miracles wrought since his death, and a history of the translation of his relics in 1091, which was accompanied with several miracles, to which this author was an eye-witness. This work is given at length by Papebroke on this day. The second council of Cloveshoe, that is, Cliffe in Kent, in 747, under archbishop Cuthbert, Ethelbald king of Mercia being present, commanded his festival to be kept a holiday by all the clergy and religious, and the name of Saint Augustin to be recited in the Litany immediately after that of Saint Gregory.

The body of Saint Augustine was deposited abroad till the church of SS. Peter and Paul near the walls of Canterbury, which king Ethelbert built for the burying-place of the kings and archbishops, was finished; when it was laid in the porch, with this epitaph, which is preserved by Camden in his Remains, and by Weever in his Funeral Monuments. “Here rests lord Augustine, first archbishop of Canterbury, who being sent hither by the blessed Gregory bishop of Rome, and by God upheld by the working of miracles, 19 brought king Ethelbert and his nation from idolatry to the faith of Christ, and having completed the days of his office in peace, died on the seventh day before the calends of June, in the reign of the same king.” In the same porch were interred also the six succeeding archbishops, Laurence, Mellitus, Justus, Honorius, Deusdedit, and Theodorus; these in their epitaph are called the seven patriarchs of England. The porch being by that time full, and the custom beginning to allow persons of eminent dignity and sanctity to be buried within churches, Saint Brithwald the eighth archbishop, was interred in the church of this abbey in 731; and near him his successor Saint Tatwin. Weever says, besides the first archbishops and the kings of Kent, thousands of others were here interred; but by the demolition of this monastery, “not one bone at this time remains near another, nor one stone almost on another, the tract of this most goodly foundation no where appearing.” One side of the walls of king Ethelbert’s tower, the gates, houses, and some ruins of the out-buildings are still standing; but the site of the abbey cannot be traced, and the ground is a cherry orchard. This was the great abbey which some time after changed the name of SS. Peter and Paul for that of Saint Augustine’s. But the remains of our saint were afterwards removed hence into the north porch of the cathedral of Christ Church within the city; and on the 6th of September, 1091, leaving in that place some part of the ashes and lesser bones, abbot Wido translated the remainder into the church; where they lay for some time in a strong urn in the wall under the east window. In 1221 the head was put into a rich shrine ornamented with gold and precious stones; the rest of the bones lay in a marble tomb enriched with fine carvings and engravings till the dissolution.

Cuthbert, the eleventh archbishop, was the first person buried in Christ Church in 759, since which time it had been the usual burying-place of the archbishops, till the change of religion; for none of the Protestant archbishops have hitherto been there interred. In the cathedral of Christ Church were the shrines of Saint Thomas, Saint Wilfride, (whose relics were translated from Rippon by Odo,) Saint Dunstan, Saint Elphege, Saint Anselm, Saint Odo, Saint Blaise bishop, Saint Owen archbishop of Rouen, Saint Salvius bishop, Saint Woolgam, Saint Swithun, etc. Battely and Dr. Brown Willis 22 justify the monks of Christ Church from the crimes laid to their charge at the dissolution; but say the riches of their church were their crime. Also the ingenious Mr. Wharton, under the name of Antony Harmer, in his Specimen of Errors in B. Burnet’s History of the Reformation, takes notice, that whereas the monks of Christ Church in Canterbury and those of Battel-abbey were principally charged with enormous irregularities at the dissolution of abbeys, their innocence in both places, especially the former, is notorious from several evident circumstances. Christ Church at Canterbury was rated at the dissolution at two thousand three hundred and eighty-seven pounds per annum; Saint Augustine’s in the same place at one thousand four hundred and thirteen pounds, according to Dugdale.

MLA Citation

  • Father Alban Butler. “Saint Augustine, Apostle of the English, Bishop and Confessor”. Lives of the Fathers, Martyrs, and Principal Saints, 1866. Saints.SQPN.com. 12 May 2013. Web. 21 August 2014. <>