Eugene Byrne is a freelance journalist and author, and a regular contributor to BBC History Magazine. You can read his online blog at http://eugenebyrne.wordpress.com/
We must not fail to relate the story about St Gregory which has come down to us as a tradition of our forefathers. It explains the reason why he showed such solicitude for the salvation of our race. It is said that one day, soon after some merchants had arrived in Rome, a quantity of merchandise was exposed for sale in the marketplace. Crowds came to buy and Gregory too was amongst them. As well as other merchandise he saw some boys put up for sale, with fair complexions, handsome faces, and lovely hair.
On seeing them he asked, so it is said, from what region or land they had been brought. He was told they were from the island of Britain, whose inhabitants were like that in appearance. He asked again whether those islanders were Christians or still entangled in the errors of heathenism. He was told that they were heathen. Then with a deep sigh he said, 'Alas that the author of darkness should have men so bright of face in his grip, and that minds devoid of inward grace should bear so graceful an outward form.'
Again he asked for the name of the race. He was told they were called Angli. 'Good', he said, 'they have the faces of angels, and should men should be the fellow-heirs of the angels in heaven. 'What is the name', he asked, 'of the kingdom from which they have been brought?' He was told that the men of the kingdom were called Deiri. 'Deiri', he replied. 'De ira! [Latin for 'from the anger'] Good! Snatched from the wrath of Christ and called to his mercy. And what is the name of the king of the land?' He was told that it was Aelle; and playing on the name, he said, 'Alleluia! The praise of God the Creator must be sung in those parts.' So he went to the bishop of Rome and of the apostolic see, for he himself had not yet been made pope, and asked him to send some ministers of the word to the race of the Angles in Britain to convert them to Christ."
That's from the Venerable Bede's Ecclesiastical History of the English People, written in the late 720s/early 730s AD, and for centuries one of the defining anecdotes of English identity. The story, which Bede emphasises is hearsay, was long a staple of school history lessons, not to mention Sunday school sessions. Back when schools had corporal punishment (it wasn't that long ago!) you can see how Gregory's rubbish jokes might be considered the height of fun.
One of the misapprehensions the story has left many people with is that Britain wasn't Christian until Gregory the Great (c540–604) became pope and despatched St Augustine of Canterbury to England to convert them in AD 596. But of course Christianity had come to Britain under the Roman Empire, and a thriving Christian church had survived on the Celtic fringes, cut off from the centralised, continental mainstream. It was the Anglo-Saxons controlling south-east England and the midlands who were pagans. St Augustine's mission to Britain was just as much about bringing the Celtic church under the control of Rome.
Other authorities suggest, rightly or wrongly, that nothing quite so spontaneous as Bede's story ever took place, and that before he became pope Gregory had made an abortive mission to England himself. Another story has him doing some plausible forward-planning by ordering the church in France to buy English slave boys; these were to be educated in monasteries for later use as English-speaking missionaries.
The important point to make about the Angels not Angles tale is that it can be read as not being funny at all, but rather as Gregory interpreting the words as actually divine indication that the English were ripe for conversion. It might be that his entourage at the slave market nodded in considered agreement rather than laughing. There are precious few examples of humour in the early church, though of course there's always the grim tale of St Lawrence, supposedly martyred in Rome in 258 by being roasted on a gridiron. "Turn me over," he told his executioners, "I'm done on this side."