Christians and Pagans: the Conversion of Britain from Alban to Bede

Sarah Foot praises an accessible study of Britain’s early Christians

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Reviewed by: Sarah Foot
Author: Malcolm Lambert
Publisher: Yale University Press
Price (RRP): £30

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Anyone familiar with Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People has a ready answer to the question: who converted the English? For Bede, Pope Gregory the Great was the apostle to the English.

Through his missionary, St Augustine of Canterbury, Gregory made the English nation, which till then had been enslaved to idols, into a church of Christ. In Bede’s account, the beginnings of Christianity in England thus dated from Augustine’s arrival in Kent in 597, even though the ultimate triumph of the new faith among the pagan English depended on the efforts of subsequent missionaries, especially the Irish from Iona.

Yet, as Malcolm Lambert’s accessible narrative reveals, the history of Christianity in Britain extends long before Augustine’s mission to the Anglo-Saxons, back to the third century during the Roman occupation of Britain.

His account begins with the earliest Christian martyrs in third-century Britain: Alban at Verulamium, Aaron and Julius at Caerleon and St Sixtus, of whom a cult survived to Augustine’s day – although its priests knew nothing of the history of the martyr whom they venerated.

Drawing extensively on the material evidence for Christian worship in late Roman Britain, Lambert traces a vivid picture of a thriving faith into which its adherents poured substantial resources. Using grave markers, domestic objects bearing Christian symbols and, above all, mosaics, he shows how Christianity became a significant feature of lowland Roman Britain.

Of all the artefacts he employs to demonstrate Christianity’s advance, none is more powerful than the one shown on the book’s cover: a pavement from a villa at Hinton St Mary in Dorset showing the head of Christ framed by pomegranates (representing immortality).

The withdrawal of Roman troops in c410 and the immigration of pagan German settlers into south-eastern Britain threatened the survival of the Christianity of the Romano-British church, which largely disappeared from the Anglo-Saxon areas. At the same time, however, the faith became markedly stronger in the south-west, west and north of the island.

Lambert explains the victory of the British church against paganism in those post-Roman centuries and thus paints a rich picture of the depth of Britain’s Christian heritage.
Ireland, Wales, Cornwall and Scotland all receive due attention, with plentiful colourful illustration from saints’ lives, contemporary vernacular literature and the archaeological
record.

The second half of the book traces the demise of Germanic paganism and rise of Anglo-Saxon Christianity in parallel with the expansion of English military power, especially over the northern British princes.

Lambert’s engaging and readable account weaves archaeological and art-historical evidence with the literary record, demonstrating how the process of conversion changed the hearts and minds of the inhabitants of early medieval Britain. 

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Sarah Foot is regius professor of ecclesiastical history at the University of Oxford