This article was first published in the August 2013 issue of BBC History Magazine
Lying at the most easterly point of Kent, the Isle of Thanet – with its sandy beaches and chalk cliffs – now seems an improbable place to search for the origins of Christianity in England. Yet it was here in AD 597 that the first Roman missionaries landed and began to preach the gospel to the pagan locals.
In the Middle Ages Thanet was an island, separated from the mainland by the Wantsum channel. In the eighth century the Wantsum was three furlongs (600 metres) wide, joined the sea at its northern and southern ends, and could be crossed at only two places. It has long since silted up and is now an area of marshland, criss-crossed by drainage ditches and prone to flooding.
To those first Roman missionaries, monks sent by Pope Gregory the Great, the wind-swept Kentish isle must have seemed a remote and desolate place. At that time the British Isles lay at the extreme edge of the known world, and as they crossed Europe toward the Channel, the monks began to have second thoughts. According to Bede, the first historian of the English, the monks wanted to go back home “rather than going to a barbarous, fierce and unbelieving nation whose language they did not even understand”. So their leader, Augustine, leaving his companions in Gaul, returned to Rome to ask the pope if they could give up “so dangerous, wearisome, and uncertain a journey”. Instead, Gregory resolutely sent Augustine back to his timorous charges, bolstered with firm advice to keep to the task they had undertaken. Where exactly Augustine and his companions landed Bede did not reveal, but it was probably on the south of the island, on the Ebbsfleet peninsula, a spit of land jutting into the Wantsum channel. Even in low cloud the white cliffs will have loomed over them as they approached the shore. Dragging their boats up the shallow beach the weary travellers will have prayed that the chalky pebbles over which they stumbled would not prove to symbolise the stony hearts of the pagans they had come to convert.
The chalk cliffs of Pegwell Bay would have been a formidable sight for Augustine and his companions in AD 597. (Oliver Edwards)
When Æthelberht, then king of Kent and the Germanic settlers known as Jutes, received a message from the missionaries, he instructed that they remain on the island until he decided what to do. The king was initially cautious because Thanet was the site of an important shrine dedicated to the Germanic pagan thunder-god Thunor, a sacred mound near Manston. The strength of the cult of Thunor among the Jutes meant that the king faced a difficult decision over which of the gods he should favour.
Æthelberht already knew something of Christianity through his wife, a Christian princess from Frankia. A few days after the monks from Rome had landed, Æthelberht crossed to the island to meet them. Wary that they might deploy magical arts, the king insisted on meeting outdoors. But, far from using magic, the missionaries came to him bearing a silver cross as a standard, along with a panel painted with an image of Jesus, chanting litanies and saying prayers for the salvation of their new hosts. Hearing their preaching as the gulls wheeled loudly overhead, Æthelberht agreed to let the monks spread the word of God among his people and was himself baptised. He also granted them a dwelling place in his chief city, Canterbury.
As recently as the 19th century, Kentish people believed that the site of that first meeting between Æthelberht and Augustine was marked by a massive oak, one of a group of trees fringing a field at Cliffsend in Pegwell Bay, not far from Minster-in-Thanet. In 1884, hearing the story of the felling of that great tree, the 2nd Earl Granville (then foreign secretary and lord warden of the Cinque Ports) commissioned a large standing cross which still stands at the site (cared for by English Heritage).
The work of evangelisation continued from the new cult-centre in Canterbury, and the departure of the Roman missionaries did not end Thanet’s role in the spread of the Christian faith. A great-granddaughter of Æthelberht, Eormenburh (also known as Domneva), once married to a king in the midland kingdom of Mercia, returned to Thanet to take possession of land in compensation for the murder of her two brothers at the hands of a certain Thunor, a counsellor of the Kentish king of that time. Medieval legends report that Eormenburh was granted as much land as her tame deer could run around, on which to found a monastery in her brothers’ memory. The path the deer traced formed the boundary of the monastery’s estates, lands that included the old pagan cult site ‘Thunor’s mound’. As the deer passed that spot, the land is said to have opened up and swallowed the evil counsellor responsible for the murders. Minster-in-Thanet’s town sign still bears the symbol of Eormenburh’s white hart.
Norman vaulted ceilings soar above the chancel of St Mary the Virgin Church. (Oliver Edwards)
In 670, Theodore, archbishop of Canterbury, consecrated Eormenburh’s monastery, dedicated to the Virgin Mary, on the site of the present parish church of St Mary the Virgin in Minster-in-Thanet. This quiet spot surrounded by trees provided solitude ideal for the life of prayer, and its proximity to the sea lent opportunities to marvel at the wonders of God’s creation.
The site became a thriving mixed community of monks and nuns, led after Eormenburh’s time by her daughter Mildrith (Mildred). Enjoying the benefits of a natural harbour leading into the Wantsum channel, the monastery owned ships and actively engaged in trade with other places in the Thames estuary and on the continent.
Minster-in-Thanet lost its independence in the eighth century; for a while it was annexed to the monastery in Lyminge to the south-west. When Viking ships started to attack English shores in the ninth century, Minster-in-Thanet’s exposed coastal location proved dangerous, so the nuns took refuge in Canterbury, where a community of St Mildrith survived to the 11th century.
The memory of the devotion of those first nuns is preserved today at the church of St Mary the Virgin, where modern stained glass tells some of this story. The present building, with its beautiful vaulted ceiling, was started by the Saxons and enlarged by the Normans; an older Saxon turret is incorporated into the building’s Norman tower. The contemporary community of Benedictine nuns of St Mildred’s Priory at nearby Minster Abbey is a living symbol of that first Christian incursion among the beaches and cliffs of Thanet.
English Christianity: Five more places to explore
1) Isle of Iona, Inner Hebrides
This island off the west coast of Scotland, where the Irish saint Columba founded a monastery in 563, brings us close to the experience of the earliest missionaries. The breathtaking journey by land (across Mull) and sea takes you through some of the most spectacular scenery in Scotland. From here, St Columba led missions to spread Christianity among the Scots in Dalriada, and the Picts in the region.
2) Lindisfarne, Northumberland
The unspoiled tidal island of Lindisfarne – off the coast of Northumberland, near the Anglo-Saxon royal fortress of Bamburgh – remains a major site of pilgrimage. At the invitation of Oswald, king of Northumbria, in 635 Aidan, a monk from Iona, established a monastery and seat of a bishop here. As well as the ruins of the monastery and a later castle, the island’s quiet beaches and peaceful scenery provide plenty of opportunities to absorb the spirit of this place that attracted the Irish monks. Consult tide tables when planning a visit.
3) Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk
A historic market town with a glorious cathedral and abbey gardens, Bury St Edmunds dates back to the early 10th century. Then called Beodricesworth, it was the site of a new monastery that was built to hold the remains of the last Christian king of East Anglia, Edmund, killed by the Vikings in 869. The abbey was one of the richest in pre-Conquest England, and, until the death of Thomas Becket, it was the most popular pilgrimage site in England. The Norman bell tower (originally the entrance to the abbey) once dominated the town’s skyline.
4) Whitby, North Yorkshire
At the top of the cliffs above the seaside town of Whitby stand the windswept ruins of the medieval monastery known as Streanæshalch (Bay of Light) in pre-Viking sources. Whitby was founded in c657 by King Oswiu, who gave his baby daughter Ælfflæd to Abbess Hilda to bring up at the abbey. The synod of Whitby in 664 determined that the Roman (not the Irish) method would be used for calculating the date of Easter. Local legend has it that the ammonites found in nearby cliffs (and for sale in the town) are the fossilised remains of snakes driven off the cliffs by St Hilda when she first arrived.
5) Wareham, Dorset
Wareham’s riverside location between the Frome and the Piddle makes it a great place from which to explore south-eastern Dorset. The survival in Lady St Mary Church of five ancient memorial stones inscribed with British names demonstrates that this was a centre of Christianity in the seventh and eighth centuries. In the ninth century it housed an important religious foundation, the burial place of King Beorhtric of Wessex (died 802) and was home to a community of nuns. Although briefly occupied by a Viking army in 876, Wareham continued to host a nunnery in the 10th century and King Edward the Martyr (d978) was briefly buried here, before his body was moved to the ancient hill-top market town of Shaftesbury nearby (also well worth a visit).
Sarah Foot is the regius professor of ecclesiastical history at Christ Church, Oxford, and author of Monastic Life in Anglo-Saxon England c600–900 (Cambridge University Press, 2006).