1.7 Conversion

AS ConversionAt the start of the 7th century England was a basically pagan country; by the end of it it was officially at least Christian. While no doubt many pagans still held on, Whitred of Kent’s laws began to embed Christianity into the fabric of English kingdoms.

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Essentially, it’s all gone horribly wrong hasn’t it? I meant, broadly, I have an episode per century when I embarked on this and we’ve already had two on the 7th century, and the blessed AS’s aren’t even converted yet. The problem, gentle listeners, is what my mother delighted to call verbal diarrhoea. So, promise this week we’ll get on with it. Always had a soft spot for Penda though, is the other problem. Though in all likelihood if we’d met he’d have cut my heart out of my chest and eaten it with a little seasoning.

Anyway, never apologise, never explain, so onward. This week it’s two things – quick summary of how our kingdoms end the 7th century, and the progress of the conversion to Christianity.

The first is easily done – we were pretty much there at the end of last week anyway, to be honest. Northumbria I think we’d done; expansion slows up in the late 7th century, but none the less in the competition of ‘great AS Kingdoms of world history’ Northumbria ends the century right up there with the big boys. It’s a kingdom that stretches from coast to coast east to west, and right up to just south of Edinburgh, and a cultural and religious powerhouse. Its king at the end of the century was the illegitimate son of the king and an Irish Princess, and as such demonstrates the importance of Celtic people, culture and religion in Northumbria. Northerners have always been different – can’t play footie like us midlanders for starters.

Moving on, after being hustled off the field of Winwaed in 655 by a couple of loyal thegns pretending to be peasants, Wulfhere made the greatest come back since Lazarus, and really I ought to spend a deal of time talking about him, he’s a bit of a God, but it’s White Rabbit time, seriously. I can feel my brain dribbling out of my ear, and if we finish this episode still in the 7th century the rest will come out. When Jacky, Buffy and Will wrote that song about lifting Mercia up where we belong, it was clearly Wulfhere they were thinking about rather than Love. Wulfhere re-established the line of Penda within 3 years of Winwaed, and by the time of his death in 675 Mercia included the kingdom of Lindsey, bossed East Anglia and the East Saxons, rode roughshod over the Gewisse south of the Thames and even onto the Isle of Wight. Unlike Dad, he was also Christian. And finally and interestingly, it looks as though it’s under Wulfhere that London becomes a Mercian town. It all went seriously pear-shaped at the end of his reign with a nasty defeat at the hands of the Northumbrians, but no matter, succession moved to brother Aethelred who put things right again. Although having said that, clearly everything wasn’t plain sailing, since his wife was, quote ‘murdered by her own people, the Mercian Chieftans’ Bede quite often let’s fall these one liners behind which clearly sits a story we all want to know, but are completely unrecoverable. Aethelred then retired to a monastery, and rather than the throne going to Aethelred’s son, succession then moved back to Wulfhere’s son. Who then in turn took early retirement and died a monk in Rome, while Aethrelred’s son became king. It’s all terribly grown up and English. After you. No, No, after you, please. But also summarises the attitude to who’s inline for the throne – you draw from the pool of aethelings, it’s not necessarily the eldest son.

Without wanting to summarise too much, East Anglia basically does her own thing – which is East Anglia all over to this day – but essentially plays second fiddle to Mercia; while Kent remains largely independent and rich, but given her position tucked away in the bottom right hand corner her opportunity for expansion was strictly limited. As for the South Saxons – well it’s a tiny place, with no records – essentially no one hears anything of her except for when one of the big boys walks all over her. I exaggerate for effect, but not much.

Which brings us to the Gewisse, that lot south of the Thames, West of the South Saxons and East of the British kingdoms in Devon and Cornwall. To history, of course they are known as Wessex, and that change probably happens in the short and rather colourful reign of a man called Caedwalla. Which is a chance to tell you a story.

Last time we ended by talking about how much more structured AS kingdoms were becoming. Which is true, but I’d hate to give the wrong impression, and give you the idea that England was not still bandit country and fertile ground for adventurers, in particular for anyone with a smidgen, however smidgeny, of royal blood in his veins. Also I’d hate to give you the idea that every royal family was like Mercia, politely passing the crown around on the basis that the best man won.

So let tell you the story of a colourful character of the Gewisse, Caedwalla. Though before I do that I might note a couple of things; firstly, after Penda had descended on the Gewisse and given them a beating for rejecting his sister, things got a little crazy in the land of the Gewisse; their lands were made up of a number of regions – Wiltshire, Hampshire, Somerset for example – and they seem to be semi autonomous at this time, with each of them in turn providing a king for the whole of the Gewisse. That’s one thing; the other is that one of these, gasp, is a woman – Seaxburgh. The entry in the ASC is very flat:

672     King Cenwalh passed away, and Seaxburgh his Queen reigned for one year after him.

The implication in this terribly laconic and unexcited entry, is that there’s nothing terribly unusual about this concept; and it’s also worth noting that there are later Queens who are crowned as co-rulers in ASE, rather than Queen Consorts – which speaks of greater latitude and equality for women than in later, Norman times. Having said that, Seaxburgh is the only queen that appears in the AS regnal lists, so let’;s not hang out the bunting quite yet.

Anyway, back to Caedwalla. Caedwalla was an aetheling of the Gewisse. The king of the Gewisse at the time was Centwine, and at the time the very broad story of the Gewisse in the 7th century has been of a second league nation, fighting it out for bragging rights on the Eastern edge of their kingdom with Kent and the South Saxons, gradually pushing the Celts backwards in the south west, and arguing furiously with Mercia over their northern boundary – which gets established as the river Thames essentially, but it goes back and forth a bit.

We know about Caedwalla from Bede, who records the epitaph for us. This goes like this:

His high estate, wealth, kin, a mighty crown,

His strongholds, chieftains, spoils, his own renown

And that of all his sires, Cædwalla forsook,

Inspired by love of Heaven, that he might look,

A pilgrim king, on Peter and his shrine


Essentially to go back to the beginning, in his youth, Caedwalla the Aetheling was a spare, and for whatever reason, an inconvenience. He was also, incidentally, a pagan in a country that was now officially Christian. Like the young lion cuffed about by the Alpha male, he had to leave the pride, and we find him hanging out in what used to be the grubbiest, grottiest and most inhospitable regions of the South East – the Chiltern Hills and the Weald of Sussex. Actually, it sounds as though he was thrown out. Caedwalla was not happy with the life most grubby, so he scraped together a following, including his brother Mul, dusted down his Atheling certificate, and headed for the easiest target – the South Saxons. Mul and Caedwalla didn’t hold back; Bede tells us he ‘wasted the province with slaughtering and plunder’, which would explain why the great men of the South Saxons were not happy with this piece of banditry by an Atheling of the Gewisse, and before you can say knife Caedwalla was forcibly removed and was back in the wilderness.


So back he headed to his own tribe, the Gewisse. And would you believe it, in 685 he tipped up as their king. We do not know exactly what happened, but burning and destroying was on his mind, so the very next year 686 he decided to head for the Isle of Wight and do some pillaging there. But before he set off, he wanted to stack the odds in his favour, so he gave a great oath that if he conquered the island he’d give a quarter of it to God. All went well – in the sense that Caedwalla conquered the island, slaughtered as many as he could and forced the remainder to convert to Christianity. Bede tells us a moving story in which three Jutish princes escaped to the mainland, only for Caedwalla to follow, reducing the South Saxons to, quote, ‘a state of slavery’, and the princes to be caught and ordered to be executed. But it’s Ok says Bede, because happily they were converted and baptised by the local priest. They were then executed, of course, but at least they were baptised.

Next it was Kent’s turn, that very same year, and again success blessed the brutal Caedwalla, and he installed his brother Mul as king of Kent. The Kentish men were no happier than the South Saxons which led to Mul being burned with 12 of his companions, followed by the obligatory savage reprisals by Caedwalla. In 688, from a standing start, Caedwalla had gone from King of a couple of dormice in the Chiltern Hills to King of Wessex, the Isle of Wight, Sussex, Kent and overlord of the East Saxons. Mercia here we come.

But no. Cadewalla then decided to hang up the golden, if rather bloody, axe, give it all up to go and see, live and die in Rome as a monk.

Words fail me. Meteoric is one word for it. One of the things about it that makes me laugh is that the venerable Bede is so busy dribbling about the fact that Caedwalla donated 300 hides of land to the Church, was converted to Christianity and became a monk that he doesn’t really seem to turn a hair at all the slaughtering and mayhem – I suppose that’s just the way the young Saxon Aetheling is supposed to be. Caedwalla styled himself rex saxonum, king of the Saxons, which effectively was what he was once he’d brought the South and East Saxons into his, er, protection. The name stuck to a degree, in that from then on in they are West Saxons rather than the Gewisse.

The other surprising thing is this hopping off to Rome thing. We’ve seen it several times, and it will happen again; in fact Caedwalla’s successor was Ine – and Ine also gave up the throne and travelled to Rome. It speaks of very great commitment to Christianity, to the fervour of the converted. Though I note that Caedwalla died in 689 very soon after he arrived there, so maybe he knew something was up.

Speaking of Ine, he’s the king that takes us into the 8th century, and a thoroughly successful one he is. But he’s successful not because he continues the ‘Heroic Age’ of the AS’s – i.e. the expansion and growth of the new kingdoms; in fact despite a few efforts, he failed to make any headway against the British Kingdoms of the SW. His fame comes through his lawcodes, which we’ll discuss at some future point. He was a king after Alfred the Great’s heart – a builder, a patron of the Church, a law maker – rather than a warrior and empire builder drenched in the blood of his enemies and giver of golden rings. Ine lasts til 726 when he resigned, and went to Rome as a pilgrim. Reputedly, he set up the Schola Saxonum in the Borgo region of Rome, which became known as the English district where English pilgrims would stay.

So much for the secular; and now as promised, onto the religious.

Last time we spoke specifically about the conversion of the pagan AS’s into good church-going Christians was right at the beginning, in the reign of Aethelbert of Kent. We’d noted that after an initial flying start, actually things had stuttered a bit – the East Saxons reverted to type after the flow of magic bread stopped coming. And also it’s very easy to make the assumption that just because a king converted, that all his subjects did too – and that’s not a safe assumption. Actually the path of true love was not easy. What we can say is that by 700, Christianity was the official religion throughout England, and that by the mid 8th century, paganism was being actively repressed. So as you can see, this was a multi generational process. There were set backs along the way – the East Saxons and their Magic bread problem for example; there were events – war, pestilence, famine – that had the Saxons questioning their new faith, and asking where is the love. In 664, Bede wrote of, quote,

‘a sudden pestilence raging far and wide with fierce destruction’,


‘laid low a great multitude of men’.

In this case Bede noted that some went back to their pagan Gods.

So in actual fact, the conversion was not easy. Pope Gregory had been careful advising missionaries not to destroy pagan shrines – often pagan shrines, and festivals were transformed into Christian ones. On the one hand this would have helped normalise things; on the other hand, it created confusion about the differences of the new religion – Raedwald and his casual setting up of a Christian shrine is a good example.

In these early days, the role of women was critical. For the pagan AS male, Christianity was something of a problem. Explaining to a warrior used to the idea that his job was to kill, maim destroy and steal, that from now on he should turn the other cheek and be meek, mild and humble was something of a tricky sell. It was mega confusing for kings; afterall his very reason for existence was to look after his people and help them grow in power and influence. But women had a role which gave them no such dilemma, and they seem to have taken on Christianity with unalloyed enthusiasm. The marriage of Berta and Aethelbert is one example.

Nor was the conversion effort homogenous, or indeed Christianity itself homogenous. During the 7th century, much of the conversion effort was carried out by religious communities – monasteries in effect. These groups did not necessarily follow the same rule, although St Benedict, who established the rule that would become the most common standard, died in 647. And in fact the variations were significant and led to a kind of mini power struggle.


Broadly speaking there were three groups who came to England and tried to convert the new natives. We’ve noted that western Britain was not affected in the same way as Eastern England, and that there was some survival of christianity; in Ireland Christianity flourished. The Irish practice held that pilgrimage was central, and that this meant a lifetime away from family and Ireland; there was a very strong strand of the ascetic in the Irish tradition, and the search for solitude. There was also something of the fire and brimstone approach, which had Pagan AS’s quaking once they got going. Irish monks and missionaries worked away amongst the Picts as well as the English, and had been in northern Britain in particular for a couple of generations before the glory boys of St Augustine turned up. The most famous of them, St Colomba, set up a monastery on Iona, an island in the Inner Hebrides in Western Scotland, and by the later 7th century Iona sat at the centre of a network of monasteries throughout Ireland, Scotland and Northern Britain. As we’ve seen, links between the Northumbrian kings and the Irish were close – such as Oswald’s 15 year exile there. And then in 635 another famous Celtic Monk, Aidan established another monastery on Lindisfarne, an island off the East coast of Northumbria, which would be central to Northumbrian cultural and religious life.

No history of the conversion would be complete without then mentioning Saint Cuthbert, and sorry if this is something of a digression. Cuthbert to some degree seems to have also come from the Irish tradition, and was a monk and early Bishop of Lindisfarne in the 7th century. Until the arrival of one Thomas Becket many centuries later, the cult of St Cuthert was the most popular and famous in England. In his first few centuries, Cuthbert’s body and shrine were seriously peripatetic, partly because of the Vikings, but also partly because, well, there just seems to have been something of a wanderlust problem. Eventually the story goes that in 995, when Cuthbert’s body was on the move again, suddenly the saint’s body became too heavy to move. Given his 3 centuries of wandering about, I can understand Cuthbert’s feelings – enough already. So, a few days of fasting and mathering by the attendant monks followed – during which, thankfully, Cuthbert appeared in a dream and said he needed to go to Dun Holm. Unfortunately, he failed to give directions which was a shame. Oh dear oh dear, more mathering ensued, then fortunately the monks came on a milkmaid, looking for her Dun Cow – which she thought was on Dun Holm, which turned out to be a rather special wooded hill on a peninsula in a bend in the River Wear. Which ended up becoming the City of Durham, with a long and glorious history ahead of it as the palatinate of the north, where the Norman’s would build the most stunning cathedral.

While I continue to digress, the AS’s were quite delightfully potty about their saints – there are literally billions of them. Well, actually literally not billions, but many, many. And if you happen to read Bede, it is soaked in miracles – it seems impossible to spend a day without encountering some sort of holy light, or miraculous natural phenomenon; seriously, awash with God’s daily presence. When the Norman’s arrive, they treat the poor old AS saints with some contempt, actually, and although they are not officially de-sainted, or whatever the process is, they kind of sink without trace. It was a kind of superior French thing going on. It’s fine, we’re used to it.

Sorry, back to the Irish monks and their evangelising. Although links with the North of England were the strongest, there are some signs of the Celtic church further south, and of course what we don’t know about is the network of individuals evangelising, which never get officially recorded but went on day to day – and may in fact be the most significant of all.

A second notable group were the Franks, from Gaul. Generally, they only followed into England after Augustine’s arrival, but of course the close links with Kent made them particularly influential in the South East; and just as Northumbrian exiles often ended up in Ireland, so did Kentish exiles end up in Frankish courts. Many of the liturgical differences are too technical for me to get enthusiastic about, but the Franks, and indeed Italians, tended to emphasise the grand display and ceremonial more than the ascetic Irish tradition, the rich, secular role of the Bishop as well as his religious role.

And then of course there were the Italians, sent by Pope Gregory the Great from Rome in answer to Aethelbert’s appeal. Italy, though a shadow of its former self, was still light years ahead of England in the richness of its economy and towns, with a relatively large pool of highly educated religious men to form part of missions.

There is a 4th group; despite Bede having something of a go at the British for not converting the AS’s when they arrive, it’s very likely that in fact this did happen to some degree at least, especially in the western regions of England, where the proportion of the population that derived from the existing British population was probably higher than in the East. The kingdom of the Hwicce, for example, seems to have been Christian earlier that Mercia – though that might be Penda’s fault of course.

So one of the problems then, was that there was more than one tradition evangelising to ordinary people. Some of these differences are ironed out at the Synod of Whitby in 664, which effectively chose the practices of Rome over Iona, and moved the Northern diocese to York rather than Lindisfarne. It’s easy to over rate the Synod of Whitby; in one sense it is just one of many convocations sorting out many rules and regulations; and there are signs that even in Ireland the practices of Iona were being replaced anyway. But it was definitive, and brought an improvement in clarity. It’s also interesting in that the role of kings was central, in both debate and decision making through this whole process of agreeing which tradition and rules to follow. One thing always to remember about ASE after the conversion is the closeness of church and state; there’s little of that separation we expect to see between the two; Abbots, Abbesses like Hild of Whitby, Bishops and Archbishops were an integral part of a king’s great council of the wise, and it’s a tradition that will continue well into the early modern age.

The likelihood is that village by village during the 7th and 8th centuries there is much confusion about the practices and rules of the new faith. In one of Bede’s writings, a community in Northumbria complains

How the new worship is to be undertaken, nobody knows

And there would have been many communities, well into the 8th century, where a priest or Bishop very rarely came. The work of one of the most influential of the early church leaders, Archbishop Theodore survived, laying down a series of rules and advice which give us some insight into the confusion caused by the new religion, and some of the bizarre rules it imposed, bizarre at least for the pagan mind – So, for example; no sex during lent, and for 3 days before communion; forbidding a man to see his wife naked; and the complex rules about consanguinity, including the fact that you couldn’t marry Godparents, even if they were close to you in age. And meanwhile people gave up old habits very slowly and reluctantly, if at all. Theodore was horrified that English women, when attempting to cure fevers, placed their daughters on rooftops or in ovens; he proscribed stern penances on those that carried out practices such as carrying amulets, or burning grain in the presence of corpses – hangovers from a  bygone age. Even at the end of the 8th century, the Northumbrian churchman Alcuin wrote castigating Englishmen, quote ‘Wearing amulets thinking them sacred’. There’s a penitential from the 8th century condemning the taking of vows on ash trees. Actually, all of this isn’t confined to the early centuries of Christianity in England. It’s the sort of behaviour that continues to worry and irritate the church throughout medieval years.

So, although it’s difficult to know exactly when Pagan practices are finally extinguished in England, and they probably linger on in the more remote places far longer that we imagine, from the 8th century officially at least Christianity became the official religion of England.

ASE then had all the attributes of the newly enthusiastic and newly converted, and went slightly potty with their new religion. Now, don’t get me wrong; there were good, hard headed reasons why the AS kings lead and approved the conversion; those AS kings of yester-year were not just hat racks, they knew what they were about. As we’ve mentioned, they were eager to add the patina of Romanitas to their rule, they loved the access to writing skills, the aura of Godly approved kingship that gave them gravitas; they dribbled at the prospect of a network of priests all singing their praises to their subjects. All good. But there’s a flavour of belief and enthusiasm that just feels different, even to the later still madly religious middle ages. One sign of it is the delightful stream of English kings we’ve talked about ending their days in monasteries or in Rome. You’ve got to admire King Sigeberht of East Anglia sticking to his new religious, pacifist principles as Penda’s axemen carved him up. The cascade, avalanche of AS saints. The closeness of the relationship between church and state. And orthodoxy; one of the earliest heresies, Pelagius in the 4th century had been a Brit, but those AS’s were seriously orthodox and toe the line. Until we get to John Wycliff in the 14th century, England is the goody two shoes of Christianity, and fully paid up member of the shiny shoes club.

One of the manifestations of this is the wave of endowments and foundations, which started right from the off. Bede noted of Athelbert that

He gave many gifts to the Bishops of each of these churches and that of Canterbury, and he also added both lands and possessions for the maintenance of the bishop’s retinues

King Oswiu of Northumbria gave land to found 12 monasteries, each with 10 hides of land; Caedwalla of the West Saxons as we have seen gave 300 hides of the IoW after he’d ravaged it. The Great monasteries such as Monkwearmouth in Northumbria came with scores of hides of land.

These grants also created a new format of landholding into ASE. Last week we talked about laenland, the normal way that the Crown gave grants to its followers – gifts for their lifetime. The church wasn’t having that, understandably. If a church needed 10 hides of land to maintain it, it was going to need it for ever – after all, no-one would ever conceive of a church being closed and converted into high value residential accommodation, surely. So what happened is that the church insisted that land was granted in perpetuity; and they wrote it down. This therefore becomes known as Bookland – literally, written in the book. The Church became adept at maintaining their charters, and indeed adept at forging charters, all for the greater glory of God, of course.

But this concept of permanently alienating land seems to have been a little tricky for the AS’s to grasp. There’s some evidence that the permanent alienation of land gave some kings a problem, as enthusiasm outstripped supply. Thegns and kings insisted on continuing to believe that giving away land didn’t mean that they gave away all their rights; and so for example continued to expect to be able to appoint the priest to the church they’d endowed with the land.


ASE acquired a church administrative structure as well of course. There was a single archbishop initially, which reflected the Roman diocese, until Pope Gregory III in 735 set the cat amongst the pigeons and created one at York as well, leading to many happy centuries of arguing about precedence between Canterbury and York. Bishoprics were created, and usually reflected the tribal formation and nature of the country – every king wanted their Bishop, and sometimes that meant that their cathedra were moveable.

I think that brings us to the end of this episode, and to the end of the 7th century; though maybe one more thing, In Aethelbert’s lawcode of 600, the church was essentially fitted into the existing system of customary laws, by a church eager to establish itself. In 695 at the end of the century there’s another set of laws in Kent by king Wihtred. These laws include sections prohibiting pagan sacrifice, enforcing Christian marriage, the Sabbath, and banning the eating of meat during prescribed feasts. England was now essentially Christian, or least officially, Christian.

5 thoughts on “1.7 Conversion

  1. St Benedict died in 547 rather than in 647. The reason his Rule triumphed over the Celtic ones is its remarkable moderation, or in his own words: “Constituenda est ergo nobis dominici schola servitii. In qua institutione nihil asper, nihil grave nos constituros speramus” (Regula, prol. 45-6), which can be crudely rendered in the vernacular as something along the lines of: “A school of the divine service, therefore, is to be founded by us. we hope to be establishing nothing harsh, nothing unbearable in that institution”.
    Meanwhile, the Rules of St columba and his Celtic mates are both asper and gravis, laying down blood curdling penalties for any hint of impiety, or indeed, disobedience. In Francia especially, monastic houses which adhered to the Celtic Rules were quick to adopt the Benedictine one, or find themselves losing monks to the neighbouring Benedictine house.
    Well, that’s what you get for using a wrong date 😉
    If you need any help translating Latin for this or your other podcast (which I swear to God, I’m going to catch up with some day), feel free to contact me.

  2. Hi Yair, well after that I’ll have to get dates wrong more often! Very interesting. I have to confess (it probably shows) I could never get into the religious stuff when at university…I often find the concepts difficult to grasp. But this was nice and clear!
    Though it means I’ll have to grovel in EP 10…

  3. Yair, I wonder if you could post some sources, primary and/or secondary, secular or ecclesiastical for your post? Are there competing explanations among scholars on the point.? Thanks!

  4. Hi David, No hurry at all but a question out of sheer curiosity. In this or the previous episode you mention women placing feverish daughters on rooftops to cure them. Do you have a source for this practice?
    I have tried to google but nothing comes up.

    1. Myrte, enquiries like this fill me with despair; it’s all so long ago, I just can’t remember; nor did I keep references at the time (I try to now to some degree) so even going back to the script doesn’t help. This is a hopeless effort, but the books I read were Henrietta Leyser’s Medival Women, Christine Klapisch Zuber ‘A history of Women’, and a bit of Eileen Power Medieval women. But the reference is no for sure. I have had read stuff on medicince also. Sorry!

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