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‘We have heard that the English wish to be converted’

St Homorius (September 30), the fifth Archbishop of Canterbury, was a key figure in the establishment of Christianity in England

By on Wednesday, 22 September 2010

Canterbury, where Honorius died

Canterbury, where Honorius died

Honorius served as the fifth Archbishop of Canterbury between 627 and 653. For more than 50 tumultuous years he was involved in the establishment of Roman Christianity in England.

Bede tells us that Honorius was a disciple of Pope Gregory the Great, which suggests that he began his career as a monk in Rome. Otherwise, personal details are lacking.

It is not clear whether Honorius first came to Canterbury with St Augustine in 597, or with St Mellitus in 601.
By tradition, Pope Gregory was inspired to organise St Augustine’s mission by the sight of some English boys in Rome. “Non Angli sed Angeli”, he is supposed to have described them.

The pun, however, probably originated among the monastic scribes at Whitby around 700. The real inspiration for the conversion of England most likely came from England itself. “We have heard,” Pope Gregory wrote in July 596, “that the people of the English wish to be converted to the Christian faith.”

At first the mission to England prospered. Bertha, the Frankish wife of King Ethelbert of Kent, was already a Christian; and her powerful husband, having obligingly converted himself, soon persuaded his subjects to emulate him.

There was a reaction, though, after Ethelbert’s death in 616. His son Eadbald attacked Christianity, until won over by Laurence, the second Archbishop of Canterbury.

Meanwhile, the political balance was shifting, for by 625 the pagan King Edwin of Northumbria had achieved dominance over much of England. The danger to Christianity was averted, however, by Edwin’s marriage to the Kentish princess Ethelburga, daughter of Ethelbert and Bertha.

The Roman missionary Paulinus travelled north with Ethelburga, and in 627 pulled off a mighty coup by converting King Edwin.

It was at this stage that Honorius became Archbishop of Canterbury, consecrated by Paulinus at Lincoln. His ecclesiastical authority, however, hardly extended beyond Kent and East Anglia.

Nevertheless, in 634 Pope Honorius wrote to his namesake of Canterbury confirming that, in the event of either the Archbishop of Canterbury or York dying, the survivor would have authority to appoint the deceased’s successor.

The balance of power in England was once more overturned in 633, when the paganissimus King Penda of Mercia, the evil genius of Bede’s Ecclesiastical History, slew King Edwin of Northumbria in battle.

Paulinus, who had become the first Archbishop of York, was forced to flee south, where Honorius appointed him Bishop of Rochester.

The link between Rome and Canterbury remained strong, establishing a tradition that would endure for hundreds of years. In Kent, Honorius’s position was buttressed in 640 by the accession to the throne of King Eorcenbert, an enthusiastic Christian. 

Honorius died on September 30 653, and was buried in the monastery of St Peter and St Paul at Canterbury.