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The bishop who converted East Anglia

St Felix (March 8) reaped a ‘rich harvest of believers’, according to Bede

By on Friday, 8 March 2013

East Anglia

East Anglia

Felix, who died around 647, was a Burgundian bishop who undertook the daunting task of converting the inhabitants of East Anglia.

Christianity had come to that region under King Redwald of the East Angles, whose reign ended c 627. Redwald, though born a pagan, had been converted when staying with King Ethelbert of Kent.
Returning home, however, he ran into trouble with his wife, who insisted that he should resume his former heathen practices. Redwald re-established matrimonial harmony by building two altars beside each other, the first dedicated to Christ, and the second to the old gods.

Redwald was eventually acknowledged as leader by all the English people south of the Humber. Bede, though, dismisses him as “ignoble”.

Indeed, it was Redwald’s pagan queen who saved his honour, persuading him to abandon his plan to curry favour with King Ethelfrid of Northumbria by murdering St Edwin, who was
his guest.

Redwald’s son and successor Eorpwald proved a better Christian, until slain in battle by a heathen named Richbert. Then in 631 Sigbert, who may have been Redwald’s stepson, succeeded to the East Anglian throne.

Sigbert had spent his youth in Gaul, in flight from Redwald, and while there had become a devout Christian. Perhaps he had met Felix in Burgundy, for no sooner did he become king than Felix approached Honorius, Archbishop of Canterbury, and asked to be allowed to preach to the Angles.

“Like a good farmer,” Bede relates, Felix “reaped a rich harvest of believers. He delivered the entire province from its age-old wickedness and sorrow, brought it to the Christian way of life, and – as his own name signifies – guided it towards eternal happiness.”

Felix established his episcopal see at Dunwich, which was then the chief seaport on the East Anglian coast, and expired there after 17 years of service.

He was particularly interested in education and established a school, staffed with teachers imported from Kent.

Desperate Cantabrigians, determined by any means to establish the seniority of Cambridge over Oxford, have suggested that the origin of their university may be traced back to Felix’s school. Oxonians, however, are perfectly certain that the bishop’s seat of learning was at Dunwich.

King Sigbert, meanwhile, had grown so deeply in the faith that he abandoned the throne of East Anglia and betook himself to a monastery which he had founded.

When King Penda of Mercia – paganissimus, according to Bede – invaded East Anglia about 637, Sigbert was dragged into battle by his former subjects. Disdaining to defend himself, he was duly slaughtered.

Felix, however, aided by the Irish monk Fursey, succeeded in restoring the Christian cause in East Anglia. His remains were translated first to Ely and then to Ramsey in Huntingdonshire. His name lives on in Felixstowe.