After the initial success of St. Gregory the Great’s mission to Britain, when St. Augustine and his fellow monks had baptized King Ethelbert and begun the conversion of his people, a second group of missionary monks was sent to assist. Abbot Melitus and monks Justus, Rufianus, and Paulinus arrived in Britain in the year 601 for the purpose of evangelizing in ever wider areas of the island. Paulinus was sent to York when a political situation provided the opportunity.Edwin, King of the pagan Northumbrian kingdom, desired to make a political alliance through marriage with a Christian woman, Ethelberga, the sister of the King of Kent. Edwin was first told that a Christian could not marry a non-Christian, but his promise to allow Ethelberga and her household complete religious freedom and to consider possible conversion to Christianity himself brought about the desired marriage. Paulinus was then consecrated bishop and sent with Ethelberga to York to serve as her chaplain and a missionary to the Northumbrian people.The very salvation of a nation awaited the events following this marriage. In retrospect, we see the working of the Holy Spirit in the patience of a wife, the tenacity of a bishop, the diplomacy of a pope, and the openness of a king. We can also see how delicate and precarious the work of these early missionaries was. Much of this beautiful story is told by St. Bede in his History of the English Church and People, written about 100 years after these events.
Bede tells how Bp. Paulinus celebrated Mass daily and provided spiritual guidance and counsel to the queen and her servants, giving the example of devotion to the pagan kingdom. But the greatest opportunity for conversion occurred on Easter Day in 626. Queen Ethelberga gave birth to a daughter and, on the same day, King Edwin was wounded and narrowly escaped assassination at the hand of a spy for the West Saxons. When the king gave thanks to his pagan gods for sparing his life, Bishop Paulinus gave thanks to our Lord for the birth of the child. Edwin “made a deal” with God and Paulinus: if he could wage war against the West Saxons and win, he would give up his old gods and embrace this Christ whom his wife worshiped. Edwin was victorious in the battles that followed, so he upheld his end of this bargain. He agreed to become a Christian, but asked first to be thoroughly instructed in the Christian faith so that he could understand this new religion.
During Edwin’s catechumenate, Paulinus faithfully taught him the basic elements of the Christian faith, which the king pondered in long periods of silence and solitude. Also during this time, Pope Boniface (a successor of St. Gregory) wrote to the king encouraging and further instructing him. He also wrote to Queen Ethelberga, reminding her of the persuasive influence a Christian can have on his or her spouse through the example of godly living. At the same time, the chief priest of the Northumbrian religion confessed that he had recognized deficiencies in the old religion and Truth in the new.
God’s plan had unfolded. On Easter Day, April 12, in the year 627, King Edwin and many of his subjects were baptized into the Christian Church.
As St. Bede tells us, the full story of the conversion of the English people was generally much more complicated than this. Sometimes the native population was completely unwilling to be persuaded to give up pagan beliefs; often (as was the case later for Paulinus) the death of a receptive king brought about a reversal in the acceptance of Christianity; and there were numerous unsuccessful attempts to reconcile the differences in practice and belief between the Roman missionaries and the Celtic churchman who had maintained a Christian presence in the North for centuries.
When King Edwin and his warriors were killed in battle with the Britons in 633, a horrible slaughter of civilians followed. Bishop Paulinus took Queen Ethelberga and fled with her back to her homeland of Kent. From then until his death on October 10, 644, he served as the Bishop of Rochester. The groundwork he had laid in York was not completely destroyed; peace was eventually restored to the Northumbrians and Christianity again began to flourish.
Through such precarious events as these; through periods of success and others of failure; through the tireless efforts of monks and bishops and the bravery of rulers, the people of Britain were slowly won over to the truth of Christianity. Thanks be to God!