ARCHEOLOGISTS have identified what is believed to be the oldest surviving church in England. It is believed to be the first purpose-built Christian place of worship in Anglo-Saxon England.
The new evidence strongly suggests that the church – St Pancras’ Chapel, Canterbury – was built and consecrated around 600 by St Augustine, head of the 597 papal mission to Kent, and subsequently used by him.
New research, led by Professor Ken Dark, of King’s College London, identifies the exact spot where Augustine officially restored public Christian worship in what is now eastern and southern England, after an interlude largely pagan of up to 150 years. It was one of the most important events in all of English history.
Christianity, in most of what is now England, evolved from this mission initiated by the pope; it is likely that even the original purpose-built Anglo-Saxon church design became a prototype for most later English churches.
The Christian faith in Britain had originally been established in Roman times (particularly the fourth century); but much, perhaps most, of this early tradition was destroyed by the arrival and expansion of the pagan Germanic Anglo-Saxons in the fifth and sixth centuries.
“Recently assessed archaeological evidence from St Pancras, Canterbury, indicates for the first time where Christian public worship was first formally restored after a period of pagan rule. It marks the official revival of Christianity in what would become England,’ Prof Dark said. He reassessed the early Christian archaeological material of this city.
Augustine’s decision to build Saint-Pancrace, around 600, was the culmination of a long political and religious process, which had begun nearly a century earlier.
In 508, the Frankish (French) King Clovis I converted to Christianity. His royal successors remained Christians, and in 580 his granddaughter, a Frankish Christian princess, Bertha, married the ruler of the Anglo-Saxon Kingdom of Kent, the pagan King Aethelberht (literally the “Shining Noble”).
This marriage created an opportunity for the papacy to try to convert the pagan Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of England to Christianity. Thus, in the early 590s, through Bertha, Pope Gregory began establishing contact with King Aethelberht.
The pope’s diplomatic efforts paid off in 595, when he finally persuaded the king to allow him to send a papal mission to Kent. About 18 months later Augustine arrived in this kingdom as the first Archbishop of Canterbury. He soon began to hold private Christian church services in the Queen’s small personal chapel (dedicated to the French saint, St Martin). But these services were attended only by Queen Bertha and a few of her close associates, mostly Franks. It was probably built in Roman times (perhaps as a funerary mausoleum, but certainly not as a church).
Kent was of great strategic geopolitical importance to the papacy, as King Aethelberht was the principal monarch of Anglo-Saxon England. He held (or was later perceived to hold) the title of Bretwalda (in Anglo-Saxon, “general [i.e. countrywide] rule”).
Professor Dark’s identification of St Pancras as the first purpose-built Christian place of worship in Anglo-Saxon England sheds new light on how the papacy began the process of reconverting what is today the England to Christianity.
When the Pope’s representative Augustine arrived in Kent in 597, the only official place of Christian worship appears to have been Queen Bertha’s tiny 20 square meter private chapel. Its size meant that only about ten people could worship there.
Augustine seems to have decided, perhaps almost immediately, to build a much larger purpose-built church nearby. Archaeological evidence suggests that this new purpose-built structure was built in such haste that the architecture itself was relatively unsophisticated, and speed was so important that they didn’t even install proper flooring. (just clay). The edifice constructed was nevertheless nearly six times larger than the Queen’s private place of worship and was the first Anglo-Saxon building in which normal Christian congregational worship could take place.
The evidence seems to suggest that the papacy’s reintroduction of Christianity to Kent was so successful that, probably within a decade, Augustine and his colleagues had to make the decision to build a much larger church just 300 feet away, to accommodate a growing number of missionary monks. and new converts. This building (dedicated to St Peter and St Paul) was three times larger than St Pancras, and could have accommodated over 200 worshippers.
As soon as the much larger and more elaborate new church was built (in AD 609), its predecessor, St Pancras, appears to have been abandoned, and was renovated and rebuilt half a century or so later.
The choice of location for Bertha’s (St Martin’s) Private Chapel and the churches of St Pancras and Saints Peter and Paul highlights the crucial political relationship between the Crown of Kent and newly restored Christianity.
Almost certainly Bertha’s private chapel would have been very close to her and her husband’s royal residence, which appears to have been located perhaps around 400 meters outside the walls of the ruined and abandoned Roman city. of Canterbury (Durovernum Cantiacorum).
Saint Augustine and his colleagues would almost certainly have preferred to establish the epicenter of their mission in the heart of the ancient Roman city, because the papacy considered itself the heir to the Roman Empire and considered the Roman cities as the symbol of this past. iconic imperial. and the concept of Romanity (what they perceived as civilization).
But Augustine’s desire to settle within the walls of the abandoned Roman city — for him, the local symbol of Romanity – seem to have been overshadowed by the political need to be as close as possible to the royal residence (and to Bertha and her husband). It was therefore probably not for 40 years or more (long after the deaths of King Aethelberht and St Augustine) that the main base of the Archbishop of Canterbury was finally moved to a newly built mega-church in the heart of the Ruined Roman city: Canterbury’s first cathedral.
Prior to the new research, most modern scholarship had argued that St Pancras was built after the time of Saint Augustine, but the reassessment of the archaeological data by Professor Dark demonstrates that it was built between 597 and 609 (probably around 600).
The Professor’s new date for the church (the first to be based on a full review of archaeological evidence) is based on four main lines of evidence: the significantly different alignment of St Pancras (compared to adjacent churches on the site) ; the unsophisticated nature of the building; the fact that it appears to have been hastily built; and the fact that it was abandoned (probably because it was replaced, in 609, by the much larger Church of St. Peter and St. Paul).
The ruins of St Pancras are now part of the England-administered St Augustine Abbey complex, which is itself a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Professor Dark’s research, published in the current edition of the Journal of the British Archaeological Associationmay change the way historians understand the initial sequence of events through which England’s conversion to Christianity first unfolded.