About 587 a Roman abbot, Gregory, afterwards Pope Gregory the Great, is said to have seen some English boys exposed for sale in Rome and asked of what people they were, of what kingdom and who was their king. They were Angli, he was told, of Deira, the modern Yorkshire, and their king was Aelle. "Not Angli", said he, struck with the beauty of the fairhaired boys, "but angeli (angels), fleeing from wrath, and Aelle's people must sing Alleluia". He wished himself to go as a missionary to the English but was prevented. After he became pope he sent a mission to England headed by Augustine. The way was prepared, for Aethelberht, king of Kent, had married a Christian, a Frankish princess Berhta, and allowed her to worship the true God. She brought with her a bishop who ministered to her in St Martin's church outside Canterbury, but evidently made no effort to spread the faith. Augustine and his band landed probably at Ebbsfleet in 597. They were well received by Aethelberht, who was converted and baptized. On the 16th of November Augustine was consecrated by the archbishop of Arles to be the archbishop of the English, and by Christmas had baptized 10,000 Kentish men. Thus the fathers of the English Church were Pope Gregory and St Augustine.

Augustine restored a church of the Roman times at Canterbury to be the church of his see. The mission was reinforced from Rome; and Gregory sent directions for the rule of the infant church. There were to be two archbishops, at London and York; London, however, was not fully Christianized for some years, and the primatial see remained at Canterbury. Augustine held two conferences with British bishops; he bade them give up their peculiar usages, conform to the Roman ritual, and join him in evangelizing the English. His haughtiness is said to have offended them; they refused, and the English Church owes nothing to its British predecessor. The mission prospered, and bishops were consecrated for Rochester, and for London for the East Saxons. After Augustine and Aethelherht died a short religious reaction took place in Kent, and the East Saxons apostatized.

In 627 Edwin, king of Northumbria, who had married a daughter of Aethelberht, was converted and baptized with his nobles by Paulinus, who became the first bishop of York. As Edwin's kingdom extended from the Humber to the Forth and included the Trent valley, while he exercised superiority over all the other English kingdoms, except Kent, his conversion promised well for the church, but he was slain and his kingdom overrun by Penda, the heathen king of Mercia, the central part of England. Penda's victories endangered the cause of Christianity. The Roman mission was dying out. Kent and East Anglia, which was evangelized by Felix, a Burgundian bishop sent from Canterbury, were settled in the faith. Though Bernicia, the northern part of Northumbria, was little affected by the gospel, and after Edwin's death heathenism became dominant in his kingdom, christianity did not die out in Northumbria. The East Saxons had heard the gospel, and in 634 the conversion of the West Saxons was begun by Birinus, an Italian missionary. Central England and the South Saxons, however, were wholly untouched by Christianity.

The work of the Romans was taken up by Scotic missionaries. Oswald, under whom the Northumbrian power revived, had lived as an exile among the Scots, and asked them for a bishop to teach his people. Aidan was sent to him by the monks of Iona in 635, and fixed his see in Lindisfarne, or Holy Island, where he founded a monastery. Saintly, zealous and supported by Oswald's influence, he brought Northumbria generally to accept the gospel. The conversion of the Middle Angles and Mercians, and the reconversion of the East Saxons, were also achieved by Scots or by disciples of the Scotic mission. After Aidan's death in 651 the differences between the Roman and Scotic usages, and specially that concerning the date of Easter, led to bitter feelings, were inconvenient in practice, and must have hindered the church in its warfare against heathenism. Oswiu, who reigned over both the Northumbrian kingdoms, was, like his brother Oswald, a disciple of the Scots, his son and his queen, the daughter of Edwin, held to the Roman usages, and these usages were maintained by Wilfrid, who on his return from Rome in 658 was appointed abbot of Ripon.

By Oswiu's command a conference between the two parties was held at the present Whitby in 664. Oswiu decided in favour of the Roman usages. This was the end of the Scotic mission. The Scots left Lindisfarne, and their disciples generally adopted the Roman usages. The Scots were admirable missionaries, holy and self-devoted, and building partly on Roman foundations and elsewhere breaking new ground, they and their English disciples, as Ceadda (Saint Chad), bishop of the Mercians, and Cuthbert, bishop of Lindisfarne, who were by no means inferior to their teachers, almost completed the conversion of the country. But they practised an excessive asceticism and were apt to abandon their work in order to live as hermits. Great were the benefits which the English derived from their teaching, its cessation was not altogether a loss, for the church was passing beyond the stage of mission teaching and needed organization, and that it could not have received from the Scots.

This text forms part of the History of the Church of England originally part of the entry ENGLAND, CHURCH OF from the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica, the content of which lies within the public domain.

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