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Religion in the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms

From paganism to Christianity, we explore the religions of Anglo-Saxon England.

The Germanic migrants who settled in Britain in the fifth century were pagans. From the end of the sixth century, missionaries from Rome and Ireland converted the rulers of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms to a religion – Christianity – which had originated in the Middle East.
The conversion to Christianity had an enormous social and cultural impact on Anglo-Saxon England. With this religion arrived literacy and the writing of books and documents. The vast majority of the manuscripts which survive from this period were made by churchmen and women, and they were kept in the libraries of monasteries and cathedrals.

Anglo-Saxon paganism

The earliest English speakers were pagans, who worshipped many different gods and supernatural forces. Little is known about Anglo-Saxon pagan practices, and the evidence has to be pieced together from place-names and archaeological evidence. As far as we know, Anglo-Saxon pagans did not rely on written texts. Those writings that do describe pagan customs in the early Anglo-Saxon kingdoms were written by composed by churchmen, such as Bede (died 735). Bede’s descriptions of temples, priests and the various pagan gods seem to be based on Greco-Roman mythology, rather than first-hand experience of Anglo-Saxon paganism.

The conversion to Christianity

Christianity was introduced to Britain during the Roman period. The first Briton to be considered a saint was Alban, a Roman soldier who was martyred around 303. After the eclipse of Roman rule, English-speaking pagans came to dominate southern and eastern Britain, but communities of Romano-British Christians survived, especially in the West. They included St Patrick, who was born in South-West Britain in the late fourth or early fifth century, and Gildas, who probably wrote The Ruin of Britain in the sixth century. According to Gildas, the Britons had been defeated by the Anglo-Saxons because their leaders were not sufficiently devout.

Gildas's The Ruin of Britain

Cotton MS Vitellius A VI

Gildas was a Christian who lived in Britain before the arrival of the Anglo-Saxons (British Library, Cotton MS Vitellius A VI).

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The rulers of the Anglo-Saxons began to be converted to Christianity from the end of the sixth century. This process of conversion is the subject of Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People. Pope Gregory I (590–604) sent a group of missionaries to the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, led by Augustine, who became the first archbishop of Canterbury. They arrived in Kent in 597 and converted King Æthelberht (died 616) and his court.

Irish missionaries also helped convert the Anglo-Saxons to Christianity. In 635, King Oswald of Northumbria (died 642) invited the Irish monk, Aidan (died 651) to become a bishop in his kingdom. Aidan had been based at the monastery on Iona, off the coast of Scotland, which had been founded by St Columba. In Northumbria, Aidan established a monastery on the tidal island of Lindisfarne, close to the royal centre at Bamburgh.

This Irish influence can be seen in the ‘Insular’ cultural zone that emerged across northern Britain and Ireland. Metalwork and manuscripts created in these regions use similar artistic motifs and scripts. Some of the most spectacular examples of this ‘Insular’ style are the pages of abstract decoration found in gospel-books such as the Book of Durrow, the Lindisfarne Gospels and the Otho-Corpus Gospels

Book of Durrow

Book of durrow

In the Book of Durrow, and other insular gospel-books, the opening words of each Gospel are written in colours and adorned with geometric decorations (Dublin, Trinity College Library, MS 57, f. 86r)

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Otho-Corpus Gospels

Cotton MS Otho C V, f. 27r

Half of the Otho-Corpus Gospels was sadly destroyed in a fire in 1731. This page features a full-page illustration of a lion, the symbol of St Mark, the evangelist (British Library, Cotton MS Otho C V, f. 27r, detail)

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The Anglo-Saxons were attracted to Christianity for a variety of reasons. It is perhaps no coincidence that some began converting to Christianity at the time when larger kingdoms began to be formed. Christianity brought with it access to writing technologies such as the Latin alphabet we still use today and the Latin language itself. Kings used these writing systems to create written law codes, and charters to transfer rights and property.

Earliest English charter

earliest-anglo-saxon-charter

The earliest surviving Anglo-Saxon charter was issued by King Hlothere of Kent in 679 (British Library, Cotton MS Augustus II 2)

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The conversion was also influenced by political connections. Æthelberht was married to Bertha, a Christian princess from the area around Paris, and there were many cultural, social and political exchanges between the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms and Christians in Ireland. 

The conversion of the Anglo-Saxons to Christianity was not straightforward. After some Christian rulers died, they were replaced by pagans. Some leaders adopted certain Christian customs while retaining pagan practices. According to Bede, the seventh-century King Rædwald of East Anglia had a temple which contained both a Christian altar and a pagan idol. 

Several decades after Augustine’s mission, Church structures in the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms were still developing. The archbishopric of Canterbury – the administrative centre of the church in Anglo-Saxon England – was vacant for five years in the 660s. At the end of that decade, only three bishops were in post in England. The church was restructured by Archbishop Theodore of Canterbury and Abbot Hadrian towards the end of the seventh century. They re-organised the territory ruled by each bishop and they set up regular Church councils.

Religious life in early Anglo-Saxon England 

The early Anglo-Saxon Church was structured around archbishops, bishops and monasteries. Groups of churches were governed by bishops and archbishops. Sometimes, leading churchmen would come together in councils to agree legislation and make collective decisions.

The first archbishop in England was based at Canterbury, and another was established at York. These archbishops were powerful political, as well as spiritual, figures. Archbishop of Jænberht of Canterbury (died 792) issued coins in his own name. When King Offa of Mercia (reigned 757–796) needed an archbishop to consecrate his son as his successor, he persuaded the pope to create a new archbishop, based at Lichfield, firmly within the Mercian heartlands. The archbishopric of Lichfield was abolished after Offa’s death, but this incident underlines the importance of archbishops in Anglo-Saxon society. 

Lichfield Angel

Excavations in Lichfield Cathedral in 2003 uncovered this limestone fragment, decorated with the carved figure of an angel. 

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Monasteries also played an important role in Anglo-Saxon England. They developed first in North Africa and the Middle East, and spread to Europe under the influence of figures such as St Martin, bishop of Tours. 

In the early Anglo-Saxon period, there were many different types of monasteries. Many followed Rules that had been created by their founders. Some monasteries housed only men or women; others, such as Whitby, housed both monks and nuns. 

Anglo-Saxon monasteries were centres of education. Those at Canterbury and at Wearmouth-Jarrow in Northumbria had internationally-renowned schools. They produced stunning manuscripts, and were economic centres, as well as centres of healing and medical knowledge. Some monasteries and churches also claimed that the relics they possessed offered healing powers. 

Lives of St Cuthbert

Bede's Lives of St Cuthbert

Bede wrote two accounts of the life of St Cuthbert, one in prose and one in verse (Cambridge, Corpus Christi College, MS 183, f. 1v)

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The relics of saints were kept at shrines. One important Anglo-Saxon shrine was that of St Cuthbert, which was initially kept on the island of Lindisfarne. St Cuthbert and other saints, such as Æthelthryth, attracted devoted followings because their bodies did not appear to decay. This was seen as proof of their holiness and power. Anglo-Saxon pilgrims also travelled to shrines further afield, such as at Rome. 

Some Anglo-Saxons who wanted to devote their lives to God became hermits, living alone, far away from other settlements. St Cuthbert was himself a hermit for many years on the island of Inner Farne, before he became a bishop. Guthlac became a hermit in Mercia. Powerful people sometimes sought their advice, with both Cuthbert and Guthlac being asked to advise members of royal families. 

Guthlac Roll

Guthlac Roll

Guthlac, who lived in the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Mercia, was a warrior, who devoted his life to God and became a hermit (British Library, Harley Roll Y 6) 

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Changes in the ninth and 10th centuries

Church structures in the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms underwent major changes in the ninth and 10th centuries, just as the kingdoms themselves were being transformed. 

During the ninth century, life at many monasteries seem to have been disrupted and many bishoprics in northern and eastern England were abandoned, as those kingdoms were attacked by Viking raiders . One of the first-recorded Scandinavian raids was an attack on the monastery at Lindisfarne in the 790s. 
As these attacks intensified in the ninth century, the community of St Cuthbert left Lindisfarne, taking their books and the relics of St Cuthbert with them. They settled at various places in the North, including Chester-le-Street, before eventually settling at Durham in 995. 

In the South, standards of Latin learning were declining even before the Viking attacks intensified. But later Church reformers asserted that their churches had been harmed by interference from English noblemen rather than the Vikings, alleging that they tried to siphon off the churches’ wealth. 

A major transformation of the most prominent churches in England took place in second half of the 10th century. Before that time, cathedrals and major monasteries were staffed by ‘secular’ clergy, who could own property, marry and follow a variety of ‘rules’ governing how they should live their lives. From the mid-10th century, Church reformers began to promote the Rule written by an Italian monk, Benedict of Nursia. The English Church was reformed by monks who were inspired by the changes seen on the continent during the reigns of Charlemagne (died 814) and his successors. They sought advice from powerful monasteries on the continent, such as Fleury, and they set out to make churches in England more uniform in their practices. 

Rule of St Benedict

Rule-of-st-benedict

In the mid-tenth century, Church reformers in England began to promote the Rule of St Benedict (British Library, Harley MS 5431, f.7r)

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These reforms were led by Æthelwold, bishop of Winchester (963–984), Dunstan, archbishop of Canterbury (959–988), and Oswald, bishop of Worcester and archbishop of York (died 992). Each reformer had slightly different goals. 

Unusually, Æthelwold even insisted that all churchmen and women, even those who did not live in abbeys, had to be monks following the Rule of St Benedict. Æthelwold and his associates benefitted from their close connections to his former student, King Edgar (reigned 959–975).

Benedictional of St Æthelwold

The Benedictional of St Aethelwold Add MS 49598

This manuscript, which was made for the personal use of Æthelwold, bishop of Winchester from 963 to 984 (British Library, Additional MS 49598, f. 97v)

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Most small churches remained unreformed, and even the powerful community of St Cuthbert were was not reformed until after the Norman Conquest.

The reformers emphasised the importance of education and art, literature, book production and musical composition. Ælfric, the most prolific Old English writer, was a reformed monk and student of Bishop Æthelwold, as was Wulfstan of Winchester, who composed poetry in Latin, as well as Church music.

Ælfric’s Grammar

Alefric's Grammar

Ælfric was one of the most profilic Old English writers and played an important role in the reform movement in the tenth century (British Library, Cotton MS Faustina A X, f.53v)

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Church and laity

During the Anglo-Saxon period, parts of the Bible were translated into English. Bede was said to have been translating the Gospel of John into English on his deathbed. The psalms were translated in the ninth century, as seen in the Vespasian Psalter, while the four Gospels and the first books of the Old Testament were translated and repeatedly copied at the end of the 10th century. The reformers emphasised the need to preach to the people and to reform society as a whole.

A small number of devotional manuscripts can be linked with laypeople. The Book of Nunnaminster may have been owned by Ealhswith, wife of King Alfred of Wessex (reigned 871–899). In the 11th century, a series of spectacular gospel-books with gilded illuminations and jewelled covers were made for Judith, wife of Tostig, earl of Northumbria.

Judith of Flanders Gospels

Morgan Library, MS M. 708, upper cover.

Judith of Flanders is known to have owned a series of spectacular gospel-books with gilded illumination and jewelled covers (New York, Morgan Library, MS 708, upper cover)

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  • Alison Hudson
  • Alison Hudson is Project Curator of Anglo-Saxon Manuscripts at the British Library, working on the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition. Her doctoral research at the University of Oxford focused on the English Benedictine reform movement in the 10th century.