emperor Constantine, â€˜who enfranchised Christianity throughout the
Roman Empireâ€™, had been born in Britain, of British stock through his
With the ravages of the pagan Saxons, the Britons had been driven
westwards into the mountains of Wales, where their church was or-
ganised around seven bishops who were subordinate to the metropolitan
see of Caerleon. Augustine (also referred to as Austin) had been sent by
Pope Gregory the Great to win over the Kentish Saxons under their king,
Â Councils and ecclesiastical documents relating to Great Britain and Ireland (ed. [after Spelman
and Wilkins] A. Haddan and W. Stubbs, 3 vols., Oxford, 1869â€“78), I, p. 3; The works of
Gildas and Nennius (trans. J. A. Giles, London, 1841), c. 8, p. 10; John Foxe, Acts and
monuments (8 vols., London, 1853â€“70), I, pt II, p. 306; Fuller, Church history, I, p. 28 n.;
William Cave, Apostolici (London, 1677), â€˜Introductionâ€™, pp. viiiâ€“ix; Rowlands, Mona
antiqua restaurata, p. 137; Williams, â€˜Protestant viewsâ€™, 222.
Ã€ Bede, A history of the English church and people (trans. L. Sherley-Price, Harmondsworth,
1955), bk III, ch. 25, pp. 185â€“6. Cf. Cotton, â€˜Of the antiquity of Christian religionâ€™, in
Hearne, Curious discourses, II, p. 155.
Ãƒ Foxe, Acts and monuments, I, pt II, p. 307; William Cave, A dissertation concerning the
government of the ancient church, by bishops, metropolitans and patriarchs (London, 1683),
Ã• Isaac Basire, The ancient liberty of the Britannick church, and the legitimate exemption thereof
from the Roman patriarchate (London, 1661 edn), pp. 24â€“5.
Å’ Foxe, Acts and monuments, I, pt II, p. 327; Fuller, Church history, I, pp. 30â€“1.
Å“ Fuller, Church history, I, pp. 37, 40; F. Levy, Tudor historical thought (San Marino, CA,
1967), p. 83.
Britons, Saxons and Anglican quest for legitimacy 101
Ethelbert. In this he was successful, establishing a base at Canterbury.
The British bishops would not submit to Augustine or his Romish master
â€“ quite properly, given the autonomous status of their church. In a
celebrated debate with Augustine, Abbot Dinoth of Bangor rejected the
overtures of Rome, declaiming that the British Christians owed no other
obedience to the pope of Rome than they did to every godly Christian.â€“
Subsequently, the British Christians survived for several centuries in their
Welsh fastness where they perpetuated their primitive worship indepen-
dent of Rome.â€” However, eventually, in the reign of Henry I, the Welsh
church â€“ the original Church of England, albeit no longer enjoying its
proper territorial sway â€“ was to be incorporated within the Anglo-Nor-
man ecclesia anglicana.â€¦Â» However, after this dark interlude, Henry VIII â€“
a Tudor monarch of Welsh descent â€“ was able to restore the church of his
ancestors to its former autonomy and primitive purity.â€¦â€¦ During the
Tudor period, of course, the British identity of the reformed church
complemented the boasted Galfridian pedigree of the dynasty.
The discrepancy between political and ecclesiastical identities emerged
only in the course of the seventeenth century with the rise of Gothicism.
During the early seventeenth century, the apostolic British origins of the
ecclesia anglicana matched the Cokean legend of legal immemorialism and
parliamentâ€™s distant origins in the British conventus. Indeed, ancient
constitutionalism was not conWned to the temporal glories of parliament
and common law. As Glenn Burgess has noted, â€˜many works about the
ancient constitution of England also included . . . a pedigree for the
Church of England that antedated the growth of the see of Romeâ€™.â€¦Â
Chronology dictated that this branch of patriotic antiquarianism main-
tain â€˜a strongly British focusâ€™.â€¦Ã€ In the 1650s, for example, Thomas Fuller
transformed his scepticism about the evidence for a direct apostolic
mission to Britain into a misty ecclesiastical immemorialism: â€˜it matters
not, if the doctrine be the same, whether the apostles preached it by
themselves, or by their successors. We see little certainty can be extracted,
â€“ Foxe, Acts and monuments, I, pt II, pp. 337â€“8; John Inett, Origines Anglicanae (2 vols.,
London and Oxford, 1704â€“10), I, p. 4; Joseph Bingham, Origines ecclesiasticae (1708â€“22:
2 vols., London, 1878), I, p. 75; Thomas Carte, A general history of England (4 vols.,
London, 1747â€“55), I, p. 224; Rowlands, Mona antiqua restaurata, pp. 149â€“51.
â€” Inett, Origines Anglicanae, I, pp. 10â€“11; II, p. 135; George Smith, Britons and Saxons not
converted to Popery, pp. 428â€“9.
â€¦Â» Edward Brerewood, â€˜The patriarchall government of the ancient churchâ€™, in Certaine
briefe treatises written by diverse learned men, concerning the ancient and modern government of
the church (Oxford, 1641), p. 113; Cave, Dissertation concerning the government of the
ancient church, p. 247; Inett, Origines Anglicanae, II, pp. 135â€“6, 489.
â€¦â€¦ Basire, Ancient liberty of the Britannick church, p. 15.
â€¦Â G. Burgess, The politics of the ancient constitution (Houndmills, 1992), p. 102.
â€¦Ã€ Ibid., p. 103.
102 The three kingdoms
who Wrst brought the gospel hither; it is so long since, the British church
hath forgotten her own infancy, who were her Wrst godfathers.â€™â€¦Ãƒ In fact,
the displacement of the immemorialist idiom in the political and legal
spheres by a more ethnocentric Saxonism did nothing to subvert the
authority of the ancient British church.
The ancient British church remained an important dimension of Angli-
can identity throughout the seventeenth and most of the eighteenth
centuries, though some of the hoarier myths associated with it were
quietly shed, such as the Glastonbury legend.â€¦Ã• In StillingXeetâ€™s deWnitive
Origines Britannicae (1685), the legend of Joseph of Arimathea was drop-
ped.â€¦Å’ Nevertheless, the desire for the prestige conferred by an apostolic
foundation remained. StillingXeet merely substituted the plausibly peri-
patetic St Paul for Joseph at the heart of the Churchâ€™s origin myth.â€¦Å“ In
the second half of the eighteenth century Ferdinando Warner (1703â€“68)
diluted the origin myth, but retained an apostolic connection with British
Christianity as a central pillar of Anglican history and identity. Warner
thought it likely that the gospel had been brought to Britain â€˜either by
some of Christâ€™s apostles, or their immediate followers; and from that
time the Britons had always observed the customs and rules prescribed to
them by those teachersâ€™.â€¦â€“ The pruned-down version of the churchâ€™s
British origins even received the sanction of Blackstoneâ€™s Commentaries:
The ancient British church, by whomsoever planted, was a stranger to the bishop
of Rome, and all his pretended authority. But, the pagan Saxon invaders having
driven the professors of Christianity to the remotest corners of our island, their
own conversion was afterwards eVected by Augustine the monk, and other
missionaries from the court of Rome. This naturally introduced some few of the
papal corruptions in point of faith and doctrine; but we read of no civil authority
claimed by the Pope in these kingdoms, till the era of the Norman conquest.â€¦â€”
What makes the historiography of the British church fascinating for the
student of ethnic identity lies not only in the disparity between civil and
ecclesiastical identities, but also in the consequent attitude to the Anglo-
Saxon church. Not only was Saxonist identiWcation more muted in this
branch of constitutional argument, pride in the ancient British church
was often accompanied by a measure of anti-Saxon sentiment. Corrup-
tions introduced during the Saxon era constituted the thin end of the
Roman Catholic wedge. The legitimacy of the reformed Church of Eng-
â€¦Ãƒ Fuller, Church history, I, pp. 10â€“11. â€¦Ã• Champion, Pillars of priestcraft, pp. 56â€“60.
â€¦Å’ StillingXeet, Origines Britannicae, pp. 6, 28. â€¦Å“ Ibid., pp. 37â€“48.
â€¦â€“ Warner, Ecclesiastical history, I, pp. 5, 9â€“10, 52. For the persistence of the Pauline origin
legend, see William Stukeley, Palaeographia Britannica: or, discourses on antiquities that
relate to the history of Britain no. iii (London, 1752).
â€¦â€” Blackstone, Commentaries, IV, p. 104.
Britons, Saxons and Anglican quest for legitimacy 103
land, which was threatened by the claims of Roman Catholic apologists,
rested in part on a critique of the Anglo-Saxon era as a period when the
pure, proto-Protestant and autonomous church established among the
Britons began to fall under the sway of Rome and its corrupting innova-
tions. In particular, Augustineâ€™s mission to the Saxons of Kent in the late
sixth century enjoyed some notoriety as the moment when Rome gained a
foothold in a land which under the Britons had enjoyed several centuries
of apostolic Christianity. John Jewel was merely rehearsing a common-
place of Tudor historiography when he blamed Augustine for deWling the
purity of British Christianity.Â Â» In the opinion of Glanmor Williams the
Anglican â€˜prejudice against Augustineâ€™ was slow to disappear.Â â€¦ There
were even references to a â€˜Saxon yokeâ€™.Â Â
Somehow, the English clerisy squared contradictory accounts of a
predominantly Saxon nationhood with a British pedigree for the ecclesia
anglicana. William Somner (1598â€“1669), compiler of the Wrst Saxon
dictionary, recognised that his beloved Saxons constituted a potential
Achilles heel for the Church of England. Even in his Antiquities of Canter-
bury (1640) where he dealt with the Augustinian conversion of Ethel-
bertâ€™s Kent of Saxon idolaters, Somner contrasted the Saxons un-
favourably with the Britons who had been â€˜Christian almost from the time
of our Saviourâ€™s death, and so they continued, though at this time living
with their bishops in the remote parts of this islandâ€™.Â Ã€
Early modern scholars were adept at furnishing contemporary power
centres with illustrious pedigrees and glorious histories of achievement.
In the case of Canterbury no fakery was required. Augustineâ€™s well-
attested mission to the Saxons of Kent conferred legitimacy upon the
Canterburian primacy within England. Yet Anglicans scholars were wary
of investing too much pride in the Augustinian foundations of the Saxon
church, which appeared to rest on the treacherous sands of papal usurpa-
tion. Antiquaries such as William Dugdale (1605â€“86) were on safer
ground when they celebrated the primacy of Glastonbury as the citadel of
the apostolic British church.Â Ãƒ
Nathaniel Bacon, one of the principal Gothicist antiquarians of the
seventeenth century, eschewed this Gothic commitment in his account of
Â Â» John Jewel, The defence of the apology of the Church of England, in Jewel, Works (4 vols.,
Parker Society, 1845â€“50), IV, p. 778; R. T. Vann, â€˜The free Anglo-Saxons: an historical
mythâ€™, JHI 19 (1958), 261â€“2; Levy, Tudor historical thought, pp. 91, 97, 101.
Â â€¦ Williams, â€˜Protestant viewsâ€™, 230. See also A. Milton, Catholic and Reformed: the Roman
and Protestant churches in English Protestant thought 1600â€“1640 (Cambridge, 1995),
p. 276; P. White, â€˜The via media in the early Stuart churchâ€™, in K. Fincham (ed.), The
early Stuart church 1603â€“1642 (Houndmills, 1993), p. 214.
Â Â Crouch, Englandâ€™s monarchs, p. 11; Williams, â€˜Protestant viewsâ€™, 224â€“7.
Â Ã€ Quoted in G. Parry, The trophies of time (Oxford, 1995), p. 185. Â Ãƒ Ibid., p. 231.
104 The three kingdoms
the Church of England. Baconâ€™s providential history of England was
marked by a pronounced disparity between the political liberty resolutely
maintained by the Saxons and their neglect of the corruptions which
would progressively disWgure the church. Whereas the Welsh Britons
maintained the practices of primitive Christianity for Wve hundred years
after the coming of Augustine, the Saxons drank up â€˜at one draught . . . a
potion of the whole hierarchy of Romeâ€™. Bacon recognised the diYculty
in reconciling the contrasting temporal and ecclesiastical portrayals of the
Anglo-Saxon era. He argued, for example, that papal corruption had
been slow to take eVect: â€˜For the Saxons had a commonwealth founded in
the liberty of the people; and it was a masterpiece for Austin and the
clergy, so to work, as to remain members of this commonwealth, and yet
retain their hearts for Rome, which was now grown almost to the pitch of
that Antichrist.â€™Â Ã•
According to R. J. Smith, John Inettâ€™s Origines Anglicanae, a continu-
ation of StillingXeetâ€™s history of the British church, Origines Britannicae
(1685), into the Saxon and Norman eras, amounted to â€˜the Gothic
history in a surpliceâ€™.Â Å’ However, despite its remit, the Origines Anglicanae
displayed a qualiWed identiWcation with the Saxons, and evinced much
warmer feelings for the ancient British era in the history of the Church of
England. Inett (1647â€“1717) calculated that only â€˜one part of the English
nation owed its conversion to the see of Romeâ€™.Â Å“ He blamed the Gothic
nations, including the Saxons, for the Wrst major wave of corruption in the
western church. Papal tactics were to blame: Pope Gregory the Great had
shown tolerance and comprehension towards the rites of pagan peoples as
a way of winning them over to Christianity.Â â€“
Michael Geddes (1650?â€“1713), an Anglican divine of Scottish birth,
advanced a similar argument. Whereas in the temporal sphere Geddes
celebrated the glorious heritage of Gothic constitutionalism, in the spiri-
tual realm, by contrast, he lamented the arrival of the pagan Saxons as
clearing a way for the intrusion of Rome into the British church:
the Roman supremacy was Wrst brought into Britain by the Saxons, who having
been converted from paganism to Christianity, near the end of the sixth century,
by some of the bishop of Romeâ€™s disciples; they had been taught by them, that the
papal supremacy was an authority of the church of Christâ€™s own immediate
institution; which was a trick they could not have put on the Britons.Â â€”
The case of England bore striking aYnities with the experience of Spain,
Â Ã• Nathaniel Bacon, An historical and political discourse of the laws and government of England
(1647: London, 1689 edn), p. 14.
Â Å’ R. J. Smith, The Gothic bequest (Cambridge, 1987), p. 30.
Â Å“ Inett, Origines Anglicanae, I, p. 25. Â â€“ Ibid., I, pp. 23â€“5.
Â â€” Michael Geddes, â€˜A dissertation on the papal supremacy, chieXy with relation to the
ancient Spanish churchâ€™, in Geddes, Miscellaneous tracts, vol. II (London, 1705), p. 11.
Britons, Saxons and Anglican quest for legitimacy 105
whose early history was Geddesâ€™s scholarly hobbyhorse. The Moorish
conquest had unsettled the organisation of the autocephalous church in
Spain just as the Saxon invasion had in England: â€˜the Papal supremacy
was never known in the ancient Spanish church, no more than it was in
the ancient British; and that, had not the civil governments those two
ancient churches were under, been dissolved by their being both con-
quered by inWdels, it is most probable that the supremacy might never
have been able to have crept into eitherâ€™.Ã€Â»
Consider too the example of Bolingbroke, a non-doctrinal, indeed
heterodox and dubiously tory, â€˜pillarâ€™ of the Church of England who was
far from representative of eighteenth-century opinion on ecclesiastical
matters. Nevertheless, even he reliably conveyed a traditional unease on
the subject of Saxon churchmanship. Bolingbroke claimed to admire
equally the libertarian manners of both the ancient Britons and Saxons,
but he contrasted their strikingly diVerent records when it came to the
maintenance of ecclesiastical liberty. Of the Britons, he wrote: â€˜Their long
resistance against the Saxons shows their love of civil liberty. Their long
resistance against the usurpation of the Church of Rome, begun by
Gregory . . . under pretence of converting the Saxons, shows their love of
ecclesiastical liberty.â€™ The same could not be said of the Saxons, who,
while preserving â€˜their Gothic institutions of governmentâ€™, had â€˜submit-
ted to the yoke of Rome, in matters of religionâ€™.Ã€â€¦ Unambiguous pride in
the Saxon church was far from being an established feature of Augustan
historiography: â€˜The Britons received Christianity very early, and, as is
reported, from some of the disciples themselves: So that when the Ro-
mans left Britain, the Britons were generally Christians. But the Saxons
were heathens, till Pope Gregory the Great sent over hither Austin the
monk, by whom Ethelbert King of the South-Saxons, and his subjects,
were converted to Christianity.â€™Ã€Â
Even where antiquarians celebrated the whole pre-Norman history of
the ecclesia anglicana they drew some distinction between the status of the
British and Saxon churches, sometimes regarding the latter with a cool
politeness. Roger Twysden (1597â€“1672) waxed lukewarm on the Saxon
phase of English church history: â€˜I no way doubt but the religion exer-
cised by the Britons before Augustine came, to have been very pure and
holy: nor that planted after from St Gregory, though perhaps with more
ceremonies and commands, iuris positivi, which this church embraced,
Ã€Â» Ibid., pp. 26â€“7.
Ã€â€¦ Bolingbroke, Remarks on the history of England (1730â€“1), in Bolingbroke, Works (5 vols.,
London, 1754), I, pp. 314â€“15; B. Cottret, Bolingbrokeâ€™s political writings: the conservative
Enlightenment (Houndmills, 1997), pp. 2â€“3.
Ã€Â Jonathan Swift, â€˜An abstract and fragment of the history of Englandâ€™, in Swift, Miscellan-
eous and autobiographical pieces, fragments and marginalia (Oxford, 1969), p. 4.
106 The three kingdoms
rejected or varied from, as occasion served to be other, but in the founda-
tion most sound, most orthodox.â€™Ã€Ã€ Similarly, George Smith (1693â€“
1756), the non-juring bishop, in his treatise The Britons and Saxons not
converted to Popery (1748), conceded that â€˜the Saxons converted by St
Augustine were incorporated into the Catholic church, and were united
by communion as well as by faith with the greatest part of that visible
bodyâ€™; however, this did not mean that â€˜the present English papists hold
the same faith, and consequently are of the same communion with their
ancestorsâ€™.Ã€Ãƒ Ferdinando Warner proceeded with caution when delinea-
ting the ambivalent character of the Saxon church: â€˜extremely fond of the
rites and usages of the Romans, yet it owned no subjection to that see, but
what was founded on gratitude and civility, and consistent with the power