The church in England

Daily Reading for May 27 • Bertha and Ethelbert, Queen and King of Kent, 616

King Ethelbert was as good as his word. Upon his return to Canterbury, he gave orders that a suitable house should be prepared for the reception of the missionaries, that a table should be kept for them at his own expense, and that no obstacles should be put in the way of their preaching. In due time St. Augustine and his companions quitted Thanet for Canterbury, and entered the city in the same solemn order which had been observed in approaching the king in Thanet. The tall silver cross was again uplifted, and the sacred banner displayed; and as they passed the little church of St. Martin, they chanted, as in the name of its inhabitants, “Lord, we pray Thee of Thy mercy, take away Thine anger from this city, and from Thy holy house; for we have sinned. Alleluia.” The poor idolaters of the place marvelled at the strange sight; curiously staring, now at the sunburnt complexions, mortified aspect, and unwonted garb, of the missionaries; now at the gleaming cross, now at the painted banner. . . . One inmate of the place, at least, there was, who discerned in that lowly procession a troop of dauntless warriors, and whose heart beat high with presages of victory,—queen Bertha. . . .

The monks, on their arrival at Canterbury, were lodged by Ethelbert in the part of the city called Stablegate, or “the resting-place,” as being the quarter in which strangers were usually accommodated,—a name which it retains to this day. . . . Here St. Augustine and his companions remained till Ethelbert, on his conversion, made over to them his own royal palace, out of which grew the Monastery of Christ Church. Ethelbert’s own palace was, therefore, within a stone’s throw of the house in which the missionaries were lodged on their arrival, so that the king must have enjoyed constant opportunities of witnessing the devout and holy conversation of the strangers. “They lived,” says the historian, “like Apostles; frequent in prayers, watchings, and fastings. They preached the Word of Life to all who were ready to hear it, receiving from their disciples so much only as was necessary for a bare subsistence, and in all things acting in strict conformity with their profession and doctrine. In truth, they seemed to put aside the good things of this world, as property not belonging to them. They bore disappointments and hindrances with a calm and cheerful spirit, and would readily have died, had such been God’s will, in defence of the truth they preached.” The result may easily be imagined. “Many believed, and were baptized, won over by the simplicity of their blameless lives, and the sweetness of their heavenly doctrine.” . . .

Who that has been at Canterbury, has not visited the church of St. Martin? and who that has visited it with such knowledge of the history of England as most educated persons now possess, can have failed to experience many strange emotions on entering beneath its low portal, and surveying its scanty proportions? After all the changes wrought by time in the actual building, —which, with the exception of a few red Roman bricks still discernible in the eastern exterior wall, has probably quite lost its identity with the original fabric, —and notwithstanding the desolating ravages which Reformers and Puritans have perpetrated in the sacred interior, it is hard not to reflect that here, so runs the tradition, queen Bertha prayed for heathen England; here St. Luidhard and St. Augustine of Canterbury offered the holy Sacrifice of the Altar; and here king Ethelbert, laying aside his earthly crown, and sceptre of temporal sovereignty, was admitted as a little child into the Kingdom of Heaven.

From The Life of Augustine of Canterbury, Apostle of the English in Lives of the English Saints by John Henry Newman (London: James Toovey, 1845).

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