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The Land of Angels

In 597, a party of monks left Rome, bound for an island so remote it was no longer in the Roman Empire.They were carrying out the dream of Gregory the Great, who had seen blond English boys in the slave market, and said of them, 'Not Angles, but angels'. Gregory had wanted to take the good news of Christ to the English lands himself, but was prevented when he was made pope. Instead, he sent Augustine.

   But Augustine was a different sort of man - fearful, unsure of himself. Not many days out of Rome, his monks rebelled. They were being sent to a land of heathen savages. They didn't speak the English language. They were doomed to failure, and probably death.

   Instead of rallying them, Augustine went back to Rome to plead with Gregory to let him off. It didn't work. Gregory gave him more help and encouragement, and sent him on his way.

   When they arrived - and were put in spiritual quarantine on the Thunder God's island - they discovered that they were not the first Christians there. The fearsome King Aethelbert had married a Christian princess from Paris: Bertha.

   The story this far is told in the 8th century Bede's A History of the English Church and People. What follows is my imagination of how the feisty Queen Bertha and the timorous Augustine of Canterbury make an unlikely alliance to win the king from his ancestral gods and survive the fury of those gods' priests.

  

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Sampson gives a vibrant portrait of both the people and the places included in the book. She writes with great vividness about her subject, which ensures a constantly engaging story. There are dangerous and swaggering warriors, cautious and thoughtful priests, and  pragmatic and wise queen. Sampson masterfully draws them all together to make a story of Augustine's bringing of the Christian faith to England an absorbing and rewarding read.

S. Garside-Neville, Historical Novels Review.

    Read An Extract:

    Too late now for regrets. Her pulse was quickening. Surely that was the distant chanting of the Romans she could hear in the distance?

    As if in confirmation, there was burst of whistling and the tattoo of drums. Thunorís servants were hurling defiance back.

  Bertha looked sideways and saw Aethelbert grip the arms of his chair and draw himself up taller. She realized with astonishment that he was afraid. Aethelbert of Kent, overlord of Britain, whom all the other kings acknowledged as their superior. Did he really fear unarmed monks?

    Aethelbert glanced up at the sky above him, as if for protection. The day was fine, the small clouds harmlessly white against the blue canopy. There was no evidence of the thunder-god.

    Now Bertha could see movement down the pathway cut through the woods. The glint of sunlight on something silver, a larger standard carried behind it, and the moving column of black-robed monks steadily marching nearer. An undisciplined crowd of the people of Thanet surged alongside them, trying to drown out their chanting. In snatches, she could begin make out words of their Latin litany.

   Ď . . .that we should be saved from our enemies.í

   ĎAnd from the hand of all who hate us.í

    Brave words. Berthaís heart thrilled. She had an overwhelming desire to weep. Fourteen years on Thanet. Only the small thin hymns of her own household, growing less each year. She had forgotten the full-throated sound of many male voices chanting confidently the praise of her God. She was suddenly back in the cathedral of Paris, a small princess attending church with her family. Why had she fidgeted and yawned and wriggled her toes with impatience then? The sound of this choir was the most glorious music this side of heaven.      There were tears running down her cheeks.

    She heard the hiss behind her. Werburh had insisted on coming too, though Thunor was not the god she chiefly served. She was the high priest of Frig, goddess of fertility. Bertha knew that if she turned her head she would see the English wise woman weaving her hands, muttering curses half aloud. There would be hatred in her eyes, born of the same fear as Aethelbertís that the Christians were bringing a magic more powerful than hers.

Bertha kept her eyes resolutely fixed on the monks.

    The silver cross came first. The young monk who carried it scarcely watched where he was walking. His round face and the thick black circle of his tonsure were turned up, so that he gazed at the sacred emblem he carried. Even so, his face seemed darkly shadowed. A start of astonishment made her crane forward to see better. The monkís face was black. So were the hands that held the cross. His expression was radiant with excitement.

    The lad behind him looked more nervous. His thinner face and narrow shoulders were almost overshadowed by the wooden board he bore on a staff. A nobler head than his was emerging now into the full sunshine of the clearing. A halo of gold threw into vivid relief the painted features of Christ, her Lord. His face was a beardless oval, his eyes full and dark. Two fingers of one hand were raised in blessing. She could see the nail mark in his palm. A moment more and she felt those serious lips would smile at her. She was on the edge of her throne, wanting to dash forward and throw herself at his feet.

    She steadied herself. It was the third man she must concentrate on. He carried nothing but a book and his pilgrimís staff. Augustine was a smaller man than she had expected, used as she was to long-legged Franks and Anglo-Saxons. Beside her, she sensed Aethelbert relax a little. He was accustomed to meet his opponents with a sword on the battlefield. This little southerner could never be a match for him. They both watched Augustine approach their thrones. Bertha could see sweat on the Romanís face, though the spring day was not warm.

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Why I Wrote This Book

I have long had a love affair with Celtic Christianity. 597 was the year Columba died on his island monastery of Iona, off the west coast of Scotland. It was also the year the Roman missionary Augustine of Canterbury landed in the far south-east of Britain, in Kent. Within a century, their different values of Celtic and Roman Christianity met head on at the Synod of Whitby, when the most powerful king in Britain was forced to choose between them. The coming of Augustine set that conflict in motion.

  When I read the correspondence between Augustine and Pope Gregory the Great who sent him, I am struck by the very different nature of these two men. Augustine is timid, anxious, continually fretting over details of church discipline - whether for his clergy or for his alarming heathen converts. Gregory's replies come back: confident, humane, sensible.

  Yet Augustine was brave. It takes more courage to take on a job you are scared of. He really wanted to share the grace of God with the heathen English. He couldn't understand the bitterness of the native Christian Britons, who had been driven into the western refuge of Wales before the invading English armies. They had seen their families and friends killed, enslaved or exiled, their churches desecrated, their priests slaughtered, their nuns raped. It was too raw and painful for them to welcome the English as their brothers and sisters in Christ. Augustine was offering them a wider vision than they could take.

   But Augustine was at fault, too.Perhaps it was because he was essentially a fearful, insecure man, that he lacked the humility to meet the leaders of the British Church humbly. He had to insist on the superior dignity of his office, and the supreme authority of Rome. If he had been able to come halfway to meet them, the split between Celtic and Roman Christianity might not have developed in the way it did. The nature of the Church in Britain we inherited might have been different.

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