Christianity in Norfolk – the Beginnings


The Edict of Milan in 313 opened a period of profound change.  By  the year 380, when Christianity became the official religion in the Roman Empire, the persecution of Christians was just a memory.  But it was  a memory that the Church hung onto with fierce determination with annual commemorations of  martyrs’ deaths.  By the time of the Sack of Rome in 410, and the departure of the last Roman Legions from England’s shores,  there had already been a period of extensive monumental church building in Rome and elsewhere around Mare Nostrum – the Mediterranean Sea.

Christianity had never really caught on in East Anglia.  There is  an intriguing possibility that the  Nofolk villages of Eccles were named after continuing post-Roman churches but this has not been confirmed by any archaeology.  It seems that such Christians as there were kept their heads down, content to be salt, light and yeast working in a hidden way.  Christians had managed quite well without monumental buildings during the early years of the Church. Washing with water, anointing with oil and sharing bread and wine were common enough activities in the Mediterranean world, even if the use of wine and olive oil would be a high status practice in Norfolk and remained so into the 20th C !

The archaeology that does survive are two rings inscribed with the Latin  ” ….Vivas in Deo” –  “…… may you live in God”.

Rights Holder – Norfolk County Council – Creative Commons Licence

Little is known about the period between the departure of the Roman Legions in the 5th C and the emergence of recognisable kingdoms in the 7th C. The ruling elites were descendants of the auxiliary forces the Romans had left in place to defend Britain. Their culture was non-literate;  their religion Germanic;  and they shunned the abandoned Roman buildings, preferring to live in timber halls and homes.

One may imagine, competing war lords, each offering protection in return for tribute, vying with each other in a succession of turf wars,  eventually clubbing together in proto- kingdoms; which, in turn, competed with each other to see who would be top dog and who would pay tribute money to whom.  The civilising influence, when it came, was Roman; mediated through a western Christianity that looked to Rome.

Raedwald, the first King of East Anglia we know anything about, received Christian baptism in Kent in the early years of the 7th Century.  At the time, Ethelberht of Kent was recognised as the most powerful of kings – the bretwalder – of England. His marriage to  a Christian, Frankish/Merovingian princess, opened the door for St. Augustine’s mission to Kent and Ethleberht’s subsequent baptism.   Raedwald was baptised in Kent at the Court of Ethelberht  and Bertha with, perhaps, Ethelberht acting as godfather to Raedwald. There is also some speculation, that Raedwald too married a Merovingian princess.

Raedwald’s baptism seems to have been a diplomatic, rather than a spiritual, gesture.  The Ven. Bede was not a fan, recounting that  he maintained  both Christian and pagan altars in his temple.

Copyright Trustees of the British Museum

If, as many suppose, the ship burial at Sutton Hoo is Raedwald’s final resting place, he  went to his death hedging his bets!   The  burial is clearly pagan.  But the grave goods accompanying the dead king,  to assist him in the afterlife,  are unusual.  They include three silver Byzantine bowls marked with the sign of the cross;  a purse of money, to pay the oarsmen who would carry him to the afterlife, contained Merovingian gold coins marked with the sign of the cross; and with them two silver spoons, inscribed Saulos and Paulos,  which may have been baptismal gifts calling him to a conversion like that of St.Paul.

None-the-less,  Raedwald made a major contribution to the conversion of England!  Thanks to his support,  Edwin became King of Northumbria,  after the Battle of the River Idle in 616.  In 627 Edwin cemented his alliance with the Kingdom of Kent by taking a Kentish princess as his second wife.  His queen, Ethelberg, was the daughter of  Queen Bertha of Kent, whom we have already encountered.  At the Northumbrian court she took  Edwin’s sister’s grandchildren – Hereswith and Hild – under her wing.    In time, Hereswith was to marry into the East Anglian royal family and, on the death of her husband,  retire to the Frankish,  Chelles Abbey.   Hild was to become the famous St. Hilda of  Whitby.  But I run ahead! A condition of Edwin’s marriage was his baptism and,  when he was  baptised by Paulinus, in York,  Hereswith and Hild were baptised with him.

Edwin subsequently died in battle against, the (pagan) Mercians,  which was enough for him to be regarded as a martyr and be remembered as St.Edwin.  His queen returned to Kent where she founded a convent at Lyminge and became its first abbess.  She placed her daughter in the care of her brother. For safety’s sake she sent her son across the Channel, to be raised under the protection of the Merovignian King,  Dagobert I. 

This was not an unnecessary precaution.   They were perilous times.  Kings were for ever at war and their heirs, and possible heirs to the throne,  were regularly assassinated.  Fostering provided a level of protection!

Edwin contributed to the conversion of East Anglia, thereby winning the approval of the Ven.  Bede. Bede records that Raedwald’s son, Eopwald, was so impressed by  Edwin’s Christaian example that he was converted.  But not before he had succeeded  Raedwald in 624, or thereabouts.  On Eopwald’s  conversion  the Christian future of the Kingdom of East Anglia seemed more assured.  However, he was soon assassinated by, the pagan, Ricberht who ruled for three years.

From John Speeds Saxon Heptarchy – In the Public Domain

Being a martyr for the faith,  Eopwald, too, was counted as a saint.

There is more to come.  As Tertullian had written, “The martyrs’ blood is the seed of the Church”!   Eopwald had a half-brother,  Sigberht,  who was to become a key player in the conversion of East Anglia.

It has been observed that Sigberht is a Merovingian family name, which gives rise to a speculation that Raedwald had married a Merovingian princess before marrying Eopwald’s mother.  This may explain Raedwald’s  baptism and subsequent apostasy.   Whatever the reason, , Sigebehrt  had been in exile, across the Channel, out of harms way,  where he had been  educated in a Frankish monastery.  His absence abroad insured that he could not be considered an immediate alternative to Eopwald.  But on Eopwald’s death,  with Merovingian support,  Sigeberht was to supplant Ricberht.

The story continues ………..

Copyright © Richard Woodham 2018