Anglo-Saxon Conversion: Part 1 – ‘They have robbed Us of the Old Religion’


Part 1: ‘They Have Robbed Us of the Old Religion’

‘All these Changes – How shall we Cope?’

This is neither a conventional history piece nor fiction but a construct of both. As a former speech and report writer and an  nerd for decades, I try to present complex matters clearly and imaginatively without ‘dumbing down’.

Spiritual conversion (and its rejection) in 7th and 8th  England was a complicated personal decision and experience with various causes and outcomes. Accordingly, to understand what happened, these articles tackle the conversion of English at two levels – the broad themes and what it meant to individuals from different sections of society. This is an exercise of the imagination, as well as the intellect.

This six-part series examines a single main question – what was conversion in practice? While made-up characters are introduced in the articles, they are designed to illustrate the nature and impact of conversion on real people. What was it to Pope Gregory who sent St Augustine’s mission to the English and who thought the world was nearing its end? One can understand his sense of urgency. What was it to the multitude of peasants jeering at the monks whose boats were being swept out to sea at the mouth of the River Tyne. The great saint, Cuthbert, rebuked the crowd but they would have none of it and shouted back (expletives deleted):

‘Nobody shall pray for them! May God save none of them! For they have robbed us of the old religion, and nobody knows how to cope with all these changes!’ (Edwards, D.L., 1982: p45).

They had been cut adrift by somebody else’s decision. Told to become Christian, their hearts and souls yearned for the old ways.

Sutton Hoo Helmet
Helmet for a king. Thought to be for King Raedwald. Sutton Hoo (photo by author)

What was conversion to Raedwald, mighty King of the East Angles, who retained two altars in his temple – one to the God he had recently agreed to follow and the other to his old gods? What was it to Eadwulf – the name of an East Angle ceorl (a low-ranking freeman farmer)? You’ll hear more from him in this article. In the other articles, we’ll hear from representatives of the other sections of society – a king, an aristocrat, a slave and a missionary.

Beliefs, Genetics and Culture

What shifted when the missionaries looked at the pagan* English through Christian evangelical eyes and the English looked at the missionaries through pagan eyes? Who were the Anglo-Saxons or English whom Gregory wanted to convert? There is a debate on this issue, which has implications for our story.

Were there large numbers of Anglo-Saxon invaders and immigrants to Britain who brought their ancient pagan beliefs and pushed aside the native Celtic Britons, who were of mottled Christian stock, mixed contentedly with strains of pre-Christian belief? Or, were what we term the ‘Anglo-Saxons’ basically a cultural, rather than a genetic, group comprising a relatively small number of elite pagan immigrants and their followers and those native Britons who adopted the immigrants’ pagan culture and, no doubt, their beliefs?

If it were the former, then Augustine confronted an army of hard-bitten pagans. If it were the latter, then the mission did not face a completely hostile audience in Britain’s previously heavily Romanised areas. Rather, it engaged with one with some degree of Christian presence and tradition. Additionally, they had demonstrated cultural and religious flexibility – having already changed during the Roman period, they were prepared to change again in the Anglo-Saxon period (drawn from Pryor, 2005: pp 220, 221).

Anglo-Saxon stone depiction of a lion
Anglo-Saxon depiction of a lion, St Bene’t’s Church, Cambridge (photo by author)

I tend to side with the weight of archaeology (see Pryor, 2005) and modern genetics studies on this. Although not definitive, most evidence suggests the indigenous Celtic peoples were not pushed aside to the Atlantic fringes but co-existed with the immigrants. For example, an extensive fine-scale examination of the genetic structure of the British population concludes:

‘This is strong evidence against an Anglo-Saxon wipe-out of the resident ancient British population, but clearly indicates extensive admixture between the incoming invaders and the indigenous people’ (Wellcome Trust2015: p8).

More on this in later articles.

Remove 21st Century Glasses

Whoever they were, the Anglo-Saxons were a deeply spiritual people, whether pagan, Christian or a mixture. Yet too many modern conversion examinations focus almost exclusively on power relationships, a materialistic calculation of costs and benefits, and psychology. This will inevitably overemphasise religion’s political and social control aspects and underemphasise the genuine spiritual motivations of faith. It would be as if one examined Indigenous Australian dream-time spirituality in rarefied academia but ignored the importance of land rights. Accordingly, these articles recognise that we today have insights gained from a long view back in time. However, if all we do is rationalise a spiritual world, we will more likely reflect our own mental maps and miss the heart of Anglo-Saxon beliefs.

Other studies of the conversion period also see it as a time when the innate spirituality of pre-Christian folk was gradually demolished by an increasingly organised, powerful, politicised and dogmatic Church, bulldozing metaphorically through the sacred woods and groves. However, while the Church hierarchy may have condemned pre-existing beliefs and sought to implement broad-scale clearances, the on-the-ground reality was considerably muddier. There was a prolonged period of coexistence when individuals borrowed from many of the ideas on the table – and non-Christian ideas remained available under the counter for centuries after. Christian conversion was far from inevitable.

Likewise, we should avoid extreme caricatures of ‘pagans’. On the one hand, some Christian writers of the time cast,

‘the pagan (as) an intellectual cave-man, a spiritual half-wit, a manic depressive amazed to hear about heaven, a mindless practitioner of ancestral rites, looking for meaning in trees and pondweed’ (Carver, M., 2010: p 3).

On the other hand, in today’s environmentally-conscious world, there is a tendency to look back nostalgically and romanticise ‘natural religions’.

West Stow Anglo-Saxon village
West Stow Anglo-Saxon village, Suffolk. A wonderful and educational site (photo by author)

This series examines the following main issues:

1: some questions

2: the mission from Rome

3: kings and the aristocracy

4: vehicles of conversion

5: the individual’s faith and understanding

6: what followed the conversion period and its relevance today?

Eadwulf – A Bewildered Freeman

Late into a 21st-century winter’s evening, I try to imagine myself as a ceorl in one of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of England – that of the East Angles.

I am Eadwulf – a hard-working farmer standing with close to 60 of my countrymen, listening to a man called Felix. He’s a foreigner – a Frank – the first Bishop of the Church of the East Angles. This is the first time I’ve heard someone talk seriously about this new god. I know his name, of course – some traders bear his sign around their necks and tell of his temples. But I have never seen the need to call upon his powers. It’s in the first half of the 600s AD – less than four decades after Pope Gregory’s mission arrived on our island in 597 – truthfully, I’d rather be home, eating and drinking and resting my weary limbs.

I’m here because I was told to come by the village headman, and he was following an order that came ultimately from our king, Sigebert, who learned of Christ from Felix while in Gaul. I’ve never ventured more than ten miles myself, and I’m bewildered why our king isn’t content enough with our existing gods and spirits. We’ve been together for generations, and we all know what to expect of them. I know the patterns of my life and don’t want to change them.

Christ in majesty, Ely Cathedral
Christ in majesty. Carving above Prior’s door, Ely Cathedral, around 1135 (photo by author)

I suspect we’ll all be told that we must follow Christ and make the best of it. But what of our traditional gods? I’m told this new God accepts no others. What arrogance! What will happen if we turn our backs on the protectors we know and anger them? It doesn’t bear thinking about.

Yet my ancestors took the whale road from the birth lands of our spirits when our Wuffinga lords brought us bravely to these shores. Though we feared what might become of us, all was well. The blood of those kings flows through my lord’s veins, and whatever I might think in the quiet places of my heart, I’ll always be loyal to my king. I’ll listen about this new god – Christ – and follow him, if my lord wishes it.

I miss my precious wife – she died too young and in the most terrible pain earlier in the year. If this Christ can help her in the next world and ease my loss then I’ll make sacrifices to him.

Does it Matter?

Does it matter how the English were converted? I think it does, because in addition to improving our understanding of the Anglo-Saxon Church and society, it raises questions and issues and provides insights that are still relevant today.

The Anglo-Saxon experience allows us to examine the nature of top-down conversion. Consider the Northumbrian peasants who were hurling abuse at the plaintive monks. Their conversion had clearly been against their wishes, undertaken at the behest of their earthly lord. They might be baptised but would they remain stubborn adherents to the old ways? Had they really been converted? Would their alienation dissipate in time? We know in their case that a miracle intervened. St Cuthbert prayed for the forlorn monks; the wind subsided; they were saved, and the peasants were amazed, contrite and spread the good news.

Deep-seated beliefs are not removed by overnight and little-understood actions, including baptism, especially if the decision is not taken voluntarily. Without instruction, parochial care, the example of good Christian souls and the witness of miracles, profound conversion was doubtful. Miracles had a dramatic impact because they demonstrated the power of God in easily understood ways – but they needed to be interpreted, told and re-told.

Oldest working church door in England
Exterior of oldest working church door in England, St Botolph’s Anglo-Saxon Church, Hadstock, Essex (photo by author)

Christianity did inspire many humble, dedicated missionaries, preaching the length and breadth of the island living simply. These devout witnesses to Christ met people where they were and converted through example, sincerity, by the spirit and by love. But evidence also suggests that under-the-counter attachment to essentially pre-Christian beliefs continued for centuries in English folk religion – and continues still (albeit with a bit of more recent reinvention).

There were many pitfalls. From my experience as a speech-writer, I know that what you’d like to impart to an audience often does not correspond with what they want to hear. The exercise is even harder if one promotes profound change, and speaker and listener come from vastly different religious and cultural backgrounds. Unless one is a good listener and exemplar – as well as a talker or preacher – and pays regard to the background, views, concerns and motivations etc of the recipients then little might really alter. One can appear arrogant, ignorant, unconcerned and ultimately may fail to sow the seeds of deep-seated change. There are considerable benefits in putting oneself in the shoes of the recipients of your beliefs.

‘To the Jews I became as a Jew, that I might win Jews…. To the weak (wanting in discernment) I have become weak (wanting in discernment) that I might win the weak and overscrupulous. I have (in short) become all things to all men, that I might by all means (at all costs and in any and every way) save some (by winning them to faith in Jesus Christ)’ (The First Letter of Paul to The Corinthians, Chapter 9, from verses 20 and 22).

How far did this dialogue and compromise go in Anglo-Saxon England during the Conversion period? Is it too much for some missionaries to say, ‘To the pagans, I became as a pagan?’ Did it result sometimes in the fusion of Christianity with existing pagan beliefs (syncretism) that ‘corrupted’ the integrity of the Christian message, or at least modified it?

Where was the fertile ground for the mission to plant its beliefs and nurture their growth? In the battlefield for souls, some evangelists imparted the Christian message fully with spiritual conviction – but others inadvertently or deliberately side-stepped aspects that were proving difficult and these were lost in translation and the message was altered.

Did the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms ultimately become Christian through a pragmatic arrangement between kings and the Church that came to see power, culture and social control dominate personal faith, devotion and the work of the Holy Spirit? If the answer is yes, it need not imply any malicious intent; simply, the institutionalised Church offered kings and kingdoms enormous benefits and became an essential power bloc within society.

‘Yet Christianity in early medieval Britain, as elsewhere, involved much more than such (spiritual and doctrinal) beliefs. It offered an evolving philosophy of kingship, a body of literature and scholarship…. Christian ideas of kingship, Christian texts, writers, bishops and priests played no less a part than did the West Saxon kings in the creation of an English national identity’ (Redgate, A.E., 2014: p6).

The dead rising on Judgement Day
Medieval image, the dead rising on Judgement Day (photo by author)

It seems at first blush that the good folk of East Anglia (my good friend, Eadwulf, included) and the other kingdoms were being asked to do something akin to converting from Hinduism to Christianity in our own time. A tall ask; yet conversion did happen – eventually to the entire populace, despite monumental and profound challenges for ordinary people. We will explore how this happened.

Part 2 – The Mission from Rome – to follow in the coming weeks.

(See also my debut novel, Under Lynden Church set in the Kingdom of the East Angles during the Viking invasions)

* (A quick note. I use the word ‘pagan’ loosely and apologetically to describe in short-hand all the variety of non-Christian beliefs encountered by the Christian mission. The Church coined the term to differentiate itself from these existing views of supernatural powers and beings).


Carver, M., Agency, Intellect and the Archaeological Agenda, in, Signals of Belief in Early England, Anglo-Saxon Paganism Revisited, Carver, M., Sanmark, A. and Semple, S., eds, Oxbow, Oxford, 2010.

Edwards, D. L., Christian England, Volume 1, Its Story to the Reformation, Collins, London, 1982.

Pryor, F. Britain AD, Harper Perennial, London, 2005.

Redgate, A. E., Religion, Politics and Society in Britain, 800-1066, Routledge, Abingdon, 2014.

The First Letter of Paul to the Corinthians, The Amplified Bible, Zondervan Corporation and the Lockman Foundation, Michigan, 1987.

Wellcome Trust, People of the British Isles, Newsletter Issue 6, March 2015.

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