ⓘ Christianity in Roman Britain
The Abrahamic religion of Christianity was present in Roman Britain from at least the third century until the end of the Roman imperial administration in the early fifth century.
Religion in Roman Britain was generally polytheistic, involving multiple gods and goddesses; in being monotheistic, or believing in only one deity, Christianity was different. Christianity was one of several religions introduced to Britain from the eastern part of the empire, others being those dedicated to certain deities, such as Cybele, Isis, and Mithras.
After the collapse of Roman imperial administration, much of southern and eastern Britain was affected by the Anglo-Saxon migrations and a transition to Anglo-Saxon paganism as the primary religion. The Anglo-Saxons were later converted to Christianity in the seventh century and the institutional church reintroduced, following the Augustinian mission. There remained an awareness among Anglo-Saxon Christian writers like Bede that a Romano-British Christianity had existed. In fact, the Romano-British church existed continuously in Wales.
People in Roman Britain typically believed in a wide range of gods and goddesses, and worshipped several of them, likely selecting some local and tribal deities as well as some of the major divinities venerated across the Empire. Both indigenous British deities and introduced Roman counterparts were venerated in the region, sometimes syncretising together, as in cases like Apollo-Cunomaglus and Sulis-Minerva. Romano-British temples were sometimes erected at locations that had earlier been cultic sites in the pre-Roman Iron Age. A new style of "Romano-Celtic temple" developed which was influenced by both Iron Age and imperial Roman architectural styles but also unique from both; buildings in this style remained in use until the fourth century. The cults of various eastern deities had also been introduced to Roman Britain, among them those of the deities Isis, Mithras, and Cybele; Christianity was just one of these eastern cults.
The archaeologist Martin Henig suggested that to "sense something of the spiritual environment of Christianity at this time", it would be useful to imagine India, where Hinduism, "a major polytheistic system", remains dominant, and "where churches containing images of Christ and the Virgin are in a tiny minority against the many temples of gods and goddesses".
Christianity was an offshoot from Judaism, although by the mid-second century the two religions were generally recognised as distinct. There is no direct evidence for Judaism having been practiced in Roman Britain.
1.1. Context Evidence
The archaeological evidence for Christianity in Roman Britain is not extensive, but is needed to determine the extent of the religion in this period. Determining whether an item was used in Christian or pagan symbolism and usage is not always straightforward, with the interpretation of such items often being speculative. This Christian material represents a "tiny proportion" of archaeological material recovered from Roman Britain.
2.1. Chronology Second and third centuries
Precisely when Christianity arrived in Roman Britain is not known. The province experienced a constant influx of people from across the empire, some of whom were possibly Christians. There is nevertheless a difference between transient Christians who may have arrived in Britain and a settled, Romano-British Christian community. Dorothy Watts suggested that Christianity was perhaps introduced to Britain in the latter part of the second century.
Circa 200, the Carthaginian theologian Tertullian included Britain in a list of places reached by Christianity in his work, Adversus Judaeos. The Greek theologian Origen also wrote that Christianity had reached Britain. The accuracy of these statements can be questioned given that both writers had a strong rhetorical aspect to their work, which was designed to glorify what was still an illegal and underground religious movement. It is nevertheless possible that Tertullian and Origen were basing their statements on some reality.
Christianity experienced slow and steady growth in the empire during the third century. In the mid part of that century, there was an intensification of the persecution of Christians, particularly under the Emperors Decius and Valerian. These waves of persecution may have impacted the Christian community in Britain; it is possible that Aaron and Julius, two Romano-British martyrs mentioned in early medieval sources, were killed at this time. In 260, the Emperor Gallienus issued an edict that decriminalised Christianity, allowing the Church to own property as a corporate body. These shifts in the states attitude to religion were accompanied by increasing political instability, financial difficulties, and a re-organisation of the armed forces and civil administration.
2.2. Chronology Fourth and fifth centuries
In 313, the Western Roman Emperor Constantine and Eastern Roman Emperor Licinius issued the Edict of Milan, putting an end to the persecution of Christians in the empire. Available sources reveal that in this period, the British Church was involved in the activities of the wider Church throughout the Western Roman Empire. Under Constantines influence, in 314, the Council of Arles was held to discuss the impact of the Donatist schism on the Empires Christian community. A text discussing the council, the Acta Concilii Arelatensis, revealed that three British bishops had been in attendance. The presence of the three bishops indicates that by the early fourth century, the British Christian community was both organised on a regional basis, and held a distinct episcopal hierarchy.
British bishops are also recorded as having attended the Council of Ariminium, which took place in Italy. Athanasius, the Patriarch of Alexandria, suggested that there were British bishops in attendance at the Council of Serdica in 343, but this is not indicated in the records of the council itself; for this reason, Richard Sharpe argued that Athanasius evidence should be discounted as inaccurate. The Gallo-Roman chronicler Sulpicius Severus claimed that at least three bishops from Britain were in attendance at the Western Council at Rimini in 359, held to discuss the issue of Arianism.
The names of several Romano-British bishops have also been found in inscriptions on archaeological finds. On the Risley Park Lanx is a fragmentary inscription stating "Bishop Exuperius gave to." A lead salt-pan from Shavington, Cheshire also contains a Latin inscription which likely related "Of Viventius, the bishop.".
By the second half of the fourth century, Christians held several senior administrative posts within the government of the diocese. The Roman poet Ausonius corresponded with Flavius Sanctus, the Christian governor of one of the British provinces. In 391 CE, the Roman Emperor Theodosius banned all pagan religions throughout the empire, with Christianity becoming its official religion. Theodosius decree would probably have impacted Britain and been acted upon by the provincial administration. Henig suggested that by the end of the fourth century, "a large proportion of British society, however materially impoverished," was Christian.
Several prominent Christians were Romano-British by birth. Pelagius, the originator of Pelagianism, was likely born in Britain in the second half of the fourth century, although lived most of his life in continental Europe. Saint Patrick was also born in Britain to a family who had been Christians for at least three generations. His Confessio of St Patrick is the only surviving written testimony that was written by a Romano-British Christian, although mostly discusses his time in Ireland rather than Britain. In the 470s, Apollinaris Sidonius, the Bishop of Clermont, wrote to Faustus, Bishop of Riez, referring to the latter as having been British by birth.
There are various other surviving textual references attesting to the presence of Christianity in late fourth and fifth century Britain. In the 390s, Victricius, the Bishop of Rouen, travelled to Britain and in his De Laude Sanctorum referred to a priesthood existing there. Another Gaulish bishop, Germanus of Auxerre, was sent to Britain by Pope Celestine I in 429, there to deal with a bishop named Agricola who was promoting Pelagianism. The Life of Saint Germanus refers to the bishop visiting Britain for a second time, this time with a Bishop Severus, in the last year of his life, although the precise year is not known.
By the fourth century, there were probably Romano-British families split by their religious allegiance; some Christian, others following pagan religions. Some individuals may have oscillated between the two.
2.3. Chronology Fifth and sixth century survivals
Many archaeologists believe that the end of Roman life in Britain occurred swiftly during the first three decades of the fifth century. This event was followed by the Anglo-Saxon migration, during which linguistically Germanic communities from modern Denmark and northern Germany settled in Britain, forming the cultural area now known as Anglo-Saxon England. Archaeologists tend toward the view that this transition from Romano-British to Anglo-Saxon culture was piecemeal and gradual, rather than the result of a sudden conquest.
Textual sources suggest that the Christian communities established in the Roman province survived in Western Britain during the fourth, fifth, and sixth centuries. This Western British Christianity proceeded to develop on its own terms. In the 540s, Gildas was condemning British bishops. During the twentieth century, various scholars of Western British Christianity avoided explanations of Romano-British survival and instead sought to trace the origins of Christianity in this part of Europe to sea routes. The first to challenge this assumption was Jocelyn Toynbee, who argued that Romano-British Christianity was in fact the parent of what she termed "the so-called Celtic Church" of Western Britain.
In the late sixth century, the Pope ordered that Augustine of Canterbury lead the Gregorian Mission to convert the Anglo-Saxons to Christianity. According to the writings of the later monk Bede, these Augustinian missionaries utilised an old Romano-British church that had been dedicated to St Martin and gained permission from the Kentish king to restore several pre-existing churches. The survival of Romano-British churches in this period is also attested in other sources, like the Life of St Wilfrid.
In Roman Britain, the church primarily served as the place where the Eucharist was celebrated. It also had overlapping functions, for instance as a meeting place, a place of group worship, and a place for solitary prayer. Unlike later medieval Britain, Roman Britain lacked a dense network of parish churches. Instead, a range of different types of church structure were present across the region. One term for a church that was likely used in Roman Britain was altare, a term which appears in an inscription from the Christian Water Newton hoard and which was not commonly used for pagan cult sites.
Church buildings would have required an altar at which the Eucharist could be celebrated, a place from where readings could be made, space for the offertory procession, and room for the congregation. Comparisons from other parts of the Roman Empire indicate that Romano-British examples likely also had a cathedra chair where the bishop would sit, and a vestibulum, or room where the unbaptised could withdraw.
The sporadic persecution of Christians which occurred for several centuries prevented the construction of official, purpose-built churches. Instead, early Christian meeting places were often indistinguishable from residential houses. Although some of these church house domus ecclesiae have been recognised in other parts of the empire, none have so far been discovered in Britain.
It is possible that Christians might have adopted pre-existing Romano-Celtic temples as their places of worship. This is an explanation which archaeologists have advanced in discussions of the Verulamium temple in front of the theatre.
There are also other pre-Christian religious sites which may have been adopted by Romano-British Christians. One example is the Chedworth spring.
3.1. Churches Ceremonies
The existence of Christian symbolism on flagons, bowls, cups, spoons, wine strainers and other items used to hold food or drink suggests the existence of Christian feasts in Roman Britain. That many of these items, such as those from the Water Newton hoard, were lavish, suggests that the Christian community might depend on its wealthier members for their ceremonial material.
Some mosaic floors are likely to depict Christian imagery.
Most Romano-British Christians were probably illiterate and most of their knowledge of Christianity would have come through ceremony.
4. Martyrs and saints
There are three known Christian martyrs from Roman Britain: Aaron, Julius, and Alban. There has been considerable debate among historians as to when these individuals lived and died. The name Aaron is Hebrew and might suggest an individual of Jewish heritage.
Aaron and Julius were probably martyred in a single event during the third century. This likely occurred before c.290, when the legions withdrew from Caerleon.
The date of Albans death is disputed. Alban is the only Romano-British martyr whose cult definitely survived the termination of the Roman imperial administration among an enclave of British Christians. Germanus described visiting Albans shrine and exchanging relics there in 429. There may have been other Romano-British saints cults which survived into the sixth and seventh century, when they were suppressed amid the Anglo-Saxon migration.
5.1. Reception Medieval and early modern periods
After the fall of Roman imperial rule, Britain entered what historians call the early medieval period. During this period, there was an awareness that Christianity had existed in Roman Britain. Gildas, a British Christian monk living somewhere in Western Britain during the sixth century CE, discussed the issue in his De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae "The Ruin and Conquest of Britain". Many of the claims which Gildas made about the establishment of Christianity in Roman Britain are at odds with the information provided in other sources; he for instance claimed that the Empire Tiberius was a Christian who sanctioned the religions spread, and that the British Church underwent a schism due to the influence of Arianism. The arrival of Christianity was later discussed by Bede, an Anglo-Saxon monk based in the Kingdom of Northumbria, in his eighth-century Ecclesiastical History of the English People. Here, he used Gildas work among other sources to relate his narrative. Bedes agenda differed from that of Gildas in that he sought to present the British Church as heterodox and his own, English Church, as orthodox. The next early medieval source to discuss Romano-British Christianity was the ninth-century Historia Brittonum, later attributed - perhaps mistakenly - to the Welsh monk Nennius.
In the high and later Middle Ages, historical accounts continued to be produced which discussed the establishment of Christianity in Roman Britain. These were, according to Petts, increasingly "garbled and fanciful" in their narratives. Writing in his twelfth century Historia Regum Britanniae, Geoffrey of Monmouth for instance added new details to the conversion tale, for instance by naming Faganus and Duvianus as two of the missionaries who brought Christianity to Britain. He also claimed that the Empress Helena, mother of Constantine, had been the daughter of a mythical ruler of Colchester, King Coel. Another twelfth-century writer, William of Malmesbury, added the claim that Joseph of Aramathea had arrived in Glastonbury in his Gesta Regum Anglorum. Such stories entered and influenced popular folklore, where they were further altered.
There was a revived interest in Romano-British Christianity in the sixteenth and seventeenth century, where it occurred against a backdrop of the arguments between adherents of Roman Catholicism and Protestantism. An Italian writer, Polydore Vergil, came to England in 1501 and befriended King Henry VIII; he wrote the Historiae Anglicae, which dealt with the arrival of Christianity. Following the English Reformation, in which the Church of England switched its allegiance from Roman Catholicism to the Protestant-influenced Anglicanism, there were a growing number of English theologians who turned to the first arrival of Christianity in Britain to argue that the island had preserved an older, purer form of Christianity separate from that which had been corrupted by the Church in Rome.
5.2. Reception Archaeology and the development of scholarship
In the early eighteenth century, archaeology began to develop as a discipline in Britain. A number of Romano-British Christian artefacts were discovered at this time, although their origins were not always recognised. In some cases items were recognised as being Romano-British, but not as Christian; in others they were recognised as being Christian, but not Romano-British. For example, the ploughing of a field in Risley, Derbyshire in 1729 revealed a lanx plate featuring a Chi-Rho symbol. It was investigated by the antiquarian William Stukeley, who noted its Christian symbolism but who thought that it had likely originated in France and been brought to England by fifteenth-century soldiers. In another instance, a Romano-British beaker decorated with Biblical scenes was discovered in a childs grave within the Anglo-Saxon cemetery at Long Wittenham, Oxfordshire during excavations led by John Yonge Akerman in the 1850s. Akerman regarded it as being early medieval and of Gaulish origin. The first attempt to synthesise archaeological and historical material to understand Romano-British Christianity was an academic paper published in the English Historical Review ; written by Francis J. Haverfield in 1896, it remained little known among scholars.
It was in the twentieth century that more significant quantities of Romano-British Christian material was discovered. Various hoards, such as that from Mildenhall, were found that contained Christian material. The excavation of various Roman villas, such as that at Hinton St Mary, Dorset, revealed Christian symbolism on mosaics. The excavation of St Paul-in-the-Bail in Lincoln resulted in the discovery of a Romano-British church that had once existed on the site. By the latter half of that century there was sufficient material available that archaeologists could discuss Christianity in Roman Britain independently of the historical record. A major attempt to discuss the archaeological evidence was in a paper by the art historian Jocelyn Toynbee in 1953, which focused primarily on attempts to recognise Christian motifs and symbols on artefacts. Following Toynbee, the most important contribution to the subject was Charles Thomas Christianity in Roman Britain to AD 500 ; published in 1981, it discussed historical, archaeological, and linguistic evidence.
There remains divisions among scholars in their understanding of Romano-British Christianity. This divide is often based on disciplinary divisions, with scholars of Roman archaeology and history on one side and scholars of Celtic studies or of early medieval archaeology and history on the other.
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