CHRISTIAN ROME AND THE WESTERN BARBARIAN KINGDOMS
Written by Vladimir Moss
CHRISTIAN ROME AND THE WESTERN BARBARIAN KINGDOMS
In the sixth century the Emperor Justinian undertook a series of wars in the West in order to regain the formerly Roman provinces of the West for the Empire and (since many of these territories were now under Arian rulers) for Orthodoxy… The Gothic wars that ensued posed an acute dilemma for the Orthodox Roman populations under Arian rule, a dilemma that was to be felt many times in the future by Orthodox Christians living under non-Orthodox rule: to rebel or not to rebel. The question was: was the Roman Empire the only legitimate political authority for those of Roman descent living on its former territories? Or were the barbarian kings also legitimate powers, the legal successors of Rome in some sense?
1. Italy and France. The question was easily answered – in a positive sense - in the case of the Frankish kings, who immediately entered into a close, harmonious relationship with the Gallo-Roman nobility and episcopate, and even received Baptism under Clovis. It was also easily answered – in a negative sense - in the case of the Vandals of North Africa, whose first king, Gaiseric, a rigorous Arian, had banished Orthodox priests who refused to perform the Arian services and even sacked Rome in 455. In 484 Huneric, not without some irony, used a Roman law of 412 directed against the Donatists, to embark on a savage persecution against the Orthodox Christians. And then in 530, the pro-Roman and pro-Orthodox King Hilderic was overthrown by the anti-Roman and anti-Orthodox Gelimer. This gave Justinian the excuse he needed, and in a short six-month campaign (533-34) his general Belisarius, supported by the local population, destroyed the Vandal kingdom and placed all the dissident and heretical assemblies under ban.
But the Gothic rulers of Italy and Spain constituted a less clear-cut case. On the one hand, they remained socially and legally separate from their Roman subjects and did not adopt Orthodoxy. But on the other hand, they did not, in general, persecute the Faith, and allowed the Romans to follow their own laws. The dilemma was made more acute by the fact that in Rome itself many suspected that Justinian had deliberately appointed a pro-Monophysite patriarch of Constantinople in the person of Anthimus. And when Pope Agapetus arrived in Constantinople, Justinian said to him: “I shall either force you to agree with us, or else I shall send you into exile.” Whereupon the Pope replied: “I wished to come to the most Christian of all emperors, Justinian, and I have found now a Diocletian. However, I fear not your threats.” So the question of who was the legitimate ruler of the western lands was not so clear to the Roman populations of the West, in spite of their natural sympathy for the Empire, as it probably appeared to Justinian. If they had lived peaceably enough for more than one generation under Arian rulers, why should they rise up against them now?
However, after the murder of the pro-Roman Ostrogothic Queen Amalasuntha in 534 by the new King Theodahad, the Emperor had a clear casus belli. And then the victories of Justinian’s generals Belisarius and Nerses settled the question: Italy was again Roman and Orthodox. The famous frescoes of Justinian and Theodore in Ravenna’s church of San Vitale commemorate the restoration of Romanity to the heartland of Old Rome. And although there had been many desertions, and the cost of the war had been very great, and the north was soon overrun again by another Arian Germanic race, the Lombards, the leaders of Roman society, such as Pope Gregory I, were convinced that it had all been worth it…
“The end of the empire,” writes Chris Wickham, “was experienced most directly in Gaul. The Visigothic King Euric (466-84) was the first major ruler of a ‘barbarian’ polity in Gaul – the second in the empire after Geiseric – to have a fully autonomous political practice, uninfluenced by any residual Roman loyalties. Between 471 and 476 he expanded his power east to the Rhône (and beyond, into Provence), north to the Loire, and south into Spain. The Goths had already been fighting in Spain since the later 450s (initially on behalf of the emperor Avitus), but Euric organized a fully fledged conquest there, which is ill-documented, but seems to have been complete (except for a Suevic enclave in the north-west) by the time of his death. By far the best documented of Euric’s conquests, though not the most important, was the Auvergne in 471-5, because the bishop of its central city, Clermont, was the Roman senator Sidonius Apollinarius. Sidonius, who was Avitus’ son-in-law, and had been a leading lay official for both [Emperors] Majorian and Anthemius, ended his political career besieged inside his home city, and we can see all the political changes of the 450s-470s through his eyes. A supporter of alliance with the Visigoths in the 450s, by the late 460s Sidonius had become increasingly aware of the dangers involved, and hostile to Roman officials who still dealt with them; then in the 470s we see him despairing of any further help for Clermont, and contemptuous of the Italian envoys who sacrificed the Auvergne so as to keep Provence under Roman control. By around 480, as he put it, ‘now that the old degrees of official rank are swept away… the only token of nobility that the old degrees will henceforth be a knowledge of letters’; the official hierarchy had gone, only traditional Roman culture remained…”
The archiepiscopate of Arles was a bastion of Roman traditions in France, and for a time played the role of a metropolitan centre on a par with Rome. Thus St. Hilary, Archbishop of Arles (430-449) became “de facto head of the whole of the Gallican Church and presided over Episcopal councils in Riez (429), Orange (441) and Bezons (442).” Again, St. Caesarius of Arles (503-542) “introduced a series of disciplinary reforms in the spirit of Romanitas (Romanity), which confirmed the independence of bishops from the local civil and juridical authorities, proclaimed the inalienability of church property, introduced disciplinary rules for clergy (including celibacy for the priesthood) and established sacramental obligations for laymen (regular communion, conditions for marriage, etc.).”
The threat to the continuance of Christian Roman Gaul came from the Arian Ostrogothic and Visigothic kings. However, these were not intolerant of Orthodox Christianity, and St. Caesarius was able to establish good cooperative relations with Alaric of Toulouse and Theodoric of Ravenna. Moreover, the conversion and baptism of Clovis, king of the Franks into the Orthodox Church (sometime between 496 and 506), who soon won some stunning victories over the Arian kings, was a tremendous boost to Gallic Romanitas, and marked the beginning of the history of the Orthodox kings of Gaul.
St. Gregory of Tours wrote that Clovis received letters “from the Emperor Anastasius to confer the consulate on him. In Saint Martin’s church he stood clad in a purple tunic and the military mantle, and he crowned himself with a diadem. He then rode out on his horse and with his own hand showered gold and silver coins among the people present all the way from the doorway of Saint Martin’s church to Tours cathedral. From that day on he was called Consul or Augustus.”
Actually, since the Emperor Anastasius was a Monophysite heretic, Clovis was the only major Orthodox Christian ruler at this time, if we exclude the British King Arthur. Moreover, he consciously stressed the continuity of his rule with that of Rome. As Andrew Louth writes: “Like most of the barbarian kingdoms that appeared in the Western Roman Empire, [the Frankish realms] inherited something of the administrative structure of the Roman Empire, and could claim to rule as representative, in some way, of the true Roman emperor, who resided in New Rome, Constantinople. This understanding was fictional in several respects: the Roman or Byzantine emperor had no choice over his Merovingian representative in Gaul and, although taxes were still being collected, the dynamics of political society in the West were changing in the direction of a society ruled by military warlords, who gave protection to those who lived in their domains and rewarded their followers with booty from fighting amongst themselves, and further afield, and who accepted the overlordship of the Merovingian kings. The fiction was nevertheless significant, not least in the way it articulated political legitimacy in terms of the ideals of the Roman Empire.”
Clovis defeated the Arian Visigothic King Alaric II at Vouillé in 507. By 510 the Visigoths had been forced to give up most of their lands in France, and then in 511 the Franks’ allies against the Visigoths, the Burgundians, were converted from Arianism to Orthodoxy.
The revival of Orthodoxy received its strongest boost in 518 when the Monophysite Emperor Anastasius, died, and was succeeded by the Orthodox Justin I. The Gallo-Romans now set about working with their Frankish king to create the Merovingian Orthodox kingdom, the most glorious period in the history of France.
“Established at Paris, Clovis governed this kingdom by virtue of an agreement concluded with the bishops of Gaul, according to which natives and barbarians were to be on terms of equality… All free men bore the title of Frank, had the same political status, and were eligible to the same offices. Besides, each individual observed the law of the people among whom he belonged; the Gallo-Roman lived according to the code, the barbarian according to the Salian or Ripuarian law; in other words, the law was personal, not territorial. If there were any privileges they belonged to the Gallo-Romans, who, in the beginning were the only ones on whom the episcopal dignity was conferred. The king governed the provinces through his counts, and had a considerable voice in the selection of the clergy. The drawing up of the Salian Law (Lex Salica), which seems to date from the early part of the reign of Clovis, and the Council of Orléans, convoked by him and held in the last year of his reign, prove that the legislative activity of this king was not eclipsed by his military energy.”
Our main source for Frankish history, The History of the Franks by St. Gregory of Tours, confirms this account. As Wickham writes, St. Gregory, “although of an aristocratic Roman family, seems hardly aware the empire has gone at all; his founding hero was Clovis, and all his loyalties Frankish.” Nowhere does he dispute the legitimacy of Frankish rule; and the rebellions that take place are of Franks against Franks rather than Gallo-Romans against Franks.
One exception to this rule was the attempt of Bishop Egidius of Rheims to kill King Childebert (V, 19). But St. Gregory shows no sympathy for the bishop, and records his trial and exile by his fellow-bishops without criticism. As for the independence of the bishops in the Frankish kingdom, this is demonstrated by the completely free election of St. Gregory himself to the episcopate by the people, with no interference by the king.
It was St. Avitus, Bishop of Vienne, who tried to convert the Arian Burgundian kings Gundobad and Sigismund to Orthodoxy. “He succeeded,” writes P.D. King, “in winning over Sigismund, though not Gundobad, and his response to the baptism of Clovis, the very first barbarian king to embrace orthodoxy, was exultant. No longer, he wrote to the Frankish king, was Graecia alone in meriting the benefit of a Catholic princeps; ‘your world also is illuminated by its own brightness, and in the form of a king the light of a splendour which is not new bathes the western parts’. If ‘a splendour which is not new’ meant orthodox rulership, Avitus was here presenting Clovis as the moral counterpart not only of the existing emperor in Constantinople but also of the earlier, Catholic, Augusti who had ruled ‘the western parts’. There was a lesson for Gundobad in this, nor was it the only one in the letter, assuredly drafted with one eye to influencing the Burgundian king. Clovis was praised, for example, for not allowing ancestral custom to prevent him from following his judgement ‘as many are wont to do’. Gundobad was among those ‘many’, and Gregory of Tours reports Avitus’ reproof: Gundobad was the head of the people, not the people his head; as he led and the people followed in war, so he should lead the way also to the truth. Avitus knew full well that the key to the conversion of masses was that of monarchs; Constantine had shown that, and now Clovis was demonstrating it anew: ‘in choosing for yourself, you judge for all… through you God will make your entire people His’. Avitus did not call Clovis ‘new Constantine’, though he will certainly have had the great emperor in mind, but Gregory of Tours was to do so, and John of Biclar was to write similarly, and for the same reason, of Reccared at the Third Council of Toledo. Not only Franks would benefit from Clovis’ baptism, however, Avitus hoped, for the king was urged to carry the faith to the pagans beyond the Rhine. The initiative is noteworthy, such missionary concern being almost unprecedented. Avitus’ vision, ‘imperial’ in complexion, of a multigentile dominion bound together by a single faith under a single princeps was prophetic…”
2. Spain. Until the fourth century Spain had been an important part of the Roman Empire, producing such great Christians as St. Osius, bishop of Cordoba, and the Emperor Theodosius I. However, in the fourth century Spain came under the dominion of the Visigoths, who were Arians.
“Entering the empire in 376, the Visigoths had long remained divided in attitude towards it, the dichotomy of viewpoint finding expression in an alleged declaration of Athaulf (d. 415) that his first aim had been to replace Romania with Gothia but that Gothic inability to obey the laws, ‘without which a res publica is not a res publica’, had made him resolve instead to become the ‘author of Roman restoration’. Euric’s seizure of power by the murder of the Romanophil Theodoric II in 466 marked the victory of the ‘independence’ party, and the autonomous kingdom which resulted was characterised, like Ostrogothic Italy, by internal barriers between Arian Goths and orthodox Romans. Many of the reverses and malaises of the first two-thirds of the sixth century may fairly be traced to the policy of ‘separateness’.”
Now Arianism was the national religion of the Goths: every Goth was required to be Arian, just as every Roman was encouraged to remain Orthodox. Intermarriage between the two sub-nations was illegal – but this was not so much a matter of faith, as of national identity. The Goths did not try to convert the Romans because that would have meant a confusion of the races, and they discouraged conversion by insisting on the rebaptism of converts from Orthodoxy. Already, however, some confusion was taking place through the Goths’ adoption of Roman manners and dress. If they adopted the faith of the Romans as well, what would distinguish them from their subjects?
The recovery of Spain from the hands of the Arian Visigoths became an important part of Justinian’s strategy of reuniting the Empire, and by the 550s the Roman armies had carved out a province in the south-east of Iberia called Spania…
Now it might have been expected that the Roman inhabitants of the peninsula, who constituted perhaps 90% of the population, would have risen up in support of the Byzantines against their foreign rulers. However, many of the Hispano-Romans fled inland from Cartagena when the Byzantines invaded, including even the most notable Spaniard of the age, St. Leander of Seville. As a result of this loyalty of the Roman Spaniards to the Visigothic regime, the restoration of Orthodoxy in Spain came about, neither through the might of Byzantine arms from without, nor through the rebellion of Hispano-Romans from within, but through the conversion of the Visigoths themselves.
It began with the significant enhancement of the Visigothic kingship in the person of King Leovigild (568/9-586). With him, “the kingdom came to be directed onto a new path, with unity, centred on the monarchy, the beckoning goal. The inspiration and model was unquestionably the [Roman] empire, now embracing south-east Spain. While Leovigild’s military prospects, including the conquest of the Sueves [of the north-west], were of the highest importance, he also acted to enhance the status of the monarchy by assuming royal garb, introducing (or reintroducing) a throne, issuing an independent coinage and publishing a revised edition of Euric’s law-code; and he removed the ban on intermarriage…”
In 579 King Leovigild’s eldest son and the ruler of Seville, Hermenegild, married the Orthodox Frankish princess Ingundis. Not only did Ingundis stubbornly refuse to become an Arian even when subjected to torture by the Queen Mother Goisuntha. On arriving in Seville, she and St. Leander succeeded in converting Hermenegild to Orthodoxy. Then several thousand Goths were converted in Seville.
Now “in the political situation of the kingdom,” writes Scott, “the transference of the allegiance of the heir apparent from the Arian to the Catholic confession involved and proclaimed a withdrawal of his allegiance to the king. This ecclesiastical defection was necessarily accompanied by a political rebellion.” As David Keys writes, “Hermenegild’s conversion was a massive challenge to the political system as a whole.”
However, the rebellion of Hermenegild, though aided by the Orthodox Sueves in the north-west (they converted from Arianism to Orthodoxy in the 550s), and the Byzantines in the south-east, was crushed by King Leogivild. Hermenegild himself was killed at Pascha, 585 for refusing to accept communion from an Arian bishop in prison. He was immediately hailed as a martyr by Pope St. Gregory, the writer of his Life, who, like St. Gregory of Tours, treated the civil war as religious in essence. Moreover, his brother Reccared, who became king after the death of Leogivild, “commanded that the body of his elder brother, Saint Hermenegild, be given all the honors due a martyr of Christ”.
However, the Spanish sources, both Gothic and Roman, speak of him as a rebel rather than a martyr. And “it seems evident,” writes Aloysius Ziegler, “that the Spanish Church did not espouse the cause of the Catholic [i.e. Orthodox] prince against his Arian father”.
So it is clear that those within and outside the country attached different priorities to the purity of the faith, on the one hand, and the integrity of the kingdom, on the other. For the Franks and the Italians (and the Orthodox of other nations who inscribed St. Hermenegild’s name among the saints), the triumph of Orthodoxy justified even the horrors of civil war. But the Spaniards, who, as St. Gregory of Tours wrote, “had adopted this detestable custom of killing with the sword any of their kings who did not please them, and of appointing as king whomsoever their fancy lighted upon” , preferred the peaceful status quo.
And yet putting the faith first bore rich fruit; for within a very few years, at the great Council of Toledo in 589, the new king, Reccared, and the whole of the Gothic nobility accepted Orthodoxy, and Arianism never again lifted its head in Spain. Thus, as St. Demetrius of Rostov writes, “the fruit of the death of this one man was life and Orthodoxy for all the people of Spain”.
The Church’s glorification of St. Hermenegild implicitly established the principle (which we may add to our other principles of the Roman Autocracy) that legitimate political power was either Roman power, or that power which, though independent of the Roman power, shared in the faith of the Romans, Orthodoxy. In the fifth century the heretical emperor Anastasius had recognized the heretical Gothic kings. But in the sixth century Hermenegild’s glorification implicitly declared that a heterodox power could legitimately be overthrown as long as the motive was the establishment or re-establishment of Orthodoxy. This did not mean, however, that Christians were obliged to rebel against pagan or heterodox regimes. For civil war is one of the worst of all evils and is to be undertaken only in the most exceptional circumstances.
In 628 the Byzantine province of Spania was reconquered by the Visigoth kings, who now controlled the whole Iberian peninsula. They proceeded, through a series of councils attended by both themselves and the bishops, to work out law-codes that united Goths, Sueves and Romans culturally as well as politically. The golden age of Orthodox Iberia had begun…
“In 643/4 [King] Chindasvind demolished the last formal obstacle to internal unity, the system of separate legal regimes [for Romans and Goths]; although his territorial code has not survived, both Reccesvind’s revised version of 654 (?) and Ervig’s fuller code of 681 have. These developments reflected, as they fostered, the distinctively proud, self-confident, unitary ethos of thought in the late Visigothic kingdom. Some scholars have seen ‘Spanish nationalism’ or at least ‘Spanish national sentiment’ at work, citing particularly the association in [St.] Isidore [of Seville]’s History of the Goths, especially the rhapsodic In praise of Spain which serves as its prologue, of enthusiasm for the Goths with a fervent patriotism. Isidore, living through most of the time of transformation, was certainly inspired by its spirit, as the History, markedly pro-Gothic and anti-imperial in its tone and often distorted presentation of events, clearly reveals…
“… Indeed, far from offering support for traditional imperial universalist ideology, Isidore clearly believes, like Julian of Toledo after him, that Daniel had foretold the survival of the universal sway of the (Roman) ‘kingdom of iron’ until Christ’s first, not second, coming. While Isidore accepts the primacy of the pope among the sacerdotes of Christ’s universal kingdom, nothing suggests that he attributes even a paramountcy among its principes to the emperor.”
This lack of even nominal submission to the emperor of Constantinople was something that distinguished the Visigothic kingdom of Spain from all the other barbarian kingdoms of Western Europe. This is not to say, however, that the influence of the empire did not continue to exert itself. “Gothic law” was clearly related to the imperial code of Theodosius II. And “it is fairly clear,” writes Wickham, “that the late seventh-century Visigoths had the contemporary Byzantine empire as a point of reference…, at least as a model for ceremonial, and for a close identification between the episcopacy and the king.”
This “close identification” was indeed striking, and probably even greater in Spain than in its Byzantine model. For, as King writes, “nothing lay outside the purview of the king. Far from there being an autonomous body, ‘the church’, authority over which belonged to others, society and the church were conceptually equated. It was precisely because fact did not correspond to idea that such savage action was taken against the Jews, whose presence within the territorial but beyond the ideological confines of the kingdom affronted the Christian, unitary premises of the Visigothic standpoint. The king’s authority over clerics and religiou matters, inherent in his God-given responsibility for the health of society, was fully accepted by the sacerdotium itself. Kings nominated bishops, judged metropolitans, summoned councils, established agenda and confirmed rulings. They even provided excommunication as a legal penalty. The bishops laid down the norms of behaviour which the good king ought to follow and did their best to ensure that these were observed by involving themselves in royal elections and requiring the swearing of pre-accession oaths. But they never talked of deposition, and it was the fiction of abdication to which they resorted when Svinthula was in fact toppled by revolt. The introduction of the Old Testament rite of royal anointing perhaps in 631 to make it visibly and ceremonially clear that Svinthula’s usurping successor ruled by God’s favour, confirmed and buttressed the loftiness of the monarchical status. Perhaps the clerics would eventually have made capital out of the constitutive unction evidenced later in the century. As it was, in 711 the Arabs crossed the straits and snuffed out the life of this most remarkable of the barbarian kingdoms.”
3. Celtic Britain. The distant province of Britain was in a sense more committed to the new order of Christian Rome than any other for the simple reason that the first Christian Emperor, Constantine the Great, had been proclaimed emperor for the first time precisely in Britain, and had taken the title Britannicus Maximus, “the greatest of the Britons”, in 315. However, in spite of some impressive architectural remains, signs of Romanization are fewer in Britain than on the continent even after four centuries of Roman rule. Romans writing about Britain exhibit a certain antipathy towards this province, which they seem to confuse with the unRomanized Scots beyond Hadrian’s Wall. And the Britons retained, with the Jews, the reputation of being the least assimilated people in the Empire.
Perhaps for that reason Britain became the platform for more than one rebellion against the central authorities in the late Empire. Thus in 383 Magnus Maximus, leader of the army in Britain, seized power in the West and killed the Western Emperor Gratian. Now Maximus was baptised, was a champion of the Church and defended the Western frontier against the Germans well. Moreover, his usurpation of the empire should not have debarred him from the throne: many emperors before and after came to the throne by the same means. Nevertheless, he is consistently portrayed in the sources as a tyrant; and Sulpicius Severus wrote of him that he was a man “whose whole life would have been praiseworthy if he could have refused the crown illegally thrust upon him by a mutinous army”.
St. Ambrose of Milan refused to give him communion, warning him that “he must do penance for shedding the blood of one who was his master [the Western Emperor Gratian] and… an innocent man.” Maximus refused, “and he laid down in fear, like a woman, the realm that he had wickedly usurped, thereby acknowledging that he had been merely the administrator, not the sovereign [imperator] of the state.” In 388 he was defeated and executed by the Eastern Emperor Theodosius.
The very fact that western bishops such as Ambrose could recognise the Eastern Emperor Theodosius as a true king while rejecting the British usurper Maximus, was a tribute to the way in which Christian Rome had transformed political thought in the ancient world. In early Rome a “tyrant” was a man who seized power by force; and in Republican Rome tyrants were those who, like Julius Caesar, imposed one-man rule on the true and only lawful sovereigns – Senatus PopulusQue Romanorum, the senate and people of Rome. During the first three centuries of the empire, many generals seized power by force and the senate and the people were forced to accept their legitimacy. However, this changed with the coming of St. Constantine, who became the source and model of all legitimate emperors. Constantine, of course, had seized the empire by force; but he had done so against anti-Christian tyrants and was therefore seen to have been acting with the blessing of God. Now legitimate rulers would have to prove that they were in the image of Constantine, both in their Orthodoxy and in their legitimate succession from the previous emperor. As for who the real sovereign was – the emperor or the senate and people – this still remained unclear.
In the years 406-410, British troops attempted to place the “tyrants” Marcus, Gratian and Constantine III on the throne of the Western Empire. Thus Gratian was given “a purple robe, a crown and a body-guard, just like an emperor,” according to Zosimus. In 410 the Roman legions left Britain and the British found themselves outside the Roman Empire. As Procopius wrote: “The Romans never succeeded in recovering Britain, but it remained from that time on under tyrants.” St. Gildas the Wise, writing in the 540s, blamed his countrymen, saying that they had “ungratefully rebelled” against “Roman kings”, and had failed in their “loyalty to the Roman Empire”.
And yet the distinction between true kings and tyrants continued to be made in the land that had been known as “the Roman island”, but which became, from the beginning of the fifth century, “a province fertile in tyrants” (St. Jerome).
Thus St. Patrick, the British apostle of Ireland, called the Scottish chieftain Coroticus a “tyrant” because he did not fear God or His priests; “for the sake of a miserable temporal kingdom [regnum]” he would face God’s judgement on “wicked kings” [regibus]. Patrick’s use of the terms “king” and “tyrant” is not clear; his definition of the word “tyrant” seems to be a mixture between the old, secular meaning of “usurper” and the newer, more religious, Ambrosian meaning of “unjust or immoral person in authority”.
St. Gildas makes a clearer distinction between “king” and “tyrant”. Among past rulers in Britain, Diocletian, Maximus, Marcus, Gratian, Constantine, Constans and Vortigern were all “tyrants”. On the other hand, there had been legitimate rulers, such as Ambrosius Aurelianus, “a modest man, who alone of the Roman nation had been left alive in the confusion of this troubled period… He provoked the cruel conquerors [the Anglo-Saxons] to battle, and by the goodness of our Lord got the victory”. His parents, according to Gildas, even “wore the purple” … And then, at the turn of the century, came the famous King Arthur. He won twelve victories over the Saxons, fighting with a cross or icon of the Virgin Mary on his back, and halted the pagan advance westwards for at least a generation, until his death in 519.
King Arthur became the stuff of innumerable medieval legends. But his power was never great, and Gildas had very little time for his successors: “Britain has kings [reges], but they are tyrants [tyrannos]; she has judges, but they are wicked. They often plunder and terrorize the innocent; they defend and protect the guilty and thieving; they have many wives, whores and adulteresses; they constantly swear false oaths, they make vows, but almost at once tell lies; they wage wars, civil and unjust; they chase thieves energetically all over the country, but love and reward the thieves who sit with them at table; they distribute alms profusely, but pile up an immense mountain of crime for all to see; they take their seats as judges, but rarely seek out the rules of right judgement; they despise the harmless and humble, but exalt to the stars, as far as they can, their military companions, bloody, proud and murderous men, adulterers and enemies of God… They hang around the altars swearing oaths, then shortly afterwards scorn them as though they were filthy stones…”
Thus by the sixth century it looks as if the problem of formal legitimacy had been solved, at least in the eyes of the Britons themselves. The kings Gildas were talking about were both Christian and “anointed” – they had that link, at any rate, with the anointed kings of Israel and Christian Rome. But they did not fulfill their vows; they were a terror to good works, but not to the evil – and by that criterion they were not true authorities (Romans 13.3), being linked rather with the tyrants of old, the Ahabs and Magnus Maximuses. So the break with Rome was still keenly felt. Celtic Britain had many great monks and hierarchs, but very few great, or even powerful, kings…
By the middle of the sixth century there was little to link the Britons with their Roman heritage - with the important exception of the Church, a Roman institution which was stronger now – in the West, at any rate - than it had been in Roman times. Thus Simon Young writes that “in the west… there are various Celtic successor states but those too have left Rome far behind them. No surprise there. The west had, after all, always been the least Romanised part of Britannia and it was the very fact that they had primitive tribal societies instead of sophisticated urban ones that allowed the Celtic kingdoms to come through the storm in one piece. They were better able to fight off the barbarians. Indeed, the only Roman thing that survived there was Christianity – that had been the official religion of the later empire – and, closely connected to Christianity, Latin writing…”
However, as Wickham writes: “Fewer and fewer people in the West called themselves Romani; the others found new ethnic markers: Goths, Lombards, Bavarians, Alemans, Franks, different varieties of Angles and Saxons, Britons – the name the non-Anglo-Saxon inhabitants of Britain had given themselves by 550, the Romani having left, and a word itself due soon to be replaced by a Welsh term, Cymry, ‘fellow countryman’. Even in a part of the former empire unconquered by invaders, that is to say, the Romans were not the Britons themselves, but other people, earlier invaders, who had come and gone. And although of course the huge majority of the ancestors of all these peoples were men and women who would have called themselves Roman in 400, the Roman world had indeed gone, and Roman-ness with it.”
Moreover, even when the link with Rome was re-established, through St. Augustine’s mission to the pagan Anglo-Saxons in 597, the old British tendency to rebellion manifested itself again – and led, this time, to the first formal schism on nationalist grounds in Church history (if we exclude the Jews and the Armenians at the other end of the empire, which had dogmatic underpinnings). Unlike the neighbouring Irish Church, which had always expressed willing obedience to the Pope of Rome (from whom it had received its first missionary bishop), the older Church of Wales strongly asserted its independence. Thus when the Roman St. Augustine, first archbishop of Canterbury (+604), sought union with the Welsh, asking only that they adopt the Roman-Byzantine method of calculating the date of Pascha, correct some inadequacy in their administration of the rite of Baptism, and co-operate with him in the conversion of the pagan Saxons, the Welsh refused.
When the Welsh rejected the decrees of the Synod of Whitby (664), which brought about a union of the Celtic and Roman traditions in the British Isles, they went into schism for a century. Both the Anglo-Saxon and Irish Churches regarded them as schismatics. As an Irish canon put it, “the Britons [of Wales] are… contrary to all men, separating themselves both from the Roman way of life and the unity of the Church”.
St. Aldhelm of Sherborne, wrote about the schismatic Welsh: “Glorifying in the private purity of their own way of life, they detest our communion to such a great extent that they disdain equally to celebrate the Divine offices in church with us and to take course of food at table for the sake of charity. Rather,.. they order the vessels and flagons [used in common with clergy of the Roman Church] to be purified and purged with grains of sandy gravel, or with the dusky cinders of ash.. Should any of us, I mean Catholics, go to them for the purpose of habitation, they do not deign to admit us to the company of their brotherhood until we have been compelled to spend the space of forty days in penance… As Christ truly said: ‘Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees; because you make clean the outside of the cup and of the dish’.”
Some have argued that the Welsh were in fact making the first major protest against the Papist heresy. Thus according to one, somewhat suspect source, the Welsh said to Augustine: “Be it known and declared that we all, individually and collectively, are in all humility prepared to defer to the Church of God, and to the Bishop of Rome, and to every sincere and godly Christian, so far as to love everyone according to his degree, in perfect charity, and to assist them all by word and deed in becoming children of God. But as for any other obedience, we know of none that he, whom you term the Pope, or Bishop of bishops, can demand. The deference we have mentioned we are ready to pay to him as to every other Christian, but in all other respects our obedience is due to the jurisdiction of the Bishop of Caerleon, who is alone under God our ruler to keep us right in the way of salvation.”
However, this is an anachronistic argument. For the Pope of St. Augustine’s time, Gregory I, was vehemently opposed to any idea of a universal “Bishop of bishops”, and the Roman Church in the seventh century was as Orthodox as any in the oikoumene. In fact, the Welsh rebellion, motivated by pride and nationalist hatred, had nothing to do with Papism as such, although it did demonstrate the fruits of that anti-conciliar and anti-Roman spirit of which Papism, paradoxically, was to be the most disastrous example.
5. Anglo-Saxon England. By the end of the sixth century, Old Rome, restored to ecclesiastical and political unity with New Rome, was recovering its power and influence in the West. The crucial figure in this revival was Pope Gregory I – “the Great”, as he is known in the West, “the Dialogist”, as he is known in the East. As well as restoring the power and influence of the papacy throughout continental Western Europe, he determined on recovering Britain, “the Roman island”, where the heirs of Christian Rome in Britain had been driven to the West or absorbed into the pagan Anglo-Saxon settlements that dominated most of the island.
To this end, in 597 he sent a band of Roman monks, led by St. Augustine of Canterbury, to England to convert the Anglo-Saxons. The Roman missionaries (who were later helped by other missionaries from Ireland, France and Burgundy) tried hard to reconstruct the few bridges that connected the land with its Romano-British past, heading straight for the former Roman centres such as Canterbury and York, London and Dorchester. Three churches in Kent were built over late Roman mausoleums; the memory of the first Romano-British martyr Alban was faithfully kept at Verulamium; and the first wooden church in York was built right in the middle of the vast Roman praetorium where St. Constantine had been hailed as emperor in 306. Moreover, place-names in “eccles-“, coming from the Brittonic *ecles, “a church” [which in turn derives from the Greek ekklesia], in some parts of Southern Scotland, the North Midlands and East Anglia probably indicate the continuity of church life there from Romano-British into Anglo-Saxon times. In general, however, the missionaries found a virtual cultural tabula rasa amid pagans who knew next to nothing about Rome. This makes the enthusiastic embrace by the English of Romanity, Romanitas, both in its religious and political aspects, the more remarkable.
By the 680s the last English kingdom, Sussex, had been converted to the faith. Thereafter references to paganism in the sources are remarkably few. The enthusiasm of the English for Christianity may be explained by the fact that, unlike the other Germanic tribes who, for generations before accepting the faith, had been settled within the boundaries of the Empire, they were newcomers whose conversion to Romanity was the stronger in that it was fresher, less hindered by historical hatreds. They had been called by God from darkness into light by Pope Gregory and his disciples; and their gratitude to St. Gregory, “the Apostle of the English”, was boundless. As we read in the earliest work of English hagiography, a monk of Whitby’s Life of St. Gregory: “When all the apostles, leading their Churches with them, and each of the teachers of separate races, present them to the Lord on Judgement Day in accord with Gregory’s opinion, we believe he will wondrously lead us, that is, the English nation, taught by him through the grace of God, to the Lord.”
From that time English men and women of all classes and conditions poured across the Channel in a well-beaten path to the tombs of the Apostles in Rome, and a whole quarter of the city was called “Il Borgo Saxono” because of the large number of English pilgrims it accommodated. English missionaries such as St. Boniface of Germany and St. Willibrord of Holland carried out their work as the legates of the Roman Popes. And the voluntary tax known as “Peter’s Pence” was paid by the English to the Roman see even during the Viking invasions, when it was the English themselves who were in need of alms.
As the English were absorbed into Christian Rome by the Roman missionaries, the symbolism of “Romanity” reappeared in the English land. Thus St. Gregory compared the newly enlightened King Ethelbert of Kent to St. Constantine and Queen Bertha to St. Helena, and according to Fr. Andrew Phillips they “had, it would seem, actually emulated Constantine. Having made Canterbury over to the Church, they had moved to Reculver, there to build a new palace. Reculver was their New Rome just as pagan Byzantium had become the Christian city of New Rome, Constantinople. Nevertheless, King Ethelbert had retained, symbolically, a royal mint in his ‘Old Rome’ – symbolically, because it was his treasury, both spiritually and physically. The coins he minted carried a design of Romulus and Remus and the wolf on the Capitol. Ethelbert had entered Romanitas, Romanity, the universe of Roman Christendom, becoming one of those numerous kings who owed allegiance, albeit formal, to the Emperor in New Rome…”
The re-Romanization of England was greatly aided by the appointment, in 668, of a Greek from Tarsus, St. Theodore, as archbishop of Canterbury. He created a single Church organization and body of canonical law, and convened Councils that formally recognised the five Ecumenical Councils and in 679 rejected the heresy of Monothelitism. Bishops like SS. Wilfrid, Egwin and Aldhelm strengthened the links with Rome by frequent trips there, and abbots like SS. Benedict Biscop and Ceolfrid imported books, icons and even the chief chanter of the Roman Church to make sure that even in the furthest recesses of the north things were done as the Romans did them.
In Church-State relations, too, the English followed the Roman-Byzantine model. Thus King Ethelbert and Archbishop Augustine (in Kent), King Oswald and Bishop Aidan (in Northumbria), and King Cynegils and Bishop Birinus (in Wessex) enjoyed “symphonic” relations. A striking example of such “symphony” was to be found in eighth-century Northumbria, where Archbishop Egbert ruled the Church while his brother Edbert ruled the State:
So then Northumbria was prosperous,
When king and pontiff ruled in harmony,
One in the Church and one in government;
One wore the pall the Pope conferred on him,
And one the crown his fathers wore of old.
One brave and forceful, one devout and kind,
They kept their power in brotherly accord,
Each happy in the other’s sure accord.
The acceptance of the symphonic pattern of Church-State relations in England may well have been aided by the fact that sacral kingship was a traditional institution among the Germanic tribes even before their conversion to Christianity. With the coming of Christianity, writes Chaney, there was “a separation of royal functions, the sacrificial-priestly role of the Germanic tribal monarch going to the Church hierarchy and that of sacral protector remaining with the king. This separation of power manifested itself not in the obliteration of the religious nature of kingship but in the establishment of a sphere of action by and for the ecclesia apart… from that of the regnum.”
The English Church retained close links with Rome, and Canterbury never made claims for autonomy in the manner of Arles or Ravenna. Nevertheless, the English Church remained de facto independent of Rome. As for the English state, it went from strength to strength, even acquiring its own imperium and basileus in the person of King Edgar the Peaceable in the tenth century, and breaking its links with Rome only in 1066, when Rome itself had ceased to be truly Roman or Christian…
As a general rule, we may conclude that those western barbarian kingdoms, such as England, that retained a veneration for Christian Rome (both Old and New), also retained both Orthodoxy and Romanity (in the sense of a powerful state based on “symphonic” principles”) for longer than those kingdoms, such as Spain, which, in spite of deep cultural and racial links with Rome, chose to cut themselves off from the imperial ideal…
October 25 / November 7, 2012.
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