We use cookies to enhance your experience on our website. By continuing to use our website, you are agreeing to our use of cookies. You can change your cookie settings at any time. Find out more
Reference group
Gregorian mission (act. 596–601) is the name given to the missionary enterprise for the conversion of the English to Christianity, launched by Pope Gregory I (r. 590–604). Its chronology and intentions are particularly well documented thanks to the survival (unique for this period) of Gregory's register containing the letters issued in his name. The activities of the Roman missionaries in England are also recorded because Bede, who in his Ecclesiastical History was concerned to emphasize the Roman connections and authority of the English church, had drawn on documents provided by Abbot Albinus of St Peter's and St Paul's in Canterbury, and also had letters from several later popes relating to the mission copied for him in the papal archives in Rome by Nothhelm, a London priest who subsequently became archbishop of Canterbury. He was therefore able to record traditions of the missionaries' reception in Kent and of their subsequent activities. Further monastic traditions about Gregory and the English reached Bede from the Deiran double monastery of Whitby—the famous story of Gregory foretelling the conversion of the English when he saw English slaves in the Roman slave market was doubtless one of them.

The pope dispatched two groups of monks from his own monastery of St Andrew on the Coelian Hill in Rome. The first probably set out in spring 596 and arrived in Kent the following year; a reinforcing group was sent in the summer of 601, after the pope had received a report of the initial group's favourable reception. The sources establish that the first group, consisting of some forty Roman monks, had set out from Rome and reached Provence by the early summer of 596, when Augustine, the leader of the party, reported to the pope their doubts about the enterprise. Gregory's response, dated 23 July 596, was to reinforce Augustine's authority by appointing him as their abbot and to send a sheaf of letters of introduction. These sought hospitality from the abbot of Lérins and from the bishops of Marseilles, Aix-en-Provence, Arles, Vienne, Lyons, Autun, and Tours, and support from the young Frankish kings of central and eastern Gaul (Austrasia), Theuderic II and Theudebert II, and their powerful mother, Brunhild. The letters show how the pope's contacts could prepare a route and request Frankish assistance for the mission, though the absence of any contacts with the bishops and rulers of north-western Gaul (Neustria) may suggest that at this time Gregory had few useful contacts for the last stages of their journey. Nevertheless Bede records that the party that arrived in Kent included a number of Franks to act as interpreters.

Gregory's letters show that he consistently conceived the mission as being directed to ‘the English people’. That was the only ethnic term he used for the various pagan Germanic peoples whose kingdoms dominated the large part of the former Roman province of Britain. He directed his mission to the court of the powerful Æthelberht I, king of Kent and of his queen, Bertha, a Frankish princess who was already a Christian. Gregory addressed Æthelberht as ‘king of the English’ and seems to have expected (or hoped) that a church backed by Æthelberht's power would command the support of all the English. Augustine and his companions probably reached Kent in spring 597 and were kindly received. Early successes were reported, and Æthelberht himself was probably baptized before the end of that year.

Augustine's companions in 596–7 certainly included Laurence, his successor as archbishop of Canterbury, and Petrus, who became first abbot of the monastery of St Peter and St Paul in Canterbury. Their return to Rome, to report on progress, led in 601 to the sending of a reinforcing party, led by Mellitus, who from the outset acted as abbot of the group, and later became successively bishop of London and archbishop of Canterbury. As well as Laurence and Petrus, according to Bede, Mellitus's group included Justus, first bishop of Rochester and afterwards archbishop of Canterbury, and Paulinus, bishop of York and then of Rochester, as well as Rufinianus, probably the third abbot of St Peter's and St Paul's. It is uncertain whether John, probably the second abbot of St Peter's and St Paul's, Honorius, described as a ‘disciple of the blessed Gregory’ and later archbishop of Canterbury, and Romanus, who became second bishop of Rochester, came to England with Augustine or with Mellitus.

The second missionary group had papal letters of introduction and recommendation addressed in June 601 to the bishops of Marseilles, Vienne, Arles, Lyons, Toulon, Chalon-sur-Saône, Angers, Metz, Paris, and Rouen, and to the Frankish king Chlothar II. Bede relates that they brought with them from Rome necessary items for the worship and ministry of the church: sacred vessels and cloths for altars, ecclesiastical ornaments, clerical and priestly vestments, relics of the apostles and martyrs, and very many books (codices). Among the latter may have been the sixth-century Italian gospel book known as the Canterbury gospels (Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, MS 286), as well as sacramentaries, psalters, collections of prayers, and other essential liturgical materials. It is likely that the later respect in England (and at Canterbury in particular) for Roman liturgy, chant, and biblical texts derives from the impact of the practice of the Roman monk-missionaries and of the books that they brought with them as exemplars.

Contacts continued between the missionaries and Rome. Bede preserves the correspondence between Augustine and Pope Gregory, in which the latter answers the former's questions about such matters as marriage, church ritual, and sexual relationships, along with another letter in which Gregory advises Augustine not to destroy pagan shrines, but rather to convert them to Christian uses. And on 22 June 601, having heard from Laurence and Peter of the establishment of the missionary church at Canterbury, the pope wrote to Augustine authorizing him to establish twelve bishoprics subject to his own authority, which were thereafter always to be subject to a metropolitan see at London. Augustine was also to send a bishop to York, who would likewise possess metropolitan status, would consecrate twelve subordinate bishops, and (after Augustine's death) would be independent of the southern metropolitan. The bishops of Britain were also to be subject to Augustine. The scheme may have reflected some memory at Rome of the roles of London and York in the provincial structure of fourth-century Roman Britain, and also, perhaps, an awareness of the persistent division among the Anglo-Saxon peoples of Britain between those to the south and the north of the River Humber. None the less it was unrealistic to fulfil this Gregorian blueprint within Augustine's lifetime. The British church proved unresponsive, and if there were hopes, in the heady years between 597 and 600, that Æthelberht would make London his capital, in practice Augustine remained at Canterbury and in 604 was only able to establish subordinate sees at Rochester and at London for Justus and Mellitus respectively.

The Gregorian programme nevertheless remained important, not least because of the prominence that Bede later gave it in his History. Although Gregory and Augustine both died in 604, links remained close between Rome and the new English church. Mellitus attended a papal synod in 610, while Justus was drowned off the coast of Italy, when on an embassy to the pope, about 627. In England the scheme Gregory had initiated soon led to the establishment of a see at York for Paulinus after the baptism at Easter 627 of King Eadwine of the Northumbrians, followed by mass baptisms of his subjects. Paulinus also preached in the neighbouring province of Lindsey. But there were set-backs, north and south. Following the death of Æthelberht, probably in 616, his son Eadbald in Kent and new kings in Essex drove Justus and Mellitus out. Archbishop Laurence remained at the Kentish court, however, and won Eadbald over. He had earlier tried to convert the British and even the Irish churches to the practices of Roman Christianity. Honorius, who succeeded Justus at Canterbury, promoted a campaign of evangelism in East Anglia. In 634 the intention that York should develop into a metropolitan see led Pope Honorius I to send pallia—woollen bands signifying archiepiscopal status—both to Honorius at Canterbury and for Paulinus at York. The latter, however, proved premature, since by then Eadwine had been killed at the battle of Hatfield (12 October 633), and in the pagan reaction that followed Paulinus had abandoned his see and fled by sea to Kent, where he occupied the see of Rochester until his death. Not until 735 was Gregory's plan for a northern province of the English church finally achieved. The other parts of the Gregorian scheme, to locate the southern archbishopric at London rather than Canterbury, and to subject the British church to the English, proved even more difficult. In particular, so long as there survived British kings independent of Anglo-Saxon control, the subjection of their churches to Canterbury or York remained unacceptable to them.

Despite these problems, a clear indication of the Gregorian impact may be found in the fact that members of the two missionary expeditions retained leadership of the church in Kent as long as any of their number remained alive. At Rochester it was not necessary to appoint an English-born bishop (Ithamar) until the death of Paulinus in 644. At Canterbury, Archbishop Honorius survived until 653; and in the abbey of St Peter and St Paul Abbot Rufinianus was succeeded first by Gratiosus and then by Petronius, both also believed to have been ‘Romans’. It is very possible that Bede and Canterbury tradition were inclined to exaggerate the missionaries' effectiveness in establishing the Christian faith securely in the population as a whole. Nevertheless the regard for Roman authority as the source of scriptural texts and liturgical practice, which was to prove characteristic of the church of Canterbury in later centuries, clearly owed its roots to the Gregorian mission. There is, too, an unmistakable note of pride in the reference by the English missionary Boniface, writing to Pope Zacharias in 742, to ‘the church in Saxony beyond the sea, in which I was born and raised, … first constituted by the disciples of St Gregory, the archbishops Augustine, Laurence, Justus and Mellitus’. And the Church of England has retained its ‘Gregorian’ structure, based upon the two provinces of Canterbury and York, down to the present day.

N. P. Brooks


S. Gregorii magni registrum epistularum, ed. D. Norberg, 2 vols. (1982) · The letters of Gregory the Great, trans. J. R. C. Martyn, 3 vols. (Toronto, 2004) · Bede, Hist. eccl. · B. Colgrave, ed. and trans., The earliest life of Gregory the Great … by an anonymous monk of Whitby (1968) · H. Mayr-Harting, The coming of Christianity to Anglo-Saxon England (1972) · N. Brooks, The early history of the church of Canterbury: Christ Church from 597 to 1066 (1984) · I. Wood, ‘The mission of Augustine of Canterbury to the English’, Speculum, 69 (1994), 1–17 · N. J. Higham, The convert kings: power and religious affiliation in early Anglo-Saxon England (1997)