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Mellituslocked

(d. 624)
  • N. P. Brooks

Mellitus (d. 624), archbishop of Canterbury, was the leader of the group of missionaries sent by Pope Gregory I in 601 to reinforce Augustine at Canterbury and he subsequently became the first known bishop of London (604–616/618) and later the third archbishop of Canterbury (619–24) [see also Gregorian mission]. According to Bede, he was of noble birth and when first encountered in Gregory's letters for the mission he is already styled 'abbot'—an office perhaps intended to confer leadership of the missionary expedition rather than one already held in Gregory's monastery of St Andrew, on the Caelian Hill, or some other Roman house. On 22 June 601 the pope provided the mission with a series of commendatory letters to the Frankish kings Theuderic II of Burgundy and Theudebert II of Austrasia, and to their powerful mother, Brunhild, as well as to King Chlothar II of Neustria and a number of Frankish bishops. From these letters the group's expected route and possible diversions may be deduced: Toulon, Marseilles, Arles, Gap, Vienne, Lyons, Chalon-sur-Saône, Metz, Paris, and Angers. Mellitus also brought with him letters from Gregory, issued on the same day, with detailed guidance for Augustine, for King Æthelberht, and for his queen, Bertha. Accompanying Mellitus were Laurence, who had reported news of Augustine's mission back to Rome, and also Justus, Paulinus, and Rufinianus. According to Bede they took to Kent everything 'necessary for divine worship … sacred vessels, altar cloths, church ornaments, vestments for priests and clerks, relics of the holy apostles and martyrs, and many books [codices]' (Bede, Hist. eccl., 1.29). In the fifteenth century Thomas of Elmham claimed that several of the oldest altar-books in the possession of the monks of St Augustine's had been among the volumes brought by the missionaries. Most of those manuscripts in the list which can be identified are in fact of much younger date, but the claim is plausible with regard to the Canterbury gospels, a sixth-century Italian gospel book that is now Cambridge, Corpus Christi College, MS 286. After their departure from Rome, Gregory had sent to Mellitus 'in Francia' a further letter for Augustine, authorizing the reuse of pagan temples as churches after they had been purified and permitting feasting in lieu of animal sacrifice—practices designed to ease the transition from paganism to Christianity.

Mellitus's party had certainly reached England by 604, for in that year he was consecrated by Augustine as bishop of the East Saxons with his see at London. The extension of the mission was due to the influence of King Æthelberht of Kent. The East Saxon king, Sæberht, was Æthelberht's nephew (being the son of his sister Ricula) and the construction of an episcopal church, dedicated to St Paul, in London is attributed to Æthelberht rather than to Sæberht. The choice of London for the East Saxon see reflects its position at the focus of the road system of southern Britain and the mission's preference for former Roman towns. In 601 Gregory had intended London to be one of the two metropolitan sees of the English church; but after Augustine's death it seems to have been Laurence at Canterbury, rather than Mellitus at London, who exercised metropolitan authority, perhaps because Æthelberht was unwilling that the metropolitan see should be outside his Kentish kingdom. Bede tells that Æthelberht bestowed gifts and lands on Mellitus to support his household, but a charter purporting to be Æthelberht's grant of Tillingham, Essex, to Mellitus and St Paul's is shown by its spurious witness list and its formulation to be a forgery.

Mellitus was associated with Laurence and with Bishop Justus of Rochester in sending a letter to the bishops and abbots of the Irish church in the hope of inducing them to accept Roman practices and he was sent back to Rome to take part in Pope Boniface IV's synod (27 February 610) which sought to harmonize monastic practices. He brought back to England the decisions of that council as well as two letters, which were addressed to Archbishop Laurence and all the clergy, and to King Æthelberht and the English people, respectively. No authentic texts either of the canons or of the letters survive, though spurious privileges attributed to Boniface were concocted for both the Canterbury houses, Christ Church and St Augustine's, in the 1060s or 1070s. In 616 or 618 the deaths of kings Æthelberht of Kent and Sæberht of Essex at much the same time produced a crisis for the Roman mission. Mellitus had not converted Sæberht's three sons, who ruled jointly after his death; Bede recounts how Mellitus's refusal to let them receive the eucharist, on the grounds that they had not been baptized, led them to expel the bishop. He fled to Kent, but the succession there of (the similarly still pagan) Eadbald caused Mellitus to flee to Frankish Gaul with Justus. Although they were able to return to Kent within a year after Eadbald's conversion, Mellitus could not recover his see since the East Saxons remained pagan and the Christian Eadbald had no authority beyond Kent.

Early in 619, following the death of Archbishop Laurence, Mellitus succeeded to the see of Canterbury in his place. According to Bede he suffered severely from gout, but was active in mind and exalted in spirit. Both Mellitus and Justus are said to have received letters of encouragement from Pope Boniface V (r. 619–25), doubtless to congratulate them on securing Eadbald's conversion and perhaps also on the marriage of King Edwin of Northumbria to the Christian Kentish princess, Æthelburh, which seems to be placed several years too late by Bede (who recounts it after July 625). It is not known whether or not the pope sent Mellitus a pallium with his letter. Just two acts are known from his tenure of the archiepiscopal see; both derive from the traditions of the monastery of St Peter and St Paul (later St Augustine's) in Canterbury, as transmitted by Bede: first his consecration of the church of St Mary, which had been constructed by King Eadbald in that monastery, and second the miraculous saving from destruction by fire of the Canterbury church of the Four Crowned Martyrs, and indeed of the whole city, when his prayers reversed the direction of a strong south wind that was fanning the flames. Mellitus died in 624 and was buried in the monastery of St Peter and St Paul on 24 April. After the Norman conquest the wish of the monks of St Augustine's to develop the cult of the early archbishops buried in their church led to the production of a series of short lives but neither the first, written by Goscelin, nor those of later date add anything to our knowledge of Mellitus, though they do reveal that sufferers from gout were directed to his tomb.

Sources

  • Bede, Hist. eccl., 1.29–30; 2.3–8; 3.22
  • S. Gregorii magni registrum epistularum, ed. D. Norberg, 2 vols. (1982), 922–3, 938, 946–7, 950–51 [letters 34, 41, 48, 51]
  • N. Brooks, The early history of the church of Canterbury: Christ Church from 597 to 1066 (1984), 9, 11–13, 30, 66, 265
  • H. Mayr-Harting, The coming of Christianity to Anglo-Saxon England, 3rd edn (1991)
  • S. Kelly, ‘Some forgeries in the archives of St Augustine's Abbey, Canterbury’, Fälschungen im Mittelalter, MGH Schriften, 33/4 (Hanover, 1988), 347–69
Bede, ed. and trans. B. Colgrave & R. A. B. Mynors, OMT (1969); repr. (1991)