A Brief History of the Church in Britain
Christianity arrived in the British Isles not long after the Resurrection and Ascension of Jesus Christ. An old legend says that St Joseph of Ariamathea brought Christianity to Britain about AD50, and there are even some old Welsh stories that St Paul preached in the islands in the AD60s. Whatever the truth of the old legends, Tertullian, writing in c.AD200 speaks of 'part of the island of Britain are subject to Christ, which are not under the rule of Caesar.' This suggests that by the close of the second century Christianity had spread beyond the lowlands of Roman Britain into the hill country of the North and West.
Ancient records also record three British Bishops as being present at the Council of Arles in AD313, which indicates that Romano-British Christianity was sufficiently well established by the start of the fourth century to be able to spare it bishops for a long journey into Gaul (France) and to finance the trip. However, this brief period of prosperity was short-lived, as the legions withdrew from Britain in the 390s and the islands was left to shift for itself in the face of raids from the North and from the German tribes living around the Rhine delta - modern day The Netherlands and north Germany.
The Romanized Celts of Britains put up a successful defense against these raiders for fifty years after the departure of the Romans using mounted infantry. Even after the Jutes, Angles and Saxons had gained a toehold in the southeast of Britain, the Christian Britons continued their successful defense for another fifty years, with one of their generals gaining postumous fame as "King Arthur."
The Age of the Saints
The best known British saint of fourth and fifth centuries was Patrick, the Apostle to the Irish. He was born somewhere around 383 near the northern frontier of Roman Britain. His father was a deacon and his grandfather a priest, but young Patrick was indifferent to religion until after he was kidnapped and enslaved in an Irish raid c.387AD. Patrick had plenty of time to reflect watching sheep on the hills of County Antrim, and he was converted and eventually escaped to Gaul (France) where he studied for the priesthood under his relative, St Martin of Tours, and was eventually consecrated as a Bishop and sent back to Ireland as its second Missionary Bishop in 431AD.
Patrick adapted the forms of Christianity somewhat to work in Irish society. There were no major cities, so his bishops lived in monasteries and toured around the country preaching and administering the sacraments. He also used a system of discipleship to train leaders for the Irish Church. Following Jesus' example, Patrick took twelve of his earliest converts and trained them as missionaries and ordained them Bishops to preach the Gospel throughout Ireland. They in turn chose disciples, trained them and sent them. Thus by the time of Patrick's death in 461AD Ireland was a largely Christian Country and was set to be the last refuge of civilisation during the Dark Age of the Barbarian Invasions. After St Patrick's death, Abbeys became relatively more important and bishops less so. As a result the normal diocesan structure more or less disappeared being replaced by the Clan monastery which had a bishop on the staff.
During the same period St Kentigern (Mungo) continued the work of evangelizing Galloway (SW Scotland) and St Maughold converted the Manx to Christianity so that by 550AD northern and western Britain, and Ireland had been fully Evangelized. Slightly later, St Columba, exiled from Ireland in the worlds first recorded copyright dispute, began to convert the Gaelic speaking in habitants of Western Scotland from a monastic centre on Iona that remains a pilgrimage site to this day.
However, in the South and East, where the Angle and Saxon invaders had overcome the native population, the prevailing religion was paganism, and it was not until the end of the sixth century that anything was done about it. The Venerable Bede relates how St Gregory the Great saw some blonde haired youths for sale in the slave market in Rome, and on asking where they came from he was told that they were Angles, whereupon he made the appalling pun (no better in the original Latin!) that they were "not Angles, but Angels!" However, there did grow within him a resolve to send a mission to these northern tribes, not just for the sake of their own souls, but also as the first part of a more extensive design to convert the tribes of Germania who lived east of the Rhine.
It was not until 595 that St Gregory was able to put his resolve into effect when he sent Augustine, Prior of St Andrew's-without-the-Walls accompanied by a dozen other Benedictine monks to Kent. King Ethelbert had married a Frankish, Christian, princess, and this seemed to give the Church an 'in' in the kingdom of Kent. Augustine was none too happy about his mission and wrote a letter to Gregory asking to be relieved of his mission. Gregory replied offering advice and encouraging him to continue so that Augustine and his fellow monks eventually landed in Kent in early 596. Ethelbert met them in the open for fear of witchcraft, but he did give them permission to preach throughout Kent. As Kent was the dominant Saxon kingdom this also opened doors for Augustine and his fellows in Essex. Augustine travelled westwards to meet with the remaining British bishops. The site is unknown, but it is tempting to think of it being either near Glastonbury or Caerleon, both of which are early Christian sites in Britain. Unfortunately, Augustine remained seated to greet the British bishops, and they took umbrage at his hauty demeanor and refused to have anything else to do with him.
By 601 the Roman mission to the Saxons was sufficiently well established for dioceses to be erected in Rochester, to serve western Kent, and London, to serve Middlesex. This pattern development continued with sees being established in Winchester (Wessex, 632), Selsey (Sussex, 632); Dunwich (East Anglia, 635); and Lichfield (Mercia, 669). The kingdom of the Hwicca received a Bishop at Hereford c.640, whilst in the northern kingdom of Northumbria a short-lived Roman effort under Paulinus was replaced by a more permanent Celtic mission under first Aidan, then Cuthbert.
By the 670s, the English had been very largely converted to Christianity. However, a breach remained between those of the Celtic obedience in the North, and those of the Roman obedience in the South and Midlands. This was healed partly by the Synod of Whitby (664AD) in which the Celtic missionaries agreed to comply with Roman useage concerning the date of Easter and the tonsure. Gradually, the North came fully into line with Roman custoims, and York was, in accordance with St Gregory's original plan, erected into an Archbishopric. During a period of Mercian dominance of the English political scene in the eighth century attempts were made to have Lichfield erected into an Archbishopric, but this lasted only until the eclipse of Mercian power just before 800 AD.