Christians and Pagans: The Conversion of Britain from Alban to Bede

Diarmaid MacCulloch writes:

Lambert’s enjoyable new study is an ambitious attempt to tell the story of Christianity from its earliest traces in Britain until the eighth century, by which time the whole archipelago was at least nominally converted. Lambert begins with the steady consolidation of British Christianity in the later Western Roman Empire, in which the two provinces of Britannia were an outlying but prosperous and important possession. We know virtually nothing of the Church’s earlier phase, apart from one or two martyr stories about Roman soldiers who resisted third-century imperial persecution. There is nothing implausible about these: Saint Alban inspired a long-lived cult that resided in the town the Romans had called Verulamium and that, most unusually, was not despised by the Anglo-Saxons; Saint Julius and Saint Aaron, martyred at Caerleon in South Wales, sound convincing because that strange second name is paired with one of the commonest names among legionaries. None of the three martyred legionaries is likely to have been a local. Britannia’s Christianity long remained a religion of wannabe Romans in country villas and, to a lesser degree, of urban tradespeople. While there is a curious dearth of Christian finds from Roman London, the distribution of small finds suggests that the Church’s strength was concentrated in the South-East and along the South coast. Apart from the martyr stories, and the presence of three bishops from Britannia’s cities at one of Constantine I’s empire-wide councils in 314, all the evidence we have is from the era after Constantine’s successors began to favour the Church rather than traditional religion, and thrust the older cults aside.

(LRB 2 June 2011)

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