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The Chronology of the Gregorian Mission to England: Bede's Narrative and Gregory's Correspondence

  • R. A. Markus (a1)

Professor Margaret Deanesly and Père Grosjean have devoted some discussion to Dom Suso Brechter's study of the sources for the English mission of Gregory the Great. The debate which it has since provoked has centred almost exclusively on the question of the authenticity of the Responsa attributed to Gregory the Great in Bede's Ecclesiastical History of the English People [H.E.], i, 27. Mr. J. M. Wallace-Hadrill has rightly insisted that ‘Dom Brechter's book discusses much more than the Gregorian Responsa’. It is my purpose in this paper to consider some of Dom Brechter's arguments concerning the course and the chronology of the English mission, and his attack on the accuracy of Bede's account and on his honesty.

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page 16 note 1 I wish to thank Professor Christopher Brooke, Dom Paul Meyvaert and Mr. J. M. Wallace-Hadrill for valuable suggestions in connexion with this paper.

page 16 note 2 The Canterbury Edition of the Answers of Pope Gregory I to St. Augustine’, in this Journal (X (1959), 149).

page 16 note 3 Die Quellen zur Angelsachsenmission Gregors des Grossen (Beitr. zur Gesch. d. alten Mönchtums u. d. Benediktinerordens, Heft 22), Münister 1941. (Referred to hereafter as Quellen).

page 16 note 4 Deanesly and Grosjean, art. cit.; Meyvaert, P., ‘Les “responsiones” de S. Grégoire le Grand à S. Augustin de Cantorbéry’, in R.H.E., LIV (1959), 879–94.

page 16 note 5 ‘Rome and the early English Church: some questions of transmission’, in Settimane di studi del Centra italiano di studi sull’ alto medioevo, VII: Le chiese nei regni dell’ Europa occidentale e i loro rapporti con Roma sino all’ 800, Spoleto 1960, 53in. 33.

page 16 note 6 H.E. i. 26.

page 17 note 1 I refer to Gregory's correspondence in the edition by Ewald and Hartmann, in M.G.H., Epistolae I and II. [Ep.]

page 17 note 2 The argument here summarised is in Quellen, 228–52.

page 17 note 3 I should, however, be less confident than Dom Brechter (Quellen, 211–12) in dismissing the possibility that Bede had access to papal documents in 725, at the time he wrote the chronicle in De temporum ratione, c. 66.

(i) The dispositions made by Gregory for the metropolitan organisation of the English Church (contained in Ep. xi. 39 = H.E., i. 29) were certainly known to Bede at this time. The institution of London as a metropolitan see would scarcely have been preserved by tradition at Canterbury without the actual documentary evidence of Gregory's letter. Whether knowledge of the letter reached Bede from Canterbury or from Rome (via Canterbury) is, of course, another question.

(ii) Bede also had access, without any doubt, to the acta of the Roman Synod of 595 (= Ep. v. 57a); cf. Meyvaert, P., ‘Bede and the Libellus synodicus of Gregory the Great’, J.T.S., N.S. XII (1961), 298302. These, however, may well have reached him not from papal or Canterbury archives but through a canonical collection, or a collection of Gregory's Homilies, with MSS. of which it is often associated. It is worth adding that Bede made use of information contained in this Libellus synodicus in at least one passage of his biography of Gregory in H.E., ii. 1: that Gregory et pontificals functus officio domum suam monasterium facere curauit he could not have known from any other documentary source. He may have interpreted the statement of the Liber pontificalis (hic domum suam constituit monasterium) to refer to the period of Gregory's pontificate; but if this is what he did, only the information contained in Ep. v. 57a could have led him to interpret the statement of the Liber pontificalis in this way, since all the remaining materials at his disposal stress exclusively Gregory's pre-pontifical monastic life and foundation.

(iii) Part, at least, of the Responsa was known to Bede in 721, when he quoted from Resp. i in his prose Life of St. Cuthbert, c. 16; cf. also H.E., iv. 27.

page 18 note 1 Mentioned by Bede in his prologue to the Responsa, H.E., i. 27.

page 18 note 2 Dom Meyvaert has kindly allowed me to refer to the work on which he is engaged concerning the MS. tradition of the Responsa. The impression he has so far formed suggests to him that Bede did not have a copy containing the preface before him. Cf. further below, 20, for grounds for thinking that Bede did not know the letter to Bertha, and therefore had to obtain this information from the preface (or elsewhere?).

page 19 note 1 Quellen, 246–7.

page 19 note 2 Ibid., 251.

page 19 note 3 Dom Brechter's interpretation also appears to be the one adopted by Hartmann; cf. M.G.H., Epp. ii. 304n. 3.

page 20 note 1 Dom Brechter remarks (Quellen, 34) on these ‘historical inaccuracies and internal contradictions’ of Bede's prologue; but his reconstruction of its origins (Ibid., 36–42) does nothing to explain them.

page 21 note 1 Cf. Ewig, E., ‘Das Bild Constantins des Grossen in den ersten Jahrhunderten des abendländischen Mittelalters’, Hist. Fahrb. 75 (1956), 146; and Bush-Coleman, C., Constantine the Great and Christianity (Columbia University Studies in History, economics and public law, 60, 1), 1914.

page 21 note 2 E.g., Epp.. vi. 29,49; viii. 23; xi. 41.

page 21 note 3 E.g., Epp.. xi. 57a, Resp. 5 (?); xi. 12.

page 21 note 4 E.g., Epp. iv. 23;ix. I95; xi. 57a, Resp. 1 (?); xiii. 15.

page 21 note 5 Quellen, 243–6.

page 21 note 6 Ibid., 245.

page 22 note 1 Quellen, 243n. 125.

page 22 note 2 Ibid., 245.

page 22 note 3 Ibid., 246n. 129.

page 23 note 1 This is suggested by Bede's account of the reception of the missionaries (H.E., i. 25), and the place-name evidence discussed by Stenton, F. M., ‘The historical bearing of place-name studies: Anglo-Saxon heathenism’, Trans. R. Hist. Soc., 4th ser., XXIII (1941), 124. Cf. also Dickins, B., ‘English names and Old English heathenism’, in Essays and studies, XIX (1933), 148–60.

page 23 note 2 Cf. Ep. xi. 56 (= H.E., i. 30). The instruction here, fana idolorum destrui … minime debeant, as indeed the whole tone of the letter, appears to be a revision, made in the light of Gregory's ‘prolonged consideration’, of the request fanorum aedificia everte, sent to Æthelberht a month earlier. Clearly, Gregory had heard about the strong pagan resistance from his recent visitors from England, and had only gradually devised a missionary policy to meet the circumstances. It might be worth studying Gregory's missionary policies with a view to discovering how momentous a departure from his normal custom these instructions represent. Was the revised policy framed in view of the absence of effective royal backing?

page 23 note 3 Æthelberht's influence over London may have been of quite a special kind. This is suggested not only by Bede's account of the establishment of the see and the foundation and endowment of St. Paul's, but also, and even more strikingly, by his remarks on the pagan reaction in London. When the East Saxons resisted the reinstatement of Mellitus in the see of London, it is Eadbald, Æthelberht's successor in Kent, who is cast by Bede for the part of patron and protector of the see. He was unable to carry out his task ‘because he had not the same authority in the realm as his father had held, so that he could not restore the bishop to his church against the resistance and refusal of the heathen’ (H.E., ii. 6).

page 24 note 1 The language of the letter here suggests that the news reached Gregory not through a first-hand report from Augustine, but at second-hand, presumably through a message from Gaul. Cf. further, 26–27 below.

page 24 note 2 Quellen, 243.

page 24 note 3 Hist. Franc., ix. 26.

page 25 note 1 H.E., i. 26–7.

page 25 note 2 Quellen, 231–40.

page 25 note 3 H.E., v. 24.

page 25 note 4 Cf. Poole, R. L., Studies in Chronology and History, Oxford 1934, 263–4. I owe this reference to Professor Christopher Brooke. Although it is based on twelfth-century evidence, there is no reason to suspect any major difference in the time taken in the sixth century.

page 25 note 5 Cf. Ep., vi. 50, addressed to Tours, Marseille, and perhaps other sees, including Lyon (Arles, according to Bede, H.E., i. 24).

page 25 note 6 Except Epp., vii. 12, 21 and 33, all of which were destined for the Arles-Marseille region. The next batch of letters to Gaul is that of the summer of 599.

page 26 note 1 Ep., xi. 39 (=H.E., i. 29). The sending of a bishop to York, suffragan to Augustine, appears not to be conditional on the success of the northern mission. But the existence of a missionary suffragan to the bishop of an established province would not have been as anomalous as the existence of a wholly unattached missionary bishop. A further reason for Gregory's decision may have been that he wished to associate the Church in Gaul with Augustine's mission.

page 27 note 1 Brunhild was not driven out from here until 599; cf. Fredegar, Chron., iv. 19. The irregularity of communications is further illustrated by the fact that Gregory was unaware of this until November 602; cf. Ep., xiii. 9.

page 27 note 2 Quellen, 233–40. According to Brechter, on the view that Augustine returned to the Continent for consecration, the distance of Arles from Kent ‘would exclude it anyway’ (240). This does not follow. The fixed points of the chronology are Augustine's arrival in England and the arrival of the news in Rome; the greater distance travelled by one is compensated for by the smaller distance travelled by the other.

page 27 note 3 He interprets (Quellen, 234) the phrase in Galliarum vel (=et) Germaniae partibus (Ep., v. 58) as between them equivalent to the Merovingian kingdom. This is Gregory's only other reference to Germania in his letters. He is certainly prepared to use Gallia loosely enough to include Lyon and Autun—cf. Epp.., ix. 214, 218. If the two terms were as mutually exclusive as Dom Brechter believes, Augustine's consecration must have taken place further north than Autun.

page 28 note 1 It might, in fact, have been Lyon, Etherius's true see. Cf. Duchesne, L., Fastes épiscopaux de l'ancienne Gaule, t. 2, 2e éd., Paris 1910, 169.

page 28 note 2 Vergilius of Arles is mentioned by Gregory of Tours (Hist. Franc., ix. 23), together with Syagrius of Autun; so is Etherius of Lyon (Ibid., xi. 28). One can only assume that in the absence of the wonderful indexes of the M.G.H. edition Bede could not easily track down names and places which he could not quite remember.

page 29 note 1 Cf. Jones, C. W., Saints' lives and chronicles in early England, New York 1947; on the phrase verax historicus, cf. particularly pp. 80–5.

page 29 note 2 Quellen, 120–38.

page 29 note 3 Ibid., 259–67.

page 29 note 4 Ibid., 132–4.

page 30 note 1 Section II in the edition of the Life by Gasquet, A., London 1904.

page 30 note 2 Ibid., 1.

page 30 note 3 Vita S. Gregorii, iv. 83.

page 30 note 4 In the dedicatory letter to Leander of Seville, prefixed to the Moralia (Ep., v. 53a).

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