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When Did Augustine of Canterbury Die?


While Bede did not know the year of Augustine's death, he possessed papal letters which provide sufficient information to deduce it with some confidence. The early epistles from popes which Bede quoted or referred to in the ‘Historia ecclesiastica’ associated journeys by delegations sent by the early Church in Kent to Rome with the request for, and collection of, the pallium for the new bishop of Canterbury. In this light the likely purpose for the otherwise unexplained visit of Mellitus to Rome in 610 becomes clear: he had come to ask Pope Boniface IV for the pallium for Laurence, following the death of Augustine on 26 May 609.

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1 Bede, Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum 2.3: Bede's Ecclesiastical history of the English people, ed. and trans. B. Colgrave and R. Mynors (1969), repr. with corrections Oxford 1991. Translations are taken, with minor modifications, from this edition.

2 This range is based on Bede's statements that Augustine consecrated Mellitus and Justus, as bishops of London and Rochester respectively, in 604 (HE 2.3), and that Pope Boniface iv wrote to ‘archbishop’ Laurence in what amounts to ad 610 (HE 2.4).

3 See, for instance, Margaret Deanesly, Augustine of Canterbury, London 1964, 89, and H. Mayr-Harting, ‘Augustine (d. 604)’, ODNB. Others, such as the designers of the modern plaque placed to mark the former site of Augustine's tomb among the ruins of SS Peter and Paul's monastery in Canterbury, state that he died in 605 – the idea being, presumably, that since Bede's reference to the bishop's death comes after his description of the consecration of Mellitus and Justus in 604, one should add an extra year – just to be safe.

4 Letters of Gregory the Great, i. 71, goes further yet, claiming, again with no evidence or argument, that Augustine resigned.

5 As H. Mayr-Harting put it, ‘There is, however, reason to believe that Bede knew very little about the Gregorian mission except what he could learn from those of Gregory's letters with which the priest Nothelm had supplied him’: The coming of Christianity to Anglo-Saxon England, 3rd edn, Philadelphia 1991, 63.

6 The exceptions are the papal letters relating to paschal computation which he derived, with the rest of his computus material, ultimately from Irish sources: Bedae opera de temporibus, ed. C. Jones, Cambridge, Ma 1943, introduction at pp.105–13. These letters are that of pope-elect John to the Irish, which Bede quotes in HE 2.19, and that of Pope Honorius to the Irish, which Bede mentions in the same chapter, but does not include. Finally, there is also the Libellus responsionum, which Bede inserts in full in HE 1.27. This is a complex document, which there is no space to discuss here: suffice it to say for present purposes that Bede did not obtain the text from Rome and Nothelm; it reached him with other canon law materials. The traditional place to begin studies of the Libellus has been the work of Paul Meyvaert, for instance his ‘Bede's text of the Libellus responsionum of Gregory the Great to Augustine of Canterbury’, in P. Clemoes and K. Hughes (eds), England before the Conquest: studies in primary sources presented to Dorothy Whitelock, Cambridge 1971, 15–33. It was Meyvaert who first showed that the Libellus had reached Bede in canonical collections. For a more up-to-date discussion of the Libellus and its presence in early canon law collections which supersedes, and in important ways corrects, Meyvaert's conclusions, see now Michael D. Elliot, ‘Boniface, incest, and the earliest extant version of Pope Gregory i's Libellus responsionum (JE 1843)’, Zeitschrift der Savigny-Stiftung für Rechtsgeschichte. Kanonistische Abteilung c (2014), 62–111.

7 ‘My principal authority and helper in this modest work’: HE, preface. This was not Nothelm's first journey north with information for the Ecclesiastical history. The HE's preface makes plain that on an earlier trip he had brought material that Albinus had collected about the history of the diocese of Canterbury as well as of other regions and sees.

8 To clarify, terms in this article such as ‘early mission fathers’, ‘Augustinian mission’, or the ‘early Church at Canterbury’, and similar phrases, refer to the Church established by Augustine and his companions prior to the consecration of the first native bishop of Canterbury, Deusdedit in 655 (HE 3.20). Different terms are not intended to indicate different entities: variety is purely for the sake of the reader. As should be evident, the same is also true for terms like ‘trip’, ‘visit’, ‘delegation’ and the like.

9 R: 11.45.

10 HE 1.29 (R: 11.39); HE 1.31(R: 11.36); HE 1.32 (R: 11.37). Bede implicitly dates the Libellus (HE 1.27 [R: 11.56a; M: 8.37]) to the same period, but the preface to this ‘letter’, which Bede did not have, makes this unlikely. Again I would like to express my gratitude to Michael D. Elliot for many stimulating discussions of this intriguing yet perplexing text.

11 R: 11.56.

12 R: 11.35. This is probably the basis for Bede's knowledge that Laurence and Peter had been the messengers sent to Rome on this occasion. This detail is only otherwise present in one version of the Libellus responsionum, but not that which Bede quoted (though Meyvaert, without strong grounds, believed he may have known it as well: ‘Bede's text of the Libellus’, 30–1).

13 For instance, either R: 11.41, copies of which were sent to several Frankish bishops including Menas of Toulon and Serenus of Marseilles, or perhaps more probably R: 11.48 to Brunhild. It is only in these letters that Gregory notes that Augustine had specifically requested reinforcements. Bede states this in terms at the start of HE 1.29, even though it was not mentioned in any of the letters that he quotes.

14 Such letters include R: 11.40, to Bishop Aetherius of Lyons, or R: 11.41, to Bishop Aregius of Gap, and a number of others.

15 There are only two examples of letters to Gaul sent in April: R: 3.33 to Dynamius (from April 593) and R: 5.31 to the tenants of estates or farms in Gaul (from April 595). In addition, one more April letter, that to Leander dated April 591 (R: 1.41), would have made the same journey at least as far as Marseilles, before going on to Spain.

16 R: 7.12 to Respecta, abbess of Marseilles (from October 596) and 11.9 (to Conon, abbot of Lerins) and 11.10 (to Serenus, bishop of Marseilles), both from October 600.

17 R: 13.7–9 (M: 13.5–7) and R: 13.11–13 (M: 13.9–11), which were all apparently written and sent at the same time.

18 ‘absortus fuerat fluctibus Italici maris’: HE 2.20.

19 R: 9.227 (M: 9.229a), with Gregory's reply thanking the king for his gifts, while castigating the envoys for their cowardice, at R: 9.228 (M: 9.229b), from August 599. Columbanus too wrote of the difficulties, including sea travel, which had prevented both him and his letters reaching the pope: Sancti Columbani opera, ed. G. S. M. Walker, Dublin 1957, letter 3, pp. 22–3. Although Columbanus says that the sea is ‘non tam … visibilis quam intelligibilis’, this does not mean there was no actual sea which the saint or his epistles had to cross.

20 An instance is when Pope Stephen ii needed to send envoys to Pepin in 756, circumventing the siege of the Lombard king Aistulf: Peter Llewellyn, Rome in the Dark Ages, 2nd edn, London 1993, 213. The emerging preference for the Alpine route is described in David Pelteret, ‘Not all roads lead to Rome’, in F. Tinti (ed.), England and Rome in the early Middle Ages: pilgrimage, art and politics, Turnhout 2014, 17–41 at pp. 22–31, and Stephen Matthews, The road to Rome: travel and travellers between England and Italy in the Anglo-Saxon centuries, Oxford 2007, 7–11, 39–44.

21 For instance, R: 11.22 to Paschasius, bishop of Naples, or R: 11.25, to John, bishop of Syracuse, both from February 601.

22 A point well emphasised in Pelteret, ‘Not all roads’, 17.

23 HE 1.2.

24 HE 1.17.

25 This is obvious, but – given the lack of contemporary sources for the logistics of the journey – unprovable for the period under consideration. William the Conqueror's intended summer invasion and the unexpected delay which undermined Harold's best-laid plans is one later, if dramatic, piece of evidence for the truism.

26 There is a summary of some of the distances involved in journeys to and from Rome in the Anglo-Saxon period in Matthews, Road to Rome, 8–11. All but one of the trips that Matthews mentions took place over two calendar years. The exception is that of Archbishop Robert in 1051 where there was a specific reason for haste – his need to return to England with the pallium as quickly as possible to show his legitimacy and authority. It should be noted that since Matthews's work is focused almost entirely on a period when the land route through Italy was preferred, the climactic factors affecting sea travel between Gaul and Italy mean that in the early seventh century there were more, and different, limits on the practicable periods of travel than those for which he makes allowance.

27 This does not include that to Mellitus. The fact that Gregory addressed his 18 July letter to Mellitus in Gaul, even though almost a month had passed since he had written the others that Mellitus and company had taken with them, shows that the party was not expected to be travelling particularly rapidly through France on their way back to England.

28 The pallium was a highly revered ecclesiastical garment granted in certain circumstances to senior bishops, such as the bishops of Arles, Ravenna and Milan. Around 600 the vestment was bestowed only on a very few and was allowed to be worn solely under specific conditions. During the seventh century, however, partly thanks to trends emerging from the English Church, especially under Theodore, the pallium gradually became associated in the West with metropolitan bishops more generally, at the same time as the latter increasingly took on the title of archbishop, again apparently following Theodore-inspired English influence. Helpful summaries and simplifications of some of the issues surrounding palliums can be found in A. Thacker, ‘Gallic or Greek? Archbishops in England from Theodore to Ecgberht’, in P. Fouracre and D. Ganz (eds), Frankland: the Franks and the world of the early Middle Ages: essays in honour of Dame Jinty Nelson, Manchester 2008, 44–69 at pp. 48–54, and Story, Joanna, ‘Bede, Willibrord and the letters of Pope Honorius i on the genesis of the archbishopric of York’, EHR cxxvii (2012), 783818 at pp. 790–1.

29 ‘Deo dilecto archiepiscopo Laurentio et clero uniuerso, similiter et Aedilbercto regi atque genti Anglorum’: HE 2.4. The term ‘archbishop’ has been added anachronistically by Bede. Theodore was the first bishop of Canterbury to use this title: for a discussion on this point see T. M. Charles-Edwards, Early medieval Ireland, Cambridge 2000, 416–21, and Thacker, ‘Gallic or Greek?’, 55.

30 ‘anno octauo imperii Focatis principis, indictione xiii, tertio die kalendarum Martiarum’: HE 2.4.

31 In this section Bede may, however, have adapted some of his language from that in the papal letter: for instance in the phrase describing Mellitus and Justus as those ‘Qui cum magna ecclesiam Anglorum cura ac labore gubernarent’(‘guiding the English Church with great care and energy’).

32 It is arguable that rather than referring to letters sent at the same time to Mellitus as bishop of Canterbury and to Justus as bishop of Rochester, Bede intended here (2.7) to summarise the letters that Pope Boniface wrote during his pontificate to the metropolitans of the English Church. According to such an interpretation, the ‘scripta exhortatoria’ to Mellitus and Justus mentioned in this chapter would include both a letter to Mellitus as bishop of Canterbury sent following Laurence's death and the later letter (which Bede included in HE 2.8) to Justus once he in turn became bishop of Canterbury. I am grateful to Alexander Callander Murray for this suggestion.

33 Bedae opera historica, ed. C. Plummer, Oxford 1896, ii. 90.

34 Bede says that Mellitus and Justus, ‘susceperunt scripta exhortatoria a pontifice Romane et apostolicae sedis Bonifatio, qui post Deusdedit ecclesiae praefuit, anno incarnationis dominicae DCXVIIII’ (‘received letters of exhortation from Rome from Pope Boniface, who succeeded Deusdedit in the year of our Lord 619’): HE 2.7.

35 See, for instance, R. Sharpe, ‘King Ceadwalla's Roman epitaph’, in A. Orchard and K. O'Brien O'Keefe (ed.), Latin learning and English lore: studies in Anglo-Saxon literature for Michael Lapidge, Toronto 2005, 171–93, and Lapidge, M., ‘The career of Aldhelm’, Anglo-Saxon England xxxvi (2007), 1569.

36 Thus the claim inserted into some manuscripts of the Liber pontificalis biography of Gregory's predecessor Pelagius ii that he died in the fifth indiction would give a date of death of 587, rather than 590, the correct year: Liber pontificalis, ed. L. Duchesne, Paris 1886–92, i. 309.

37 HE 2.1.

38 In fact they probably had two: both in terms of indictions and imperial years.

39 ‘Scripta quae perlatores ad sanctae memoriae Seuerinum papam adduxerunt, eo de hac luce migrante, reciproca response ad ea, quae postulate fuerant, siluerunt’ (‘The writings which were brought by envoys to Pope Severinus of holy memory, were left with the questions contained in them unanswered when he departed this life’): HE 2.19.

40 The LP omits mention of the full length of the vacancy between Deusdedit and Boniface, which was actually over a year, not just one month and sixteen days. Therein may lie the explanation for Bede's faulty conclusion about Gregory the Great's incarnational year of death. Working back from 619 as Boniface's year of accession, inferred, as argued above, from the 620 letters that he possessed, and using the LP 's figures for vacancies and length of pontificate in the Roman see, the missing year in that text would mean that Bede arrived at 605 for Gregory's death, rather than 604.

41 ‘Susceptis namque apicibus filii nostril Adulualdi regis repperimus, quanta sacri eloquii erudition eius animum ad uerae conuersionis et indubitatae fidei credulitatem fraternitas uestra perduxerit’ (‘We have learnt from the letters received from our son King Eadbald how you, brother, by your learning and holy eloquence have guided his soul to the assurance of true conversion and a state of real faith’): HE 2.8.

42 This is especially so in regard to the reference to Eadbald's conversio by Justus; assuming, as I think we must, that the Aduluald that Justus is said to have converted in Bede's version of the letter to Justus should be equated with the Audubald that Justus is said to have converted in the letters to Edwin (HE 2.10) and to Æthelburh (HE 2.11) and that both Aduluald and Audubald refer to King Eadbald of Kent.

43 This may be, as Meyvaert thought, because the letters, in the form in which Bede possessed them, had already lost their dating clauses: ‘The Registrum of Gregory the Great and Bede’, Revue Benedictine lxxx (1970), 162–6. But it is just as likely, if not more so, that Bede removed the dates for the sake of simplicity because their content complicated, if not contradicted, the narrative of the Northumbrian conversion and particularly the position of Paulinus that Bede had heard or reconstructed prior to receiving the papal letters from Nothelm.

44 Unless, perhaps, Bede's statement that Mellitus died in 624 at the end of HE 2.7 comes from information in these letters of Boniface which probably date to 625.

45 HE 2.7.

46 In the letter quoted in HE 2.8.

47 This can be reconciled with Bede's date for Justus' consecration of Paulinus as bishop (21 July 625), although, despite what Bede implies, possession of the pallium was not necessary for Justus to consecrate other bishops. The precise chronology of Edwin's conversion though is a more complex question beyond the scope of this paper. If Bede is correct in saying that Bishop Romanus of Rochester's death in the Ligurian Sea occurred on a mission for Justus (HE 2.20), then it was probably on this journey. But Bede's mention of Justus' role may be no more than an assumption on his behalf; in which case Romanus is more likely to have drowned during visit v (633–4).

48 ‘Data die III id. Iun. Imperantibus dominis nostris piissimis Augustis Heraclio anno XXIIII, post consulatum eiusdem anno XXIII, atque Constantino filio ipsius anno XXIII et consulatus eius anno III, sed et Heraclio felicissimo Caesare idem filio eius anno III, indictione VII’: HE 2.18. Pope Honorius’ letter to King Edwin, which Bede inserted in HE 2.17, was no doubt sent at the same time, although the version included in the HE does not have a dating formula.

49 ‘id est, anno dominicae incarnationis DCXXXIIII’: HE 2.18.

50 ‘Ea uero, quae a nobis pro uestris sacerdotibus ordinanda sperastis, … gratuito animo adtribuere ulla sine dilatione praeuidemus’ (‘We are preparing to concede you willingly and without delay those rights which you hoped we should grant your bishops’): HE 2.17 (to Edwin); ‘iuxta uestram petitionem quam filiorum nostrorum regum’ (‘in accordance with your request and that of the kings our sons’): HE 2.18 (to Honorius). It should be noted that the contents of the letter to Bishop Honorius (HE 2.18) show that Pope Honorius' original missive was intended for Bishop Honorius and Bishop Paulinus as joint addressees with a copy to be sent to each of them.

51 HE 2.20.

52 Romanus' death may well have occurred on this mission, but since Bede says that he was drowned on an embassy for Justus, he may have led the delegation in 624–5, immediately after his consecration as bishop of Rochester.

53 Later it had to be requested by the relevant bishop himself in person; but that was not the case in the period under consideration here.

54 R: 8.4 (M: 8.1).

55 ‘Deinde quod non id ex vestra petitione, sed ex nobis transmissum voluistis intellegi’: ibid.

56 ‘honor pallii nisi exigentibus causarum meritis et fortiter postulanti dari non debeat’: ibid.

57 As Gregory put it in R: 11.41 (dated 22 June 601), copies of which were sent to various Frankish bishops including Menas of Toulon and Serenus of Marseilles, ‘Augustinus eos qui secum sunt ad hoc opus exequendum per diversa loca asserat non posse sufficere’ (‘Augustine asserts that those who are with him are insufficient to carry out this work through the various locations’). Therefore, as the pope explained in R: 11.48, a letter written the same day to Queen Brunhild, he was sending more monks, ‘quod illos qui secum sunt sufficere sibi dicit non posse’ (‘due to the fact that he [Augustine] says those with him cannot be sufficient for him’).

58 ‘Ea uero, quae a nobis pro uestris sacerdotibus ordinanda sperastis, hoc pro fidei uestrae sinceritate, quae nobis multimoda relatione per praesentium portitores laudabiliter insinuata est, gratuito animo adtribuere ulla sine dilatione praeuidemus; et duo pallia utrorumque metropolitanorum, id est Honorio et Paulino, direximus’ (‘We are preparing to concede you willingly and without delay those rights which you hoped we should grant your bishops: we do this on account of the sincerity of your faith which has been abundantly declared to us in terms of praise by the bearers of this letter; and so we are sending a pallium for each of the two metropolitans, that is for Honorius and Paulinus’): HE 2.17. The royal request in this case is also mentioned in the letter to Bishop Honorius: ‘iuxta uestram petitionem quam filiorum nostrorum regum’ (‘in accordance with your request and that of the kings our sons’: HE 2.18).

59 HE 2.8.

60 ‘His temporibus uenit Mellitus Lundoniae episcopus Romam, de necessariis ecclesiae Anglorum cum apostolico papa Bonifatio tractaturus’: HE 2.4.

61 As James Campbell noted, Bede ‘did not write in an age in which it was thought necessary to distinguish between known facts and deductions or assumptions’: ‘Bede I’, in James Campbell (ed.), Essays in Anglo-Saxon history, London 1986, 1–27 at p. 9.

62 For instance, N. Brooks, ‘Mellitus (d. 624)’, ODNB.

63 For a summary of the characteristics of Roman synods in the seventh century see Llewellyn, Rome in the Dark Ages, 129–30.

64 H. Chadwick, ‘The English Church and the monothelite controversy’, in M. Lapidge (ed.), Archbishop Theodore: commemorative studies on his life and influence, Cambridge 1995, 88–96 at p. 92.

65 HE 2.4.

66 Even though Bede possessed copies of these papal letters it is unlikely that he realised that they included sufficient information to deduce the date of Augustine's death. Pope Boniface would not have mentioned that Augustine had died. None of the comparable papal missives, for instance to Justus or Honorius (included in HE 2.8 and 2.18), told the recipient of the death of his predecessor. Such a detail would be completely superfluous, especially as the epistle might be received perhaps as much as a year and a half after the last bishop of Canterbury's death. Boniface's letters would have mentioned the pallium; but it should not surprise us that Bede does not draw attention to this element in the text in front of him. Bede took it for granted that bishops of Canterbury would be granted the pallium: this was simply standard practice requiring no additional comment or emphasis. Bede only laid emphasis on the pallium in the HE for good reason, which for him was always the same reason. He only really focused on the pallium when it related to Northumbria: in HE 1.29 when Gregory told Augustine there should be a metropolitan see at York; in HE 2.8 when the gift of the pallium to Justus is underlined because Bede (wrongly) believed that only thanks to the possession of the pallium could Justus consecrate Paulinus for York, as well as Romanus for Rochester; and in HE 2.17 and HE 2.18 where the pallium was sent to Paulinus as part of the creation of the Northumbrian ‘province’ centred on York. Bede also mentioned the pallium once outside a papal letter context, but again with a Northumbrian connection, when he noted in HE 2.20 that going into exile on Edwin's death and becoming bishop of Rochester, Paulinus left his pallium in that see at his passing.

67 Examples are those that Bede included in the HE at 1.24 and 1.28.

68 A date of death for Augustine might be thought to provide a date of death for Peter, abbot of SS Peter and Paul, Canterbury, the miracles surrounding whose tomb following his death at sea are described by Bede in HE 1.33. As the updated ODNB online entry for Peter concludes: ‘The year of his death probably depends on that assigned to Augustine, since Thomas Elmham, the early fifteenth-century chronicler of St Augustine's (as St Peter's and St Paul's became in 978), states that Petrus died one year, seven months, and three weeks after Augustine’: William Hunt, ‘Petrus [St Petrus] (d. 605 x 11)’, rev. Marios Costambeys, ODNB. But in reality Thomas of Elmham is no more reliable as a source for this date than he is for any early event in Canterbury's history. Independent primary source evidence shows that such a ‘tradition’ is definitely flawed since Peter attested the canons of the 614 Council of Paris: Les Canons des conciles mérovingiens (VIe–VIIe siècles), ed. C. de Clerq and trans. Jean Gaudemet and Brigitte Basdevant, Paris 1989, ii. 524–5.

In references to the letters of Gregory the Great, R is the number of the letter in the MGH edition of the Gregorian Registrum; where the number is different, M refers to the number in The letters of Gregory the Great, trans. J. Martyn, Toronto 2004. Translations are taken, with minor modifications, from the latter.

I am grateful to Alexander Callander Murray and Michael D. Elliot for their comments on an earlier version of this piece, though responsibility for the conclusions is mine alone.

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