The Conversion of the East Saxons

EngliscHeritage

THE CONVERSION OF THE EAST SAXONS

 

(Bradwell-on-sea in Essex).

 

Of the many buildings of the Anglo-Saxon epoch which still survive, one of the most ancient and most striking is the small and lonely chapel near Bradwell-on-Sea in Essex, known as St. Peter`s-on –the-Walls, which was built somewhere about 650 A.D., not much over two centuries after the last of the Roman legions had been withdrawn from Britain.

The history of this stout little building, which has so successfully withstand the assault of nearly 1,300 years, is of much interest. The story begins really in the year 604 A.D., when St. Augustine of Canterbury appointed Mellitus, a Roman nobleman, to the bishopric of London, at that time a very prosperous and more or less self-governing city owning a loose allegiance both to Aethelbert, King of Kent and to his nephew Saebert, King of Essex.

 

These two kings were Christians, and together had founded the church of St. Paul`s in London, where Mellitus officiated and from which centre he carried on an energetic missionary campaign, in spite of the fact that he himself was a sick man, a martyr to gout; but on Saebert`s death there was a reversion to paganism amongst the East Saxons, and that monarch`s two sons – without, however, offering them any violence, one is glad to find – and proclaimed that the worship of the old gods was again permitted.

These princes, however, were killed in 617 A.D., in a war against the West Saxons; and in 619 A.D., Mellitus, who had retired to France, returned and was made Archbishop of Canterbury, a position which he held until his death in 624 A.D., Essex, however, remained pagan for yet another 30 years or so.

 

In the year 650 A.D., Sigebert, called “The Good,” ascended the throne of the East Saxons; and, being a great friend of Oswy, the Christian King of Northumbria, of whom was spoken of in a previous chapter, used to go to stay with him from time to time. Sigebert was still a pagan, but Oswy persuaded him to be baptised into the Christian faith, and the ceremony was performed by the Irish Bishop Finan of Lindisfarne, the successor of St. Aidan, at an unidentified place which Bede calls “At-the-Wall,” it being situated beside the great Roman Wall of Hadrian which passed across Cumberland and Northumberland from sea to sea.

 

Then, when the East Saxon King returned south to his own country he took with him an English priest named Cedd, brother of the famous St. Chad, to carry out the work of converting his people – a rough lot, according to Bede; and soon afterwards this Cedd was formally made Bishop of the East Saxons. It will be remembered that he acted as interpreter at the Council of Whitby, recorded in the previous chapter.

 

The characters of King of Sigebert and his new Bishop are well illustrated in a curious incident described by Bede. A certain earl, one of the kinsmen of the king, had married a lady who, for some reason not stated, could not legally be his wife according to the new Christian code; and Cedd, having failed to stop the marriage, excommunicated the earl, and forbade any person to enter the house or to have a meal with the disobedient couple.

 

The King, however, did not take the prohibition very seriously, and, when the earl next asked him to dinner, accepted the invitation, and rode off to his kinman`s house without a thought. But on the way he met the bishop, who at once got off his horse, and stood sternly confronting his royal masters. At this King Sigebert, caught like a naughty schoolboy, began to shake with fright, so Bede tells us, and, dismounting, crawled over to the angry Cedd, and fell on his knees before him, begging his pardon.

The Bishop prodded him with a stick, and, in awful tones, said: “Forasmuch as you would not refrain from going to the house of that wicked and condemned person, you shall die in that house.” What exactly he meant nobody knows; but it was taken to be curse or a prophecy, and, sure enough, a few years later, in 660 A.D., the earl persuaded Sigebert to visit his house once more, and there murdered him. When asked afterwards why he done so, he replied that it was because the King was such a pious fellow, always forgiving his enemies, and all that sort of thing.

In this story Cedd appears as an awe-inspiring old autocrat, and his character must have been very different from that of his brother, St. Chad, who is described as the humblest of men. The good Chad was made Bishop of Lichfield, and outlived Cedd who died of some sort of pestilence which nearly exterminated the monks of a Northumbrian monastery (Lastingham) he was visiting, unfortunately his monks from Essex knowing of his illness came up to be with their master and all died with him; but when Chad himself was dying at Lichfield it is related that the spirit of the imperious Cedd was seen, as though he had come back to guide his modest brother on his journey into the unknown.

 

Cedd`s work in Essex is said to have been centred at Tilaburg and Ythancaester, where he erected churches and gathered his flock. Tilaburg is the modern Tilbury, where the docks are now situated; and all traces of Anglo-Saxon days has vanished.

 

Ythencaester, meaning “the fortress of Ythan,” was the name of the town which grew up around the old Roman fortress originally called Othona, at the mouth of the Pent or Blackwater River, two miles/3.2km east of the village of Bradwell, that is to say eight miles/12.8km by road north-east of Southminster, and sixteen miles/25.7km as the crow flies from Southend-on-Sea. The fortress was probably already in ruins n Cedd`s day, and in building his church here, right the old Roman rampart, he used stones and tiles taken from its abandoned barracks offices.

 

The church which he erected and which still exists, is an unpretentious little structure, 55 feet/16.7m long and 26 feet/7,9m wide, as it now stands, the walls being 2 feet/6m thick; but the original apse at the east end is destroyed, and in the present east wall you can see parts of the three brick arches which led into it, now built up with the later masonry. A porch, too, at the west end has disappeared. In mediaeval times the building was deserted, and in the days of the Stuarts was used as a sort of lighthouse. Later it was turned into a barn, and, during the great war it served as a military post; but in 1920 it was re-opened as a church, after being patched up and slightly restored, and it is now under the control of the Cathedral Chapter of Chelmsford, being managed by the Othona community which is situated next to the church in the woods, so is not clearly seen, but it is there if you walk over to the left from the church on the path.

 

It stands, bleak and grey, amidst the fields near the sea, where, at low tide, the wide mud-flats lie exposed beyond the weather-beaten sea-wall of earth and sods, also concrete. Three miles/4.8km to the north, away across the estuary of the Blackwater, lies Mersea Island, beyond which Brightlingsea can just be seen, and the coast line passing round to Clacton-on-Sea; while southwards you may look along the flats to Foulness Point.

 

On a sunny day this wide area of low-lying fields, where often you may see flights of wild duck passing over the solitary little church, has a beauty of its own; but in wintry weather, as you come over from Southminster, there is an extraordinary desolation in the scene, especially when there is Sea mist, giving it a haunting atmosphere. A wet wind was then blowing across the flats, and the road puddled by recent rain, not rutted like in the past but gives you an idea of a highway in Cedd`s day.

Inside the church the bare walls and floor were cheerless, too; and the modern chairs and the little altar with which it is now furnished did not seem to help to bring back the living spirit to the place. It is a cold and lonely relic of an age of burning enthusiasm, only used now for an occasional service; and the wind which moaned around its brave old walls, it was like the voices of the dead!

The reason why it is called “St. Peter`s “ is, possibly connected with the council of Whitby of which has already been dealt with. It will be remembered that that conference, at which Cedd acted as interpreter, was held in 664 A.D., to decide whether the church in Britain should conform to the new ecclesiastical calendar of the church of St. Peter in Rome or to the earlier calendar of the British church which had been cut off from Rome since the Anglo-Saxon conquest.

Cedd had been trained in the British school, but when the advocates of the Roman system won the day at Whitby, he changed his allegiance, and for that reason, no doubt dedicated his church to St. Peter, who, as King Oswy had pointed out at the conference, held the keys of heaven, and was therefore to be propitiated, lest he should refuse to open the celestial gates.

These early Christians were simple souls, who gave as much attention to those spiritual significance, as they did to the self-sacrifices of the spiritual life which we now consider to be of too much material disadvantage to be practised. The faith has changed both for the better and for the worse; but a building such as St. Peter`s-on-the-Walls still links us to the far-off days, and one is glad to find that quite a number of visitors come to see it in summer, and that it is from time to time the goal of an organized pilgrimage.