By Ben Potter
“And did those feet, in ancient time,Walk upon England’s mountains green:And was the holy Lamb of GodOn England’s pleasant pastures seen.” – William Blake
A desire to divorce his wife led King Henry VIII of England to declare the Church of England independent from the Catholic Church
As a great crusading nation, as a centre of monasticism, as the frontline resistance against the pagan Viking hordes, England had long been a stronghold of Christianity before the day that Henry VIII broke with an obdurate Vatican, ransacked the monasteries and established a church separate from that of Rome – one based on his own unique family values; a church of purity, goodness, trust and devotion.
Before that day and since, England and Christianity have gone together like tea and crumpets; even today, when only 6-12% of Britons regularly attend a Christian service, Queen Elizabeth II is still not only the UK head of state, but also the head of the Anglican Church.
But where did it all begin? What were the humble origins of Christianity’s stronghold in ‘this other Eden’ and, more specifically, what role did the Romans have to play?
Well, obviously the Romans were involved in British affairs long before the advent of Christianity, while Jesus was still only a twinkle in God’s eye.
Though we have evidence of wine amphorae dating back to 120BC – proof that Rome was happy to trade the luxury item with the bibulous Celts – Rome’s first real foray into Albion was under the campaign of Julius Caesar in 55-54BC. Thus, Britain was already firmly under the Latin yoke before the BC/AD changeover.
Vessels called amphorae were used to transport wine and olive oil.
And, it’s worth noting that, even before Chi-Rhos, Alphas, and Omegas were being daubed all over public monuments, Roman religion was strongly influential on those who lived on that drizzly rock at the edge of the world.
The spiritual malleability of the native population shouldn’t be as surprising as perhaps it is. Not only did Britain have its own pantheon of gods that could be loosely equated to, or assimilated with, Roman gods, but it lacked a unified dogma about those gods’ characters. In other words, whilst Nodens or Andrasta may have been worshipped all over the country, their physical features, powers and even particulars of worship may have differed from tribe to tribe.
The Romans, as was their wont, stepped into this spiritual power vacuum, but were smart enough not to enforce worship of Jupiter, Mars, Venus et al, but instead allow assimilation to occur naturally, or indeed, not at all.
That said, the pagan British gods did not survive totally unmolested. It was common to see native gods given a more Romanesque appearance in their dress and features. Also, many of the incumbent deities were equated with their Roman counterparts and even merged into them, as the following inscription proves: “To the god Mars Nodens, Flavius Blandinus, drill-master, willingly and deservedly fulfilled his vow”.
Such hybrid worship does not seem to have been taken as a slight, but a reasonable and natural compromise. Indeed, rectangular Romano-Celtic temples came into being that were deemed acceptable to both sets of worshippers.
Intriguingly, as the situation developed, Roman soldiers stationed in Britain often took to worshipping the local deities in favour of their Latin counterparts. Thus, the situation was more one of symbiosis than of suppression:
“Roman soldiers made dedications to Celtic gods and rural dwellers erected temples to Roman gods” (D. Watts).
The major caveat to this great, first amendment love-in concerns druidism; a practice outlawed on account of its penchant for human sacrifice. However, by and large, Britain can be said to have been something of a melting pot, a religious hub on the fringes of civilisation.
And thus we come to a different god, one who offered his followers a chance of life after death, who purified with blood, who was born on 25th December of a virgin mother, had twelve followers, who died and was resurrected, whose followers bore the mark of the cross and who was known as the light of the world. Yes, we are, of course, talking about Mithras.
Mithraism, despite being an eastern religion, was popular throughout the empire, particularly with the army and, much like with the pagan Celtic/Roman assimilation, its presence in Britain may have eased the way for its usurper, Christianity.
Britain certainly played some sort of role in Christianity’s origins as it was at York that Constantius I, the Augustus of the west, died, leaving his son Constantine as the leader of the army in the western empire – an army who considered him the natural heir to his father’s title. This is the same man who would become Constantine the Great and would one day unify the divided empire under one flag, one emperor and, crucially, one, capital ‘g’ God.
It has been claimed, and is certainly possible, that Constantine either picked up, or learned about Christianity while in Britain – though it could just have equally been anywhere he’d travelled in the empire. However, some very fanciful British folklore, chronicled by Henry of Huntingdon and Geoffrey of Monmouth, would later claim that Constantine’s mother, St Helena, was actually the daughter of the British King Cole of Colchester (who many suspect was the ‘jolly old soul’ from the nursery rhyme). The figures of King Arthur and even the Tudors themselves are often transplanted into this ridiculous and murky myth; meaning that Henry VIII, the man who rent asunder England and the church of Rome would have, ironically, been a descendent of Constantine himself. Such nonsense, though pleasing, is not worth dwelling on!
Constantine sees a vision of the cross
What is more poignant regarding Christianity’s relative popularity in Britain is that, once it became the state religion of the Roman Empire, the ruling classes and the urbanised populations converted swiftly to the new faith. As already mentioned, back in the first and second centuries AD the upper echelons of British Celtic society often willingly and openly embraced Roman ideas and practices (including religious ones). Even still, it was common that, in more rural areas, pagan practices clung on a lot stronger than they did in the towns. Although Britain had fourteen identified churches in the south and only one in the north (Lincoln), the strong and constant military presence in the north of England meant that soldiers, many of whom may have graduated to Christianity from Mithraism, gave the new faith a stronger presence than it may have otherwise had.
Christianity likewise became popular with middle-class opportunists who may have used any pagan persecutions to make a claim for temple lands. It was also extremely well-liked among women, as they were finally able to exert some autonomy. This was because, upon becoming Christian, they no longer had to blindly follow the whims and caprices of their fathers or husbands, but could claim overriding and supreme loyalty to the One True God.