Wren's St Paul's Cathedral is one of the dominant images of tourist London. The religious history of the site, however, goes back to the very arrival of Christianity in England. Sitting atop one of the two hills of ancient London it has long gazed down on the doings of men and women. Few definitive histories of St. Paul's have been written but one of the most "delightful" is that penned by Dean H H Milman in the 1860s. Here we present his great work for the enjoyment of the modern age. We complete Chapter One with a sprinkling of names – Augustine, Gregory, Mellitus, Erkenwald and Dunstan - that still resonate through the stones of St Paul's. The chapter ends on the threshold of the Norman Invasion in 1066 which was to bring many changes and riches to the cathedral.
The Annals of St Paul's Cathedral
by Henry Hart Millman D.D.
LATE DEAN OF S. PAUL'S
S. Paul's under the Romans and the Saxons
The second part: Roman Christianity – Bishop Mellitus – S. Erkenwald -Muniificent Grants to Bishop of London and to the Dean and Chapter of S. Paul's.
The Saxon invasion swept away every vestige of Roman civilisation and Roman Christianity, at least in the southern and eastern parts of the island. Of this Christianity there are only very dim, and obscure, and doubtful reminiscences. My predecessor, Dean Radulph de Diceto, asserts that in the pre-Saxon times, one of the three British archbishoprics was in London. He makes it founded by King Lucius. I hope the good Dean had not the ambition, sometimes entertained by the Prelates of London, to wrest the primacy from Canterbury. The other two, he adds, were at York and Caerleon (S. David's). They followed the Roman provincial division of Britain-Britannia Prima, of which the capital was London; Maxima Caesariensis, York; Britannia Secunda, Caerleon.
Restitutus, Bishop of London, was said to have been present at the Council of Arles, A.D. 314. There can be no doubt, however, that under the Saxons London retained its importance as a capital city, and in London the area of S. Paul's would remain a place of dignity and strength. A Saxon fortress would occupy the site of the Roman camp. A rude Saxon temple may have frowned down from the height above the Thames, where the Roman or Christian fanes had stood. This, however, is, of course, mere conjecture. But there is no reason to question the tradition (tradition here assumes the authority of history), that Mellitus, the companion of Augustine, fixed his episcopal see in London. If there was any temple of a Teutonic Deity on this remarkable site, Mellitus might, either immediately or with prudent delay, act in obedience to the wise counsel of the father of the mission, Pope Gregory the Great.
In the well-known letter of that Pontiff, Augustine and his followers are enjoined to make the transition from the old faith as easy and unrepulsive as possible. Places hallowed by the religious feelings of the heathen were to be occupied by Christian churches. All usages, not absolutely irreconcilable with the Gospel, were to be tolerated, till they should die away, or be transmuted by the mild influence of the new faith. According to Bede, however, the proceeding was more violent and summary. Mellitus was consecrated Bishop of London by Augustine alone; the Pope condoned the irregularity, seeing that there was no other bishop in the island.
The diocese assigned to Mellitus comprehended the whole kingdom of the East Saxons, Middlesex, Essex, and Hertfordshire. Ethelbert himself, King of Kent, with the sanction of Sebert, King of the East Angles, founded and endowed a 'magnificent' cathedral, dedicated to S. Paul. We know not how soon the 'extreme West' of the earlier writers was interpreted by the young believers in the island, as meaning Britain; we know as little to whom the older Christian church was dedicated; yet to whom could the church in London be so fitly dedicated as to the great Apostle of the Gentiles? But clouds darkened over Mellitus and his see. Mellitus went to Rome to consult the Pope. The three sons, successors of King Sebert, being unbaptized, fell back to idolatry; nor could Eadbald, King of Kent, who had again embraced Christianity, compel the obstinate pagan Londoners to receive the bishop. Mellitus returned to Kent and became Archbishop of Canterbury.
For thirty-eight years heathen darkness brooded over London. There was no bishop; S. Paul's was silent of Christian worship. After this a prelate, with a Saxon name Cedd, brother of S. Chad of Lichfield, looms dimly through the darkness, and seats himself on the episcopal throne of London. He was, it is said, of the ancient Hiberno-Scotic succession; of that Church which did not acknowledge allegiance to Rome, followed the Quartodeciman computation of Easter, and differed in other rites. He is said too to have been consecrated in Northumberland by S. Finian, Bishop of the East Angles. As bishop he recanted his Quartodeciman heresy. Cedd then sinks back into darkness, which settles again on the see of London, only to be dispelled for a short time by the fourth successor of Mellitus, the famous Saint Erkenwald. Erkenwald stands out as a prelate whose legendary life teems with records of his munificence in raising and adorning the church of S. Paul with splendour rare in those days. On architectural details it is silent, and the history of the fabric of the church will be reserved for future examination.
[Footnote: It appears that the reliques of S. Mellitus were among the treasures of the old church of S. Paul. Theobald, Archbishop of Canterbury, granted an indulgence of forty days of the enjoined penance to all such as should solemnise the festival of that blessed Confessor.]The life of Erkenwald is instinct with miracles, which obtained for him the fame and honours of a Saint, and a shrine at which generations, down to the Reformation, worshipped in devout and prodigal faith. The legend is curiously characteristic of the zeal of the pious Bishop and of his times. Erkenwald was wont to preach in the wild forests, which lay around his cathedral city. For this purpose he was drawn about in a cart. On a certain day one of the two wheels - we may suppose them heavily tried in the roadless waste - came off; but the other, more faithful, would not permit the holy man to be interrupted or dishonoured in his sacred work, and alone supported the steady, though unbalanced, vehicle.
This is one marvel of his life; we must hasten to his death. Erkenwald had founded a monastery at Chertsey, of which he was Abbot, as well as Bishop of London. He died at Barking in Essex, where his sister had established a convent of nuns. The room in which he died was filled with indescribable fragrance. The monks of Chertsey hastened to Barking to possess themselves of the precious remains of their founder and abbot. The canons of S. Paul's (there were then canons, at least at the time when the legend was composed) were equally alive to the sacred interest of their church, equally determined to possess the body of their Bishop. The population of London poured forth; they seized the bier, and were bearing it off in triumph to the city. The monks of Chertsey and the nuns of Barking followed in tears, protesting against the unholy violence, and appealing to heaven in favour of their undoubted claims to the inestimable treasure.
A terrible tempest came on. The river Lee was swollen to a great height, and arrested the procession. There was neither boat nor bridge. The canons, the monks, the priests, and the nuns all saw the manifest hand of God in the flood. Each party pleaded its cause with the utmost eloquence. But a pious man addressed the contending disputants, exhorting them to peace, and to leave the debate to the divine decision. The clergy began to intone their litany. The Lee, like the Jordan of old, shrank within its banks. The cavalcade crossed to Stratford. In that pleasant place the sun burst out in all its brightness, and the remains of the bishop passed on in triumph to the cathedral. From that time the altar of S. Erkenwald was held in the most profound and increasing honour: venerated by citizens, kings, even foreign kings; heaped with lavish oblations. The productiveness of the shrine may account for the richness and vitality of the legend. The legend, no doubt, fostered the unfailing opulence of the shrine.'
After S. Erkenwald darkness falls on the see and on the cathedral of London. We have a long barren list of Teutonic names of bishops, barbarously Latinised, not one of whom has left his mark in history, or even in legend. S. Dunstan alone passes over the throne of London, on his way to Canterbury. Dunstan is said to have held the see of London in commendam with the primacy. The rest of these prelates are unknown to fame as churchmen, as statesmen, as scholars or theologians. The list of deans is even more dreary, obscure, and imperfect; a few Saxon-sounding names and no more. Not one, I believe, of the countless Anglo-Saxon saints, so summarily and contemptuously discarded by the Normans, was Bishop of London or Dean of S. Paul's.
But if the Bishops and Deans have sunk into utter oblivion, and have left no trace behind them, there is substantial proof of their influence, and of the estimation in which, if not themselves, the church to which they belonged, was held. The Saxon kings and nobles were prodigal in their munificence, and nowhere more prodigal than in their gifts and grants to the Bishop of London and to the Dean and Chapter of S. Paul's. If the names of the Deans and Bishops have perished, the names of many of the estates with which the Church and Clergy were endowed, as well as the estates themselves, survive to bear witness to the reverence which they commanded throughout this period. Severe antiquarians will, I fear, impeach the authenticity of the Anglo-Saxon charters, which the Church used to boast. I would fain believe, if I could in conscience, the royal grant of the first Christian king Ethelbert, of Tillingham in Essex, which by a singular chance even now contributes largely to the maintenance of the fabric. But if the charters of Athelstane and other kings and queens be somewhat questionable title-deeds, the estates themselves, with few exceptions, were, till our day, in the possession of the Bishop or of the Chapter of S. Paul's. They are now swallowed up in the vast mass of property under the administration of the Ecclesiastical Commissioners, or have been alienated under their power. Canute the Dane (the charter is in our archives, I believe of unquestioned authenticity) ratifies all the splendid donations of his Saxon predecessors.
During the reign of Canute, therefore before 1035, the year of his death, a certain Ailward, or Alfward, is said to have been appointed Bishop of London by the Anglo-Danish king, to whom he was related. Ailward was Abbot of Evesham, and held that abbey with the bishopric. Ailward was sent by some of the nobles to Flanders to invite Hardiknute to attempt the recovery of the throne. In 1044, the infirmities of age growing on Ailward, he wished to resign the bishopric and retire to Evesham; but the monks refused to receive him. He found more welcome reception at Ramsay, where he died, having bequeathed rich endowments to that hospitable abbey.
Edward the Confessor appointed Robert, a Norman, abbot of Jumieges, to the bishopric of London (A.D. 1044). Robert was translated to Canterbury A.D. 1050 (the Normans were already in the ascendant). He was expelled with other Norman bishops in 1052, went to Rome to appeal, and died at Jumieges on his return .