Story Of London

St Mellitus – Bishop of London

St Mellitus – Bishop of London
by Bill McCann

On April 24th 604 died St Mellitus, first Bishop of London, founder of St Paul’s and third Archbishop of Canterbury. He was the leader of the second band of missionaries sent to England from Rome in 601 by Pope Gregory. He carried a number of epistles from the pope to Augustine, amongst them the instruction that would determine the manner of Christian evangelising for centuries to come. Mellitus was consecrated the first Bishop of the East Saxons whose capital was London and established the first St Paul’s church on Ludgate Hill. A reversion to paganism in 616 saw him expelled from London to Kent from which he travelled to Gaul and Rome. He returned to become Archbishop of Canterbury in 619 but did not in his lifetime witness the restoration of the See of London which lay vacant for thirty eight years.

St Mellitus – Bishop of London

by Bill McCann

Saint Mellitus was the first Saxon Bishop of London and third Archbishop of Canterbury who died at Catnerbury on April 24th 624. He was the leader of the second band of missionaries sent from Rome in 601 by Pope Gregory the Great to join St. Augustine at Canterbury. Bede describes him as being of noble birth the pope’s commission described him as an Abbot. It is thought that he may have been the Abbot of the Monastery of St. Andrew on the Coelian Hill, of which both St. Gregory and St. Augustine had been Abbots. The pope issued the band with epistles recommending Mellitus and his companions to various Gallic bishops they would meet en route to England and several of these have been preserved. He also is said (by Bede) to have provided”all things needed for divine worship and the Church’s service, viz. sacred vessels and altar cloths, vestments for priests and clerics, and also relics of the holy apostles and martyrs, with many books.”

Mellitus carried with him what is now a famous letter from Gregory to Augustine. In it Gregory modified the his earlier ruling to Augustine. He now instructed Augustine not to destroy the pagan temples of the Saxons but only their idols. The temples, he said, should be converted into churches and their feasts taken over and directed to Christian purposes, such as dedications. This directive, whereby local cults were christianised and assimilated into the Catholic pantheon, was important for the whole direction of subsequent missionary activity across the world.

Soon after his arrival in England, Mellitus was consecrated Bishop by Augustine and sent as a missionary amongst the East Saxons whose capital was London and who were then ruled by Saeberht (Sabert, Sigebert), nephew of Aethelberht (Ethelbert) of Kent. The latter had already been converted to Christianity and the nephew followed his lead. Mellitus chose the top of Ludgate Hill as the site of his church which he dedicated to St Paul. There are persistent suggestions that the site had been that of a Roman temple to Diana but no archaeological evidence of such a structure was recognised when Wren was constructing his masterpiece. The question will not now, in all likelihood, be settled conclusively as – short of a cataclysm – a modern archaeological excavation on the site of St Paul’s is most improbable. However, in view of the pope’s instructions, the possibility cannot be ruled out and such a prominent site would not have been used by the Romans for industrial purposes such as brick-making only.
The Conversion of Saeberht

The foundation for the new church was laid by Aethelberht and is likely to have been a timber structure. Mellitus presided over his see for twelve years but problems arose on the death of Saeberht in 616. His three sons, Sexred, Seward, and Sigeberht had refused to convert to Christianity and on his death re-established worship of the Saxon pantheon as the “state” religion. They appear to have deliberately chosen a quarrel with Mellitus. The event, recorded by Bede, has the distinction of being the first record of religious activity in St Paul’s. The story goes:

Mellitus was celebrating Mass in the church and at the point when he was distributing the Eucharist to the communicants, Sigeberht who had succeeded his father as king, and his brothers entered the church.”Give us of that white bread!”They demanded of the Bishop. Mellitus, of course, refused.”You gave it to our father and you are now giving it to these common people. Why do you refuse it to us?””Your father accepted Christian baptism and therefore gained the right to partake of the Body and Blood of Christ. If ye will enter into the font, ye too will be able to eat the Bread of Life.””We will not be washed in the font for we need it not but that bread we will have!”Mellitus steadfastly answered them that this was impossible until they had received Christian baptism.
Find St Paul’s on the Map

Whatever the details, he was banished from the kingdom sometime in 616 and went into Kent where he found that a similar situation had arisen on the death of Aethelrehd. From there he seems to have crossed to Gaul with Saint Justus of Rochester who found himself in the same position. He seems then seems to have travelled to Rome to consult with Pope Boniface IV. While in Rome he participated in a synod of Italian bishops concerning the life of monks and their relationship to the house of bishops. Meanwhile, back in England the successor of Augustine, Laurentius, was having some success and converted the new King of Kent, Eadbald. He recalled Mellitus and Justus who returned in 617/18 bringing with them the decrees of the synod in Rome.

Mellitus never was able to regain his See in London and succeeded Laurentius as Archbishop of Canterbury in 619. Although he retained the See for five years he appears never to have received the pallium, which may account for the fact that he is not on record as consecrating any bishops. During this time, he suffered constantly from chronic ill-health – gout according to Bede. He consecrated a church to the Mary Mother of God in the monastery of SS. Peter and Paul at Canterbury, a fragment of which survives at the east end of the abbey church (now Saint Augustine’s). Legend also attributes to him the foundation of the Abbey of St. Peter at Westminster, but this is certainly incorrect.

Many miracles have been attributed to him. The most famous is the quelling of a great fire at Canterbury which threatened to destroy the entire city. The saint, although too ill to move, had himself carried to the church of the Four Crowned Martyrs, where the fire was raging and, in answer to his prayer, a strong wind rose up and forced the flames away from the church and the city. Mellitus died in 624 and was buried near Augustine and Laurentius in the monastery of SS. Peter and Paul in Canterbury. Some relics of the saint seem to have been preserved in London in 1298. The feast of Saint Mellitus was observed on numerous English calendars before and after the Norman conquest. He is also mentioned in the commemoration of the dead in the Stowe Missal, together with SS Laurentius and Justus.

Saint Mellitus is portrayed in art as Saint Peter brings him a salmon to present to the king – which refers to the legendary foundation of St Peter’s at Westminster. At the Ancient Parish Church of Prittlewell at Southend-on-Sea in Essex, there are a number of magnificent stained glass windows, one of which has a depiction of St Mellitus in the centre light. Beneath him is a depiction of the conversion of Saeberht. Photographs of the windows in the church (© 2001 A.Barnard & St. Mary’s Prittlewell PCC) can be found by following the link above.