Was The Archbishopric Of Canterbury Created Because A Pope Met Slaves From Britain in a Roman Market?

Pope Gregory I, or his more illustrious title, Pope Saint Gregory the Great, was one of the most important figures to shape the future of the Papal States and the influence of the papacy over the monarchs of Europe. In fact, due to his brilliant theological mind and his masterful administration of the Catholic Church, Pope Gregory I (r. 590-604) is sometimes considered to be the founder of the medieval papacy.

Pope Gregory and his achievements deserve a much more in depth biography, but in this “Did You Know?” we will try to keep the information about Gregory’s life and ascension to throne of St. Peter concise. Gregory was born around 540 in the city of Rome. His family was wealthy, owning estates in both the Italian Peninsula and Sicily, but their primary holding was the Caelian Hill of Rome. Gregory also came from a family that was heavily associated with Christianity—his great-grandfather was Pope Felix III (r. 483-492)—and his mother, along with three other of Gregory’s aunts, all became nuns. Initially, Gregory seemed to be setting himself up for a life in government, even achieving the impressive position of a Roman Prefect. Yet, around 574, Gregory abandoned his life as an elite Roman citizen to become a monk. His isolation did not last—by 579, he was pulled out of the monastic life and appointed as a deacon. He received his last church promotion in 590, when he was elected to be pope of the Catholic Church.

In that span of time, between Gregory being pressured to leave his monastery and his ascension to the position of pope, an interesting event may have occurred that implanted the idea of creating the Archbishopric of Canterbury inside the mind of the future pope. A monk and historian named Bede (c. 673-735) wrote that there was a “traditional story in the history of our Church” claiming that Gregory was inspired to proselytize England after an encounter with British slaves in Rome (Ecclesiastical History of the English People, Book 2, Chapter 1).

According to the story, Gregory was browsing through a market in Rome that was selling goods from the British Isles. As he was looking through the wares, one unfortunate type of merchandise caught his attention—slaves. According to Bede, a group of enslaved boys that were captured from England left Gregory awestruck. The future pope could not find a single flaw in their aesthetic appearance or physical poise. Filled with questions about these flawless boys, Gregory struck up a conversation with the slaves.

First, he asked where they came from, and they told him that their home was in Britain. Next, as a clergyman, Gregory naturally asked if the boys came from a Christian community. To this, the slaves responded that their people were not Christians, but rather followed their traditional pagan gods.

As Gregory continued to question the slaves, he soon began to believe that their answers were omens calling for Britain to be fully converted to Christianity. Gregory asked the slaves what their society or race was called. To the priest’s delight, they were Angles, which he immediately compared to “angels,” the spiritual beings that served God in heaven. Next, Gregory asked about which province the slaves had been taken from. When they said they came from Deira, Gregory quickly associated that with the phrase, de ira, or, “from wrath.” He interpreted this to mean the Angles should be saved from the wrath of God through the teachings of the church. Finally, Gregory asked about the king of the Angles. The slaves told him that their king was named Aelle. Like with all of the other answers, Gregory could not help but associate the response with a Christian meaning. This time, he linked their king’s name, Aelle, with the religious phrase of praise, “alleluia.” After all of these answers, Gregory reportedly made it one of his life’s goals to greatly amplify the spread of the Catholic Church into Britain.

Whether this story was historical or a mere folktale remains an ongoing debate. Generally, most people conclude that the scenario of Gregory encountering slaves from Britain is plausible, but that the conversation that was recorded by Bede was likely the result of historical fiction or storytelling. Either way, Pope Gregory did, indeed, set up the Archbishopric of Canterbury. In 597, he sent a group of missionaries, under the leadership of Saint Augustine of Canterbury, which ultimately converted King Aethelbert (or Ethelbert) of Kent to Christianity, after initially being quarantined on the Isle of Thanet. Augustine, a Benedictine monk from Rome who was said to have performed miracles, was named the first Archbishop of Canterbury.

Written by C. Keith Hansley.

Photo attribution: (Gregory the Great (prior to becoming pope) conversing with British Slaves, by James William Edmund Doyle (1822–1892), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons)


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