In 604, Laurentius (also known as Laurence) became the second archbishop of Canterbury. When he took his prestigious position, the future of the Catholic Church in Britain must have looked bright—two major kings, Æthelbert (or Ethelbert) of Kent and Saberht of Essex, had converted to Christianity, supporting and protecting the religion in their realms.
Yet, twelve years later, Laurentius’ worst nightmares became reality. In 616, both Æthelbert and Saberht died simultaneously. Even worse, the heirs to their kingdoms were all pagans. Adding insult to injury, the new king in Kent even married his own stepmother, which was against the rules of the church. As Catholicism in Kent and Essex began to be flooded by “heathen” pressure, many of Laurentius’ bishops decided to flee from Britain and return to France. Some of the most skilled churchmen quickly left the country, including Melitus and Justus, the future third and fourth archbishops of Canterbury.
Laurentius, himself, apparently made up his mind that a Catholic Church in England was a lost cause, and decided to stay one last night before leaving the British Isles, for good. He planned to spend his final night in a church that was dedicated to the two apostles, Peter and Paul. This decision was either his best or his worst idea, depending on your reaction to the weird finale of this story.
Unfortunately, the archbishop of Canterbury would not sleep peacefully in that church. No, not by far. According to Venerable Bede (673-735 CE),the long-dead apostle Peter—one of the leaders of Jesus’ apostles and supposedly the first bishop of Rome—was extremely displeased with Laurentius. As the story goes, Peter was so irked by the actions of Laurentius that he personally descended from heaven to set the archbishop of Canterbury back on the right path.
What followed was weird. Peter appeared before Laurentius and chastised the priest for abandoning his flock, while others (Peter included) had faced martyrdom for their religion. While criticizing the archbishop with accusations such as these, the apostle supposedly struck Laurentius with savage blows from a heavy whip, or scourge. By morning, the bizarre mystical beating had convinced Archbishop Laurentius to remain in Britain.
Laurentius immediately sought, and obtained, an audience with the pagan king of Kent, Eadbald (r. 616-640), the son of Æthelbert. When he stood before King Eadbald, the sore and tired archbishop described the miraculous punishment that he had experienced during the night. According to Bede, he then dramatically removed his robe and let the king look upon his holy welts, in all of their bruised glory. As the story goes, King Eadbald was convinced by the sight and immediately converted, promising to follow and protect the Catholic Church.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
Top picture attribution: (Archbishop of Canterbury (probably Edmund), Illustrations from the Nuremberg Chronicle, by Hartmann Schedel (1440-1514), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons)
- Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People (and relevant letters), translated by Leo Sherley-Pride, R. E. Latham and D. H. Farmer (Penguin Classics, 2003).