Rob retired in 2014 from his post of Director of Licensed Ministries in Canterbury Diocese. His current interests are: leading programmes in missional leadership, writing, research, painting and travel. He is a founder member of a 'new monastic' community, the Companions of Augustine of Canterbury, drawing on the inspiration of Augustine's mission to England in 597.
Augustine’s plan for Canterbury developed around the foundation of two monastic communities. Crucially, Aethelberht’s active and material support was given to both these projects – an urban basilica for the bishop, and a dynastic mausoleum for the king. As a monastery chapel would be built first before accommodation and other buildings Augustine’s companions remained at St Martin’s for possibly three or four years until the basilica and its priory were completed.
At this stage the single community would have divided with Augustine, some of his monks and the Frankish clergy moving from St Martin’s to occupy Christ Church Priory.
Christ Church Cathedral and Priory, situated within the city walls, became the centre of an active apostolate through the ministry of the secular Frankish priests who arrived with Augustine, so that Anglo-Saxons first heard the preaching of the Gospel through priests of the Frankish Church. (Gem: St Augustine’s Abbey, 20) The Cathedral was dedicated in June 602 or 603; its name is taken from the entablature of the façade of the Lateran Basilica in Rome: Christo Salvatori, Christ the Saviour.
Like the Lateran Basilica Christ Church was not founded on an apostolic memory: there was no earlier church beneath its foundations, nor any tomb of a Christian apostle or martyr over which to build.
Bede records that Augustine, with the support of the king, restored an ancient church originally built by Roman believers for his cathedral and dedicated it to the name of the holy Saviour as Christ Church after the basilica in Rome. This is also repeated in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles; however excavations have provided no archaeological evidence of an earlier church beneath Augustine’s cathedral.
Augustine ‘established there a dwelling’, the archbishop’s palace, for himself and all his successors on the north side of the cathedral. (Bede: Ecclesiastical History, I.33) Presumably this is what Bede referred to when he wrote that after the king’s baptism, ‘it was not long before he granted his teachers a place to settle in, suitable to their rank, in Canterbury, his chief city, and gave them possessions of various kinds for their needs.’ (Bede: Ecclesiastical History, I.26)
Christ Church Priory
The consecration of the Cathedral of Christ was matched by the foundation of a priory community that was dedicated to worship, preaching and holiness of life, as the Latin Foundation Prayer of the Canterbury Cathedral Foundation declares. The prayer is still offered at the institution of all cathedral canons:
“Deus, qui nobili nos consortio dignatus es adunare, deprecamur te pro fratribus nostris et sacrosancta ecclesia Cantuariensi, ut in aede beatissimi Salvatoris devotionis decor, fidei praedicatio, morum perfectio, semper abundent, et inde in omnem partem deriventur, per Jesum Christum Dominum nostrum. Amen.”
[Eternal God, you have brought us together into a noble company. We pray for one another and for the holy Church of Canterbury; that in this house of our most blessed Saviour, dignity of worship, preaching the faith and holiness of life may for ever abound and thence spread through all the world, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.]
By AD 603, Augustine would have held the key leadership and spiritual roles of Bishop of the metropolitan See of Canterbury, which included the community at St Martin’s, Prior of the cathedral Priory, and with the consecration of Justus as bishop of Rochester and Mellitus of London in 604, also the role of Archbishop of all three Sees in the south of England. The priest Laurentius, who succeeded Augustine in Canterbury, Augsutine consecrated shortly before his death, which was most probably in AD 604.
Aethelberht endowed the Abbey of St Peter and St Paul (renamed St Augustine’s Abbey after Augustine’s death) with various gifts so that both the king and archbishop, and their successors, would be buried in the abbey church. (Bede: Ecclesiastical History, I. 33) The abbey chapel remained the principal dynastic burial place until the collapse of the independent Kentish kingdom in the 760s. The prayers of the abbey monks on behalf of the king and his dynasty, and for the departed buried within its side chapel (also dedicated to St Martin), mirrored the king’s warriors in battle, against the material and spiritual forces of evil.
The burial function of the new abbey church also determined its location – outside of the city. Canterbury was ringed with ancient cemeteries beyond the city walls, and an earlier Roman cemetery, east of the city wall, apparently proved an ideal location for the Abbey. The Roman legal system since Emperor Justinian, as well as traditional Christian religious practice, required that the dead be buried outside of a city, and finding a suitable burial place would soon have become an imperative for the missionaries.
By imitating the burial practices of Frankish kings who were by tradition laid to rest in the crypt of St Denis Abbey near Paris, Aethelberht adopted the mantle of Clovis I, heroic founder of the Merovingian dynasty. In doing this, Aethelberht marked a transition from pagan burial practices with grave-goods (as found in the Sutton Hoo burial ship in East Anglia) to a more austere form of Christian burial within tomb, crypt or chapel. Clovis had established an abbey dedicated to St Peter and St Paul on the south bank of the Seine (the remains of this great abbey lie within the grounds of the prestigious Lycée Henri IV, just east of the Panthéon). Aethelberht also adopted this burial practice in Canterbury.
Modelling himself on Clovis, Aethelberht also paid for the abbey’s construction from his own resources, evidence that the king placed high value on a Kentish dynastic chapel. A prime influence on the king in this decision would have come from Bertha, who had first-hand experience of the burial customs of Frankish kings laid to rest in lavish tombs. Pope Gregory would take the hyperbole even further, and compared Aethelberht to the first and great Christian emperor, Constantine. (Bede: Ecclesiastical History I.32)
Other factors may also have been at work. Bertha was born a Neustrian princess, and her own father Charibert I was King of Paris for six years until his death in AD 567. However, Charibert was excommunicated from the Church for his notorious excesses, and denied a burial alongside his Neustrian ancestors. Instead, Charibert was buried in disgrace a long way from Paris, at Blavia Castellum, a military fort on the Brittany Peninsula overlooking the sea. It is not difficult to imagine why burial in a dynastic mausoleum, which had been denied to her father, might be important to Bertha. Both king and queen accordingly followed this sixth-century inhumation practice for their own burials at St Augustine’s Abbey.
It is therefore highly likely that Bertha was the prime mover for the abbey project rather than Augustine, who would not initially have needed two monastic communities in Canterbury, which would only divide his few resources. It may also be the case that Aethelberht and Bertha’s desire for a dynastic monastery was a major reason for Augustine’s appeal to Gregory for reinforcements for the mission. However, Augustine also recognised that, in building a royal mausoleum, Aethelberht was making a clear commitment to the new faith publicly visible to his people. (Gem: St Augustine’s Abbey, 36)
[ ST AUGUSTINE’S ABBEYas mausoleum: video clip of St Augustine’s burial place in the Portico of St Gregory, and Bertha and Aethelberht, in the Portico of St Martin]
Bede mentions that Augustine appointed one of his companions, Peter (like Lawrence, a religious priest), as the first abbot. The abbey would perform the traditional functions of prayer, hospitality, almsgiving and teaching, providing a cloistered space for contemplative prayer within a communal life.
By AD 988 there were two separate Benedictine communities in Canterbury, the second and more recent at the cathedral. It seems that the first archbishop of Canterbury held the position of abbot while the day-to-day affairs were in the hands of his prior.
Augustine died before the completion of the abbey, and his body was first buried near to the incomplete chapel of St Peter and St Paul. Bede records:
On the death of our father Augustine, a man beloved of God, his body was buried outside but close to the church of the apostles St Peter and St Paul mentioned already, for it was not yet either finished or consecrated. But as soon as it was consecrated, the body was consecrated and carried inside and honourably buried in the chapel on the north side. (Bede: Ecclesiastical History II.3)
Paris occupies a natural limestone basin hollowed out by the Seinethat winds northwest some 93 miles (150km) to the Normandy coast. Germanic invasions by the Franks and Alemanni in the late third century destroyed many of the Left Bank buildings in the Gallo-Roman city. Paris was forced to contract into the defensive stronghold of Île de la Cité using the Seine as a protective barrier. Walls were built along the island perimeter from large stones taken from ruins on the Left Bank.
The edges of the city, both north and south of the Seine, had been left to decay over succeeding centuries following the Roman withdrawal and slowly sank into the surrounding countryside. In tune with the spiritual climate of Paris at the time, werewolves as well as dogs were believed to inhabit everyday life. On Île de la Cité, the historic heart of ancient Paris, a pagan altar once lay buried beneath the public square that stands before the Cathedral of Our Lady of Paris. An earlier Gallo-Roman temple stood beneath the cathedral itself, and this had replaced an even earlier shrine sacred to the ancient gods of Lutetia. There is also a connection with the legends of post-Roman Britain. Here in 464 Arthur, the son of Uther Pendragon, is said to have called upon the Virgin Mary for protection in his forthcoming battle near Paris with a Roman military detachment. The Virgin offered Arthur her cloak, and the hero of Romano-British legend was able to defeat Flolo, the Roman tribune. (O’Reilly: The Ermine Lady, HTML)
Paris was a city deeply rooted in religious conviction.
Eleven years after the defeat of the Gallo-Roman Flolo, Saint Genevieve built a prominent shrine to St Denis(Dionysius, d. 250), the first missionary martyr of ancient Lutetia. The church was built on an ancient Roman road that crossed Île de la Cité and continued some six miles further north to the site of the new church and on to Amiens. The church was visible to all who passed by as they travelled south to Paris or north to Amiens. A mile or so to the west the Seine twists and turns back on itself as it makes its long journey to the sea. The area around St-Denis was believed to be the sacred centre of Gaul. Julius Caesar recorded that Druids from as far away as Britannia and the Mediterranean came to these Lutetian marshes for the purpose of electing their supreme spiritual leader.
AfterClovis I converted to Christianity Paris became a significant religious centre. In 556-558, during the reign of Clovis’s son Childebert I, the church of Sainte-Croix-et-Sainte-Vincent was built. Chlothar Iwas buried at St Medard in 561, which he had built and dedicated to the saint in Soissons. St-Germain, Bishop of Paris and a principal inspiration for the church’s dedication, established an adjacent monastery dedicated to Saint Symphorien. In the chapel Childebert placed the tunic of St. Vincent that had been brought from the Holy Land. The church also preserves Childebert’s remains; he died on the day of the church’s consecration in 558.
The Prieure Saint-Martin-des-Champs (St Martin in the Fields) in Paris was recorded in a charter dating from AD 709/10, providing the earliest mention of St Martin’s Priory in Paris. The priory was located within the city walls on the north bank of the Seine, on the Rue St-Martin, leading to the city gate Porte St-Martin. A religious community may have existed on this site as early as 558. (Some of the later St Martin’s Priory buildings still survive as part of the Conservatoire National des Arts et Métiers). It is possible that St Martin’s Priory was Augustine’s destination in Paris, but to reach it from the south after a long day’s journey meant crossing the Seine by way of two over-crowded bridges leading to and from the Ile-de-la-Cite.
Queen Fredegund was also buried at St-Germain after her death in 597, and may have lived out her last days there. (Athena Review: Ancient and Medieval Paris, 26-28) After St. Germain was canonised in 756 both the church and monastery became the Benedictine Abbey of St-Germain-des-Prés, outside the city walls.
Paris was also deeply layered with symbolism.
The city contained both the palace and mausoleum of Clovis, founder of the Merovingian dynasty. The basilica of St-Denis was the last resting place of Neustrian kings from early times, however not all were buried there. (Spiegel: Cult of St-Denis, 43) The remains of Clovis I were not transferred to St-Denis from the crypt of St-Genevieve (on the Left Bank of the Seine) until the eighteenth century.
Childebert I (d.568) was succeeded by his nephew Charibert Iwho ruled Paris from 561 until his death in 567. However Charibert was not buried in Paris but in Blavia Castellum, a military fort by the sea in the Tractus Armoricani, present-day Normandy. Charibert’s daughter Bertha was probably born in the royal palace on Île de la Cité, the city that Chlothar II of Neustriaand his mother Fredegund were anxious to seize in 596. The treatment handed out to her father’s mortal remains may have influenced Bertha’s own views of dynastic burial practices in Canterbury.
It is not clear to whom the city would normally have paid tribute in the three decades after Charibert’s death. The capture of Paris was an opportunistic move by Fredegund and Chlothar II, but seizing the city had much deeper significance than simply taking control of its tax revenues. Symbolism was a powerful weapon in the struggle for control of Francia. Fredegund was making a statement about Chlothar’s legitimacy, much disputed at the time of his birth, through establishing her son in Francia’s ancient dynastic capital. By early 597 Charibert’s former royal palace on Île de la Cité had only recently become Chlothar II’s royal seat. The small island, still surrounded by fortified walls, made a defensible area with the Seine serving as a moat. Nevertheless, as Donaldson describes, Paris in 597 might have seemed:
… rather insignificant, a busy little town on an island in the middle of the river Seine where they built a temple to Jupiter, which is now the site of the present Cathedral of Notre Dame, on the Île de la Cité. In AD 508 the Merovingian King Clovis made it his capital with Queen Clothild. In AD 586 Paris was devastated. A woman had prophesied that the whole town would be destroyed by fire, and so it was. Houses one after another were set alight, until the fire came to a small oratory built to commemorate how St Martin had once kissed a leper. … All this devastation must still have been in many peoples’ minds, and the miracle, eleven years later as the pilgrims came in 596-7. (Donaldson: The Great English Pilgrimage, 92)
The general pattern of Gregory’s mission strategy was for bishops and ecclesiastical personnel to work together with rulers and local authorities in bringing about the conversion of heathen subjects. By 601 Gregory had initiated his own correspondence with Aethelberht, now a convert to Christianity, and also with Queen Bertha the originator of the mission. The model of kingship that Gregory offered to King Aethelberht was that of Emperor Constantine who converted the Roman state from idol-worship to submission under Christ. Aethelberht was expected to follow suit. His queen, great-granddaughter of the first Frankish Christian king, Clovis I, would have reinforced the model of Aethelberht as Christian ruler. The unquestioned political and social model behind Gregory’s missionary enterprise was the long-established pattern of the coercive regime of the Roman Empire. However, once the full implications of the new situation that Augustine faced sank in, Gregory abandoned his instinctive Roman imperial strategy in favour of a more flexible approach that responded more sensitively to deeply held Anglo-Saxon convictions. (Markus: Gregory the Great, 82)
Within Canterbury Augustine’s mission began amongst a small and diverse group of Christians gathered around St Martin’s church, including Queen Bertha and her entourage, Augustine’s own companions, and a few itinerant seafarers and traders from the Continent, and a remnant of the former British Church. The mission rapidly gained a foothold in the Anglo-Saxon court, but a broader basis was needed if it was to rise above the undertow of strong political currents that surged through the country during most of the seventh century.
Augustine’s plan for Canterbury developed around the foundation of two monastic communities. Crucially, Aethelberht’s active and material support was given to both these projects – an urban basilica for the bishop, and a dynastic mausoleum for the king. As a monastery chapel would be built first before accommodation and other buildings Augustine’s companions remained at St Martin’s for possibly three or four years until the basilica and its priory were completed. At this stage the single community would have divided with Augustine, some of his monks and the Frankish clergy moving from St Martin’s to occupy Christ Church Priory.
The building of the Abbey of St Peter and St Paul (completed sometime after 604, and more likely after 610) meant that the monks, now under the supervision of Peter as their abbot, continued to live and worship at St Martin’s until the completion of the Abbey. As the site of the Abbey was only a short distance below St Martin’s, this was also a very convenient location for supervising the construction.
This was not the last occasion that St Martin’s played host to a monastic community. During the arch-episcopate of Dunstan (960-988), the archbishop granted a house and fourteen acres of land within the City to ‘St Martin and those who serve God there’, implying that the church was being served by a small community, endowed to live some form of community life. This community may have continued until the early thirteenth century. In 1326 the manor at St Martin’s was given to Christ Church Priory so that the monks might have a place of retreat in the clean air above the Stour valley mist.
Christ Church Cathedral
Christ Church Cathedral and Priory, situated within the city walls, became the centre of an active apostolate through the ministry of the secular Frankish priests, so that Anglo-Saxons first heard the preaching of the Gospel through priests of the Frankish Church. (Gem: St Augustine’s Abbey, 20) The Cathedral was dedicated in June 602 or 603; its name is taken from the entablature of the façade of the Lateran Basilica in Rome: Christo Salvatori, Christ the Saviour. Like the Lateran Basilica Christ Church was not founded on an apostolic memory: there was no earlier church beneath its foundations, nor any tomb of a Christian apostle or martyr over which to build.
Bede records that Augustine, with the support of the king, restored an ancient church originally built by Roman believers for his cathedral and dedicated it to the name of the holy Saviour as Christ Church after the basilica in Rome. This is also repeated in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles; however excavations have provided no archaeological evidence of an earlier church beneath Augustine’s cathedral.
Augustine ‘established there a dwelling’, the archbishop’s palace, for himself and all his successors on the north side of the cathedral. (Bede: Ecclesiastical History, I.33) Presumably this is what Bede referred to when he wrote that after the king’s baptism, ‘it was not long before he granted his teachers a place to settle in, suitable to their rank, in Canterbury, his chief city, and gave them possessions of various kinds for their needs.’ (Bede: Ecclesiastical History, I.26)
Bede records that, after Aethelberht’s conversion to the faith and baptism at St Martin’s, Augustine and his companions received greater liberty to preach everywhere and to build or restore churches (Bede: Ecclesiastical History I.26). Was St Pancras church, dedicated to a second-century boy-martyr in Rome, one of these?
The remains of this church in Canterbury are amongst the most striking of the ruins within the grounds of St Augustine’s Abbey. One of its surviving columns, made of limestone quarried from the Paris basin, is still in place.
Thorn, a fourteenth century chronicler and Benedictine monk at St Augustine’s Abbey, recorded the oldest tradition relating to St Pancras church at the end of the fourteenth century. Thorn’s account below also adds some weight to the possibility that Aethelberht’s royal enclosure was adjacent to St Martin’s rather than within the walls of Canterbury:
There was not far from the city [of Canterbury] towards the east, as it were midway between the church of St. Martin and the walls of the city, a temple or idol-house where King Aethelberht according to the rites of his tribe was wont to pray, and with his nobles to sacrifice to his demons and not to God: which temple Augustine purged from the pollutions and filth of the Gentiles; and, having broken the image which was in it, changed it into a church, and dedicated it in the name of the martyr St. Pancras—and this was the first church dedicated by St. Augustine. There is still extant an altar in the southern porticus of the same church, at which the same Augustine was wont to celebrate, where formerly had stood the idol of the king—at which altar, while Augustine was celebrating mass for the first time, the devil, seeing himself driven out from the home which he had inhabited for long ages, tried to overturn from the foundations the aforesaid church: the marks of which are still apparent on the exterior eastern wall of the abovementioned porticus. (Routledge: Roman Foundations at St Pancras, 103)
These ‘devil’s marks’ were portrayed in an engraving, provided by Canon Routledge, dated 1784. Augustine’s relationship to the spiritual and miraculous has been considered above, so the issues that this raises will not be repeated here. In evangelistic terms, such an event would significantly enhance the standing of the missionaries amongst the Angli. A vague tradition believed that there was once a Romano-British church on the St Pancras site that, having fallen into decay, may have been partially restored by Aethelberht as a heathen temple.
Canon Routledge’s conclusion, after examining the site and archaeological evidence in the 1880s, was that:
I would picture to myself a small Roman church, possibly with other buildings adjacent. These would fall into partial ruin after the evacuation of Britain. One portion of these ruins (perhaps the southern porticus) might be restored by Aethelberht as a heathen temple, which St.Augustine would purify from pollution and consecrate to Christian worship. He would also take in the remaining site of the destroyed Roman church, using the original materials, and re-erect a building there to provide for his numerous converts. (Routledge: Roman Foundations, 107) (Wds 101)
However there is no clear evidence of a former Romano-British church on this site. The earliest Anglo-Saxon churches in Canterbury are evidently so Roman in the manner of their construction – the recycling Roman brick, tile and stone, using Roman mortar types and flooring materials of broken tiles mixed with mortar – that a very strong archaeological argument would be required to show that these were, in fact, Roman-period rather than post-sixth century structures. (Williams: Archaeology of Kent, 239) This is reinforced by the discovery that the walls in the building of St Pancras in the seventh century were of reused Roman brick, adopting the same general technique applied in the building of The Abbey chapel. (Gem: St Augustine’s Abbey, 101)
A stronger case can be made for viewing the earliest building of St Pancras church as a second-generation construction, to be placed in time between the building of the Abbey Chapel (c. 613), and a third generation of churches represented by the Reculver church (c. 669). This is more convincing than arguing that St Pancras is a late Roman church, or even that it was Bertha’s chapel. Reused tile brick appears in both phases and its construction is comparable to those of the early walls of the church of Saint Peter and St Paul. While there is no reliable documentary evidence for dating the founding of this church, the cult of Pancras, fostered by Pope Honorius I (625-638), who built a new basilica over the martyr’s shrine in Rome, may have been influential. If this were the case, the later date for such a construction reduces the possibility even further that St Pancras was part of Augustine’s own building programme around Canterbury.
While it is difficult to make the case for St Pancras as an early Romano-British church, or even as a later church built by Augustine, the missionaries do seem to have followed Pope Gregory’s direction for dealing with pagan shrines, and rededicated a shrine that was already there – probably a wood and thatch structure – for Christian use. Pope Gregory’s instructions to Augustine on how to deal with pagan shrines were:
I have decided after long deliberation about the English people, namely that the idol temples of that race should by no means be destroyed, but only the idols in them. For if the shrines are well built, it is essential that they should be changed from the worship of devils to the service of the true God. When the people see that the shrines are not destroyed they will be able to banish error from their hearts and be more ready to come to the places they are familiar with, but now recognising that and worshipping the true God. (Bede: Ecclesiastical History I.30)
If it is the case that Augustine dealt with Aethelberht’s reputed shrine in the manner that Gregory advised, then the survival of a former pagan shrine on what later became the site of St Pancras church was the first clear example on English soil of the Pope’s reconsidered mission-and-pastoral-strategy for the conversion of a pagan people. If this interpretation corresponds to the historical events, then the chapel dedicated to St Pancras was built after Augustine’s death, re-using rubble from former Romano-British structures, possibly in the second quarter of the seventh century, and as part of a growing monastic complex on the St Augustine’s Abbey site.
It would have been contrary to Gregory’s counsel to demolish a shrine so closely associated with the king at such an early stage, and to build a church in its place. It seems more likely that after Aethelberht’s baptism, instead of building a church over the pagan site as Routledge imagined, Augustine had followed Gregory’s instructions, cleansed the shrine, and celebrated mass in this small structure. Within their first twelve months in Canterbury, Augustine had both extended the Queen’s chapel of St Martin into a larger church to accommodate the growing number of new converts who followed their king and were baptised, and consecrated the king’s shrine for Christian use.
Augustine’s practice, following Gregory’s instructions for the treatment of temples and idols (as at the site of St Pancras church mentioned above), was to provide Christian centres from which evangelisation could take place, rather than to encourage individual, wandering preachers without a secure base. (Gem: St Augustine’s Abbey, 22) The chief resources for building such a secure base were the monasteries themselves. By the mid-fifth century, British patrons had already begun founding rural monastic communities in western Britain. By the late sixth century, preaching and baptising in the east of England also fell, not to secular (diocesan) clergy, but to the monks, living communal celibate lives under a monastic rule.
Augustine and his companions most probably arrived at Canterbury on foot after arriving at Fordwich, walking on a Saxon footpath from Fordwich to St Martin’s Hill. This remains a popular walk, and we chose one of the hottest Easter weekends on record to explore it. Gill and I walked from Lady Wootton’s Green via North Holmes Road up to St Martin’s Church.
we walked from St Martin’s on a gentle uphill slope towards the medieval Conduit Head that provided fresh water to St Augustine’s Abbey, on through a new housing development (the path is fairly straightforward to follow), across a road, and into a line of trees.
An old power station is visible on the left, and an open field of grass on the right (to the north and south respectively).
The first part of the walk towards Fordwich passes through canopied trees, including oaks, bluebells, scented blossoms, soft grass; a magical springtime experience.
We came out on to another path in the woods, keeping left and passing – on the right – an open area that looked attractive for picnics, and continued between housing below us to the left, and the ridge of a long, flat hill about ten meters high or so, to our right (south). Most of the walk was under a canopy of trees of various kinds. The path leads to a fishing pool on the left. Millions of tadpoles crowded the water’s edge with all the appearance of an oil slick lining this small, tree-lined lake.
Occasionally views opened up to the left (north) over the Stour Valley itself, and once clear of the houses, we walked down into the Sturry Stour Park, which has gravel paths leading to children’s playground equipment.
We returned to the main path, where the walk slopes down to the left. At this point an alternative route, through a secluded golf course, continues straight east (signposted with a yellow arrow).
From here, the path drops continuously downwards to the level of the valley floor, exiting over a small wooden bridge, and continuing towards Fordwich road bridge. A Mercedes dealership is visible on the left/north along the Sturry Road, and a scattering of fine houses with extensive gardens stretch almost to the river. The route for us ended at the George & Dragon, (but not open till eleven – we had left Canterbury on foot at 9am, and arrived at the George at 10.05).
After resting our legs for a while near the bridge overlooking the Stour River as it flows lazily towards the coast, we walked around to St Mary’s church (now a conservation trust building, open and attractive) and around to the ancient Town Hall.
The return route followed the ancient Saxon way to Canterbury, but the path turns away from the flood-line, turning uphill (south) past the turning at the George & Dragon and on past some fine houses and farm buildings, with a harvested and very dry field to the right (west) as we walked up the slope.
In spring walking through a ploughed field, the path is easy to follow, and we crossed over to woods on the far western edge, into some rough ground and a narrow path that led through trees on to the golf course. A few players were on the green, but ignored us as we crossed over, following the posts and yellow-painted tops to more trees to the western edge. This may be the ‘dry-shod’ route, but the ground was still damp in places, despite several weeks of no rain and plenty of sunshine.
This is the most likely route that Augustine and his companions would have taken to reach the royal compound near to St Martin’s, probably in Spring and before Easter 597. (Ironically, and inadvertently, the 104th Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, also led a party of pilgrims one Easter Monday from Fordwich to Canterbury Cathedral. The party had meant to take the lower road, but found themselves on the upper path instead.)
After we rejoined our initial path, we took a detour uphill to see the hilltop. The view improves considerably, and a wide unpaved road runs along the fence and farmland on the ridge, where some of the gorse that grows here had been burned back.
We eventually dropped down again (to the north), following a farm track. Care needs to be taken towards the end, to have both hands free and take small steps as the ground is both stony and slippery.
We retraced our initial route, passing the pond again, this time with another couple and a brown-coated dog that leapt into the water. We took a wrong turning to the right at a crucial fork in the path, and the character of the trees and the glades changed – darkened – significantly. After a few encouraging comments from Gill about my navigation skills, we returned to the right path and continued without much further incident back to the Conduit House.
The text at the site was in English and also in Braille, which Gill was able to read slowly and carefully, like a five year-old with her first English textbook.
It is also here that we managed our first clear view of Canterbury from the path that runs along St Martin’s Hill. Fourteen hundred years ago, when this entire area would have been woodland, a view of the walls and the derelict former Roman city would have been just visible from this part of the ancient Saxon Way.
It is a unique and very special piece of our history.
We continued past St Martin’s Church, and returned to the car via the ancient Watling Street from Richborough fort to Canterbury, bought a welcome ice cream, and arrived back at DH at 11.35. The round-trip took two and a half hours.
In the Spring of AD 597 Augustine and his combined party of forty monks and priests set sail from the Frankish port of Quentovic to the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Kent. Their journey took them 22 miles due west to within perhaps a few hundred yards of the white cliffs and the site of a settlement that lay in the valley of the River Dour, sheltered from the prevailing south-westerly winds. A Roman lighthouse dominated the chalk cliffs. The boat turned northwards, keeping close to the shoreline for a dozen more miles, passing Julius Caesar’s landing-place in 54 BC. Then the line of cliffs that identified the Isle of Thanet broke into view.
At the beginning of Chapter 1 of his Ecclesiastical History of the English People, the VenerableBede records that Richborough (Rutubi Portus, a fortified port) is the nearest haven for travellers from the continent. This is his only reference to the port, and it was Augustine’s most obvious destination.
St Bede writes:
“Over against the eastern districts of Kent there is a large island called Thanet … It is divided from the mainland by the River Wantsum, which is about three fulongs wide [660 yards, 168m], can be crossed in two places only, and joins the sea at either end. Here Augustine … landed with his companions, who are said to have been nearly forty in number… On hearing this the king ordered them to remain on the island where they had landed and be provided with all things necessary until he had decided what to do with them…
Their arrival on the shores of Kent was apparently unexpected. Ethelbert needed time to consult with his inner council, and also with his Christian queen. Augustine and his companions were not to proceed to Canterbury until the king and his men had come to mete with them. This is more significant than the exact location where the missionaries landed or stayed. However, from the point of view of undertaking a pilgrimage, an experience of ‘place’ can be as important as the story itself. Of all the possible alternative sites in the immediate area, none would seem to offer superior facilities for a party of 40 people than the former Roman fort.
In terms of geography, Richborough was one of the closest port to Quentovicus, a major trading emporium south of present-day Bologne, at Etaples.
In terms of resources to feed a large party, the area was (and still is) rich in sea-bass and shell-fish, grazing for livestock, and soil fertile for crops growing in a crescent stretching from the fort to the village of Ash to the south-west.
Politically, Richborough was the property of the king and one of the early Anglo-Saxon Royal Estates (Eastry). Like the fort at Reculver, and the walled city of Canterbury itself (both with royal halls), royal ownership made Richborough ideally suited to offer hospitality to the missionaries.
In terms of maritime security, the fort was vital as it guarded the southern entrance to the Wantsum channel, and Ethelbert would have maintained regular personal contact with Richborough and the ports further south. Given Richborough’s strategic position, it would be a key site for a permanent coastal lookout, guarded by local men and provided by the local gesith (ruler)for the king, who relied on food supplies that were locally sourced. The king and his warriors would be frequent visitors here, passing beneath the walls of the fort to reach Deal, Dover and Port Lymne further south.
Together these factors indicate the existence of a local community, and a small number of Anglo-Saxon burials discovered on the site supports the continuity of occupation since the Roman withdrawal of protection in AD 410. It would have been from this community that Ethelbert supplied the missionaries with hospitality while they awaited a meeting with the king and his nobles.
There is evidence at Richborough of trade-goods from this period, indicating that the site was still actively used. Added to these considerations, less than a century after Augustine’s arrival the fort was occupied by an Anglo-Saxon religious community whose chapel was dedicated to St Augustine, possibly in the C7th. The outline of the ruined chapel is clearly visible today, and it was still in use in the C17th. (A similar chapel was built at Reculver in AD 669 by abbot Basso.)
We can conclude that Augustine landed at Richborough and remained there until summoned to a meeting-place by the king. The association of Richborough as Augustine’s landing place is strong, and points to a local community that, with little if any break in continuity since the withdrawal of Roman protection from AD 410, engaged in local agriculture and fishing. It operated a port, a fort, a trading station. By the seventh century, a religious community existed here as well.
Buried beneath the grass and the fields that surround the fort is the outline of a road system and an amphitheatre that once served the Roman town around the fort. Watling Street, the first and longest Roman road in Britannia, begins here. It’s outline is still visible, stretching west towards London and beyond for hundreds of miles to Wales .
This too was Augustine’s entrance to his mission-field in Kent, but not via the Roman roads, that by now had become dangerous for travellers from bandits and wild woodland animals that roamed the forests. The Saxons largely ignored the roads, preferring the highways of sea and river as the quickest and safest means of travel. When Ethelbert’s summons came, it would be by boat.
From the northern side of the old fort, the Isle of Thanet and the now green and agricultural Wantsum channel can be clearly seen. The shingle bank that formed the spur of land from Thanet to Stonar, and present-day Pfizers, can be partially followed along Ebbsfleet Lane. Much of this area has recently been obscured by a new by-pass road between Thanet and Sandwich.
A combination of factors have made present-day access to Richborough Castle more complex – changes to the road system, the railway cutting, and the changing shape of the river as the former channel silts more and more, leaving the old fort beached some two miles inland from the present shoreline. The road to Richborough is through Sandwich, and it is evident where the island began as the narrow lane suddenly rises from the plain. The views from the top are magnificent, and the fort itself still a substantial and impressive ruin with some of the high walls still standing. Boat trips from Sandwich provide the feel of arrival by water, and a landing place and pathway bring travellers up to the fort, managed by English Heritage.
The main road from Dover to Sandwich continues north to Pegwell Bay, where suddenly the trees and scrub give way to a wide view of the sea. An attractive salt marsh runs from the road to the shoreline, and ahead to the north-east a magnificent view of West Cliff opens-up.
The cliffs brood over an ever-changing sea. When the tide is out, a wide expanse of brown mudflats and sparkling pools of water lies exposed, fringing the shore. A full-scale Viking warship with oars and shields, and donated by Denmark, dominates open parkland overlooking the sea. It stands as a reminder of a grim history of the harsher times that Kent has known.
The coming of the Saxons
In AD 449, at the time of the emperors Marcian and Valentinian, men of the Germanic tribe of Jutes led by two brothers, Hengist and Horsa, came to Britain in three warships. They came as mercenaries at the invitation of Vortigern, a British warlord. Sailing past the foot of these cliffs below, they beached their boats in an area of Thanet called Ebbsfleet, on possibly the first stretch of useful beaching shingle they encountered as they sailed round Thanet and entered Pegwell Bay at Cliffs End.
Why did Ethelbert need several days to decide what to do with Augustine? We can only speculate, but it would take at least a day or two to gather his senior men for counsel. The arrival of a large party of forty people had several implications – their support, their impact on the politics, religion and lifestyle of the Anglo-Saxons; the views of Queen Bertha, who had petitioned Frankish bishops for support nearly a decade before but without success. Who were these people? Where were they from? What were their intentions? Ethelbert needed time to weigh up these and many more factors with his wife and his inner council of advisors before he would be in a position to meet with Augustine.
Bede records that Ethelbert seems to have been concerned that they meet out doors because of a traditional superstition that, if they came practising magic, the missionaries might get the better of him.
Some days afterwards the king came to the island and, sitting in the open air, commanded Augustine and his comrades to thither to talk with him…. At the king’s command they sat down and preached the word of life to himself and his counts there present.
This sizeable spectacle of forty robed monks and priests, the strength of a typical war-band, could scarcely fail to impress as they ascended the beach. The party walked with stave in hand, but without weapons, armour or shields. They would have processed in pairs with the youngest bearing their standard, a silver cross; another bore an icon of Christ painted on a wooden panel. Then came Augustine himself in the full robes of a bishop with crook and mitre, all the while the missionaries chanting litanies and prayers to the Lord.
How did they manage a conversation, as Ethelbert spoke Anglo-Saxon and Augustine spoke Latin? Bede mentions (Book 1, chapter 25) that Augustine and his Roman companions had “acquired interpreters from the Frankish race according to the command of Pope St Gregory.” It seems that the Franks, sharing as they did a common Germanic ancestry, also spoke a dialect of Anglo-Saxon. Gregory had the foresight to realise (or perhaps Augustine had pointed this out to him) that no preaching would be possible unless the hearers could understand. Gregory’s response to the need for a latter-day ‘Pentecost of the Gentiles’ was to ask for Frankish priests who both spoke Latin and Old English.
There are clues to what he might have said in Bede’s account of Augustine’s initial message to Ethelbert:
Augustine sent to Ethelbert to say that he had come from Rome bearing the best of news, namely the sure and certain promise of eternal joys in heaven and an endless kingdom with the living and true God to those who received it.
Much of their conversation may have revolved around traditional pleasantries as to the journey, a mention that Augustine had made a pilgrimage to the tomb of St Martin at Tours, comment on the support he had received en route, and not least how the Franks had prospered under Christianity, including the trade and other links they enjoyed with the Mediterranean world as a result.
Augustine’s missionary thrust, as his message to Ethelbert indicates, is overwhelmingly upbeat and affirmative. There is no condemnation of pagan traditions; rather, the certainty of spiritual reward for any one who received these promises from the Almighty is affirmed; an endless Kindgom is offered, with resonances of the royal mead-hall, and the eternal fellowship with God pointing to the fellowship enjoyed by the king’s subjects writ on a larger canvass.
The translation of Augustine’s words were heard by everyone present, so that the king’s response, regardless of what he might personally have thought at this stage, was careful and cautious:
‘The words and promises you bring are fair enough, but because they are new to us and doubtful, I cannot consent to accept them and forsake those beliefs which I and the whole English race have held so long. But as you have come on a long pilgrimage and are anxious, I perceive, to share with us things which you believe to be true and good, we do not wish to do you harm; on the contrary, we will receive you hospitably and provide what is necessary for your support; nor do we forbid you to win all you can to your faith and religion by your preaching.”
The sense of relief at these words would have been enormous! After nine months or more of journey through difficult times and hostile circumstances, that which the monks had feared most, and that had taken Augustine back to Rome to petition the pope for more assistance, was now laid to rest: “We do not wish to do you harm – on the contrary, we will receive you hospitably…”
Bertha, Ethelbert’s Frankish queen from Tours, had herself prayed long and hard for this moment. Ethelbert could scarcely make a more appropriate response: reassuring, welcoming, generous, yet statesmanlike; and cautious, if only for the sake of his noblemen and the ancient beliefs that they shared.
Bede writes that the king made them an extremely generous grant:
He gave them a dwelling in the city of Canterbury, which was the chief city of all his dominions, and in accordance with his promise, he granted them provisions and did not refuse them freedom to preach.
Ethelbert had made up his mind. The missionaries would be based in Canterbury. A beachhead for the Anglo-Saxon mission had finally been achieved.
Our wedding anniversary! Early start for train to Ashford, and no trouble getting tickets for Gill and I from the automatic dispenser. Uneventful journey to Paris Gare du Nord. Not so for the RER Metro experience! An hour was hopelessly inadequate for buying metro tickets and finding the right platform. The right Metro train never seemed to arrive. Felt like chaos. No station staff to ask, only fellow-passengers. We finally the Metro to Chatelat des Halles and changed for Gare du Lyon, to find our train was cancelled owing to an SNCF rail strike! We took the next TGV to arrive. Although a heavily overcrowded train, we managed to find two seats together in Coach 8. Three hours to Aix, stopping only twice, at Lyon Airport TGV (soul-less as all these stops are, including those in England) and Avignon.
The countryside changed rapidly as we dropped south-east from Paris, ranging from vast, flat breadbasket country to hilly hamlets and hills dotted with sheep. We did not see any church on the horizon until nearly in Lyon. Mountain ranges kept appearing, but to the west rather than the east (and the French Alps) as I would have expected. We thundered down the Rhone Valley, not as mountainous or as gorge-like as I had imagined, until finally we swept into the broad plain that signals Provence. Our train coasted down to Avignon, a few hills suddenly appearing on what otherwise was a vast open plain, curtains of mist and rain settling-in. By 7.30pm it was dusk; we arrived in Aix in the dark. Steady, heavy rain was falling, not torrential, merely soaking, as Provence has a high rainfall in Spring, and we had our fair share on day one.
The kindness of strangers! Someone helpful always seemed to turn up when we needed them most. A woman fellow-passenger at Aix TGV led the way up and down and across lifts and stairs and gangways to arrive at the bus station beneath the station complex. By now it was both dark and freezing cold. An automatic door out to the road kept opening and closing as we waited in the small vestibule, letting in drafts of freezing cold air. We arrived at Aix by bus, still in the pouring rain, and now completely disorientated. The map seemed to make no sense. After the taxi dropped us, a young man delivering Pizza from a roadside van took us to the very door where our host’s partner, Christian, was waiting for us at the large iron pedestrian gate to our accommodation in the eastern suburbs of Aix.
Silver haired, oozing Gallic charm, Christian showed us to the studio flat next to their remodelled farmhouse. We had a bath, finished the nuts we’d been chewing on all day, made a cuppa, and passed out till after nine in the next morning. I guess Gill and I would have chosen a less dramatic day for our wedding anniversary, but despite our best-laid plans, that’s the day we were grateful to have had.
Thurs 8 April Aix
Went grocery shopping in the morning to the nearby local supermarket. Road workers were digging a trench in the street to lay a new pipe. We passed the place where the pizza van of the night before had been parked, but the scene was quite different in the daytime – now several vehicles and stalls, ranging from fresh fruit and veg to cheeses.
Headed in the direction of the town centre around noon and about 20 minutes’ walk past a technical school, Paul Cezanne, and passed by avenues of high walls and tall trees. Once inside the old town, we made our way through a colourful outdoor market selling mostly soap, a major tourist item, as Belgian chocolate is in Bruges. Aix was once renowned for its soap, and the prevailing smell of Aix is still soap; but now it is all made in Marseilles. At the Information Office we were given a map of the city and walked down Victor Hugo street to the SNCF station. A clerk gave us a timetable to Marseille and printed out the timetable to Cannes. Another giant road project was in progress outside the station.
Aix feels like a Mediterranean city; not just the palms and other Mediterranean trees, or the laid-back pace of life, but the ubiquitous ochre colour of so many domestic and public buildings. The same is true of the Malbos’ home and our little annexe – right down to the light blue window shutters (though, as Gill pointed out, the neighbours have green).
From the station, we made our way up to the centre of the city and the café area near the Hotel de Ville for a hot chocolate, and time to read the map and guidebook before pressing on. The station is towards the lower (south-west) end of town; the ground slopes gently upward in the direction of the large, dominating Mont Ste Victoire several miles north of the city (though not visible from within it) and features in almost every landscape painting of Aix. Several smaller hills rise to the east and north-east, including the one on which the Malbos’ house is built (delightfully styled Villa Jeannette).
The old Jewish Quarter is diagonally opposite the northwest corner of the Hotel de Ville. Intriguing to speculate whether there were Jewish merchants resident in Aix in the late C6th? (probably yes), and if so, how they were regarded, and whether their financial and commercial contacts played any part in the success of Augustine’s mission? (probably no). Pope Gregory the Great was unusually sympathetic for his time towards Jewish communities, the people from whom – and for whom – Jesus Christ had come.
It was nearly 2pm when we arrived at St Saviour’s Cathedral.
The basilica was built at the heart of Gallo-Roman Aquae Sextiae (the Roman baths of Sextius, Aix’s founder), occupying the top north-east corner of the original Gallo-Roman forum. The cathedral runs traditionally on an east-west axis, with an impressive colonnaded font at the west end. A later (possibly C12th) cathedral extension joins the Gallo-Roman basilica on the north side. I found the older building more inspiring, and certainly of the period most relevant to Augustine of Canterbury.
The high-walled, colonnaded baptistery is deeply impressive, as are the neighbouring cloisters (appropriately, for northern Europe, located on the south and therefore sunny side; but unlike Canterbury Cathedral or St Augustine’s abbey, where both cloisters are on the north). We waited for ten minutes for a tour party to assemble, taking photographs of the cloisters through the iron gate. A missing piece of information or perspective sometimes emerges in cathedrals. Here in Aix, on the cloister wall (and we somehow found ourselves standing right next to it), was a notice board with a sketch map of the early cathedral as it related to the Roman Forum. The usual guidebooks don’t provide this kind of priceless local knowledge, and most of the paper publications one comes across in cathedrals and churches are not published on the web.
Our guide to the cloisters, an animated woman clearly not afraid to speak evangelistically about the symbols carved on many of the cloister pillars, spent at east half an hour explaining the carvings representing St Matthew, Balaam’s ass, the anointing of Jesus, his 12 disciples, St Mark, St Peter, St John, and lastly St Luke (squeezed in half way down one side of the cloister). Ancient beams covered the ceilings of the cloister. The floor has the appearance of Roman tile, and probably was. An ancient wood and iron door barred the exit to the street (and more of the ancient Gallo-Roman forum) beyond.
This had been an Augustinian Priory, and the monks who once lived here had adopted the Augustinian Rule. It also meant (in Aix at least) that the monastic community lived in a number of houses around the town, unlike St Andrew’s in Rome. I later learned – from a monk Fr Christopher at St Wandrille near Rouen – that none of the French cathedrals were associated with monastic communities or priories; they always had clergy or lay clerks, living sometimes in the cloisters, as in Aix or Arles. This throws considerable light on Augustine of Canterbury’s question to Pope Gregory – should the bishop live separately from his monks (as the Frankish clergy did), or should he live with his monks, as was the practice in Rome?
St Matthew’s carving in the cloister is particularly interesting. Matthew is shown lifting his garment, apparently entering the waters of baptism (or of death). His left hand is drawn across his chest, the long index finger pointing beyond his shoulder, to the north. Did Augustine perhaps take comfort in this, strengthened in his conviction that going to the barbarous people of the north (Kent) was where God wanted him and his monks to be? (Unfortunately not; the cloister was built much later, in the C11th or C12th).
Aix was a turning-point in Augustine’s personal life, as well as for the mission. It was here that his monks and lay brothers learned of the terrible Anglo-Saxons they were going to preach to, whose language they could not speak, and whose reputation, reaching as far south as Provence, turned their legs to water.
It must have been here, too, that Augustine realised how ill-equipped he was to fulfil Gregory’s desire to convert the English. He was a monk among peers who came with him from Rome, and not their prior, so they could question his authority. He was also a monk but not a bishop, and Bishop Protasius may well have pointed out that Queen Bertha of Kent had left the city of Tours with a chaplainwho was a bishop! How was he going to look arriving in Canterbury, with no status and no credentials, to mount the most significant mission since the conversion of Spain? And most crucial of all, he would need the support of at least one if not both of the dowager queens who ruled Francia – Brunhild of Austrasia (stretching from Metz in the east to Tour in the west, and Provence in the south); and Fredegund, regent of Neustia, the remainder of Frankia, stretching from Paris to the north-east coast of France. Without letters of introduction from Pope Gregory, without suitable presents for these two women, the mission would never leave the shores of France.
It was clearly imperative for Augustine to return to Rome and make up what was lacking, and time was now pressing. Safe sailing times to avoid bad weather only stretched from May 27th to September 14th. More hardy risk-takers (mainly independent traders) would risk sailing as early as March and as late as November, but this would not be an option for Augustine. Leaving his monks and lay brothers with Protadius in Aix, Augustine left in haste for Marseille, and the uncertain sea journey back to Rome.
The Baths of Sextius. Did the baths built by Sextius (C1st BC) also play a part in developing the missionary skills of the monks? Did the local (and highly regarded) archbishop Protasius (or even Augustine) frequent the baths and develop their social and business contacts in this way?
This is not likely. Ferdinand Mount, Full Circle: how the classical world came back to us, Simon & Schuster UK Ltd, 2010, p.37:
“But the worst enemy [in the decline and disappearance of public Roman baths across the Roman Empire] was not nature or human incompetence. It was the new faith. Christians used water for baptism, not for bathing. Baptisma, in Latin as in Greek, meant a ‘dipping into’, and the dipping was a consecration. A bath might be used but only for God’s purposes, and not for the purposes of hygiene and certainly not for pleasure. Cleanliness was not next to godliness. It was irrelevant, if not actually harmful”. Pope Leo I (390-461) inscribed over the fountain in the atrium of San Paolo Fuori le Mura: “Water removes dirt from the body, but faith, purer than any spring, cleanses sin and washes souls”.
Interestingly, Gregory the Great (540-604), who sent Augustine on the mission to England, permitted baths for the needs of the body but “not for the titillation of the mind and for sensuous pleasure”.
For Jerome and Augustine (of Hippo Regis) bathing for pleasure simply stirred up lustful thoughts and practices. Some Christian ascetics went further, and praised alousia, “the state of being unwashed”.
A good local bookshop advised on texts dealing with Roman Provence. Only one had what I was looking for, a map of Roman Aix. By the 1st century AD, Aix had roughly 25,000 citizens living in typical Roman houses laid out in a grid shape set within a large square, more or less corresponding to the area occupied by the centre of Aix today. And the two ancient major roads linking the city with the outside world are still recognisable – the road to Marseille ( Avenue des Belges), and the road to Nice (appropriately, the Rue d’Italie).
After lunch at a small and inexpensive panini at a salad bar, we made our way south-east again, through some expensive shopping areas (e.g. Tag-Heuer and Breitling watches) and on to the old Roman road to Nice. It is still narrow (much like the medieval streets of Canterbury) and still looking like a marginally upgraded Roman double-track road (the width of a modern railway track, which is borrowed from the Roman cart axle width). We turned off towards St John of Malta (from whom comes St John’s Ambulance), an attractive church both inside and outside, set at the east end of a small place, with the Musee Garnet (formerly Priory of the Knights of Malta) all along one end of the square.
For four euros entrance fee, this wasn’t a bad little museum, housing some Cezannes, a late Rembrandt self-portrait, sculptures (including a striking black Bedouin head surrounded by white marble head-dress), French C17-19th, paintings many pen and ink sketches of someone’s visit to decaying Rome and Italy. But especially pour moi the amphora from central Italy, Carthage, Spain and Asia that carried wine and oil to Gaul, almost identical in their standardisation, two millennia before the Common Market. The tools on display were instantly recognisable. Finally, the most desired and expensive black glazed plate with manufacturer’s small flower and petals symbol at the base, (and some Marseille copies) of the C1st BC to AD, also from central Italy. This marked the high-tide of Roman pottery manufacture before the introduction of gold plate from the east, and the invasions of Goths and Vandals disrupted if not ended Rome’s trading, cultural, military and political relationship with Romanized Provence.
We made our way back to the Villa. I took a few photos of the ancient road that once stretched all the way to Rome, the Rue d’Italie, now thronged with tourists. It was after 6pm. We hadn’t noticed the time owing to daylight saving clock-changes, and within 20 minutes passed the same pizza van in the same place, manned by the person who had rescued us the night before. He had refused any money for his kindness and trouble, so buying a pizza was the least we could do. Gill said thank you again, and negotiated the purchase of the pizza.
The roadworks outside Villa Jeannette that had marked the noisy beginning of our day were now complete. Hardly a sign was left that new piping had been laid at our doorstep. We brought home our pizza (delicious, 8 euros) and sat outside the delightful studio sipping down a glass or two of local red and white wine, while the Malbos’ spaniel Nina made illegal forays out of the house to greet us. Christian came out to fetch the spaniel, and seeing our wine, insisted that we must taste the local product before we left.
And so, exhausted, to bed.
Friday 9 Marseille
Left Villa Jeannette around 11am, and arrived at Aix Gare to discover the trains had been cancelled and a bus service was in operation. The journey however proved smooth and uneventful. The 30 km journey went through hilly country the whole way. Marseille train station was crowded with coaches and vehicles dropping off passengers. Magnificent views over the city from the top of impressive steps reminiscent of Sacre Coeur in Paris. This is, clearly, the second city after Paris.
We walked down to the Old Port, surprised to pass C&A on the way – hardly in evidence in England. A sunny, hot day, with crowds of tourists around the harbour area, cafes, pizzerias and hotel restaurants all doing great business. The small harbour inlet was crowded with boats, though only the tourist leisure boats moved on the waters. We lunched at around 1 pm at a moules/mussels brasserie (for Gill –I had turkey escalope) under half a sun umbrella. An accordion player serenaded the guests; various vendors (watches, etc) plied their trade among the tables along the quayside eateries. We wandered around the bay to the abbey church of St Victor, which enjoys a magnificent view across the bay, taking in both forts, St Nicolas on the south side, and St Jean on the north side. Neither of these existed when Augustine landed at Marseille, either on his first or his second journey to Aix.
Abbey St Victor, Marseille
The first layer of building on this site (the crypt) was constructed in the 5th century, containing (it is said) the bones of the first martyrs in Marsala. Gregory of Tours mentions (before AD 590 – before Augustine’s missionary journey commenced in AD 596) a large basilica, consecrated to the martyr Victor, that attracted pilgrims, and numerous miracles occurred here.
We spent more than an hour in and below the basilica, and bought a guide book in English for 6 euros, plus a further 4 to enter the crypt. What an experience! It is magnificent! Whatever the church that stood above it, the crypt, with the bones of the Gallic Christian martyrs, would unquestionably have been a place of pilgrimage for the party from St Andrew’s monastery, Rome.
The monastic cloister and buildings once lay to the immediate south of the basilica, now traversed by a road and a block of flats rising up the hillside.
Was this possibly where Augustine and his monastic party stayed briefly in Marseille? Assuming they landed here on Augustine’s first journey to Francia. This is not certain; the missionaries could equally have taken the ancient Roman road that runs from Nice to Narbonne, connecting Italy with Spain and passing through Provence. This would have by-passed Marseille and take them directly to Aix. Augustine would, however, have gone directly to and through Marseille on his return to Rome as the quickest and shortest route.
We tried to find an entrance to fort St Nicolas, but this is a military establishment closed to the public (and everyone else, judging from the sign.) We made our way back to the north quay, found a restaurant that sold both crepes and glaces (Gill settle for a cool beer instead of crepes). We called in at C& A, but no luck, then on to the station. The trains were now running, and we caught a delayed 5pm train back to Aix. I had my first glimpse of Mt St Victor, immortalised by more than one of Cezanne’s paintings.
A sore-footed return through town, calling in at our local supermarket for inner soles for Gill, a coke, lettuce and some bread for supper. Christian not home when we returned about 7pm, and still not back as I write at 9.40 pm, as Nina’s almost constant barking has testified!
Saturday 10th – Aix
Today we collected a hire car. (In retrospect, we could have managed without one and used the train to Cannes, which would have provided a magnificent view of the coast; likewise, a bus to Arles, and saved ourselves both the cost, the aggro, and the parking problems.)
I plotted a route across town to Europcar, but with small map print and fast pace across town, we eventually needed to enlist a local woman who very obligingly told us where we were on the map. Arrived at Europcar at 10 am. Miles of paper and 20 signatures later and we were examining the Citroen Clio in some detail – unwashed but clean inside; however no vests and triangle (soon supplied); no ‘bombe’ to inflate a flat tyre (but then spare wheel discovered). Set the SatNav for Villa Jeanette and off we went! Arrived home with no trouble, but nowhere to park! Every space taken for miles.
We packed a picnic and set off for a small village where Picasso had once stayed. An attractive hillside village, but no stamps for Gill to send postcards home, Picasso’s house was closed, so was St Victor’s chapel, then the Spar shop closed. We drove on to a mountain view, risking steep climbs and drops on narrow roads, Gill a constant reminder that the Cleo is significantly wider than my Suzuki Jimny back home.
Returned to Aix for groceries. I prayed for a parking space outside the villa for the first time in decades, but nothing opened up. I dropped Gill off at the studio and headed back to a Parking area we’d passed several times walking to town. I found a parking space, but could find NO place to buy a ticket! Returned to the house, where Christian (I now call ‘Constantine’, because he is fairly imperial and not much help with the parking!) who says, Non, there must be a place to buy a ticket, there are no free parking in Aix! So Gill and I return to the parking to check again. A car pulled in while we were looking around, and we asked where we should pay. The young couple assure us it is free; this parking lot belongs to the Lycee (grammar school), and they are on holiday!
There’s something about abundance in this – I asked for a single parking space, and we found probably twenty free spaces, and an entire parking area!
Home tired, for afternoon coffee and pastry around the pool, followed by supper, some French language television, and quiet reading in bed.
Low Sunday: 11 April – Arles
Early start at 6.40, and finally left Villa Jeannette after 8am, the car still safe and sound in the car park. An uneventful drive to Arles, through a peage, arriving before 9.30am. Found free parking and headed for the Tourist Office. Friendly staff gave us a map of Arles and we bought Euros 13.50 for tickets to all museums and historic sites in the city. Bright, clear day, but a strong and very cold wind, a taste of the Mistral, blowing until lunch time.
Hard to believe this small centre was once the Roman provincial capital of Provence. The Old Town a delight of rambling streets and shabby-chic houses. The ancient monuments completely impressive, the view from the amphitheatre stunning. The ancient monuments museum a sheer delight, with amazing models, carvings, mosaic floors, maps, pottery and other artefacts. If there is a gap, it is between early Christianity (say C4th) and the C8th in Arles.
Augustine in Arles
By the time of Augustine’s arrival in the summer of 596, Arelate had witnessed, with the whole of Provence, two centuries of decline in Roman imperial influence and military supremacy. A string of invaders had come and gone (or integrated into the life of the city) – the Celts in the C5th, Ostrogoths, Visigoths and Burgundians. Arles finally ceded loyalty to the Franks sixty years before Augustine’s arrival. Arles remained a key commercial centre, and the city was a polyglot of travellers, merchants and traders from northern Europe, the Mediterranean, Spain and the east.
The missionaries travelled overland from Aix to Arles on the Roman-built Via Aurelia. Quite apart from the necessity to have Augustine consecrated as bishop in France (which would serve to cement Frankish ecclesiastical and royal support for the mission), and in Arles (acknowledging the ancient arch-episcopal oversight exercised by Arles over former Britannia), the city built on the Rhone was the obvious place to begin their river passage to the north.
An aqueduct, bringing clear water to Arles, stretched 50km from the Alpilles hills to the Augustus Gate, located perhaps 200 meters or so east of the Theatre. Theodoric, king of the Ostrogoths, had besieged and sacked the city in the C5th, then restored the walls and rebuilt the town. The Via Aurelia entered the city at the Augustus Gate, continued towards the Forum, then turned north, leaving the city to cross the Rhone over a uniquely engineered floating bridge.
The shortest route for the missionary party on entering the city was to follow the ancient road as it passed between the arena and the theatre, both then derelict, then continuing towards the Forum. The Temple (to Venus or Diana?) in the Forum, if still standing, was no longer in use once Christianity became the only recognised religion in the Roman world, from AD 400. Perhaps much of Arles’ political and religious significance had gone too, but its commercial significance would have remained strong.
The Forum itself, situated on a low hillside, was undergirded by a series of three sloping underground galleries, each gallery buttressed with a series of massive pillars. The walls of these galleries, each called a ‘cryptoporticus’, are half buried in the south and exposed in the north, so enabling the construction of a flat surface of approximately 3,000 square meters. The galleries were empty and unused for any purpose until the 8th century.
To the north of the Forum, overlooking the Rhone, stood the impressive Constantinian (early 4th century) public baths, offering a good place to remove the dust, heat and grime of the 50 mile journey on foot from Aix. But again, this is unlikely. The baths were built with materials characteristic of Roman technology, alternating rows of bricks and stones. Underground galleries circulated hot and cold water through the baths.
This complex is the likely place for the missionaries to be billeted until their departure for Lyon. The archbishop’s residence and the monastic cloister lay immediately on the south side of the ancient basilica. Augustine probably lodged with the archbishop. This may have been the reason behind his question to Gregory after he reached Canterbury, whether he ought to live with or separate from his monks. Gregory strongly favoured the former. The tableware at the bishop’s dinners would have included clay items such as vases, dishes, varnished and decorated bowls; silver and bronze items such as flat dishes, and saucepans and frying pans for the bishop’s kitchen, and glass bottles, beakers and vials.
The basilica of St Etienne was certainly the site of Augustine’s consecration as bishop en route to England, once we are agreed that he was consecrated at Arles not Lyon. (See footnotes to the confusion occasioned in Bede’s account of this in his Ecclesiastical History.) The arch-diocese had held jurisdiction over the Church in Roman Britannia until 410 or later, making it the strongest and obvious contender of all the possible alternatives (including Marsala, Vienne and Lyon).
Burying the dead (as opposed to cremation) became commonplace by the beginning of the 2nd century, and a Roman practice that became law under Justinian was to bury outside the city walls. This practice was also adopted in Roman Canterbury. The bones of St Trophimus (the first martyr of Arles) were originally buried in the C4th church of the early Christian martyr St Genest, in the Alyscamps necropolis just south-east of the city. In the 12th century the bones of St Trophimus were taken to St Etienne, and the church renamed after this saint.
The Alyscamps, was initially a pagan burial site, but from the fourth century onwards Christians were also buried in the necropolis. This city of the dead stretched over the whole southern plain, ending at the marshes, and contained chapels and nineteen churches. The necropolis grew to an area as large as Arles itself, and followed the Aurelian Way right to the Augustan Gate. Burying the dead in the Alyscamps must have been a major ministry for local clergy.
St Genest was important to early Christians, even to those as far away as Lyon, where the bodies of the deceased were placed in barrels and floated down the Rhone, with the money for their burial attached. Funerary workers would intercept the casks at Arles, and dispose of the dead close to St Genest tomb. ‘Sarcophagus Avenue’ is testimony to the huge significance of the burial site, and no less the industry of inhumation that accompanied it.
Today the Eglise St Trophime is no longer a cathedra – it is now a (very large) parish church, and looks to Aix for Episcopal oversight. Nor did the Archdiocese of Arles ever regain its former position of oversight over the church in England, or even in Kent. So history turns.
What seems quite clear is that there is no memory in Arles or in Aix – even amongst the official church guides – of Augustine of Canterbury passing through, nor his journey, nor an awareness that these French churches may have had anything to contribute to his mission. In reality, they had a major role to play at the outset that made the mission possible, and in no small measure provided the practical support necessary for a successful launch of the mission to England.
Augustine of Canterbury is also invariably confused with St Augustine of Hippo. In Aix the name evokes mention of the early monks living under the Augustinian Rule, and in separate houses.
n Arles, at least two other churches existed within the city walls – the Eglise de la Major, with a raised plaza overlooking the amphitheatre, and St Blaise, also within the city wall, and on the south-east corner.
Much of the spread of 6th century Christianity in Arles was to the credit of bishop Caesarius. His ivory belt-buckle is housed in the stunning Arles Museum of Archaeology. With the death of Caesarius, the history of Arles as an ancient city comes to an end. The city is firmly under Frankish rule (principally from Austrasia) from AD 536.
The Forum was still in operation at this time, and given the prominent location of Arles at the intersection of the Rhone and the Via Aurelia, as well as upstream of Marsala, it would continue as a major trading place for some centuries to come. There is little evidence or likelihood that Christianity ever completely banished other religious practices – Gregory the Great was constantly in correspondence with bishops and clergy about stamping out paganism and nature worship in their areas of oversight. However the long-standing and long-tolerated religious habits of the empire would be particularly hard to eliminate in a major trading centre such as Arles. While the official religion of the main Roman gods and emperor worship had officially given way to Christianity, private and family religion was another matter. Arles bears evidence of worship to Minerva, Medea and the bronze faun. Soldiers continued to adopt Mithras (a Persian cult), and Cybele (a Phyrigian cult) was also worshipped The spread of eastern religions to Arles was made easier by its cosmopolitan role as a major trading centre at the nexus of road, river and sea traffic. This was to be expected amongst those who regularly traded at Arles’ port.
Monday 12 April – Aix
Overcast, rainy and cold! Went to town to book a tour on Tuesday, visited Monoprix (Gill bought Alison B a dragonfly linen cloth) and had lunch at the equivalent of a French McDonald’s; crammed with parents and their offspring consuming fries and Pizza! Came home around lunchtime, had lunch and went to bed.
Tuesday 13 April – Aix Historic Tour
Walked down through the old market and saw our Raster who helped us on Saturday with suggestions for parking – use the out of town park & Ride which closes at 9pm, opens at 6am, and one could use buses either way to and from town. Some lovely silk pashminas, and lots more Marseille soap. The Tour started at Tourist Information Centre with our young guide Marie (who also runs Le Jardin Marie, if anyone is looking for central accommodation). We started at the fountain outside the Information Centre, Marie explaining the three figures on top of the Fountain – one looking towards the Mazarin district and the law-courts (Aix is an Appeal Court centre) and also towards Italy and the grain basket of Provence; another figure looks south towards Marseille (and industry, technology, etc); while the third looks towards Avignon and the Arts. We visited the Cardinal’s palace in the Mazarin district, learned of the demolition of the city walls (which followed the roads that encompass the Old Town) and the creation of a new, aspiring bourgeoisie centred on the parliament and the law (both practising and learning of) until the French Revolution.
We worked our way up through narrow streets past a lawyer’s amazing town house and privately commissioned public square (previously the sole prerogative of the king) to the Hotel de Ville, made out of local stone. We passed through a produce market and a flower market, and on to St Saviour’s cathedral.
The Romanesque St Saviour’s is 11th century, but as the practice is to extend or rebuild over existing sites, the baptistry must have been linked to a much earlier church on this site. This would be the church of Augustine’s two visits to Aix in the summer of 596. what seems remarkable, after having visited Arles two days ago, is the different ways that the Episcopal church related to the Forum. In Arles, the Forum and the cathedral complex are quite separate; in Aix, the basilica, cloisters and monastic buildings, and the archbishop’s palace are all built on the former Roman Forum.
We finished the tour of the cathedral and retraced our steps, entering the former Jewish Quarter. After a double expresso to keep out the cold, we headed back home for lunch. Clouds had started to gather, dropping the temperature noticeably as we took lunch on the patio outside.
We dressed more warmly and headed off to Cezanne’s studio. The road north winds steeply uphill, so that the views over Aix and miles beyond are quite stunning. It is an amazing place. Our guide for the studio was truly excellent – knowledgeable and passionate, able to make connections and speak off the cuff, a good sense of humour (“Drawing is not allowed!”). I did a couple of sketches. What was most impressive was the account of Cezanne rising at 5am in his lodgings in Aix, and arriving in his studio to start painting again by 6am to catch the pure early morning Provencal light. He sold scarcely more than 14 paintings during these last five years, and his son found the downstairs rooms crammed with his canvasses and sketches. The guide, excellent in his knowledge, passion and fluency, described Cezanne working alone day by day as a mystical experience, a sense of sacred time and space, like the silence of a cathedral (partly my words). Just the sense of this man doing what he had to do, without the need to make a living from it, or to debase it in any way, so that ultimately viewers would receive precisely what he had and wanted to give, is nothing less than profound.
Wednesday 14 April Cannes – St Honorat Monastery
For satnav purposes, one needs to know that the destination for the ferry to Lerins is Boulevard Jean Hibert, Cannes. This will take drivers to Parking for the boat trips to Lerins, both St Marguerite and St Honorat, currently Euros 12 pp. The rate for parking is reasonable for Cannes, about Eu 3.70 an hour, reducing per hour the longer one stays. The ticket must be inserted in the Casse machine near to the entrance and exit to obtain the exit ticket before you leave. Visa and MasterCard are both accepted. The boat trip is about 25 minutes start to finish, and the boat leaves on the hour every hour from April through to September.
After our return, we took a walk around the harbour where the super-rich park their floating hardware, and corporate sponsors tout for business. The tourist Office was hard to find, the signs misleading (and I have to say that, over a period of more than 30 years, there remains a chronic inability to position signs in ways that are unambiguous to the traveller).
Gill bought bread and two chocolate pastries at a boulangere a couple of streets up from the main road that runs around and past the harbour (Charles de Gaulle/ Le Croissette).
Isles de Lerins
This refers to two islands, St Marguerite which is closer to Cannes, and St Lerins which lies a mile or so beyond it. Lerins is a Mediterranean-tropical island that is one of the most paradisical, lush and peaceful places I’ve experienced in years. Azure blue water, light coloured rocks, palm trees and pine trees in abundance, huge cactus plants and other cacti with bright orange flowers, reminiscent of red-hot pokers. Gauguin and Rousseau could have saved themselves the bother of travel had they chosen Lerins for their primitive nature paintings. Everything is so utterly photogenic.
A pheasant appeared in the woods, and we heard birds in the trees, but strangely no sound or sight of seagulls outside of Cannes. Midges waited for us in swarms as we walked around the eastern end of the island. A geko climbed the sea wall near the abbey in search of sun or a snack.
From the northern shore of St Honorat the French Alps ( particularly the Montagne de Cheiron range) are clearly visible over the tops of St Marguerite’s shoreline, high snow-capped mountains brooding behind the coastal range of hills. It was from these mountains that the afternoon cloud arose, thick and dark beneath, another layer of clouds reaching out towards the bay like giant cats’ claws grasping for something or someone to consume. An awesome sight.
Leaving the boat and the throng behind, we walked to the main gate of the monastery and continued up the broad pathway past a field of several acres being tended by lay brothers or volunteers, backs bent to the task of tending the vines.
I’m glad and grateful that we made our first stop the monastic church at the southern end of the island. A mass was in progress, the twenty or so monks in white in the choir, all beautifully sung in beautiful French, a mixed congregation of the committed and the tourist, including some staying at the guest house at the entrance of the monastic complex. The mass set the tone for the day, and established Lerins firmly as a place of disciplined work and worship in the Spirit of Benedict and latter-day Carthusians. The list of hours in the modern-day monk’s life looks no different from his fourth century counterpart in Egypt, or sixth century in Italy.
Whatever it was that drew Pope Gregory’s criticism of Abbot Stephen appears to have been reversed by these more serious-minded Cistercians. The official guidebook begins with “It was the beginning of the 5th century that St Honoratus … found the desert that he had sought for…” following the death of his brother Venantius.
Honorius was a Gaul by birth, born into a pagan family, and a convert to Christianity at a young age. After the death of Venantius, Honorius and his former spiritual teacher and guide, the hermit Caprasius, sought permission from bishop Frejus to pursue an eremitic life on the Island of Lerins. They weren’t alone for long. New disciples came to join them on the island, both monks who lived the life of hermits and those who came to share a common life. This structure made it possible both for hermits to pursue a solitary life in cells grouped round the seven chapels scattered around the island, and for beginners to receive the instruction they needed to advance in the monastic life. Honorius provided his community with the first version of a Rule, the Rule of the Four Fathers, the first of its kind in Gaul. At the end of his life he was called to Arles to be bishop in AD 428, and died two years later.
Augustine and his monks landed on Insula Sancti Honoratus in July 596, right in the middle of the safe sailing season from May to September. The Mistral has wrecked many ships on the Cote d’Azur, and Lerins was accustomed to shipwrecked sailors cast upon its shores. After several days at sea, the island must have seemed like paradise – a welcome from a fellow monastic community, safety from raiders and bandits at sea, reconnecting with a familiar daily routine, the tranquillity of the island itself. The midges, however, would have been a constant irritant to anyone venturing down to the shore, and the prickly heat of a Mediterranean summer would make work outdoors more arduous.
How long they remained with Abbot Stephen and his community is not recorded, but long enough to recoup, make preparations for the onward journey to Aix. By common tradition amongst monasteries, after three days guests would be required to take on their share of the daily work that sustains the life of community, ranging from working the land to work in the scriptorium, according to individual skills and abilities. On their departure, Augustine carried spoons and plate as a gift from the abbot to Gregory for the support of the poor.
The journey of 150km from Cannes to Aix-en-Provence is less than two hours on the motorway. On foot, with twenty companions, and possibly a couple of donkey-drawn carts to carry their impedimenta, they might have covered the distance in two weeks. The Via Aurelia follows the Mediterranean coastline, with the Massif de l’Esterel looming to the north.
This particular stretch, seen clearly from St Honorat, is very evocative of the mountain range that rings False Bay below the Cape Peninsula in South Africa, a region that also enjoys a Mediterranean climate (hot and dry in summer, wet and cool in winter). The Spring rain in April tends to build up slowly in the afternoon, following a hot and sunny morning. By mid-afternoon, occasional light flecks of rain can be felt on one’s face and hands. By evening, a downpour might develop, heavy drops, almost tropical. This is different from English drizzle, which is lighter but no less irritating!
The red porphyry rock of the Esterel tumbles down to the sea in a dramatic sweep of hills and ravines. This was excellent country for highwaymen, robbers and outlaws, making the journey hazardous. It is unlikely that the monks would have travelled alone; caravans of travellers would be more common, bivouacing together every evening, possibly joined by groups travelling east towards Italy. This would provide an invaluable opportunity to glean news of conditions and problems on the road ahead. A few villas outside the villages would dot the hillside. East of St Raphael, the Cap du Dramont has lovely stretches of coast path with forested pines, cork oak, juniper, rosemary and ‘strawberry trees’.
At Frejus, squeezed between the massifs of the Maures and l’Esterel, the road turns north-west and away from the coast some 20 or so miles from Cannes. Located on the Via Aurelia, the Roman port dates back to Julius Caesar in 49 BC, and developed into a naval base under emperor Augustus as an alternative to the more unruly Marseille. One of the two Augustan towers that guarded the harbour entrance still survives, but the Roman harbour has long since silted up and is used as a marina. A tower once part of the Roman ramparts still remains, and also marks the end of a 25-mile long aqueduct.
From Frejus, the Via Aurelia cuts inland towards the north-west, passing under the A8 (peage) road after about 8 miles. The area north of the A8 is the inland Vars region, beyond le Muy (10+miles for Frejus) and rises in a series of tiers. The vineyards on the wide plain and the lower valleys rise to olive groves. Further up these give way to densely forested hills, in turn opening on to the sparse expanses of the high mountain plateau of the Grand Plan de Canjeurs. A further 12 miles west brings the traveller to Le Vieu Cannet – Old Cannet – with remnants of Forum Voconi, a halt on the Via Aurelia.
Three miles further west is Le Luc, a small market town at the intersection of the A8 and N7 motorways. This is the heart of the central Var region, and has a rich history as a Roman spa town,
Travelling 15 miles into the western Var leads to Brignoles, once famed for bauxite mining, which sits at the heart of La Provence Vert (green Provence) because of the verdant landscape watered by several rivers and underground springs. (The town of Barjols, 15 miles up a winding road to the north, was once a prosperous community based on its tanneries, but is still known for the manufacture of the traditional Provencal instruments, the three-holed flute, and a narrow drum, which are played simultaneously be a single musician.)
St-Maximin lies 10 miles west of Brignoles, on the western edge of the Var. Pilgrims have poured into this town since the 5th century to view one of the greatest Christian relics, the presumed bones of Mary Magdalene, which had been discovered here in an ancient crypt, after the Boat of Bethany carrying Mary Magdalene, Martha and Lazarus landed at St Maries de la Mer (on the Camargue coast), Mary is said to have made her way to the Massif de la St-Baume, where she lived in a cave for more than 30 years. She died in St-Maximin, where her remains were jealously gauarded by the Cassianites.
The Massif lies a few miles to the south of St-Maximin. Inhabited for a thousands of years, the massif was used for sheep rearing, as well as a number of small industries, including charcoal, slake-lime and ice production.
Aix-en-Provence lies 20 or more miles further west-north-west of St Maximin, following a broad and fertile plain, with the Mt St Victoire range clearly visible a few miles to the north.
The flight from London to Rome landed at Fiumiceno Leonardo da Vinci Airport. I had booked a room at the Residenza Madri Pie, near the Vatican, a large bed & breakfast establishment run by professional staff on behalf of a community of nuns. It is an ideal location with bus routes into Rome on the doorstep.I was particularly interested to learn what landscape still exits in Rome that Augustine would have known?
Romeis overwhelming; some careful choices have to be made to have any chance of understanding the world that Augustine lived in.
The Rome of Augustine and Gregory the Great was a city once at the centre of the Roman Empire and boasting a mission people, but now by the last decade of the sixth century, reduced to no more than 30,000 people, clustered mostly near the bridges of Rome. The city was besieged by the Germanic Lombard tribes, and Pope Gregory raised an enormous sum of extortion money each year to pay off the invaders, much as the Danes would do to Canterbury some three centuries later. Augustine’s role, as a monk at St Andrew’s Monastery, was to provide for the needs of the poor in the city. The key sites in Rome that Augustine would have been familiar with are indicated below. Most of these are relevant to the Augustinian mission to Kent launched by Gregory as Bishop of Rome in AD 596-7. .
Castel Sant’Angelowas initially commissioned as a mausoleum by the Roman EmperorHadrian. The building was completed in AD 139 and later used as a fortress and castle. It is now a museum open to the public; a real gem with stunning views of Rome from the parapets.
Huge carved angels are everywhere, including one cast in black bronze in a room with grated bars. The footbridge across the Tiber – Gregory’s bridge – is likewise festooned with angels. Signs and wonders by the Church were still experienced nearly six centuries after the time of Jesus. It is at San Angelo that Gregory is said to have stopped the plague in Rome. This would have taken place while Augustine was still in Rome as a member of the monastic community. Augustine, like his master, was to have signs and wonders also attributed to his ministry in England.
The Pantheon, AD 118-125, is still deeply impressive – another of Hadrian’s projects (along with Hadrian’s Wall in northern England), but not consecrated as a church until 609 by Pope Boniface IV. There were no pagan structures of similar scale standing in England in this period (unless Stonehenge is included), but Augustine was one of the first to take a more lenient view of using former pagan shrines for Christian worship.
The Caelian Hill (one of the seven hills of Rome) is crested by the ruins of the Colosseum, which, like the Forum stretching away from it to the west, is on lower ground. The hill falls away sharply from the Colosseum. About half a mile down the hill lies Gregory’s monastery, on the left of the road, dedicated originally to St Andrew, and built on the site of Gregory’s family villa within the grounds of his family estate.
The chapel is the centrepiece of the complex, surrounded by monastic buildings. The Sisters of Mercy (Mother Theresa’s order) run the large guest-house to the right. The chapel and central complex was remodelled in the C17th; the original villa lies directly beneath. The monastery probably follows the same ground plan as the villa, including the central atrium and fountain.
I asked for someone who could speak English, and that turned out to be the Prior. He was willing to speak with me, and in excellent English. The community are Camaldolese, of the reformed Cluny order. The monastery has 10 monks in residence in June 2005. A very insightful and helpful conversation followed with a man whose appearance, manner, garb, erudition and spiritual discipline seemed to step right out of the pages of history.
The Prior’s comments
No one knows where Augustine came from, Sicily or elsewhere. He was Prior when the monastery still had an abbot. Gregory’s ‘conversion’ to monasticism would have carried his whole household with him – as was the case for his mother when she became committed to the celibate life. However, the slaves in the household would have been in a better position for it – at least they would be freemen in Roman society. This may also go some way to explain the variety of words to describe monks who lived together within a single monastery – from anchorites to cenoebites, as each monk was under a different rule, personally formulated by the abbot.
Gregory – like all Roman patricians – was a pragmatist. His mission had practical outcomes in mind – not romantic ideas of restoring lost colonies. It is taken as a fact at St Gregory’s Monastery that Queen Berthaherself sent to Gregory to ask for a mission, having failed to secure any response from the bishops of Gallia/Francia. It seems clear from this that Gregory was not a grand strategist, but a pragmatist – he responded to Bertha, rather than initiated the mission.
St Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English Peopleremains important as a source of information concerning the mission for St Gregory’s Monastery (together with Gregory’s own letters.). Gregory wrote his Dialoguesat the monastery, so presumably he had gleaned the relevant stories of Benedict’s life and miracles from the monks who fled from Monte Cassino after the arrival of the Lombards.
Augustine was a monk in this monastery until AD 596, and possibly its prioror sub-prior at the time. He was selected by Pope Gregory to lead a mission to the Kentish court, taking with him a few of the monks and probably a larger number of lay brothers to assist with the transport en route.
From St Gregory’s Monastery to the Lateran is a 20-25 minute brisk walk. The Cathedral of the Roman Diocese and seat of the Bishop of Rome, St. John in Lateran, is the oldest and first among Rome’s major basilicas. The basilica is situated on the site of an ancient Imperial Army fort in the Lateran Palace grounds.
The Palace was home to the Lateran family of ancient Rome, administrators for several emperors. The Lateran became Imperial property when Constantine I married Fausta (the sister of his enemy Maxentius), and was eventually given to the Bishop of Rome by Constantine. The Lateran Palace was occupied as the residence and official seat of the Pope until 1309 when the French Pope Clement V transferred the Papacy to Avignon, France.
Pope Gregory I was resident at the Lateran from 590 to 604. This is where Augustine was commissioned by Pope Gregory for the mission to Kent, and here he returned after a few months in Francia, to seek for additional support from the Pope to continue the mission.
I barely made it in time to St Agnese church, which closes 12 noon and kept open by a small volunteer staff. The journey there by bus is miles out of the centre, into the heart of the ancient patrician villa-country (but mostly inside the wall, although St Agnes itself is outside.) Wealthy aristocracy once lived here, away from the noisome centre of the Empire.
Thirteen year-old Agnes was buried here in AD 304, murdered after refusing to surrender herself to one of Diocletian’s courtiers. The church was possibly built at request of Constantia, Constantine’s daughter, who prayed at Agnes’ tomb for a cure for her illness – long post-AD 312 clearly. Constantia’s grandmother Helena later visited the Holy Land and identified the Tomb of Christ as the Holy Sepulchre. Today the church is a somewhat neglected place.
Why is this church important for our understanding of Augustine?
The C4th basilica existed in Augustine’s time – and its dimensions and ground plan are not dissimilar to the original groundplan of Christ Church cathedral in Canterbury, St Pancras Church (in the grounds of St Augustine’s Abbey), and Reculver church. Was this a typical ground plan adopted by Augustine for his cathedral in Canterbury?
St Augustine’s woollen pallium (the traditional scarf given by the pope that recognised a bishop as archbishop) came from the wool of two lambs blessed at this church’s altar on Jan 21, probably AD 601. The connection with St Agnes? Eight days after her death, she appeared apparently as a bejewelled Byzantine empress, holding a white lamb.
Constantine founded a church over the burial place of St. Laurence. It is one of the seven basilicas traditionally visited by pilgrims, and because outside the city wall, it has a cemetery (as do St Peter’s and also St Paul’s). By the late sixth century, ‘spiritual tourism’ was playing an increasingly important role in the life of Rome. However, pilgrims did not come to view the amazing ruins of a lost Empire, but to venerate the bones of martyrs and make requests of the saints to petition before the throne of heaven on their behalf. All of these sites in the late sixth century were outside the walls of Rome.
Trying to get to San Lorenzo can be something of a nightmare. I found it impossible to locate where the No 71 bus departed from, so a long walk to clear the station and get to the Via Tiburtina. Although the City University is off this road, the area has an air of neglect and poverty and an odd atmosphere in St Laurence’s itself. A feeling, unique in my experience in a church in Rome, of being watched, regarded with suspicion. Perhaps they experience many thefts here in a poor neighbourhood. I didn’t stay long as a result, and so missed the cloisters through a door on the south side of the church. I partly wondered whether they running a mafia operation from the church. Or were they suspicious of people coming this far out from Rome? No impression that visitors or pilgrims were welcomed here, though others did arrive in the short while I was there. No literature or postcards were noticeably for sale (also unusual in a Rome church). A strange experience and an uncomfortable place for me.
San Lorenzo was martyred in AD 258. Although Constantine erected a basilica over his burial place, it was largely rebuilt in AD 576, so St Augustine would have seen this recently-reconstructed basilica. Augustine would also have seen the mosaic of Christ over the apse arch.
Outside on the west end a huge, very impressive porch behind a colonnade, very much bigger than Augustine’s cathedral in Canterbury. It occurred to me that in Rome nearly everything was made with brick (some overlaid with marble at one time), but not stone, which characterised Anglo-Saxon churches before the Normans. The brickwork fits with St Martin’s church in Canterbury, but where did they make bricks, and find clay?
The practice of guide books to holy sites had begun before the end of the sixth century, and the two most significant churches in Rome during Augustine’s and Pope Gregory’s lifetime were dedicated to, and contained the relics of, St Peter and St Paul respectively. Both were martyred in Rome, and both buried outside the walls of Rome according to the burial custom of the time. Only Jerusalem was regarded as a holier place, possessing the tomb of Christ himself. Pilgrimages to Jerusalem ceased after the rise of Islam led to the capture of the Holy City and Sepulchre in AD 637.
Both basilicas would be supported by a community of monks, and as the principal organiser of support for the poor, Augustine would have frequent contact with these communities in the course of his duties in Rome.
Romans inherited the institution of slavery from the Greeks and the Phoenicians. By the late Republican era, slavery had become a vital economic pillar in the wealth of Rome. St Bede tells one version of how the idea of the mission was formed, in the period before Gregory was made pope in 590. This is the first and oldest source of the tale of two Anglo-Saxon slave boys’ story, narrated in Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People, and is essentially a Northumbrian legendthat grown in the 130 years after Augustine’s landing in Kent.
“We must not fail to relate the story about St Gregory which has come down to us as a tradition of our forefathers. It explains the reason why he showed such earnest solicitude for the salvation of our race. It is said that one day, soon after some merchants had arrived in Rome, a quantity of merchandise was exposed for sale in the market-place. Crowds came to buy and Gregory too among them. As well as other merchandise he saw some boys put up for sale, with fair complexions, handsome faces, and lovely hair. On seeing them he asked, so it is said, from what region or land they had been brought. He was told that they came from the island of Britain, whose inhabitants were like that in appearance. He asked again whether those islanders were Christians or still entangled in the errors of heathenism. He was told that they were heathen.”
The Anglo-Saxon boys may have arrived by ship, possibly via Spain, and landed at or the imperial warehouses on the south side of the Tiber, then taken to the auction-place and prepared for sale.
Where did this take place?
The slave auction in Rome was located near the forum. It was a market situated in the area called the Graecostadium behind the Basilica Julia in the Roman Forum. During 354 AD a great famine took place and public buildings burned down: the senate, the forum of Caesar, the basilica Julia, and the Graecostadium. In the 5th century the old edifices within the Forum began to be transformed into Christian churches. Whether the slave market continued on this site into the late sixth century is a moot point.
The more usual route from Rome to Ostia for a group travelling together with light luggage would be by road. This would be quicker and cheaper than travelling by river barge. However, the extent of Lombard rule by 590 includes much of the territory surrounding Rome, which would make the land option potentially dangerous, strengthening the case for the river option. The Tiber today is of course significantly different from the river that flowed fourteen hundred years ago – much quieter in terms of river traffic, and much cleaner. Today commercial river launches takes two hours from Rome to Ostia, and similarly for the return.
In 596, the caudicariae naves – towed boats utilised on the Tiber up the city of Rome – took three days to make this same journey. Towing was from the right bank of the river, parallel to the bank with minimum use of the steering device, and undertaken by animals or slaves.
There was also a specific category of river vessels, the naves caudicariae, employed for the river transport of merchandise trans-shipped from large merchant ships. These larger ships exceeded a 3000-amphora capacity (about 150 tonnes). They could not travel upstream and were obliged to anchor at sea and be unloaded onto smaller vessels, which shuttled between the ships and the river port of Ostia. These operations were very lengthy and dangerous: the coastline, in fact, was inhospitable, low and sandy.
Ships with a capacity of 10,000 modii of grain (that is, about 70 metric tonnes) constituted the lower end of vessels whose tonnage was considered sufficient to be used for Rome’s food supply and thus to benefit from government concessions.
During the first 150 years of its existence, Portus was merely a district of the port of Ostia. From an inscription, Constantine made it an independent city: Civitas Flavia Constantiniana, usually referred to as Portus Romae. Portus already had its own bishop in 314 AD, and who was present at the Council of Arles.
The horrea or grain warehouses at Portus were abandoned in the fifth and sixth century, so that storage took place only in horrea in Rome. This meant that Portus was no longer suitable for unloading the large grain and oil ships and transporting their cargo on smaller boats and barges for the last part of the journey to Rome. In any event, Portus was captured by the Goths in 537 AD, and by the eighth century Trajan’s basin became inaccessible due to silt.
By this time, Portus had evidently ceased to function as a port for grain distribution to Rome. This meant that all or most ships by-passed Portus and headed straight up the Tiber if they were small enough.
It seems likely that Augustine would have secured a passage on a ship (as opposed to a river barge) that was capable of travelling all the way up the Tevere to Rome, and capable of making the sea-journey to the southern coast of Provence. This would overcome the need to transfer to a larger vessel anchored off Ostia. This meant a boat of less than 150 tons, and therefore definitely not an imperial grain vessel, but rather a private trader. By this time vessels of this kind may have dominated the sea and river traffic, as more and more of Italy fell under the control of the Lombards.
Given the length of the river journey from Rome to Ostia – typically two nights and three days to reach the mouth of the Tevere, overnight lodging houses provided accommodation and the usual services that went with river traffic; the monks probably stayed on board the boat during their two nights on the Tiber.
On Augustine’s return journey, either the same process would have been followed but in reverse, travelling up the Tiber; or if it had been necessary to join a larger ship, it would mean off-loading from sea to shore at Ostia, and waiting for a smaller vessel to continue his journey upstream. Augustine’s return journey to Provence would probably have followed the same course as his first, but without his nineteen companions.
Getting there: a €1 train ticket from Stazione St Petra to Ostiensis – walk across the plaza, taking left road to ‘Pyramide’ – NB the railway station entrance is the second one, beyond the Metro entrance. Train to ‘Porto Roma’. The stops listed above the doorway. Note the Basilica of St Paul on the right after leaving the 1st stop en route. At Antica station, take footbridge over Main road. Entrance ticket to Ostia Antica site €4. Can’t get a better deal in Rome for €4!
Ostia reached its zenith in the second century AD with a population of fifty thousand, mainly through immigration and the import of slaves, from Egypt, the Middle East, and Turkey. Slaves served households or worked in the harbour and store-buildings as manual labourers, clerks and accountants. Many people worked in Poruts and lived in Ostia, cross the Tevere by ferry. The breeding of slaves was also a profitable business. By the early fifth century Ostia became an average Italian city, unlike Portus, that remained important as a harbour: from now on the praefectus annonae governed Portus, but not Ostia.
In 410 AD the most traumatic event to date in Roman history took place, one that was felt as far away as Hadrian’s Wall in northern Britannia. Alaric with Goths, Huns and Alans sacked Rome, which by this time was no longer even the Italian centre of Roman Administration. The emperor Honorius had is headquarters in Ravenna, on the north-east Italian coast. Alaric also captured Portus, but ignored Ostia. In 455 AD Gaeseric and the Vandals sacked Portus. An inscription records that they burned the church of S. Hippolytus on the Isola Sacra, and possibly plundered Ostia.
At the end of the fifth century the Ostian aqueduct ceased functioning. Many Ostians now lived and died amidst the ruins. At the same time, Portus remained a thriving harbour. In 537 Vitigis and the Goths laid siege to Portus. Belisarius defended Portus and Ostia. The last inhabitants of Roman Ostia had retreated to the theatre, that was turned into a mini-fortress. From this point the recorded history of Ostia is a blank. The town was apparently abandoned after Lombard activity to control the coast, in other words, post-590. Augustine’s mission was launched in June 596. If Gregory had delayed much longer, it might have been impossible for a party to leave Rome at all on such a venture. On the other hand, war was very much a seasonal business; there were crops to be harvested, and winter was not usually considered a good time to be at war either, so we need not think in terms of modern-day warfare conducted by professional soldiers and advanced logistical support. However apart from the Lombards, whether on land or sea, it may be that the greater threat came from pirate ships plying the coast.
Impressions: Well worth a day. Take a hat next time! Town not frozen in time like Pompeii, but the experience of a gradual decline. Much of Roman Ostia was built in the century after Pompei, by which time the building methods had changed considerably following a disastrous fire in Rome. Concrete, faced with brick, replaced the earlier stone construction (also faced with brick) that burned more easily.
While the Sailors’ Forum (presumably mostly fishermen) was just outside the western gate facing and close to the sea, the grain and goods traffic landed at wharves on the Tiber, close to the flour mills at the end of the Via Dei Molini (Street of the mills). The principal entrance faced the Tiber, with a broad road leading to the riverbank wharves.
By 596, the most significant person in Ostia was the Bishop of Ostia, who also had the function of consecrating the Bishop of Rome. With the fall of the Empire in 475, what happened to the palace, a little out of the town, on the Tiber? Was it sacked and torched (by the invaders), or did it pass into other hands?
Following Constantine’s conversion, there was clearly no need for an Imperial cult with its own priests (Augustali). Ostia possessed a very fine ‘college’ on the south side of the main E-W road, the Decumanus Maximus. My guess is that the emperor handed this over to the Church for the Bishop of Ostia’s use. This is where Augustine and his monks may have stayed, assuming they did not leave immediately following arrival.
The only purpose-built church in Ostia was evidently provided by the owner of the neighbouring baths, of which this is the end-piece. It is likely that here the monks had their last act of worship on Italian soil; saying prayers and making their intentions for safe passage. My sense is that Augustinus also made a vow – that if the Lord prospered their journey, he would name a new monastery basilica in Anglia/England after the patrons of Ostia – St Peter & St Paul.
Ostia was founded as a military colony in the second half of the C4th BC to defend the mouth of the Tiber. (It shares this initial purpose with Richborough and Reculver in relation to Canterbury, with a similar distance between the port and the capital.) Ostia therefore controlled the movement of traffic up and down the river.
Julius Caesar was the first to argue for an enlarged port sited away from the mouth of the Tiber, but the project had to wait until Claudius (42-54 AD) to be realised. Trajan built an artificial basin and a huge hexagonal dry dock AD 105 to extend the wharves and warehouses of the Claudian port. Ostia was set for rapid expansion of commercial activity and population.
The emperors holidayed there, and took an active interest in the development of the town. Grain from North Africa was milled to flour in Ostia and supplied to Rome. A mercantile class and associated trades, offices and services sprang up in Ostia. Noticeably, Ostians managed to get their hands on an astounding amount of marble – for decoration and for statues.
The large number of public baths attests not only the cleanliness of the local population, but also to Ostia’s reputation as a resort. In this cosmopolitan atmosphere, almost every religious cult in the Empire was represented here : Mithras, Isis, the emperor cult, the classical deities of Antiquity – Diana, Hercules, Ceres, Jupiter – and at least 3 places of Christian worship.
Business was the business of Ostia, and the attitude to religious pluralism was laissez-faire. Did this influence Augustine’s thinking and practice once he had become established in Canterbury?
It is odd that the city boasted a bishop but no cathedral. It is at least possible that here – unlike Rome – the Christian community was less averse to taking-over and adapting the use of a pagan temple, particularly the Rotunda, which was restored in the reign of Constantine (built mid-C3rd by Alexander Severus AD 222-235. Pope Gregory’s successor was to do to same with the Pantheon in AD 609. Certainly it is the best candidate: as it was the key place for formal pagan ritual practice of the former imperial cult, the temple and the college of the Augustali priests were both handed over to the local church for the use of the bishop.
However, the church of SS Peter & Paul was built between the end of the C4th and the beginning of the C6th, constructed inside a building once used for baths. Were any new pagan structures built in Ostia after Constantine’s conversion? The Temple of Hercules in late C4th was probably the last pagan temple to receive a state subsidy for repairs. After this, it seems that the wealthy clung to the old places much as we do to Grade I and II listed church buildings – nice to have, but don’t take their original function seriously. Possibly their descendents continued as cult-priests, but the institutional structures had disappeared (much like the church in England after 410AD).
Through whom did Christian travellers by sea say their prayers? Both SS Peter and Paul travelled by sea, but St Paul especially suffered and survived an horrendous shipwreck, as did all who travelled with him. Who better to intercede to? One can imagine Augustine being asked by someone on the streets of Ostia, “So where are you going?” and replying, “To convert the English from heathen to Christ.”