ST AUGUSTINE’S ABBEY CANTERBURY
The Abbey of St Peter and St Paul
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 ABBEY as 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)
SACRED DESTINATIONS http://www.sacred-destinations.com/england/canterbury-st-augustine-abbey
ENGLISH HERITAGE http://www.english-heritage.org.uk/daysout/properties/st-augustines-abbey/
CANTERBURY CATHEDRAL, ST AUGUSTINE’S ABBEY, AND ST MARTIN’S CHURCH Youtube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ICEEsKcTWmI&feature=player_detailpage
AUGUSTINE’S GOSPEL http://www.historyofinformation.com/expanded.php?id=1846