ST MARTIN’S CHURCH CANTERBURY
Charism and Continuity?
The Story of this church begins with Bertha, a Frankish princess who married Aethelbert, then a Kentish, Anglo-Saxon prince. She came to Canterbury with a bishop as her chaplain sometime in the last quarter of the sixth century. She built a church here on this site, and prayed for two decades for a mission to come to the Anglo-Saxon people here.
Eventually, Pope Gregory the Great commissioned Augustine, one of his monks from St Andrew’s monastery in Rome, with the task of preaching the Gospel to the Anglo-Saxons of Kent. Augustine left Rome in May or June 596, with a mixed band of twenty monks and lay brothers, and arrived in Kent probably before Easter in 597. Their nine-month journey took Augustine and his party through the length of France, from Marseille to the port of Quentovic, just south of Boulogne.
During this period, Augustine went considerably out of his way to reach the city of Tour, a major departure from his route to the English Channel. What were his reasons for doing this?
Augustine’s interest in St Martin of Tours
First and foremost, Augustine needed Frankish translators and interpreters from amongst the clergy to accompany him to Kent. Pope Gregory’s most important supporter in the mission was Brunhild, the dowager Queen of Austrasia & Burgundy. Brunhild apparently authorised twenty Frankish priests and lay clerks to accompany Augustine to Kent; and Augustine would need to recruit them from the cathedral city of Tour.
Also Bertha, now queen in Kent, was herself a member of the Frankish royal dynasty. She had lived in Tour before her marriage to Aethelbert. Bertha had requested the mission to the Anglo-Saxons. Any information that Augustine could glean about the Bertha could be enormously helpful in his dealings with the Kentish royal household.
St Martin’s shrine was at Tour, and venerating at the shrine of the most famous saint, monk and bishop in Francia, would be a high priority. St Martin was renowned for the success of his missionary activities amongst the rural pagans of the C4th century. What lessons might Augustine learn for his own mission to Kent, amongst a pagan people?
Lastly, as Bertha had already founded a royal chapel outside Canterbury, and named it after the saint whose relics and reputation dominated the city of Tour. What did she bring with her of St Martin, either literally or metaphorically, that would be important to her in Canterbury?
Two strands from the life of St Martin
There are two strands to the story of St Martin that are crucial for understanding both Augustine and Bertha.
The first strand shows us something of Martin’s character, and is the most well-known – the story of Martin’s cavalry cloak that he had shared with a beggar at the gates of Arles, by cutting the cloak in half. Martin saw and heard Christ speaking in a dream that same night. The Lord identified himself as the beggar at the gate of Arles. Augustine was consecrated as bishop in that same city two hundred years later, so that the life of St Martin would have had a personal significance for him from the outset of his mission.
As the first bishop-monk of Tour, Martin established his monastery of Marmoutier on the north bank of the Loire. After his death, Martin’s cloak was preserved at the monastery; but a century later (c. 510) the Frankish conqueror, Clovis I took St Martin’s cloak as the symbol of his dynasty.St Martin’s cloak was the most significant symbol of royal power and authority in Francia at this time.The cloak went everywhere with the king and his successors, even into battle. And the priests who carried the cloak were called, in Latin, cappellani. The French translation for this is ‘chapelains’, from which comes the English word, ‘chaplain’.
The second strand to Martin’s Story was a an unusual symbol of Martin’s ministry. The background to this is that, after his consecration as bishop of Tour, Martin found it impossible to fulfil all the demands made on his time and ministry from the civic and ecclesiastical dignitaries in Tour. So he founded a new monastic community – Marmoutier – and went to the cathedral only on Sundays to celebrate the mass. Martin built-up an impressive following of spiritual seekers, living the Gospel-life of simplicity and sharing that he had begun to learn at the gate of Arles.
And everywhere Martin went, whether in his cathedral sitting in the vestry before Mass, or meeting with pagan peoples deep in the surrounding countryside, Martin always sat upon a small, 3-legged, wooden milking stool, of the kind that could be found in any cowshed in Francia. This rough-hewn, wooden stool was a profound sign of humility in an age dominated by power, pomp and pride.
Now, which of these two symbols might have appealed most to Bertha? After all, her family were all from the Frankish royal dynasty. But she knew well enough that the power and symbolism of Martin’s cloak was used as a sign of legitimacy for an often corrupt regime, in which she herself had been little more than a pawn. She had come to Kent as no more than a minor princess in an arranged marriage, who brought little or no dowry into her marriage with Aethelbert, except for her royal blood, and her Christian faith.
And as Augustine knelt at St Martin’s shrine in the city of Tour, which would he choose as the symbol of his ownepiscopacy? The recently-deceased bishop, Gregory of Tour, had certainly been a critic of the various Frankish royal households of the time, but he was also a significant beneficiary of the regime. After all, he had owed his own appointment as bishop to Queen Brunhild herself. Gregory of Tour was certainly comfortable with St Martin’s cloak, but perhaps less so with Martin’s humble stool.
So, in the life of Martin, on the one hand, and the life of the recently departed bishop, Gregory of Tour, on the other, Augustine had two very different models of episcopal leadership to reflect upon.
For all the miracles that took place around St Martin’s shrine in Tour, beneath it all lay its main purpose from the church’s perspective: to enhance ecclesiastical power, and to buttress the authority of the bishop of Tour and his clergy. This could scarcely have escaped Augustine’s notice, a monk sent to England because the pope could not entrust the mission to his own Roman bishops, who, even in these ‘last days’, were caught in the game of ecclesiastical positioning and power politics.
All this may have weighed upon Augustine’s mind as he venerated at St Martin’s shrine. As he knelt in prayer, would he choose the rough milking stool, or drape himself in the warm, chaplain’s cloak?
Queen Bertha would have been very much aware of the positive impact that Christianity had made on the Frankish people, and both of Bertha’s younger sisters were nuns.
What is less clear is: what it was of St Martin that Bertha carried with her to Canterbury, and that inspired her to build and name a church after the saint? Was it his life and ministry of healing, and pastoral care of the poor? Or, as a Merovingian princess, was it to bring to Canterbury her royal family’s cult of St Martin?
When we come to asses what little evidence there is, there is no suggestion, either in the writings of Bede, or of Gregory of Tour, or of Pope Gregory’s later correspondence with Bertha and Aethelbert, that any relics of St Martin were brought to Canterbury, whether a piece of his cloak, or a scraping of his bones, either by Bertha herself, or by Augustine on his departure from Tour.
Bertha’s desire for a mission speaks more of her concern for the people of Aethelbert’s kingdom than for extending the cult of St Martin to Kent. Her desire seems to have been more for the healing of bodies and the salvation of souls, than for the veneration of ancient bones.
St Martin himself would, most certainly, haveapproved of her choice!
The first Christian Community at St Martin’s Chapel
From Augustine’s arrival until the building of Christ Church Cathedral, the missionaries worshipped here, at St. Martin’s – perhaps for as long as four or five years. This royal chapel was already the centre of a small local Christian community when the missionaries arrived in 597.
The chapel may have been close to a royal residence, here on St Martin’s Hill. The first Christian community gathered around St Martin’s would have comprised Bertha and her chaplain bishop Liudhard, her immediate entourage including those who had accompanied Bertha from Tour, the wives, widows and mothers of the king’s warriors in Canterbury, occasional traders from Dorestad and Quentovic across the English Channel, and possibly some former British Christians from the area.
Of these, some would attend worship through loyalty to the queen; others because prayer and the Christian community itself were among the few resources available to cope with the loss of husbands, sons and fathers who died through disease and the continual pursuit of war.
But, by far, the largest contingent of Christians in Canterbury following Augustine’s arrival were the missionaries themselves: the monks and lay brothers, the priests and lay clerks, who had accompanied Augustine to England. Their arrival would also have overwhelmed the small chapel of St Martin, making an extension of the nave essential. This would also have changed the focus as well as the dynamic of the community around St Martin’s.
Augustine’s new community
Bede offers two insights into their common life during this early period of the mission, the first relating to their worship, and the second to Augustine’s ministry:
“As soon as they entered the dwelling place allotted to them, they began to imitate the way of life of the apostles and of the primitive church. They were constantly engaged in prayers, in vigils and fasts; they preached the word of life to as many as they could; they despised all worldly things as foreign to them; they accepted only the necessaries of life from those whom they taught; in all things they practiced what they preached and kept themselves prepared to endure adversities, even to the point of dying for the truths they proclaimed.” (EH I.26)
It seems that the intensity of a shared life, which drew the community together for mutual support in a pagan land, would have impressed many who (in Bede’s words) “marveling at their simple and innocent way of life and the sweetness of their heavenly doctrine, believed and were baptized.”
The effect of this way of life and prayer on Augustine particularly, was extraordinary. He began to exercise a healing ministry among the local people. And just as well. In Anglo-Saxon Kent, as elsewhere in the Middle Ages, disease marred – and claimed – the lives of many at a young age, and adults seldom lived beyond the age of forty. The need for a ministry of healing, of bodies and minds, and of whole communities, was desperate.
We know that Augustine’s ministry of healing happened, as it was the subject of a letter of reproof from Pope Gregory himself. Bede records that, at an early stage, Augustine “sent to Rome the priest Laurence and the monk Peter to inform the pope St Gregory that the English race had received the faith of Christ and that he himself had been made their bishop.” (EH I.27)
In a letter, sent to Augustine some time later, Gregory writes:
“I know, most beloved brother, that Almighty God, out of love for you has worked great miracles through you for the race which it was his will to have among the chosen.
It is therefore necessary that you should rejoice with trembling over this heavenly gift and fear as you rejoice.” (EH II.31)
There is a certain irony here, that Gregory, who had written a miracle-working hagiography of St Benedict (Dialogues II), now rebuked Augustine for performing such miracles himself! Particularly as so many of the ancient miracle stories are far from first-hand and some far-fetched, with little or no corroboration. Whereas the information concerning Augustine came first-hand from those who were there, and could attest personally to Augustine’s ministry.
Despite Gregory’s concerns and cautions to Augustine, nothing can disguise the fact that an astonishing demonstration of the Spirit’s presence was being experienced at St Martin’s within months of Augustine’s arrival. This sanctuary and nave seem to have been filled with the power of the Spirit through the prayers of the new community that had begun to form, and through this, both Aethelbert and vast numbers of his leading warriors followed the king into the waters of baptism.
The rest is footnote, and we are the most recent line of it to be written, as we consider the future of St Martin’s, and its community.
No contemporary archaeological source identifies Canterbury cathedral’s precincts with Aethelbert’s royal hall. Two alternative locations have been suggested:
- At or near to the Roman theatre in Canterbury (Nicholas Brooks , The Early History of the Church of Canterbury, Leicester University Press) (Chs. 1&2)
- A ‘royal vill’ on St Martin’s Hill, near to St Martin’s Church (M. Sparks & T. Tatton-Brown , Excavations at St Martin’s Hill – IV. The History of the Ville of St Martin’s, Canterbury; Archeologica Cantiana, Vol. C, pp. 200-213 (for reference, in the Cathedral Archives)
Implications and questions for St Martin’s Canterbury today
I. From the Life of St Martin himself
Martin turned his back on the busy public life and ministry of the cathedral at Tour, and founded a simple monastery (and five more). St Martin’s life and ministry lay in unceasing prayer; humble service not status, being on the margins rather than the centre of public life.
The milking stool, or the imperial cloak? What is our symbol, and what does it tell us that we really long for?
II. From Bertha’s Story
Her perseverance for two decades in prayer for a mission, for the right time for this to come. Bertha prayed for a mission, but she was also unprepared when it happened – Augustine had to wait several days while the royal household changed the sheets, made the beds, and brought in food from the king’s storehouses!
How can we be better prepared for God’s surprises, for the new thing that happens next?
III. From Augustine’s Story
With the arrival of Augustine’s mission, St Martin’s church became a polyglot of ethnicities and languages, of cultures and different – even competing – views on and experiences of worship. Their Novena (the Nine Days of Prayer between Ascension and Pentecost) prepared the way for the conversion and baptism of the king, and for thousands who followed.
How might we make the nine days of unceasing prayer between Ascension and Pentecost a true celebration in prayer?
And can we become an intentional community of disciples, gathering here at St Martin’s?
Could the development of a Common Life, and the Rule of the Church (e.g. Acts 2:42 – the apostles’ teaching, fellowship/koinonia with Christ, hospitality in the breaking of the bread, and the Prayers) be a way to sustain and encourage us for the surprises that God has scattered on the way that still lies ahead?
Revd Canon Rob Mackintosh
Address given to the Friends of St Martin’s Church ,Canterbury,
BISHOP OF DOVER – NOVENA AT ST MARTIN’S