First, of course, was Augustine who started the whole thing (restarted really, but you get my drift). He was of course sent by Pope Gregory the Great to head a mission to England, and he became known as “The Apostle to the English”. He was very successful after he converted King Æthelbert of Kent, who was already married to a Christian Princess, Bertha the daughter of Charibert I the King of Paris, which no doubt helped, and in fact Æthelbert was quite receptive giving him permission to hold services and convert people readily, which wasn’t always the case in Anglo-Saxon Britain. Bede says the mission was mounted because Gregory had seen fair-haired British slaves in the Roman slave market and was inspired to try to convert their people. Likely there were other reasons as well, although not likely as selfless.
Thomas Elmham gives the date of King Æthelbert’s conversion as Whit Sunday in 597, although there is no other evidence one way or the other, but it seems correct. Augustine established his episcopal see at Canterbury, and founded the monastery of Sts. Peter and Paul there as well. It later became the monastery of St. Augustine.
it is interesting to note that almost simultaneously with the conversion to Christianity, for the first time the laws of an English principality were written down. This is known as Æthelberht’s Law, and some sources attribute a goodly share of the credit to St. Augustine. Bede says this:
Among the other benefits which he thoughtfully conferred on his people, he also established enacted judgments for them, following the examples of the Romans, with the council of his wise men. These were written in English speech, and are held and observed by them to this day.
Alfred the Great states that he consulted the Laws of Æthelberht in compiling his law code. Æthelberht’s law was the first codification of the law in English, and, in fact, the first law code in any Germanic language. Like most at the time, and as the common law still is, it was a compilation of customary law built up over time and (to that point) transmitted orally. This is where the Common Law starts.
Quite a record St. Augustine of Canterbury compiled, and it will be built on later. The other two are better known so we’ll deal with them more lightly.
Second was Thomas Becket, whose was martyred in Canterbury Cathedral by the King’s suggestion if not order. “Who will rid me of this troublesome priest.” Of which the accuracy may be questioned but not likely the sentiment. He really was a thorn in the side of the king, and some recent research shows they may not have been as good buddies as we’ve heard. But he came up from pretty far down the social order, sort of an early Horatio Alger story, and they may have not really gotten along that well.
The third was St. Thomas More, who was executed for treason by Henry VIII, for failing to recognize the king as head of the church in England. Given the law, he was no doubt guilty since he was loyal to the Pope, neither the first nor the last to have to make that choice.
That’s mostly who we hear about as the great Archbishops, and all three were, without question.
But there is another, and I’m not sure that he isn’t the greatest of all if we look where his work ended up taking the English speaking people. And yet, we never hear much about him. He died in his bed, honored and old but so did Augustine, martyrdom isn’t a requirement for greatness, in my mind, anyway.
So why don’t we hear much about Stephen Langton?