By Sara Amos
History in the Making, Vol.1:2 (2013)
Abstract: This article re-examines the primary documents relating to the sixth century Gregorian Mission to Kent in light of the modern historiographical tradition which claims Frankish hegemony existed over the Kentish Kingdom under Aethelberht’s rule. This tradition claims that the Gregorian mission to Kent must be seen as an extension of the authority of Merovingian Gaul over Kent. This article argues against this historiographical tradition as it is grounded in questionable interpretations of a small amount of primary material. It argues that the mission must be seen through the eyes of Pope Gregory the Great, the initiator of the mission, who viewed the mission within an apocolyptic framework. He wanted to save as many people as he could for the second coming and was not influenced by Merovingian politics.
Introduction: As narrated in Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English people, Pope Gregory I was inspired by God to send Augustine, the former prior of Gregory’s St Andrews monastery, to convert the English nation to Christianity. This mission, known today as the Gregorian mission to Kent resulted in the conversion of the Kentish kingdom under King Aethelberht, and is an excellent example of the missionary movement within Europe at this time. Although it is seen by modern historians as well documented, many key elements surrounding the mission continue to be debated. One such element that will be discussed within this article is the supposed involvement of the Merovingian kingdoms in Gregory’s mission. The Merovingian’s were a powerful family which ruled Gaul at this time. The kingdom was divided into two regions, Austro-Burgundy and Neustria. It is the power and influence of the Merovingian kingdoms on the Gregorian mission that has recently garnered support within academia. Marilyn Dunn argues that the role of King Childebert II, ruler of the Austro-Burgundian kingdom, was heavily involved in the inception and implementation of the mission because of his rivalry with the Neustrian kingdom. This kingdom was ruled by Chlothar II who, according to Ian Wood held authority over the English people through a marriage alliance. This argument will be discussed in detail within this article, and will re-examine the evidence for the mission which supports these theories. It will show that their arguments greatly exaggerate the connection between the Merovingian kingdoms and the Gregorian mission to Kent. Although Childebert’s court did play a role within the mission they did not initiate it, they simply aided the missionaries as they traversed through their realm. It will also argue that this mission must be examined through Gregory’s apocalyptic world view rather than the supposed political motives of powerful monarchs within Merovingian Gaul.