The greatest king yet

Published on 06 Feb 2018
Stained glass depicting King Edwin of Northumbria

Teresa McCaffery reflects on what lessons she has learned about teaching the faith from English history

I suppose most countries treasure a history of how they came to be.  We live on an island, so our boundaries are clear.  Our myths and legends tell of the organisation of our space: King Arthur and the knights of the round table, King Canute who tried to hold back the tide, King Alfred who burned the cakes  were all trying to keep order on this island, in this space.  Our history tells of kings and princes, of battles won and marauders repelled, or made welcome eventually if they did not go.   History we now know is subject to ‘spin’, the details adjusted to suit the agenda of the writer.  Shakespeare must take credit for being the first and most dramatic spin doctor.  His emphasis is on the strengths and weaknesses of the British people and he improves our language in the effort to do our character justice.  And then there is Saint Bede who wrote ‘The history of the English church and people’.  He also had an agenda: he wanted to tell us how God showed His love for our country through the actions and words of Pope Gregory and his successors and those they sent to bring these pagan people to the knowledge of the Trinity.  Care, zeal and, above all love, radiate from the pages of his book like warmth from fire.

Bede tells us how Pope Gregory sent St. Augustine to the south of England to evangelise us and St Columba sent St. Aiden from his spiritual bridgehead in Iona.  He writes of the early years of British history when our country was populated by different races and divided into many kingdoms.  Some parts of the country were still physically wild, too dangerous to cross.  Christianity grew in areas isolated from each other and communication with Rome was also difficult.  Bede tells us that the Pope gave British bishops authority to appoint colleagues as the usual procedure of Papal appointment was too dangerous and time consuming.

Rivalry between the different Kingdoms was inevitable and Edwin was a victim of this process.  He was a northern king.  Christianity had not taken hold there and different kings were fighting for supremacy.  Edwin had to run from one part of Britain to another to get away from his more pugnacious rival Ethelfrid until Redwald, King of the Angles took him in.  Unfortunately, Ethelfrid pursued Redwald with bribes and threats until he weakened and agreed to hand Edwin over.  A loyal friend warned Edwin, but he felt that he could not walk away from his friend Redwald and had nowhere left to go anyway. (Didn’t the disciples say something like that?).  He sat outside the palace thinking about all this, for he was a deep thinker, and ‘tormented by inward fires that brought no light’, when a visitor appeared.

This visitor asked him three questions:

“What reward would you give to the man, whoever he may be, who can deliver you from your troubles?”

“Anything in my power”

“And what if he promised you would become the greatest king yet?”

“I will give ample proof of my gratitude”

“If such a man offered to give you better and wiser guidance for your life and salvation will you promise to obey him?”


The visitor then laid his right hand on Edwin’s head and told him to fulfil his promise when he received this sign, and disappeared.  Edwin realised he must have been visited by a spirit.

He was spared and became a great king; the years went by and he remained a good pagan.  He understood the importance of staying in the favour of ‘the Gods’.  He listened to his pagan priests and respected their judgement.  And above all, he thought hard about everything. 

Then he fell in love.  The beautiful princess Ethelberga was the daughter of a Christian king and, possibly to Edwin’s surprise, her family was not keen to send her among pagans.  Edwin found a rational solution to this problem:  Ethelberga was welcome to bring her own priests and teachers to look after her and her entourage.  He even agreed to adopt the Christian religion if his advisers decided it was more holy and acceptable to God than his own.

Ethelberga came north with the Bishop Paulinus who took after his great namesake and set to work converting Edwin. This was surprisingly difficult.  Paulinus taught and taught, and Edwin thought and thought, but nothing much happened.  Then Paulinus found out about the vision.  He marched up to Edwin, laid his hand on the king’s head and said, “remember this?”.  End of problem.

It’s a lovely story, with so much to teach us 1300 years later.

The more Paulinus talked, the more deeply Edwin thought and there seemed to be no way he could decide whether Christianity or the familiar pagan ways was better.  But somewhere during these long conversations Edwin must have described his vision.  Paulinus realised that although Edwin was a pagan at the time, the vision must have been from God:  His angel gave Edwin the sign of the laying on of hands.  When Paulinus used the sign, the Spirit inspired Edwin to become Christian.

Have we forgotten, as Edwin did, that any greatness we have today is the legacy of unstintingly generous and holy work done by monks supported by popes in the early centuries of our history?

What sign should we deploy to awaken our nation to gratitude for the work of our forebears, and willingness to follow the good precepts of Christian faith?

Do we need to learn that arguments do not convince, even when they are sound and true?

Edwin persuaded most of his kingdom, even the priests, to become Christian, but he was murdered not long after for political reasons and the whole lot reverted to the old ways; true conversion does not happen top down.  Today we seem to be back where we started.  Church going is right out of fashion and crucifixes in school classrooms are sometimes deemed to be offensive.  People believe in all sorts of spiritual things and many are heroically self-sacrificing without claiming any religious affiliation.  Are we losing the plot, or is something else happening?

Historically there have always been groups or categories of people who could be relied on to listen with respect to those in authority over them and accept the teaching they followed.  Words like ‘subject’, ‘serf’, ‘tenant’, ‘pupil’ and ‘parishioner’, refer to groups that are disappearing from our society.  Subjects of the king, farm labourers, and tenants on landed estates no longer exist.  Their replacements ‘working men and women’ would not dream of accepting the principles governing the work of their employers.  Pupils increasingly refuse to learn anything they do not want to understand (which does not mean they don’t learn anything) and that leaves the Catholic parishioner squirming in her seat (so many of the men have left), too loyal to move to a ‘better’ parish and too deferential to argue with the parish priest.  Is this the true meaning of democracy?

That may be a caricature, but it’s not all that far from the truth.  Does it mean that Augustine and his companions laboured in vain?  Surely not!  The seeds of faith that they sowed sleep in the earth awaiting the conditions that favour their growth.  Today we do not wait for an enlightened king to proclaim that Christianity is the best way to honour God.  Today every one of us needs to make that decision instead, but, as Mary asked the Angel, ‘How can this be done?’.

Augustine knew that Christianity would benefit if he converted the King.  Christian kings shaped our country in those early centuries.  More recently, Ignatius adopted a two-pronged approach; he did address kings and bishops, but also paid a lot of attention to the laity and schoolchildren.  Nowadays everyone is capable of education (although not all have access to it) and we all think for ourselves.  Children, lay people and workers do their thinking in a very different context from that of kings, presidents and bishops.  Teaching developed by and for an elite does not touch common people, and they do not accept it.

The efforts of Paulinus to convince Edwin through reasoning were not wasted.  Edwin needed a good reason to change, but would not listen to arguments with holes in, and the same applies to the people of our country today.  Children will no longer learn by rote sentences which contain words they cannot hope to understand.  Catholic theology is a huge territory full of excitement and beauty.  Our children must not be deprived of it in the interest of simplicity, but led to it by logical steps that they can safely negotiate.  The adults in the community tasked with teaching the children cannot be content with repeating what they learned the way they learned it.  A lifetime of finding out what those mysterious words we learned in primary school really meant should have given us the experience to know how to lead our children to the treasures of church teaching.

The desire to share the treasures of our faith with our children, as they are and not as they should be, in ways that they can understand, and not as we understand it, will make the channel that allows the spirit to tell them of God.



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