Reach the Isles
4. The History of British Christianity – King Alfred (600-800 A.D.)
Missionaries and kings, individuals and groups, gradually brought the Christian faith to these isles and Christianity was firmly established here by the 5th and 6th century. Numbers and influence ebbed and flowed, and the visible church was predominantly Roman Catholic, led from Christian centres in Canterbury and York.
It is thought that Augustine’s mission in 597 A.D. set the course for much of Christian history in these isles by forming a close relationship between Christianity and the monarchy. The focus of this article will demonstrate that further and show its progression.
As noted in the previous three articles, the numbers who were truly born again, as opposed to those who were merely cultural Christians, is hard to know. But compromise certainly abounded during the 5th, 6th and 7th centuries. The historian, Bede, talks particularly of the half-hearted Anglo-Saxon Christians who still held on to Pagan practices.
Whether a church made up of those who possessed Christ or only professed to know Christ existed, the truth is that it did grow in numbers and influence. To many, its increase appeared unstoppable.
Then came the Vikings. The Vikings came down from Norway, Denmark and Sweden. They had been increasing in power from about 700 A.D. and through their advances in shipbuilding were able to travel to nearby countries to pillage and plunder (and some setup homes and farm). The Vikings were a pagan, polytheistic people. Their attacks on monasteries had more to do with the wealth they often held rather than the fact they were Christian. Once they settled in Britain and other countries, many quickly adopted Christianity and abandoned their paganism.
Lindisfarne and the Vikings – 871 A.D.
In 871 A.D. the famous Viking raid on Lindisfarne shook the nation and many attacks followed. At the time Alfred was the King of Wessex. He professed to be a Christian and in his understanding, the Viking attacks were a punishment allowed by God. The battles between the Vikings and Alfred and his armies raged for over 15 years. Many of them in around my home county of Berkshire. At one stage Alfred was forced to retreat to the Somerset marshes and waged guerrilla warfare for a time. It was during this time he infamously burnt some cakes.
Alfred rebuilt his forces and in 886 A.D. had defeated the Danes and a treaty was established. One of the terms of the treaty was that Guthrum, the pagan king of the Danes, be baptised as a Christian, with Alfred as his sponsor. Though it seemed for a time that paganism would crush Christianity, once more the name of Christ was raised high.
Alfred the Great and His Impact Today
King Alfred, born in Wantage near Oxford in 849, would become the only English monarch to have “the Great” appended to his name. He would also be the first monarch referred to as the King of England. He was a brilliant tactician and his efforts to fortify the country through burhs (boroughs) and an interconnected road system continues to impact our society and culture today. King Alfred also established a code of laws and believed strongly in education for all. He learned Latin in his late 30’s and helped translate books from Latin to Anglo-Saxon.
We accept Alfred had short-comings, and two especially come to mind. Alfred remained an adherent of Roman Catholicism. While this was not Catholicism as we know it, it certainly was compromised even in his day. Also, Alfred commissioned a project to trace his genealogy back to Adam. This, the writings of Bede and a growing belief by the Anglo-Saxons led them to believe the English were the new chosen people.
But Alfred’s determination to educate the English people and provide the Bible in the people’s language was something later genuine reformers, such as Wycliffe, would embrace. The King’s new law code began with the Ten Commandments, and no doubt this went a great way towards establishing what we now refer to as our Judeo-Christian heritage. A heritage which has impacted our society, judicial system, economy and even work ethic. Alfred’s efforts to educate enabled a system of learning that would bring at least knowledge of Christianity to all the people in his kingdom. Alfred had a noble goal for individuals to embrace Christianity and not merely to follow the lead of their rulers.
In the 10th century, Alfred’s work would lead to lords providing small chapels on their land where local people could attend. This eventually brought about the parish system familiar to any in the country today. His faith was imperfect, and perhaps was not a born-again believer at all, but there is much about his life that we can appreciate, and through his leadership, we find yet more roots in bringing about the country we know from more recent history and our society today.
If God could use pagan kings like Nebuchadnezzar (Daniel 4), Cyrus (Isaiah 44:28, 45:1) and Artaxerxes (Ezra 7:11-28) in the Old Testament, then I fully believe He can use a king like Alfred.
One of the benefits of studying church history is to see and understand that God has used many ways to work out His purposes in these isles.
Martin is from the UK and worked in a variety of churches and ministries in England and Northern Ireland. He is married to Carrie and they have 4 children. Since 2018 Martin has lived in the US and pastors at Bedford Bible Church, PA. He has a strong focus on expositional preaching, family, fellowship, and spreading the Gospel to the community and around the world.