England’s history is intimately linked to that of Christianity. The religion has influenced everything from the country’s architectural heritage to its artistic legacy and public institutions. Christianity hasn’t always brought peace in England, however, and the country has suffered centuries of religious and political turbulence over the faith and its denominations.
It’s said that the Pope sent Saint Augustine to England in 597 to convert the pagans to Christianity. But Christianity probably first reached in England in the 2nd century AD. Several centuries later, it had grown to become the country’s primary religion, with the 10th century witnessing the formation of a unified, Christian England. But how exactly did this process take place?
Here’s the story of Christianity’s emergence and proliferation in England.
Christianity has existed in England from at least the 2nd century AD
Rome first became aware of Christianity in around 30 AD. Roman Britain was a fairly multicultural and religiously diverse place, and so long as native populations such as the Celts in Britain honoured the Roman gods, they were allowed to honour their own ancient ones too.
Merchants and soldiers from across the empire settled and served in England, making it difficult to pinpoint who exactly introduced Christianity to England; however, the first evidence of Christianity in England is from the late 2nd century. Though a minor sect, Romans objected to Christianity’s monotheism and its refusal to recognise the Roman gods. Christianity was pronounced an ‘illegal superstition’ under Roman law, though little was done to enforce any punishment.
It was only after a great fire in July 64 AD that Emperor Nero needed to find a scapegoat. Christians, who were rumoured to be incestuous cannibals, were tortured and persecuted extensively.
After periods of acceptance and further persecution, it was only under Emperor Diocletian in 313 AD that he proclaimed that every person was free to ‘follow the religion which he chooses’.
Under Emperor Constantine in the 4th century, Christianity became the dominant religion, and in 395 AD, Emperor Theodosius made Christianity Rome’s new state religion.
The enormity of the Roman Empire combined with the Christian crackdown on pagan gods meant that by 550 there were 120 bishops spread throughout the British Isles.
Christianity in Anglo-Saxon England was dictated by conflict
Christianity was all but extinguished in England with the arrival of the Saxons, Angles and Jutes from Germany and Denmark. However, distinctive Christian churches continued to thrive in Wales and Scotland, and upon orders from Pope Gregory in 596-597, a group of around 40 men led by Saint Augustine arrived in Kent to re-establish Christianity.
Subsequent battles between Christian and pagan kings and groups meant that by the end of the 7th century, all of England was Christian by name, though some continued to worship the old pagan gods as late as the 8th century.
When the Danes conquered England in the late 9th century, they were converted to Christianity, and in subsequent years their lands were either conquered or merged with the Saxons, resulting in a unified, Christian England.
Christianity boomed in the middle ages
In the medieval period, religion was a vital part of everyday life. All children (aside from Jewish children) were baptised, and mass – delivered in Latin – was attended every Sunday.
Bishops who were primarily wealthy and aristocratic ruled over parishes, while parish priests were poor and lived and worked alongside their parishioners. Monks and nuns gave to the poor and provided hospitality, while groups of Friars took vows and went out to preach.
In the 14th and 15th centuries, the Virgin Mary and saints were increasingly religiously prominent. At this time, Protestant ideas began to spread: John Wycliffe and William Tyndale were persecuted in the 14th and 16th centuries, respectively, for translating the bible into English and questioning Catholic doctrines such as transubstantiation.
England endured centuries of religious turbulence
Henry VIII broke with the church of Rome in 1534 after the pope refused to annul his marriage to Catherine of Aragon. From 1536-40, around 800 monasteries, cathedrals and churches were dissolved and left to go to ruin in what became known as the dissolution of the monasteries.
For the next 150 years, religious policy varied with the ruler, and changes to it typically led to civil and political unrest. Edward VI and his regents favoured Protestantism, while Mary Queen of Scots restored Catholicism. Elizabeth I restored the Protestant Church of England, while James I faced assassination attempts by groups of Catholics who sought to return a Catholic monarch to the throne.
The tumultuous Civil War under King Charles I resulted in the monarch’s execution and in England ending the monopoly of the Church of England on Christian worship. As a result, many independent churches sprung up throughout England.
After King Charles I’s son Charles II died in 1685, he was succeeded by the Catholic James II, who appointed Catholics to a number of powerful positions. He was deposed in 1688. Afterwards, the Bill of Rights stated that no Catholic could become a king or queen and no king could marry a Catholic.
Moreover, the Toleration Act of 1689 permitted non-conformists to practice their faith in their own places of worship and have their own teachers and preachers. This religious settlement of 1689 would shape policy up until the 1830s.
Christianity in the 18th and 19th centuries was led by reason and industrialisation
In 18th-century Britain, new sects such as the Methodists led by John Wesley were formed, while Evangelicalism began to draw attention.
The 19th century saw Britain transformed by the Industrial Revolution. Along with a population exodus to British cities, the Church of England continued its revival and many new churches were built.
In 1829, the Catholic Emancipation Act awarded rights to Catholics, who had previously been barred from becoming MPs or holding public office. A survey in 1851 showed that only around 40% of the population attended church on a Sunday; certainly, many of the poor had little to no contact with the church.
This number declined further towards the end of the 19th century, with organisations like the Salvation Army being set up to reach the poor, promote Christianity and fight the ‘war’ against poverty.
Religious attendance and identification is declining in England
During the 20th century, church-going declined rapidly in England, particularly amongst Protestants. In the 1970s and 80s, charismatic ‘house churches’ became more popular. However, by the end of the 20th century, only a small minority of the population regularly attended church.
At the same time, there was a lot of interest in the New Age Movement, while in the early 20th century, Pentecostal churches were formed. Nonetheless, only a little more than half of the English population describe themselves as Christian today, with only slightly fewer identifying as atheist or agnostic. Numbers of churchgoers continue to dwindle, though immigration from other countries means that the Catholic Church in England is experiencing an increase in popularity.