Archbishops of Great Britain


St. Augustine,

or St. Austin, styled the Apostle of the English, was sent by Pope Gregory I. with a few monks to preach the Gospel in England. He landed in 597; and so rapid was his success, that in 602 the pope made him archbishop of Canterbury, Kent being the first scene of his labours. Elated by the success or his mission, he endeavoured to bring the Welsh bishops, who were descendants of the British converts of the second century, under the jurisdiction of the Church of Rome, to which they had never submitted; but they asserted their independence, and 1200 (or 200, according to the Saxon Chronicle) monks of Bangor were soon after put to the sword by Ethelfrith, king of Northumbria, at the instigation, it was said, of the offended prelate. He died, however, in 605, two years before this massacre took place.

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St. Thomas A Becket, archbishop of Canterbury,

was the son of a London merchant, his mother being a convert from Mohammedanism. He was born in 1119, and was sent by Theobald, archbishop of Canterbury, to study at Oxford and Bologna. He entered the church, and was much forwarded by Theobald. In 1158 the king, Henry II., made Becket chancellor. In the following year he accompanied the king to France, with a large and splendid retinue.

He was elected archbishop of Canterbury, by command of Henry II., in 1162; and soon after he resigned the office of chancellor, thereby giving great offence to the king. Becket now laid aside all pomp and luxury, and led a life of monastic austerity. In the controversy which immediately arose respecting the limits of civil and ecclesiastical authority, Becket asserted against the king the independence of the church, and refused to sign the 'Constitutions of Clarendon.' By a council or parliament at Northampton, in 1164, Becket was condemned, and suspended from his office. He escaped in disguise to France, and had the protection of the king. In response to his excommunication of the clergy who signed the 'Constitutions,' and some of the king's officers, the king, in 1166; banished all the relations of Becket, and forbade all communication with him. War with France followed.

Peace was made in 1169 between Henry and Louis, and two papal legates, Gratian and Vivian, were sent by Pope Alexander III. to settle the dispute with Becket. The conference took place in France, but was fruitless, the legates resolutely siding with Becket. In 1170 a meeting took place between the king and the archbishop at Fretteville, where they were professedly reconciled, and Becket returned to Canterbury. He at once published the pope's sentence of suspension against the archbishop of York, and other prelates, who had crowned Prince Henry. The king's angry expression on hearing this induced four of his barons (Richard Brito, Reginald Fitzurse, Hugh de Moreville, and William Tracy) to go immediately to Canterbury, and after unsuccessfully remonstrating with Becket, they followed him into the cathedral and murdered him on the steps of the altar, 31 Dec. 1170. The king denied all share in the murder, and was absolved; but in 1174 he did penance at Becket's tomb. Becket was canonized by Alexander III. in 1173. His remains were translated in 1220 to a splendid shrine, which attracted crowds of pilgrims, and was loaded with rich offerings. The immense treasure was seized by Henry VIII. and the shrine destroyed in 1538.

St. Dunstan,

archbishop of Canterbury, and one of the greatest of ecclesiastical statesmen, was born at Glastonbury, of a noble family, and was educated at its monastery, then famed as a seat of learning. His studies and accomplishments were very varied-mechanical, scientific, literary, and artistic. Brain fever resulted from his over-application to study, and left behind it the belief that he had personal conflicts with the devil. He became a favourite at the court of Athelstan, especially with the ladies, but falling under suspicion of magical arts, was subjected to the ordeal of water and banished. A severe struggle ensued between affection and ambition: he was in love with a lady of the court, and he was urged to become a monk.

He resolved to enter the Benedictine order, and became an anchorite at Glastonbury. In 943 he was named abbot, and at once introduced the rule of St. Benedict, richly endowed the monastery, and made it a house both of monks and of scholars. He was soon called to be one of the councillors of King Edmund, and in co-operation with the great Chancellor Thurketul and Archbishop Odo, set himself to carry out his principles of reform in church and state. He was the friend as well as the minister of Edred, and his power constantly increased. On the coronation of Edwy he disgraced himself by his violent conduct when sent by Odo to recall the young king to the banquet. He forced the crown on Edwy's head, and dragged him from his wife's bower to the hall. And the subsequent horrible mutilation of the young queen was the work of his agents. A reaction in the popular mind led to his retirement, and not being able to account for monies which had come into his hands as treasurer of Edred, he was banished.

Recalled in 957, he was made bishop of Worcester and of London, and in the following year, after two disappointments, archbishop of Canterbury. In the reign of the licentious Edgar, Dunstan was virtually sovereign, and by his wise policy procured for Edgar the title of the Pacific. Many important measures of social as well as ecclesiastical reform were carried out under his direction. But he was not very scrupulous about the means he used; and there seems little doubt that he escaped a defeat in the council of Winchester on the question of the married clergy, by a trick of ventriloquism, and again at Calne, by a mechanical trick, by which that part of the floor on which his adversaries stood was made to give way, injuring many and killing some. After the accession of Ethelred, Dunstan retired to Canterbury, and devoted himself to his spiritual duties. He left several literary works. Died at Canterbury, and was buried in the Cathedral, in 988.

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The above information was gleaned from various sources and then put together by Colin Hinson ©1996.

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