Malcolm Lambert, former reader in medieval history at Bristol University and author of a study on the heresies of the Middle Ages, has now turned his attention to the beginnings of Christianity in the British Isles. As the title of his book suggests, his focus in this work is on the conversion of Britain from paganism to Christianity during the period from St. Alban, the first reported Christian martyr in Britain, to the life of the Venerable Bede, by whose time it was legitimate to speak of a “Christian Britain.” Lambert presents his methodology at the outset of the book, stating, “I believe the primary task of an historian is to tell, as far as he possibly can, what happened” (p. xv). In the opinion of this reviewer, he achieves his goal, and he does so using a wide variety of historical evidence to support the story he is telling.
The twists and turns in the story of Britain’s conversion become increasingly clear as Lambert moves further along in the book, largely because the evidence at hand becomes more and more explicit. As he says in chapter 1, the beginnings of Christianity in Roman Britain are shrouded by an impenetrable fog created by the lack of documentary sources for the period. The earliest documentary evidence comes from the mid-third century, the likely date for the passion of Alban. Lambert also discusses archaeological discoveries from this early period such as Christian mosaics in Roman villas, elaborate communion vessels, and mobile lead tanks that were apparently used for baptisms in rural areas. These traces point to the existence of Christianity in the south and east of England, though Lambert also notes recent scholarship suggesting Christianity had a foothold in the northern military zone, especially along Hadrian’s Wall.
With the breaking of links with Rome in the early fifth-century and the invasion of the pagan Germanic tribes later in the century, the early British church suffered a crisis. Evidence for the paganism of the invading peoples can be found in the burial objects recovered from Anglo-Saxon cemeteries. Moreover, the existence of funerary stones with epitaphs in Latin and ogham (an Irish script) testify to the advance of the British Church westward into places such as Wales and Cornwall, as it was gradually pushed out of its home in the south and east by the invading Anglo-Saxons.
Although the British church initially failed to convert the pagan invaders, it did produce Patrick, who left his native Britain to seek the conversion of Ireland, believing himself to be taking the gospel to the very ends of the earth. As Lambert points out, his example of peregrinatio inspired later monks such as Columba who in 563 founded a monastery on the Island of Iona in the Irish Sea off the coast of the ancient kingdom of Dál Riata. As centers of education and outposts of Christian culture, these monasteries served as springboards for missions to the pagan Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. Also significant in the conversion of the pagan Anglo-Saxons was the mission from Rome sent by Pope Gregory the Great in the late sixth century. Lambert gives a balanced presentation of the successes and setbacks of the Italian mission and the resulting clash with the existing traditions of the British church over the issues of the dating of Easter and the appropriate form of tonsure.
Amidst the confusion resulting from the Synod of Whitby in 664 arose one of the most fascinating of the characters in Lambert’s tale, Theodore of Tarsus, a Greek-speaking monk who had lived in Rome and was appointed archbishop of Canterbury in 668. Theodore brought a fresh infusion of learning to the British scene, establishing a school in Canterbury and authoring biblical commentaries that demonstrate his extensive reading in the church fathers. Although his efforts brought him into conflict with some such as Wilfrid, bishop of York, Theodore left behind a more connected network of dioceses that proved vital to the unity of the church in the British Isles.
Lambert’s story ends with the conversion of the Picts, the last of the British peoples to accept Christianity, and the life and career of Bede, the greatest of early British authors. By the time he wrote his Ecclesiastical History, it was possible for Bede to look back at the conversion of Britain as an accomplished fact, presenting the emergence of the English people as a new Israel chosen by God.
Lambert’s straightforward approach is evident throughout the book. The rich variety of evidence upon which he draws—from ecclesiastically significant place names in Wales to an ogham inscription in Pictish found on the Orkney islands—strengthens his thesis and makes for an interesting read. The book is well written, including a vast amount of historical detail without losing sight of the overall narrative, and it should be accessible even for those with limited expertise in this period. Illustrations and plates, along with the maps outlining the spread of Christian sites throughout Britain, enliven the story he tells. The only thing that would make the book even better would be to include a bibliography. Although he regularly notes relevant secondary sources in the footnotes as he proceeds through the text, an index including all the secondary literature would be useful for other researchers and students. Despite this omission, Lambert’s book gives a well-documented overview of Britain’s remarkable transition from being an entirely pagan to a profoundly Christian nation.