Roman Britain

The Romans conquered Britain

After the early campaign of 55 and 54 BC by Julius Caesar, the Romans invaded Britain in AD under the Emperor Claudius. They held much if it south of Hadrian’s Wall (built in AD 122) for most of the time till 410.

As for the Gospel itself the Roman Empire provided a social and political vehicle for the appearance and continuance of the Church in the British Isles.

Tacitus, the Roman historian writing about AD 200, suggests that Christians had arrived in Britain in the second century; but this may have been a generalisation without him necessarily having a firm knowledge of the matter. It is likely the first Christians came as soldiers, traders, or artisans. However, because Christianity was persecuted, they met in secret. We know nothing directly about them.

However a stone has been found in Manchester containing the Sator Rotas word square dating to 180AD. The letters of the square can be read as the words Pater Noster (Our Father) along with A for Alpha and O for Omega, which letters refer to Christ in the Book of Revelation. The square may have Christian connections; but this has been challenged.

The first Christians in Britain belonged to the one and the same church which had spread throughout the empire from its origins in the church of the apostles in Jerusalem. They lived as they did, believed what they did, and worshipped as they did. They experienced martyrdom just as the rest of the church did throughout the Roman Empire.

The early church functioned as a unity around bishops.

Britain was no exception. It had several bishops. But a dramatic event propelled the church into the forefront of world attention. In 306 in the city of York Constantine was proclaimed Emperor by the Roman army. Six years later in 312 at the Milvian bridge outside Rome he claimed that he had sole control of the Empire in the West. By 324 he was the sole ruler of the entire Empire.

Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the Empire. The church was the only unified body in the whole Empire. To make good its new role it patterned itself on the civil administration. The bishop became a major functionary both spiritual and political.

The bishops in the chief towns of the four civil provinces of Britain, were located in London, York, Lincoln, Colchester, Cirencester and Caerleon; and later perhaps in Carlisle.

It is possible British bishops attended the great Council of Nicea in 325. That Council, after vigorous debate and not least under pressure from Constantine, made the first of many affirmations that Christ is God. To imply that this was not so was to abolish the Gospel and undermine the fundamental experience that he is the Saviour of all who put their trust in him.

The great bishop St Athanasius, the foremost proponent and defender of Nicea, in his Defence Against the Arians, refers to the Council of Sardica of 343 or 344, and which decided against the Arians. He says, ‘The sentence that was passed in my favour received the approval of more than three hundred bishops’. He goes on to name the provinces from which these bishops came. The last name on the list is Britain.

British Bishops were present in some numbers at the Council of Rimini in Italy in 359. The bishops claimed their expenses from the imperial treasury rather than depend on contributions from the churches. This is not to be interpreted as a sign that the churches in Britain were penniless but their bishops did not want to burden them. They believed that they should live in holy poverty and imperial aid sufficed .

In 363 St Athanasius wrote a letter to the Christian Emperor Jovian saying that ‘all the Churches in every quarter, both those in Spain and Britain, have assented to the Nicene Creed’.

In the fourth century bishops were able to build churches for public worship instead of meeting in homes. Churches have been found in the Roman cities of Colchester, Silchester, London, Lincoln and in Uley in Gloucestershire and at Icklingham, in Suffolk.

Baptism and the Eucharist were central features of life in the early church. Pools and fonts have been found as well as altar ware. Private chapels have also been found at Lullingstone in Kent with frescoes demonstrating the celebration of the Liturgy. Chapels have also been found at Hinton St Mary and Frampton in Dorset and two more at Caerwent. On Hadrian’s Wall, at Vindolanda, it seems Christians were already occupying the military headquarters and even built an apsidal church before the soldiers went.

By the end of the fifth century it has been estimated there may have been as many as 25 British bishops.

In 410

The Roman legions withdrew from Britain.

Making Christianity the official faith of the Roman Empire brought with it massive support from the state as well as massive responsibilities. It also brought opposition from the church itself.

Monastic life offered a new manifestation of the Gospel through a more detailed expression of obedience to Jesus, it met the desire for a more evident life of holiness in union with Christ. The official need to compromise was met with no compromise. Monastic life changed the face of the church everywhere for all time.

Remote hermitages began to appear in the 5th century on St. Helens in the Scillies, on Lundy Island and on Caldey Island off the South Wales coast an on Ardwall Isle off Kirkcudbright in Galloway southwest Scotland. These were built of very simple perishable material, sometimes using caves. At Ardwall the postholes of a small wooden church date to about 550. More exciting is the finding of a wooden tomb-shrine of one believed to be a saint, typical of those found in Ireland.

Soon monks set foot on mainland Britain. On the walls of the cave of St Ninian in Galloway are early crosses picked out in stone. A number of ancient cross slabs have been found here, now in the museum in nearby Whithorn. Caves were numerous in Scotland and many were used by monks.