St Paulinus

575 – 644 AD

PaulinusApostle to Yorkshire

601 – 624 AD : Monk at Canterbury
625 – 633 AD : Bishop of York
634 – 644 AD : Bishop of Rochester

Paulinus was “tall, with a slight stoop, black hair, a thin face, a slender aquiline nose. At the same time he was both venerable and awe inspiring in appearance”.

How do we know about Paulinus?

We are very fortunate to have a description of Paulinus. Almost all we know comes from Bede’s ‘History’. An old man who “had been baptised by Paulinus … together with a great crowd of people in the River Trent” told this to Abbot Deda who told Bede who, nearly 100 years later, wrote it down.

So, how did the story of Paulinus begin?

In Italy, almost before Paulinus was born, slave boys from Yorkshire were spotted by the young Gregory in Rome. He was told that their king was called Aella. He replied, “Alleluia! The praises of God must be sung in those parts”. Gregory became Bishop of Rome, then Pope, and sent Augustine with fellow monks to Canterbury, England in 597 – a long way from Yorkshire. In 601 he sent more missionaries including Paulinus.

What do we know about his life?

‘Not much’, either about his 23 years as a monk in Canterbury, nor about his last 10 years as Bishop of Rochester. Legend says that he was the son of a Welsh king and a refugee to Italy. As Bede does not mention this it is probably not true. Bede only tells us that “in the year of our Lord 644, the most reverend father Paulinus, once Bishop of York, and then of Rochester, departed to be with the Lord on 10th October having held the office of Bishop for nineteen years … and was buried at Rochester.”

How did Paulinus get to Yorkshire?

In 601 the supposedly united Northumbria was really two kingdoms, Bernicia and Deira. King Aethelfrith of Bernicia forcibly united them making the family of King Aella of Deira his victims. Aella’s son Edwin as a fugitive sought sanctuary from King Raedwald of East Anglia. In 616 Raedwald defeated both Aethelfrith and Edwin and returned to Deira. Regaining most of his father’s lands he became Rex Anglorum – King of all the English – by marrying Aethelburh, sister of King Eadbald of Kent. The marriage took place only when it was agreed that she could still practice her Christian religion in the pagan Northumbria.

Paulinus went as her chaplain and was consecrated Bishop of 21st July 625, giving importance to the mission to the north. Pope Gregory’s hopes of nearly half a century earlier were about to be fulfilled.

How did Paulinus carry out his mission?

He moved cautiously although convinced that the conversion of the King was the key. Part of the Royal Household, he was now indispensable as the King’s Secretary and Adviser. He “toiled long and hard” but seemed to make little progress. On Easter Day 626 two things happened that Paulinus believed to be “the hand of God”. An assassination attempt on the King failed and the Queen gave birth to a daughter. Grateful King Edwin “gives his infant daughter to Paulinus to be consecrated to Christ. She was . . . the first of the Northumbrian race to be baptised”. King Edwin promised that if he defeated the attempted assassin’s king he would “renounce his idols and serve Christ”. He reneged on this and was “unwilling to accept the mysteries of the Christian faith at once”.

Meanwhile Paulinus arranged for the Pope to write to both the King and Queen. It was possibly the first letter that Edwin had ever received. Probably in Latin he would have needed to have Paulinus translate it. The king was converted finally after a Council at Derwent when Coifi, the pagan high priest “took a spear in his hand” and destroyed the idols. So “King Edwin, with all the nobles of his race and a vast number of the common people received Holy Baptism in the year of our Lord 627. He was baptised at York on Easter Day in the church … which he had hastily built of wood”. Paulinus’ patience, skill and faith had been rewarded.

Gefrin StoneHow was this consolidated?

Paulinus traveled throughout the kingdom which stretched from Edwin’s Burgh in the north to south of Lincoln. He baptised thousands in the River Glen, the pool at Holystone, the Rivers Swale and Trent.

He built a stone church in Lincoln where the Reeve (chief man) was the first convert. This was the site of King Edwin’s power, and so of Paulinus, his Bishop and Chief Minister. Honorius, chosen as fifth Archbishop of Canterbury, journeyed to Lincoln for his consecration by Paulinus.

Golden years?

Paulinus seemingly had great influence on royal policy. Yet there are surprising things that, apparently, he failed to do. He came from Italy to Canterbury to support the growing Mission. He baptised thousands but appears to have made no arrangements for subsequent pastoral care. He seems to have done very little for church building or the training of people to lead worship in them. His excuse would probably have been that he thought he had more time.

Did he build a church in Dewsbury?

Probably. “In Campodonum where there was also a royal dwelling, he built a church.” Some experts say ‘Campodonum’ is not identifiable; some say Doncaster; some Dewsbury. Only Dewsbury has that ancient stone which records that “Hic Paulinus praedicavit et celebravit” – Here Paulinus preached and celebrated.

How does the story end?

The tragic ending was unexpected, sudden and total. King Edwin and his son were slain in battle and his kingdom collapsed. Paulinus, who had come north as the Queen’s spiritual guardian, felt it right to take her and her daughters to safety in the south. Northumbria sank back into her pagan past.

But the building of the foundations and walls of a Church is more complex than it seems. All was not lost and out of the confusion that followed the Battle of Hatfield there emerged a new King of a different dynasty and a new bishop with a different missionary vision: King Oswald and Bishop Aidan built securely on the damaged foundations left by Edwin and Paulinus.

Was that really the end of the story?

No. The Good News of Jesus Christ is still being told to the people of Dewsbury. This Good News is still as relevant as it ever was. The Christians of Dewsbury continue to preach and celebrate that Jesus Christ is Lord, and that all who believe in Him will have eternal life.

Quotations from Bede’s ‘Ecclesiastical History of the English People’.