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Ramsgate, Early History.

Ramsgate, Early history.

The focus must be on Our Lord's Second Coming. But Ramsgate has an interesting early history in the Faith.

There is much evidence of sporadic groups; pockets of Catholics in Britain during the very early centuries. As is well known, the main authority for what happened in that early era in Britain is the English priest/monk/historian Saint Bede, a Doctor of the Church (1) and who was born in England towards the end of the 7th century. St Bede gathered much historical information together in his works and very much including in his work titled :"A history of the English Church and People."(2)

St Bede tells of how, in these early centuries, Britain was made up of or became variously inclusive of: Britons, English, Scots, Celts, Picts, Angles, and Saxons. As well as some Romans of the Roman Empire. He tells us that there were any number of separate and transitional kingdoms throughout Britain. And that Britain was under constant invasion and threat from invasion.

The Saxons

Meanwhile, in fifth century Britain, the Pelagian heresy had gained influence, but ultimately the Church galvanized against it. St Bede tells of how Catholics dealt intelligently with the threat. And which also reveals the setting in which they maintained the Faith; having a cognizance in the Faith but without any advanced structuring, but knowing exactly where to turn: Bede reports of how, in A.D 429:

".......the Pelagian heresy...had seriously infected the faith of the British Church. But although the British rejected this perverse teaching, so blasphemous against the grace of Christ, they were unable to refute its plausible arguments by controversial methods and wisely decided to ask help from the bishops of Gaul in this spiritual conflict. The latter summoned a great synod, and consulted together who to send to support the Faith.......the island of Britain was rapidly influenced by the reasoning, preaching, and virtues of these apostolic bishops, and the word of God was preached daily not only in the churches, but in streets and fields, so that Catholics everywhere were strengthened, and heretics corrected."(3)

Invasion, and threat from invasion, had continued, but a major conquest was now just around the corner. Around 450 the invasion of the North European Saxons; Hengist and Horsa, took place. These pagan Saxons soon dominated. St Bede tells us of how, just over a century on, King Ethelbert of Kent, a great, great, great grandson(4) of Hengist, became the third Saxon Bretwalda "High King" "of all the provinces south of the river Humber, "(5) and so, as with his two predecessors, covered almost the whole of England.

The precise meaning of the title "Bretwalda" is, however undefined. It is thought to refer to a type of overlordship. Possibly denoting land held in other regions and/or allowing the holder of the title to claim tithes and taxes from such lands; Bede certainly tells us that Redwald, King of the East Angles, was Ethelbert's vassal.(6) And so it possibly also referred to a leadership in times of threat of war. But powerful regional Saxon Kings were also very much in place

In contrast to their North European cousins, who would take years to convert, the Anglo Saxons adopted, generally, an amiable disposition towards the Church. However, before events in King Ethelbert's reign, the Church had been very restricted.

Ethelbert had married a Catholic Frankish Princess; Bertha. Her hand in marriage had been granted on the condition that she be allowed to practice her Faith. As St Bede tells us of Ethelbert:

"For he had already heard of the Christian religion, having a Christian wife of the Frankish royal house named Bertha, whom he had received from her parents on condition that she should have freedom to hold and practise her faith unhindered with Bishop Liudhard whom they had sent as her chaplain." (7)

The Bishop accompanied her to England. Queen Bertha worshiped at St Martin's, a Catholic Church already long existing in Canterbury. King Ethelbert also built a chapel for her. It was with all of this in mind that Pope Gregory I sent Augustine and his missionaries to England. However, King Ethelbert could still have either rejected or accommodated the Faith when Augustine and his forty missionaries landed in Ramsgate in the Isle (Island) (8) of Thanet in 597. He accommodated it. And Ethelbert's paganism was manifested in a non-violent way:

" After some days, the king came to the island, and sitting down in the open air, summoned Augustine and his companions to an audience. But he took precautions that they should not approach him in a house, for he held an ancient superstition that if they were practisers of magical arts, they might have opportunity to deceive and master him. But the monks were endowed with power from God." (9)

King Ethelbert, later Saint Ethelbert, indeed welcomed Augustine and the missionaries; granting them lands and allowing them to settle in Canterbury, and which became the main diocesan See:

" On the east side of the city stood an old church, built in honour of St Martin during the Roman occupation of Britain, where the Christian queen went to pray. Here they first assembled to sing the psalms, to pray, to say Mass, to preach, and to baptize, until the king's own conversion to the faith enabled them to preach openly, and to build and restore churches everywhere." (10.)

Augustine and his missionaries were able to galvanize the existing Catholic groups existing in pockets, and who had bravely maintained the Faith, though with a number of customary variations. These Catholics were the grandchildren and great grandchildren of the Catholics who, as with their ancestors, had withstood the many centuries of turmoil. And who had resisted the Pelagian heresy.

St Bede focuses on two disputes concerning custom.(11)The first is the Pascal controversy; the date on which Easter should be celebrated. But this is not as though a rebellious dispute, but is, rather, one of the oldest theological disputes known to the Church. The second is the rites to be used in baptism; although this can have doctrinal significance, ultimately, because anyone can baptize in an emergency; and not knowing or understanding the correct rites constitutes an emergency, it is not an insurmountable obstacle.

St Bede also mentions the matter of the tonsure (12) (an expression of the crown of thorns) but some religious Orders adopted it others did not. There was never a compulsion to do so.

Meanwhile, Augustine was consecrated an Archbishop in Gaul and, on his return, consecrated Mellitus and Justus as bishops. Mellitus as Bishop of the East Saxons (London, Essex) and Justus as Bishop of Rochester in Kent. Second to Canterbury (Kent.)

King Ethelbert built a Church in London, dedicated to the Apostle Paul and which also included the main residence for Mellitus's episcopal See. It is one example of many of King Ethelbert's great help in the work and mission of the Church in England.

Pope Gregory was a Benedictine monk, as too was Augustine, and so this could also be a country where Benedictine monasticism could flourish, and it did! All of which was facilitated by the Kings' grants of lands to the Church and helped also by members of the royal household having a real grasp of the Faith.

Ethelbert and Bertha's granddaughter, St Eanswythe, spurned offers of marriage to instead (with her father, King Eadbald's help) found a Benedictine community of women in Folkestone. The great devotion of these Benedictine nuns being: "to return unceasing thanks to God for the great gift of the faith bestowed upon their country."(13) Eanswythe's mother Emma was, like Queen Bertha, a Frankish Catholic Princess. Another granddaughter, St Domneva, founded a Benedictine community at Minster near Ramsgate in the Isle of Thanet in 670. Her daughter, Abbess Mildred, ruled the community for thirty years and later became the Island's patron saint. (14)

It was common amongst the Anglo Saxon nobility to send their daughters to Gaul (France) for a monastic education; St Mildred, for example, had been sent to the monastery at Chelles, near Paris.

Meanwhile, Ethelbert and Bertha's daughter, Ethelberga, married Edwin, King of Northumbria. With her help, together with Paulinus, one of the missionaries who accompanied Augustine, he and his Kingdom converted. Edwin later become the fifth "High King."

Extended Monasticism

Monasticism has been in place since the very earliest times of the Church. And St Athanasius (4th century) in the East, for example, helped it to develop in both East and West. Benedictine Monasticism had been founded by Saint Benedict [480-547] in Italy during the early sixth Century; the day has set times consisting of private prayers, communal prayers, confession, Mass, devotions, reading of scripture, manual work, free time, and rest.

A local community attaching itself to the safety and tranquility of this monastic setting would include their benefiting from Church schools and hospitals. Education and care being part of the whole developing monastic environment. This whole extended monastic setting so ripe for a very fruitful, grace filled sacramental economy.

As well as providing a great faith centred spiritual and moral setting for any region; the monasteries also had the automatic effect of giving the Church a very physical presence throughout the country. The Church; the Ark of Salvation and Minister of Redemption, and great upholder of true values in a faith centred, structured society.

Thanet(Thanatos) provides a true nugget of how Benedictine monasticism really took hold in England. In St Mildred's time; late seventh century, the expanse of the community and the grant of lands given by her great grandfather, King Ethelbert, saw one half of the island become monastic land. Minster was now the Isle of Thanet's capital.

Soon the monastic community at Minster became involved in supporting missionary activity overseas. One well known English missionary being Winfrid (Boniface) from Wessex; a Benedictine monk, and missionary to the Frisians, and to the Saxons of North mainland Europe. He spoke a similar Saxon language. Later, he became Archbishop of Mainz. It is likely that the Abbess of Minster would have been influential in the organizing of these missions:

"The women played as prominent and influential a part in the spiritual and cultural life of the time as the men, enjoying considerable freedom and independence. Abbesses were invited to the councils of the kings and bishops, their advise sought, and convents became centres of learning and the arts (19.)......The convent [Minster] flourished under St Edburga, and we learn from some of her correspondence with St Boniface that she encouraged his missionary work in Germany and supported him with gifts of manuscripts and vestments." (20)

Throughout England, the monasteries and the monastic life and the influential spiritual and benevolent ways that were identified with them, and which they encouraged, were both wanted and needed. The monasteries survived all through the years of subsequent invasions, and flourished for many, many centuries. Along with the dioceses, they provided the great framework of the Faith.

Meanwhile, for now, England remained resolute, staying strong in the Faith. This even though suffering much during the centuries of the Viking raids, and with many of the monasteries having to rebuilt on a number of occasions.

After England was re-conquered from the Vikings, the Anglo Saxon regional kingdoms themselves eventually united, this taking place for the most part under King Athelstan [894-939] who is referred to as the first King of England.

A.A.M St John.


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