July 23, 596: Pope Gregory refuses to excuse Augustine from converting the English

It is fairly well known that in 596, Pope Gregory the Great (590-604) charged 40 monks to go and convert the English. The monks were from Gregory's old monastery, St Andrew's, on the Coelian, one of the Seven Hills of Rome. It is less well known that shortly after they set out they became paralysed with terror, deciding amongst themselves that they would far rather go back home than go on to face a barbarous, fierce and unbelieving people, whose language they didn't even know. So they sent their leader, Augustine, back to talk with the Pope and see if Gregory wouldn't let them off the hook. Since Augustine's arrival at Kent in 597 became such a pivotal moment in English history, it's odd to think how nearly it didn't happen at all. But Gregory convinced Augustine to persevere, and sent by him a letter to his companions, telling them not to let anything deter them from their task. This letter survives, and is dated July 23, 596 (see Bede, HE, i.23).

So Augustine and company carried on, picking up interpreters as they went through the land of the Franks. They landed at Thanet in 597, and met with King Æthelberht of Kent a few days later. The king listened to them, was not convinced, but said he saw they came with no evil motives and gave them a dwelling in Canterbury and freedom to try and convert the English by their preaching. The following year the Pope records that he heard from Augustine that by Christmas day 597 he had baptized more than 10,000 English converts. The number may well be exaggerated, but it seems that the fears of Augustine and his Roman monks of the English were indeed unfounded.