April 12, 627: Conversion of King Edwin of Northumbria

The conversion of King Edwin of Northumbria (616-33) is one of the best-known set-pieces of Anglo-Saxon history, parodied in 1066 and All That as "one memorable occasion [when] a whole Kingdom was easily converted by a sparrow". The fuller account appears in Bede's eighth-century History, where Edwin has summoned a council to hear Paulinus, one of the monks sent from Rome by Pope Gregory the Great in 601, who arrived in Northumbria in 625. The pagan high-priest Coifi says basically "the old religion hasn't done me any good, so sure, let's try something new", and then an unnamed counsellor famously remarks:

"It seems to me, King, that the present life of men compares to the time which is unknown to us rather like this: it's as if you were sitting with your retainers at a feast in the winter, and the fire was burning and warming your hall, and it was raining and snowing and storming outside. A sparrow comes and suddenly flies through the hall, in through one door and out through the other. Behold, in the time that it's inside, it is not touched by the winter's storm, but that is only the blink of an eye, the briefest moment, for it is at once back out into the winter. So this our life appears for a brief moment: what went before, or what will follow, we do not know. Therefore, if this new religion brings more certain knowledge, it is worth following."

As an argument, this is completely specious. The earlier pagan religion doubtless had its own explanations of what went before and what would come afterwards. But Bede, a Christian monk writing almost a hundred years after these events, was interested only in presenting the ultimate and inevitable triumph of Christianity, so it is unsurprising that after this argument the pagan high priest leaps on a stallion and rides forth to profane his heathen shrines. Edwin was baptized at York on Easter day (12 April) in 627, and he established a bishopric at York for Paulinus. (York did not become the second archbishopric until 735.)

Review the history, 601-33.