A History of Christianity in England

By Tim Lambert

Christianity in Roman Britain

The first evidence of Christianity in what is now England is from the late 2nd century AD. (There may have been Christians in Britain before then, we cannot be sure). Roman Britain was a cosmopolitan place. Merchants from all over the empire settled there and soldiers from many countries served there so we will never know who first introduced Christianity to Britain.

At that time the native people were Celts. They were polytheists (they worshiped many gods). The Romans too were polytheists and they were willing to allow the Celts to worship their old gods.

However, the Romans were not tolerant of Christianity. At times waves of persecution crossed the empire. St Alban the first British Christian martyr was executed in a town called Verulamium in 304 AD. Much later an abbey was built there dedicated to St Alban and it gave its name to the town of St Albans.

In 313 Emperor Constantine granted Christians freedom of worship. So persecution ended and during the 4th century, Christianity became widespread in England.

In 314 three British bishops attended a church council in Arles in France, Eborius bishop of York, Restitutus bishop of London, and Adelius bishop of Caerleon (Gwent). So by that time, there was a flourishing and organised church in England.

In Hinton St Mary, Dorset a 4th century mosaic was found with the face of Jesus and the Greek letters chi rho, which stand for christos (Greek for Christ) showing Christianity was a popular religion in England.

Christianity in Anglo Saxon England

In 407 the last Roman soldiers left Britain. Over the following decades, Roman civilization broke down. In the 5th and 6th centuries, Pagan peoples the Saxons, Angles, and Jutes from Germany and Denmark invaded southern and eastern England and gradually conquered most of England.

However, Christianity continued to thrive in Wales, and by the early 5th century it spread to Ireland. In the 5th and 6th centuries, Scotland was converted. Cut off from the Church in Rome Celtic Christians formed a distinctive Celtic Church.

According to tradition, Pope Gregory saw boys on sale in the slave market in Rome. He is supposed to have asked about them and when told that they were Angles he replied ‘not Angles but angels’ When he became Pope he was keen to convert the Anglo-Saxons. In 596 he sent a party of about 40 men led by Augustine to Kent. They arrived in 597.

Aethelbert permitted the monks to preach in Kent and in time he was converted. (The king of Kent was married to a Christian princess named Berta. It may have been partly due to her influence that Kent was converted to Christianity). Furthermore, his nephew, Saeberht, the king of Essex was also converted.

Meanwhile, in 627 King Edwin of Northumbria (in the North of England) and all his nobles were baptized. (He may have been influenced by his wife, Ethelburga, who was a Christian). Most of his subjects followed.

However, things did not go smoothly in Northumbria. King Edwin was killed at the battle of Hatfield in 632 and afterward, most of Northumbria reverted to Paganism. They had to be converted all over again by Celtic monks from Scotland.

Further south in 630, a Christian called Sigebert became King of East Anglia. He asked the Archbishop of Canterbury to send men to help convert his people. Meanwhile, Pope Honorius sent a man named Birinus to convert the West Saxons (who lived in Hampshire).

Missionaries also preached in the kingdom of Mercia (The Midlands). In 653 King Penda of Mercia was converted and baptized and gradually the realm was converted. The last part of England to be converted to Christianity was Sussex. It was converted after 680 by St. Wilfrid.

Finally, by the end of the 7th century, all of England was at least nominally Christian. However, some people continued to secretly worship the old pagan gods as late as the 8th century.

Whitby Abbey

However, in the late 9th century, the Danes conquered most of England. However, in 878 Alfred the Great, king of Wessex (Southern England) crushed the Danes at the battle of Edington. Afterward, the Danes made a treaty with Alfred. They split England between them. The Danes took all the territory east of the old Roman road, Watling Street. The Danes also agreed to become Christians.

Once they were converted to Christianity the Danes of Eastern England had much in common with the Saxons. Gradually Alfred’s descendants conquered the Danish-held areas of England and in time they created a single kingdom of England.

Then in the late 10th century, there was a religious revival. A man named Dunstan (c.1020-1088) was Archbishop of Canterbury. He reformed the monasteries. Many new churches and monasteries were built during his time. Women played a significant part in the 10th century revival.

Christianity in England in the Middle Ages

In the Middle Ages religion was a vital part of everyday life. All children were baptized (unless they were Jewish) and everyone attended mass on Sunday. Mass was in Latin, a language that ordinary people did not understand.

Bishops ruled over groups of parishes called dioceses. They usually came from rich families. Bishops lived in palaces and often took part in government. Things were very different for parish priests. They were poor and often had little education. Parish priests had their own land called the glebe where they grew their food. They lived and worked alongside their parishioners.

In the Middle Ages, monks and nuns gave food to the poor. They also ran the only hospitals where they tried to help the sick as best they could. They also provided hospitality for pilgrims and other travelers (although as time went by there were an increasing number of inns where you could pay to stay the night).

In a medieval monastery, there was an almonry where food or money was given to the poor, the refectory where the monks ate, the dormitory, the infirmary, and the cloisters where the monks could take exercise. An almoner looked after the poor, an infirmarian looked after the sick and a hospitaller looked after visitors.

As well as the monks from the 13th century there were also friars. They took vows but instead of withdrawing from the world, they went out to preach. Franciscan friars were called grey friars because of their grey costumes. Dominican friars were called Blackfriars.

In the Middle Ages, merchants and groups of craftsmen were organised into guilds, which protected their interests. Guilds also put on plays called mystery plays. (The word mystery is a corruption of the French word metier, meaning job or trade). The plays were based on Bible stories and were meant to instruct the people. However, there was nothing solemn about these plays. They contained lots of jokes.

Salisbury Cathedral

In the 14th and 15th centuries, the Virgin Mary and the saints were given much more prominence in religion. Far more devotion was shown to them. Furthermore, the Bronze Age people continued to build barrows, although cremation was practiced. The dead were buried with useful artifacts. Presumably, the living believed the dead would need these in the afterlife. Unfortunately, since they had no written records nothing is known about the Bronze Age religion.

A famous Christian of the 14th century was John Wycliffe. He denied the doctrine of transubstantiation (the belief that bread and wine are transformed into the body and blood of Christ during mass). His followers translated the Bible into English. Wycliffe died of natural causes but his followers were persecuted. They were known as Lollards (a word that meant mutterers) because they said long prayers.

In 1401 a law was passed that allowed heretics to be burned to death. Nevertheless, the Lollards continued to meet during the 15th century.

Christianity in 16th Century England

One of the great Christians of the early 16th century was William Tyndale. In 1525 Tyndale translated the New Testament into English. Tyndale also translated part of the Old Testament. However, Tyndale was burned in 1536. His last words were ‘Lord open the king of England’s eyes’. Meanwhile, Protestant ideas were spreading in England despite persecution by the state.

In 1501 Arthur the oldest son of King Henry VII married Catherine of Aragon. However, Arthur died in 1502. His brother Henry now became heir to the throne. He married his brother’s widow in 1509. (Normally such a marriage would not have been allowed but the Pope gave a special dispensation).

At the beginning of 1511, Henry VIII had a son but the boy died after only 7 weeks. Catherine had four miscarriages and only one of her children lived – a girl named Mary. Henry was desperate to have a son and heir and Catherine could not give him one.

Henry decided that God was punishing him for marrying his brother’s widow. Henry now argued that the marriage to Catherine was not valid and he asked the Pope to annul the marriage. However, the Pope would not cooperate.

Finally, Henry lost patience with the Pope and rejected his authority in 1534. The Act of Supremacy made Henry the head of the Church of England. However, although Henry broke with Rome he kept the Catholic religion essentially intact in England. Henry had no intention of changing the English religion to Lutheranism and he continued to persecute Protestants.

In 1539 Henry VIII passed the Act of Six Articles, which laid down the beliefs of the Church of England. The Six Articles preserved the old religion mainly intact. From 1545 English replaced Latin as the language of church services.

Meanwhile, Henry dissolved the monasteries in England. Parliament agreed to dissolve the small ones in 1536. The large ones followed in 1539-1540.

Shortly before Henry VIII died a woman named Anne Askew was martyred. Anne was a preacher and teacher. However, in 1546 she was arrested, tortured in the Tower of London, and burned.

Edward VI

Henry finally died in 1547 and he was succeeded by his 9-year-old son Edward. Since he was too young to rule his uncle, Edward Seymour, Duke of Somerset, was made protector and ruled in his stead.

Somerset was a devout Protestant as was Archbishop Cranmer. They began to turn England into a truly Protestant country. The Act of Six Articles was repealed and in 1549 the first Book of Common Prayer, the first Anglican prayer book was issued. Meanwhile, priests were allowed to marry and pictures or statues of Mary or the saints were removed from churches. In 1552 a second prayer book was issued. Also in Edward’s reign, the chantries (where a priest prayed for the souls of the dead) were closed.

In 1553 Edward died and he was followed by his sister Mary. She was a Catholic and she detested the changes of Henry VIII and Edward VI. Mary was determined to undo the reforms of the two previous reigns. Catholic mass was restored in December 1553. In 1554 married clergy were ordered to leave their wives or lose their posts. Then, in November 1554 the Act of Supremacy was repealed.

In 1555 Mary began burning Protestants. Over the next 3 years, nearly 300 Protestants were executed. Many more Protestants fled abroad. However, Mary’s cruelty simply gained sympathy for the Protestants and alienated ordinary people. She simply drove people away from Roman Catholicism.

Elizabeth I was crowned in January 1559. She restored Protestantism to England. The Act of Supremacy was restored in April 1559 and further Acts replaced Catholic practices. However, it was a moderate Protestantism. Elizabeth disliked extremists. She disapproved of the Puritans. (They were people who wanted to ‘purify’ the Church of England of its remaining Catholic elements).

However, most of the population (not all) accepted the religious settlement. People could be fined for not attending church. Nevertheless, some Catholics continued to practice their religion in secret.

Meanwhile, clergymen became better educated during the 16th century. By the end of the century, many of them had a degree.

Christianity in 17th Century England

The King James Bible was published in 1611.

In the early 17th century king and parliament clashed over the issue of religion. In 1633 William Laud was made Archbishop of Canterbury. He was strongly opposed to the Puritans and King Charles I supported him wholeheartedly. Laud emphasized the ceremony and decoration in churches. These measures were strongly opposed by the Puritans. They feared it was the ‘thin edge of the wedge’ and Catholicism would eventually be restored in England.

Meanwhile, in the 16th century, everybody was supposed to belong to the Church of England. However, in the 17th century, independent churches were formed. The first Baptist Church in England began meeting in 1612.

Later in the 17th century, George Fox (1624-1691) and Margaret Fell (1614-1702) founded the Quakers. Fox believed that everybody had an inner light and during the 1660s and the 1670s he traveled across England. Margaret Fell wrote a book called Women’s Speaking Justified, Proved, and Knowed of the Scriptures. However, the Quakers were persecuted and Fox himself was often imprisoned.

From the end of the 16th century, there were also Congregationalists or Independents. They believed that every congregation had a right to run its own affairs without any outside interference.

In 1642 came the Civil War between the king and parliament. It ended in 1646 and Charles I was executed in 1649. Following the Civil War and the execution of the king, many independent churches sprang up in England.

Charles II became king in 1660. The king was not particularly religious but parliament was determined to crack down on the many independent churches that had sprung up and make Anglicanism the state religion again. They passed a series of acts called the Clarendon Code, a series of laws to persecute non-conformists (Protestants who did not belong to the Church of England). The Corporation Act of 1661 said that all officials in towns must be members of the Church of England.

The Act of Uniformity 1662 said that all clergy must use the Book of Common Prayer. About 2,000 clergymen who disagreed resigned. Furthermore, the Conventicle Act of 1664 forbade unauthorized religious meetings of more than 5 people unless they were all of the same household.

Finally, the Five Mile Act of 1665 forbade non-Anglican ministers to come within 5 miles of incorporated towns. (Towns with a mayor and corporation). However, these measures did not stop the non-conformists from meeting or preaching.

When Charles II died in 1685 he was followed by James II, who was openly Catholic. James II promptly alienated the people by appointing Catholics to powerful and important positions. In 1687 he went further and issued a Declaration of Indulgence suspending all laws against Catholics and Protestant non-Anglicans.

James II was deposed in 1688. Afterward, the Bill of Rights (1689) said that no Catholic could become king or queen and no king could marry a Catholic. Parliament also passed the Toleration Act in 1689. Non-conformists were allowed their own places of worship and their own teachers and preachers. However, they could not hold government positions or attend university.

Christianity in 18th Century England

In the early 18th century England was noted for its lack of religious enthusiasm. It was an age of reason rather than dogmatism and the churches lacked vigor. However, in the mid-18th century, things began to change. In 1739 the great evangelist George Whitefield (1714-1770) began preaching. Also in 1739, John Wesley (1703-1791) began preaching. He eventually created a new religious movement called the Methodists.

John Wesley traveled all over the country, often preaching in open spaces. Some people jeered at his meetings and threw stones but Wesley persevered. John Wesley never intended to form a movement separate from the Church of England. However, the Methodists did eventually break away.

At the end of the 18th century, a group of Evangelical Christians called the Clapham Sect was formed. They campaigned for an end to slavery and cruel sports. They were later called the Clapham Sect because so many of them lived in Clapham. Meanwhile, in the late 18th century religious enthusiasm began to revive in England.

Christianity in 19th Century England

During the 19th century, Britain was transformed by the industrial revolution. In 1801, at the time of the first census, only about 20% of the population lived in towns. By 1851 the figure had risen to over 50%. By 1881 about two-thirds of the population lived in towns.

During the early 19th century religious revival continued. The Church of England regained its energy and many new churches were built.

Meanwhile, in 1829, the Catholic Emancipation Act was passed. Since the Reformation Catholics had been unable to become MPs or hold public office. The Act restored those rights to them.

Organised religion was much more important in 19th century England than it is today. Nevertheless, in 1851 a survey showed that only about 40% of the population were at church or chapel on a given Sunday. Even allowing for those who were ill or could not make it for some other reason it meant that half the population did not go to church. Certainly many of the poor had little or no contact with the church.

In 1881 a similar survey showed only about 1/3 of the population was at church on a given Sunday. In the late 19th century organized religion was in decline in England. n During the 19th century many poor workers had little or no contact with the church. In 1865 William and Catherine Booth founded a new movement to reach the poor and fight a ‘war’ against poverty. In 1878 it was named the Salvation Army.

Christianity in 20th Century England

During the 20th century, church-going declined rapidly in England, and by the end of the 20th century, only a small minority of the population attended church regularly. Nevertheless, many people continued to believe in God, and in the late 20th century there was a lot of interest in the New Age Movement.

Meanwhile, in the early 20th century, Pentecostal churches were formed. They practiced the gifts of the Holy Spirit such as praying in tongues. In the 1960s use of the gifts of the Holy Spirit spread to mainstream churches. In the 1970s and 1980s charismatic or, ‘house churches’ became common. At the end of the 20th century, the Alpha Course became an effective method of introducing people to Christianity.

Christianity in 21st Century England

In the early 21st century church attendance in England continued to decline. By 2023 the majority of people in England the majority of people in England no longer identified as Christians.

Last revised 2024