Backsliding In The Churches In Britain – 400’s To 700’s A.D.

Tragically, the writings of some church leaders in Britain from the 400’s to 700’s A.D. reveal that there were frequent periods of massive backsliding and wickedness in the churches in Britain during those times.

            We will look at the comments of Bishop Patrick of Ireland, the church historian Bede, Archbishop Boniface and the church deacon and teacher Alcuin.


Patrick on Christianity in Britain in the early 400’s A.D.


            In his work “Confession”, Bishop Patrick of Ireland (approx 385-461 A.D.) recorded that when he was young and living in Roman Britain in about 401 A.D., most of the people turned away from the one true God. At this time, nearly all people in Roman Britain regarded themselves as Christians but as Patrick reveals, most of them were religious hypocrites who rejected God’s commandments as taught in the Bible. Patrick write: “I was then about sixteen years of age. I did not know the true God. I was taken into captivity to Ireland with many thousands of people – and deservedly so, because we turned away from God, and did not keep His commandments, and did not obey our priests, who used to remind us of our salvation. And the Lord brought over us the wrath of His anger and scattered us among many nations, even unto the utmost part of the earth, where now my littleness is placed among strangers…

            But after I came to Ireland – every day I had to tend sheep, and many times a day I prayed – the love of God and His fear came to me more and more, and my faith was strengthened. And my spirit was moved so that in a single day I would say as many as a hundred prayers, and almost as many in the night, and this even when I was staying in the woods and on the mountain; and I used to get up for prayer before daylight, through snow, through frost, through rain, and I felt no harm, and there was no sloth in me – as I now see, because the spirit within me was then fervent.

            And there one night I heard in my sleep a voice saying to me: ‘It is well that you fast, soon you will go to your own country.’ And again, after a short while, I heard a voice saying to me: ‘See, your ship is ready.’ And it was not near, but at a distance of perhaps two hundred miles, and I had never been there, nor did I know a living soul there; and then I took to flight, and I left the man with whom I had stayed for six years. And I went in the strength of God who directed my way to my good, and I feared nothing until I came to that ship…

                … And again after a few years I was in Britain with my people, who received me as their son, and sincerely besought me that now at last, having suffered so many hardships, I should not leave them and go elsewhere.

            And there I saw in the night the vision of a man, whose name was Victoricus, coming as it were from Ireland, with countless letters. And he gave me one of them, and I read the opening words of the letter, which were, “The voice of the Irish”; and as I read the beginning of the letter I thought that at the same moment I heard their voice – they were those beside the Wood of Voclut, which is near the Western Sea – and thus did they cry out as with one mouth: ‘We ask thee, boy, come and walk among us once more.’

            And I was quite broken in heart, and could read no further, and so I woke up. Thanks be to God, after many years the Lord gave to them according to their cry.” [1]

            Patrick above also records how he was truly converted to Jesus Christ in his captivity in Ireland, how God led him to escape and how God led him to return as a missionary to Ireland.


Patrick on the wicked practices of a supposedly Christian prince


            In his “Letter to the Soldiers of Coroticus”, Patrick of Ireland wrote about a supposedly “Christian” British prince named Coroticus who was the founder of the Welsh principality of Cardigan and who tried to defend the remains of Roman civilization in Britain from barbarian invaders after the Romans left Britain in 407 A.D.[2] Patrick wrote how Coroticus and his soldiers went to Ireland on a reprisal raid and killed many Irish men and women and sold others into slavery.[3] Coroticus and his men did this to both pagan and Christian Irish men and women.[4] Some of those who were killed and sold into slavery were new converts to Christ who had been baptized the day before.[5] Patrick wrote: “With my own hand I have written and composed these words, to be given, delivered, and sent to the soldiers of Coroticus; I do not say, to my fellow citizens, or to fellow citizens of the holy Romans, but to fellow citizens of the demons, because of their evil works. Like our enemies, they live in death, allies of the Scots and the apostate Picts. Dripping with blood, they welter in the blood of innocent Christians, whom I have begotten into the number for God and confirmed in Christ.

                The day after the newly baptized, anointed with chrism, in white garments (had been slain) – the fragrance was still on their foreheads when they were butchered and slaughtered with the sword by the above-mentioned people – I sent a letter with a holy presbyter whom I had taught from his childhood, clerics accompanying him, asking them to let us have some of the booty, and of the baptized they had made captives. They only jeered at them.

            Look, Thy sheep around me are torn to pieces and driven away, and that by those robbers, by the orders of the hostile-minded Coroticus. Far from the love of God is a man who hands over Christians to the Picts and Scots. Ravening wolves have devoured the flock of the Lord, which in Ireland was indeed growing splendidly with the greatest care; and the sons and daughters of kings were monks and virgins of Christ – I cannot count their number.

                This is the custom of the Roman Christians of Gaul: they send holy and able men to the Franks and other heathen with so many thousand solidi to ransom baptized captives. You prefer to kill and sell them to a foreign nation that has no knowledge of God. You betray the members of Christ as it were into a brothel. What hope have you in God, or anyone who thinks as you do, or converses with you in words of flattery? God will judge. For Scripture says: Not only they that do evil are worthy to be condemned, but they also that consent to them.

            …Hence the Church mourns and laments her sons and daughters whom the sword has not yet slain, but who were removed and carried off to faraway lands, where sin abounds openly, grossly, impudently. These people who were freeborn have been sold, Christians made slaves, and that, too, in the service of the abominable, wicked and apostate Picts!…Where, then, will Coroticus with his criminals, rebels against Christ, where will they see themselves, they who distribute baptized women as prizes – for a miserable temporal kingdom, which will pass away in a moment?” [6]

            Many churchgoers in Britain became hostile to Patrick because he demanded that the clergy in Britain excommunicate Coroticus.[7] They were hostile because they believed Coroticus was their protector against barbarians.[8]


Bede on the Britons in the 400’s A.D.


            In his “Ecclesiastical History of the English People”, the church historian Bede (approx 673-735 A.D.) recorded that in the 400’s A.D. the following occurred in Britain: “Chapter 14: The Britons, made desperate by famine, drive the Barbarians out of their land. There soon follows an abundance of corn, luxury, plague, and doom on the nation.

                Meanwhile the famine which left a lasting memory of its horrors to posterity distressed the Britons more and more. Many were compelled to surrender to the invaders; others, trusting in God’s help where no human hand could save them, continued their resistance. Making frequent sallies from the mountains, caves, and forests, they began at length to inflict severe losses on the enemy who had plundered their country for so many years. Thereupon the Irish pirates departed to the homes unabashed, intending to return after a short interval, while the Picts remained inactive in the northern parts of the island, save for occasional raids and forays to plunder the Britons.

            When the depredations of its enemies had ceased, the land enjoyed an abundance of corn without precedent in former years; but with plenty came an increase in luxury, followed by every kind of crime, especially cruelty, hatred of truth, and love of falsehood. If anyone happened to be more kindly or truthful than his neighbors, he became a target for all weapons of malice as though he were an enemy of Britain. And not only the laity were guilty of these things, but even the lord’s flock and their pastors. Giving themselves up to drunkenness, hatred, quarrels, and violence, they threw off the easy yoke of Christ. Suddenly a terrible plague struck this corrupt people, and in a short while destroyed so large a number that the living could not bury their dead. But not even the death of their friends or the fear of their own death was sufficient to recall the survivors from the spiritual death to which their crimes had doomed them. So it was that, not long afterwards, an even more terrible retribution overtook this wicked nation. For they consulted how they might obtain help to avoid or repel the frequent fierce attacks of their northern neighbors, and all agreed with the advice of their king, Vortigern, to call on the assistance of the Saxon peoples across the sea. The decision, as its results were to show, seems to have been ordained by God as a punishment on their wickedness.

                Chapter 15: The Angles are invited to Britain. At first they repel the enemy, but soon come to terms with them, and turn their weapons against their own allies.

            In the year of our Lord 449, Martian became Emperor with Valentinian, the forty-sixth in succession from Augustus, ruling for seven years. In his time the Angles or Saxons came to Britain at the invitation of King Vortigern in three long ships, and were granted lands in the eastern part of the island on condition that they protected the country: nevertheless, their real intention was to subdue it. They engaged the enemy advancing from the north, and having defeated them, sent back news of their success to their homeland, adding that the country was fertile and the Britons cowardly. Whereupon a larger fleet quickly came over with a great body of warriors, which, when joined to the original forces, constituted an invincible army. These also received from the Britons grants of land where they could settle among them on condition that they maintained the peace and security of the island against all enemies in return for regular pay.

            These new-comers were from the three most formidable races of Germany, the Saxons, Angles and Jutes… It was not long before such hordes of these alien peoples vied together to crowd into the island that the natives who had invited them began to live in terror. Then all of a sudden the Angles made an alliance with the Picts, whom by this time they had driven some distance away, and began to turn their arms against their allies. They began by demanding a greater supply of provisions; then, seeking to provoke a quarrel, threatened that unless larger supplies were forthcoming, they would terminate their treaty and ravage the whole island. Nor were they slow to carry out their threats. In short, the fires kindled by the pagans proved to be God’s just punishment on the sins of the nation, just as the fires kindled by the Chaldeans destroyed the walls and buildings of Jerusalem. For, as the just Judge ordained, these heathen conquerors devastated the surrounding cities and countryside, extended the conflagration from the eastern to the western shores without opposition and established a stranglehold over nearly all the doomed island. Public and private buildings were razed; priests were slain at the altar; bishops and people alike, regardless of rank, were destroyed with fire and sword, and none remained to bury those who had suffered a cruel death. A few wretched survivors captured in the hills were butchered wholesale, and others, desperate with hunger, came out and surrendered to the enemy for food, although they were doomed to lifelong slavery even if they escaped instant massacre. Some fled overseas in their misery; others, clinging to their homeland, eked out a wretched and fearful existence among the mountains, forests, and crags, ever on the alert for danger.”


Bede on the Britons from 440-590 A.D.


Bede also recorded: “Chapter 22: The Britons enjoy a respite from foreign invasions, but exhaust themselves in civil wars and plunge into worse crimes (c. 440-590).

                Meanwhile Britain enjoyed a rest from foreign, through not from civil, wars. Amid the wreckage of deserted cities destroyed by the enemy, the citizens who had survived the enemy now attacked each other. So long as the memory of past disaster remained fresh, kings and priests, commoners and nobles kept their proper rank. But when those who remembered died, there grew up a generation that knew nothing of these things and had experienced only the present peaceful order. Then were all restraints of truth and justice so utterly abandoned that no trace of them remained, and very few of the people even recalled their existence. Among the other unspeakable crimes, recorded with sorrow by their own historian Gildas, they added this – that they never preached the Faith to the Saxons or Angles who dwelt with them in Britain.”


Alciun on God’s judgments on the Britons


            In his “Versus De Patribus et Sanctis Euboricensis Ecclesiae (67-74)”, the English church deacon and teacher Alcuin (died 804 A.D.) wrote how the British had become wicked long before his time and had been conquered by the Angles and Saxons from Germany who had then been converted in large numbers to Christ: “In the meantime the foreign soldiers (the Angles and Saxons) demanded higher pay: this was the cause of the conflict which turned the sword against an ally and drove a slothful people (the British) from its ancestral kingdom. In His goodness God determined that the wicked race should lose its fathers’ kingdoms for its wrongdoing and that a more fortunate people should enter its cities, a people destined to follow the Lord’s commands, God’s will was abundantly fulfilled: for, by His grace, through repeated victories a new power came into the ascendant and God’s destined race began to produce from its own ranks powerful kings.”

            Just before their conquest by the Angles and Saxons, the British had been nominal Christians, most of whom lived wicked lives.


Pope Gregory III’s words to Boniface


            In about 732 A.D. in Letter 20 “Pope Gregory III promotes Boniface to the rank of missionary archbishop and sends him the Pallium”, Pope Gregory wrote to Boniface, saying that wicked compromising British so-called “Christians” were selling slaves to heathens who would use them for human sacrifices: You say that among other evil practices in those parts, some Christians are in the habit of selling slaves to the heathen for sacrifice. This, my brother, you are especially to forbid and prevent in the future. It is an impious crime, and you are to impose upon the guilty person penance similar to that for homicide.”

            The above letter is kept among the collection of letters sent to and from Bishop Boniface.


Bishop Boniface on English churchgoers in the 700’s A.D.


            In his Letter 57, “A letter of advice from Boniface and other bishops to King Ethelbald of Mercia” in 746 or 747 A.D., Bishop Boniface records: We have learned from many sources that you have never taken to yourself a lawful wife. Now this relation was ordained of the Lord God himself from the very beginning of the world and was repeatedly insisted upon by the Apostle Paul saying: ‘On account of fornication let every man have his own wife, and every woman have her own husband.’ If you had willed to do this for the sake of chastity and abstinence, or had refrained from women from the fear and love of God and had given evidence that you were abstinent for God’s sake we should rejoice, for that is not worthy of blame but rather of praise. But if, as many say – but which God forbid! – you have neither taken a lawful spouse nor observed chastity for God’s sake but, moved by desire, have defiled your good name before God and man by the crime of adulterous lust, then we are greatly grieved because this is a sin in the sight of God and is the ruin of your fair fame among men.

            And now, what is worse, our informants say that these atrocious crimes are committed in convents with holy nuns and virgins consecrated to God, and this, beyond all doubt, doubles the offence… For the pagans themselves, although ignorant of the true God, keep in this matter the substance of the law and the ordinance of God from the beginning, inasmuch as they respect their wives with the bond of matrimony and punish fornicators and adulterers. In Old Saxony, if a virgin disgraces her father’s house by adultery or if a married woman breaks the bond of wedlock and commits adultery, they sometimes compel her to hang herself with her own hand and then hand the seducer above the pyre on which she has been burned. Sometimes a troop of women get together and flog her through the towns, beating her with rods and stripping her to the waist, cutting her whole body with knives, pricking her with wounds, and sending her on bleeding and torn from town to town; fresh scourgers join in with new zeal for purity, until finally they leave her dead or almost dead, that other women may be made to fear adultery and evil conduct. The Wends, who are the vilest and lowest race of men, have such high regard for the mutual bond of marriage that the wife refuses to survive her husband. Among them a woman is praised who dies by her own hand and is burned upon the same pyre with her husband…If the English people, as is reported here and as is charged against us in France and Italy and even by the heathen themselves, are scorning lawful marriage and living in wanton adultery like the people of Sodom, then we must expect that a degenerate and degraded people with unbridled desires will be produced. At last the whole race will become debased and finally will be neither strong in war nor steadfast in faith, neither honoured among men nor pleasing in the sight of God. So it has been with the peoples of Spain and Provence and Burgundy. They turned thus away from God and lived in harlotry until the Almighty Judge let the penalties for such crimes fall upon them through ignorance of the law of God and the coming of the Saracens.

            It must be further noted that in this crime another frightful sin is involved, namely murder. For when those harlots, be they nuns or not, bring forth their offspring conceived in sin, they generally kill them …”


Sexually immoral clergy advancing towards becoming bishops


            In his Letter 40 “Boniface to Pope Zacharias on his accession to the Papacy”, Bishop Boniface wrote in early 742 A.D. of male church leaders who lived wicked immoral lives but were advancing towards becoming bishops: “If I find among these men certain so-called deacons who have spent their lives since boyhood in debauchery, adultery, and every kind of filthiness, who entered the diaconate with this reputation, and who now, while they have four or five concubines in their beds, still read the Gospel and are not ashamed or afraid to call themselves deacons – nay rather, entering upon the priesthood, they continue in the same vices, add sin to sin, declare that they have a right to make intercession for the people in the priestly office and to celebrate Mass, and, still worse, with such reputations advancing from step to step to nomination and appointment of bishops.”


A summary about England in the early Middle Ages


            In the book, “Sex in History” [9], the author G. Rattray Taylor gathered together primary source evidence that in the early Middle Ages in England, the English had wicked practices about marriage and sex: “The free sexuality of the early Middle Ages can be traced in early court records, which list numerous sexual offences, from fornication and adultery to incest and homosexuality, and also in the complaints of moralists and Church dignitaries. Thus in the eighth century, Boniface exclaims that the English ‘utterly despise matrimony’ and he is filled with shame because they ‘utterly refuse to have legitimate wives, and continue to live in lechery and adultery after the manner of neighing horses and braying asses…’ A century later Alcuin declares that ‘the land has been absolutely submerged under a flood of fornication, adultery and incest, so that the very semblance of modesty is entirely absent.’ Three centuries after this John of Salisbury puts his views in verse:


                        ‘This is now a common sin

                                For almost hyt is every whore

                                A gentle man hath a wife and a whore;

                                And wives have now commonly

                                Her husbands and a ludby.’”


A ludby is another word for a loteby which means a paramour [10] which is an illicit lover of a married woman or man. In other words, John of Salisbury was saying that adultery was a common occurrence in his time.


[1] Patrick of Ireland, “Confession”, Parts 1, 16-17 and 23.

[2] Ludwig Bieler (Translator and Annotator), “The Works of St Patrick”, Longman, Green and Co., London, 1953, page 11.

[3] Ibid

[4] Ibid

[5] Ibid

[6] Ibid, page 41-42 and 44-46

[7] Ibid, page 12

[8] Ibid.

[9] G. Rattray Taylor, “Sex in History”, Thames and Hudson, London, 1959, page 20.

[10] “The Oxford English Dictionary”, Volume 6, At the Claredon Press, Oxford, 1933, page 456.



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