Christianity comes to Northumbria

In 617, the independent Celtic Kingdom of Elmet, centred around Leeds, was at last conquered by the Anglo-Saxons and incorporated into Northumbria.

The Celtic paganism of the indigenous population was replaced, modified or existed along-side Anglo-Saxon paganism, both of which involved the worship of a variety of Gods. Christianity had arrived in Britain during the 4th Century AD. The Romans were in control at this time and the religion may have been regarded as just one cult among many. Christian worship became officially tolerated from about 313 onwards, when the idea of one god appealed to the Roman Emperor, Constantine I, who found it first expedient to recognise it, then became converted on his death-bed.

Christianity thrived in the far western areas of Britain, Wales, Ireland and Western Scotland as the country became gradually invaded by Anglo-Saxons from the east in post-Roman Britain.

When Saint Augustine came to Britain in 597 AD, on a mission to work with the newly converted King Æthelberht and his wife Queen Bertha of Kent, he created a strong connection between kingship and Christianity. Some of the early kings made pilgrimage to Rome from the seventh century onwards and it seems that the conversion of kings was the way that Christianity could be spread.

At this time, the north remained mainly pagan. Anglo-Saxon King Æthelfrith was able to unite Deira with the northern Kingdom of Bernicia, forming the Kingdom of Northumbria in about 600 AD. Æthelfrith is famous for his feats in battle and for having massacred 1200 monks of Bangor-Is-Coed who were assembled to aid his enemies by their prayers.

Æthelfrith died in 616 and was succeeded by King Edwin.

Saint Paulinus

Paulinus was another emissary from Pope Gregory the Great, who was sent to Canterbury to assist Archbishop (later Saint) Augustine to convert the region to Christianity. In 625, he escorted the Christian Princess Æthelburga, the daughter of King Æthelberht of Kent, to marry the Northumbrian King, Edwin. Part of the agreement between the two kingdoms was that Edwin would convert to Christianity. Once married, Æthelburga was soon with child, but Edwin had not converted.

On Easter Day 626 two things happened that Paulinus believed to be “the hand of God”. An assassination attempt on the King (Edwin), by an agent of Cwichelm of Wessex, failed and the Queen gave birth to a daughter. Edwin gratefully allowed his daughter Eanfled to be baptised by Paulinus…the first Northumbrian to be baptised.

Edwin further promised that if he defeated the assassin’s king, he would be baptised. However, he remained indecisive and reneged on this promise.

Baptism of King Edwin AD 627

Edwin was very occupied with his many battles, from Ireland in the west to Bamburgh in the north-east, so Paulinus arranged for the Pope to write personally to both King Edwin and Queen Æthelburga. It was possibly the first letter that Edwin had ever received. Probably written in Latin, Edwin might have needed to have Paulinus translate it for him. Edwin was converted finally after holding a Council at Derwent when Coifi, the pagan high priest “took a spear in his hand” and destroyed all the pagan idols. Bede describes the event:

Coifi “formally renounces his superstitions, and asked the king to give him arms and a stallion.” Armed with both a sword and spear, Coifi rides Edwin’s horse towards the idols, all within view of the crowd gathered to witness Edwin’s conversion. Upon reaching the temple, Coifi “cast a spear into it and profaned it.”


King Edwin of Northumbria was baptised as a Christian, at Eoforwic (York), by Paulinus, on Easter Day, 12th April, in AD 627.

“King Edwin, with all the nobles of his race and a vast number of the common people received Holy Baptism in the year of our Lord 627. He was baptised at York on Easter Day in the church…which he had hastily built of wood”.

Edwin became the first Christian King of Northumbria, allowing Christianity to be brought to the North. Gradually Christianity spread throughout the region.

Paulinus now became the first Bishop of York and historical sources record that he preached in the heart of Elmet, at Dewsbury, my home-town, just 8 miles from Leeds. One theory about Dewsbury’s name is that is was originally named “Deus-burgh” or “God’s town”. 

That place (Dewsbury) is remarkable as having been one of the earliest settlements of Christianity in England

Partial demolition of Dewsbury Parish Church in 1766 uncovered two stones dating probably to the time of Paulinus, carved in basso relief with a variety of figures showing Christ with fingers uplifted in the act of blessing. This carving, from an illustration in “The Early History of Dewsbury” is shown below, showing Christ with fingers uplifted in the act of blessing. Dewsbury still has a Catholic church of St Paulinus.Stones found at Dewsbury, dating probably to the time of Paulinus, carved in basso relief with a variety of figures

Exile of Paulinus from the North

Following the defeat and death of Edwin by pagan Mercians at the Battle of Hatfield in 633, Paulinus was driven from York, and he returned to Kent with Edwin’s widow Æthelburga, her two children, and Edwin’s grandson Osfrid. Paulinus then took up the see of Rochester, which he headed until his death.