In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Christianity and the Church in Pre-Conquest England

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works
  • Bibliographies
  • Collected Papers
  • Collections of Primary Sources
  • Christianity in Roman Britain
  • Missionaries and Conversion (597 ce Onwards)
  • The Persistence of Paganism
  • The Anglo-Saxons as Missionaries Abroad
  • Kings, Queens, and Royal Patronage of the Church
  • Monasticism and Ecclesiastical Organization
  • The Monastic Reforms of the 10th and 11th Centuries
  • Regional Christianity, Churches, and Cathedrals
  • Learning, Schools, and the Liturgy
  • The Development of “Popular Religion”
  • Biographies

Medieval Studies Christianity and the Church in Pre-Conquest England
Joel Rosenthal
  • LAST REVIEWED: 31 March 2016
  • LAST MODIFIED: 31 March 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396584-0098


The history of the pre-Conquest Church can be roughly divided into three periods. In chronological order, at the very start is Roman Christianity, which we can think of as a sort of prehistoric period, followed by the age of missionary activity and conversion, running from the early 7th century up to the Viking invasions of the 9th century. Finally, there is the revival of monasticism and intellectual life covering the last two centuries of Anglo-Saxon times. The Roman period is mostly covered by the work of archaeologists and, as such, will only be treated briefly; the sources are very thin, being mainly material remains with some enlightened inferences about place names. No contemporary writer, neither Christian nor (Roman) pagan, and neither from the British Isles nor the Continent, said anything that has survived about the church in Roman Britain. There have been attempts to determine the beliefs and the adherence to pre-Christian “paganism,” though here too we have little in the written record. For the latter two chronological periods—from 597 to about 900 and then from 900 to the conquest in 1066—there is a wealth of contemporary materials (primary sources) as well as modern scholarly analysis and discussion. Both types of material will be explicated in this entry. Some basic reference tools, such as encyclopedias and biographical dictionaries, have been cited in the Oxford Bibliographies article on “Christianity and the Church in Post-Conquest England” and are omitted here unless they are vital for a focus on ecclesiastical history. The same is the case for the general bibliographies that appear in various annual guides. There are a number of Oxford Bibliographies articles that are relevant to this article. They are complementary or parallel, and can be used to cover aspects of religious life that are better treated as literature, that focus on individual figures such as “Alfred the Great” and Alcuin, and that indicate the extent to which the archaeological record reinforces (or runs counter to) an entry that relies on written materials. In addition, the Oxford Bibliographies article on “Pre-Conquest England” can be used to great advantage alongside this more specialized look at one aspect of the Anglo-Saxon world before 1066.

General Overviews

Studies that offer a wide view of religious life and ecclesiastical institutions are valuable for the way they synthesize the detailed research that is published in the voluminous stream of monographs, collected volumes, and scholarly journals. Though these surveys become dated regarding details as new findings are published and new scholarly interpretations are offered, such volumes give a very useful overview as an introduction to topics and areas of scholarship of current interest. Accordingly, there is a real need for surveys such as Blair 2005, Barlow 1979, Deanesly 1961, and Godfrey 1962, though not all of them tackle the entire period and some have a distinct or even a controversial view concerning the interpretation of the evidence or in assessing such issues as the role of the papacy in missionary work. Some works deliberately focus on a more limited slice of the chronological framework, even if a general coverage is the goal. We see this with Fisher 1952, while Hollis 1992 offers a survey of a different kind, as it is based on a close reading of some key texts to determine the role of women and their status in Anglo-Saxon Christianity, as spelled out or allowed by various major authors. In chapters written for books with a particular focus, Darlington 1959, Deanesly 1961, and Deanesly 1969 set the early church within the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms into a wider context, one looking at two-way contacts with continental Christianity and one relating Anglo-Saxon Christianity to the papacy.

  • Barlow, Frank. The English Church, 1000–1066: A History of the Anglo-Saxon Church. London: Longman, 1979.

    The second edition of a study (and now with a list of monasteries added) that looks at institutional aspects of the church in the last Anglo-Saxon centuries; concerned with how the reforms and renewal of the 10th and 11th centuries actually played out in the church and in society.

  • Blair, John. The Church in Anglo-Saxon Society. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.

    An excellent overview, covering much recent work and setting ecclesiastical history in a larger context. Now perhaps the best place to begin for a general survey.

  • Darlington, Reginald R. “The Anglo-Saxon Period.” In The English Church and the Continent. Edited by Charles R. Dodwell, 9–24. London: Faith Press, 1959.

    This chapter is a counter to the tendency (once more prevalent than today) to treat Anglo-Saxon Christianity in an insular and isolated fashion.

  • Deanesly, Margaret. The Pre-Conquest Church in England. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1961.

    Rather outdated now in terms but still a reasonable and readable synthesis. Also of interest is the author’s Sidelights on the Anglo-Saxon Church (London: A. & C. Black, 1962), a book of interesting short essays.

  • Deanesly, Margaret. “The Anglo-Saxon Church and the Papacy.” In The English Church and the Papacy in the Middle Ages. Edited by C. Hugh Lawrence, 29–62. London: Burns and Oates, 1969.

    The volume was reprinted in 1999 (Stroud, UK: Sutton), and it is still of value as a survey of an important aspect of ecclesiastical history, especially as the mission of 597 had been sent from (and by) Rome.

  • Fisher, D. J. V. “The Church in England between the Death of Bede and the Danish Invasions.” Transactions of the Royal Historical Society (Fifth Series) 2 (1952): 1–19.

    DOI: 10.2307/3678781

    Looking at a sort of middle period or lull between the exciting bits—a period that generally gets less attention, though it was in these years that Christianity really put down its roots in the various states and kingdoms of the heptarchy.

  • Godfrey, John. The Church in Anglo-Saxon England. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1962.

    Though a bit dated, it still offers a useful single-volume coverage of a complex topic, though in many respects, Blair 2005 has replaced it.

  • Hollis, Stephanie. Anglo-Saxon Women and the Church: Sharing a Common Fate. Woodbridge, UK: Boydell, 1992.

    An examination of some important texts (Theodore’s “Penitential,” Eddius’s “Life of Wilfrid,” Bede on Cuthbert, etc.) to assess their view of the role of women in the new church. This touches a topic of much current interest and gives a different slant to our reading of basic and familiar primary sources.

  • Loyn, Henry R. The English Church, 940–1154. Harlow, UK: Longman, 2000.

    A bold attempt to bridge the gap between the late Anglo-Saxon church and the church that was shaped by the Normans during the years of the great reform movement in western Christendom (the Investiture Controversy).

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