April 24, 624: Death of Archbishop Mellitus of Canterbury

Mellitus was the third archbishop of Canterbury, after Augustine (597-604x609 [short for "somewhere between 604 and 609"]) and Laurence (604x609-619). Augustine was the leader of the first group of Roman missionaries, sent by Pope Gregory in 596, who arrived in Kent in 597 and started to convert the English to Christianity. Abbot Mellitus was one of the leaders of a second group, sent in 601 after Augustine asked for more help. (Paulinus, who converted the Northumbrians, was also in the second group.)

It was to Mellitus that Pope Gregory sent a letter in July 601, countermanding an earlier letter of the previous month, by which he declared that the pagan English temples should not be destroyed (as had been the earlier policy), but should be sprinkled with holy water and have holy relics placed in them, and that formerly pagan rites should be allowed, but should be made in the name of God rather than of devils. This explains how the one of the main Christian festivals, Easter, comes in English to be named after a pagan goddess. (Bede tells us that the fourth month in the Anglo-Saxon calendar was called Eosturmonath, Easter-month, after the goddess Eostre.)

In 604, Mellitus was made the first bishop of London, which was then in the province of the East Saxons. The East Saxon king Sæberht was married to a daughter of King Æthelberht of Kent, and some at least of the East Saxons were Christian during his reign. However, when Sæberht died in 616 or 617, his three sons were still pagans, and they drove Mellitus and his companions from the kingdom. Mellitus went in exile to Gaul, and though he was recalled by Archbishop Laurence a year later, the East Saxons and the people of London were still unwilling to take him back. Laurence died in 619, and Mellitus -- barred from London -- succeeded instead as archbishop of Canterbury.

Review the history, 597-627