It is widely thought that the Church in England was founded by St Augustine, sent here in AD 597 on a mission by Pope Gregory. Nothing could be further from the truth! After being in this land for just under three years, he sent a letter back to Gregory, in which the following words appear: –“In the Western confines of Britain, there is a certain royal island of large extent, surrounded by water, abounding in all the beauties of nature and necessities of life. In it the first neophytes of catholic law, God beforehand acquainting them, found a church constructed by no human art, but by the hands of Christ Himself, for the salvation of His people.”
What exactly did Augustine mean? Was he saying that our Lord had been to Britain, and built a church at Glastonbury? There seems to be no other way of interpreting his words. Do we have any corroborative evidence? Amazingly enough, there is quite a fund of early documentary evidence that Britain received the Gospel of Jesus Christ just after the resurrection. In this paper, I shall bring forward some of this evidence, so that the truth may do its own beneficent and cathartic work. To be a lover of truth, one must also be a pioneer, a searcher. But when truths are found they have a strange way of requiring a response from those who search. Life is never the same again. The conscience is given a slight nudge, and one’s belief-pattern is adjusted. I have written about such things recently in “Caterpillar Magic”.
One of our earliest historians was the monk “Gildas the Wise”. In AD 550 he penned the following lines in his De Exidio Brittanniae “We certainly know that Christ, the true Son, afforded His light, the knowledge of His precepts to our Island in the last year of Tiberius Caesar. “
According to Roman history, Tiberius Caesar reigned for 22 years, and his last Year was AD 37. If the resurrection was in AD 33, as is now fairly well established, then the Gospel arrived in Britain just four years after our Lord’s rising from the dead.
Now this is an interesting statement, because Roman Britain had been established gradually from the days of Julius Caesar in BC 55. But the regions of Devon, Cornwall and Somerset (known then as the Land of Dumnonii) had never been penetrated by the Roman armies. And this is further proof that the early church was established on that “certain royal island” mentioned by Augustine, and which we now recognise as Glastonbury. (But of course the whole area has long since been drained by the monks during the Saxon period. and so Glastonbury is no 1onger an island. However, much of the ground around Glastonbury is still below sea level, and becomes marshy in wet weather. )
Origen of Alexandria, the Greek Father, said in 230 AD “The divine goodness of our Lord and Saviour is equally diffused among the Britons, the Africans, and other nations of the world. “
St.Jerome, writing from Bethlehem in 378 AD declared “From India to Britain, all nations resound with the death and resurrection of “Christ. “
Chrysostom, Patriarch of Constantinople, wrote in 402 AD about the British Isles, in the following manner:-
“The British Isles, which are beyond the sea, and which lie in the ocean, have received the virtue of the Word, Churches are there founded and altars erected. Though you should go to the ocean, to the British Isles, there you will hear all men everywhere discoursing matters out of the Scriptures, with a different voice indeed, but not another faith, with a different tongue but the same judgment. “
Arnobius, the Christian apologist, writing about 300 AD declared:-“So swiftly runs the word of God that though in several thousand years God was not known except among the Jews, now within the space of a few years, His word is concealed neither from the Indians in the East nor from the Britons in the West. “
Eusebius, the Church’s first historian, (AD260 – 340) wrote.-“The Apostles passed beyond the ocean to the isles called the Britannic Isles.”
Eusebius does not tell us WHICH of the Apostles visited Britain, but other witnesses mention names. For example St. Dorotheus, Bishop of Tyre, (AD 303) said,
“Aristobulus, whom Paul saluted when writing to the Romans, was Bishop of Britain. – – Simon Zelotes preached Christ through all Mauretania and Afric the less. At length he was crucified in Brittania, slain and buried.”
Centuries later, Nicephorus, Patriarch of Constantinople (AD 758 829) wrote about; Simon Zelotes as follows:
“Simon born in Cana of Galilee who for his fervent affection for his Master and great zeal that he showed by all means to the Gospel, was surnamed Zelotes, having received the Holy Spirit from above, travelled through Egypt, and Africa, then through Mauretania and all Libya, preaching the Gospel. And the same doctrine he taught to the Occidental Sea and the Isles called Britanniae.”
Simon’s first visit to Britain was apparently AD 44, and his last in AD 61, when he was apprehended by the Roman, Catus Decianus, a hater of all Christians. Being condemned to death after a mockery of a trial, he was crucified on May l0th AD 61 at Caistor in Lincolnshire, [just a few miles from where we now live.] But Simon was not the first British martyr. Two years before, Aristobulus was slain by the Romans at Verulamium, now known as St.Albans in Hertfordshire. The records say that it was “in the second year of Nero”, which was AD 59. The actual day was March 17th, according to the martyrologia of Archbishop Ado of Vienne (AD 8OO -: 874) who wrote :-
“March 17th is the natal day of Aristobulus, Bishop of Britain, brother of St. Barnabas the Apostle, by whom he was ordained Bishop. He was sent to Britain, where after preaching the truth of Christ and forming a church, he received martyrdom. “
In the martyrologies of the Greek Church, March 15th was the day he was slain. In their records we can read the following-
“Aristobulus was one of the seventy disciples, and a fo1lower of St. Paul the Apostle, along with whom he preached the Gospel to the whole world, and ministered to him. He was chosen by St.Paul to be the missionary bishop to the land of Britain, inhabited by a very warlike and fierce race. By them he was often scourged, and repeatedly dragged as a criminal through their towns, yet he converted many of them to Christianity. He was there martyred after he had built churches and ordained deacons and priests for the island.”
So far the names of Aristobulus and Simon have been mentioned. Eusebius said “the apostles” visited Britain. So which apostles did he mean? There are other records available, for example that of Theodoret, Bishop of Cyrus in Syria, who wrote in AD 435-
“Paul, liberated from his first captivity at Rome, preached the Gospel to the Britons and others in the West. Our fishermen and publicans not only persuaded the Romans and their tributaries to acknowledge the Crucified and His laws, but the Britons also and the Cymry (i.e. Welsh)”
Clemens Romanus, (who lived from 30 – 100 AD, and had first-hand knowledge of the early Apostles) writing to the Corinthians in 96 AD, said –
“To leave the examples of antiquity, and to come to the most recent, let us take the noble examples of our own times. Let us place before our eyes the good apostles. Peter, through unjust odium, underwent not one or two, but many sufferings, and having undergone his martyrdom, he went to the place of glory to which he was entitled. Paul also, having seven times worn chains, and been hunted and stoned, received the prize of such endurance. For he was the herald of the Gospel in the West as well as in the East, and enjoyed the illustrious reputation of the faith in teaching the whole world to be righteous. And after he had been to the EXTREMITY OF THE WEST, he suffered martyrdom before the sovereigns of mankind, and thus delivered from this world, he went to his holy place, the most brilliant example of steadfastness that we possess.”
Here then are records showing that Paul visited our islands, and preached to the Britons and the Welsh. It may come as a surprise to some of our readers that in 1931, Pope Pius XI, whilst entertaining a number of English Catholics, stated emphatically that it was not Pope Gregory, but the Apostle Paul himself who first introduced Christianity into Britain. This remarkable statement was taken up in London by the Morning Post of March 27th 1931.Clearly he possessed documentary evidence to support such an assertion, knowing that it would be reported world-wide.
We do in fact have yet another document that records Paul’s visit here. It is in the “Sonnini Document”, found in Constantinople in the time of Louis XVI, and published in London in 1801. The part that deals with Paul’s visit reads as follows:-
“And having departed out of Spain, Paul and his company found a ship in Armorica [i.e. Brittany] sailing to Britain, and went therein, and passing along the south coast they reached a port called Raphinus. [the Roman name for Sandwich in Kent.] Now when it was noised abroad that the apostle had landed on their coast, great multitudes of the inhabitants met him, and they treated Paul courteously and he entered in at the east gate of their city [i.e. London] and lodged in the house of an Hebrew and one of his own nation. And on the morrow he came and stood on Mount Lud [i.e. what is now Ludgate Hill, upon which stands St. Paul’s Cathedral] and the people thronged at the gate, and assembled in the Broadway, and he preached Christ unto them, and many believed the word and the testimony of Jesus. “
How long was Paul in Britain? There appears to be a six-year gap in the historical records, (between his release from Roman custody and his execution at Aquae Salviae in the Ostian Road near Rome,) which finds no mention of him other than that he was in the “extremities of the West.” We do not know how much of this time was spent in Britain, but because of the manner in which the ancient Druids delivered their teaching, known as “triads” it is most interesting to find that there is a collection of “Ancient British Triads” attributed to none other than Paul the Apostle, who declared that he became “all things to all men that he might save some.” These triads contain Pauline teaching, there being ten of them in all, and all are worthy of repetition here.
1. There are three sorts of men: the man of God who renders good for evil, the man of men, who renders good for good and evil for evil, and the man of the devil, who renders evil for good.
2. Three kinds of men are the de1ight of God: the meek, the lovers of peace, the lovers of mercy.
3. There are three marks of the children of God: gentle deportment, a pure conscience, patient suffering of injuries.
4. There are three chief duties demanded by God: justice to every man, love, humility.
5. In three places will be found the most of God: where He is mostly sought, where He is mostly loved, where there is least of self.
6. There are three things following faith in God: a conscience at peace, union with heaven, what is necessary for life.
7. Three ways a Christian punishes an enemy: by forgiving him, by not divulging his wickedness, by doing him all the good in his power.
8. The three chief considerations of a Christian: lest he should displease God, lest he should be a stumblingblock to man, lest his love to all that is good should wax cold.
9. The three luxuries of a Christian feast: what God has prepared, what can be obtained with justice to all, what love to all may venture to use.
l0. Three persons have the claims and privileges of brothers and sisters: the widow, the orphan, the stranger.
If one should ask why Paul wrote in the Druidical manner, it is then necessary to point out that the Druids were amongst the first to accept the teaching of our Lord in Britain, a fact that has been verified by numerous historical records, but which we cannot here expand upon without making this paper too diverse in its theme. But clearly the “triad” comes from the Druids, and Paul used this method when in Britain. Just one important quotation may profitably be inserted here, and it comes from the Celtic Arch Druid and Prince Bard known as Taliesin, 500 – 540 AD. His forthright declaration certainly requires some earnest reflection –
“Christ the Word from the Beginning, was from the first our Teacher, and we never lost His teachings. Christianity was a new thing in Asia, but there never was a time when the Druids of Britain held not its doctrines.”
Such a statement, when placed alongside another, by Julius Caesar himself, BC54, Injects a whole new dimension of thought, He said –
“They [i.e. the British, and in particular the Druids] make the immortality of the soul the basis of all their teaching, holding it to be the principal incentive and reason for a virtuous life. Believing in the immortality of the soul they were careless of death.”
So much for the statements made in British history books, that during this period British people were at the best, “painted savages. ”
(As an aside, returning to the subject of triads, Paul quoted one in the Letter to the Ephesians, 5:14, which reads in literal translation, wherefore the saying, “Awake, you sleeper, and arise from amongst dead ones, and Christ will shine upon you.” But in the Greek , language it has its own beauty, in poetic form-
EGEIRE, HO KATHEUDON,
KAI ANASTA EK TON NEKRON,
KAI EPIPHAUSEI SOI HO CHRISTOS. )
It might now be added that in the days of the Saxon Heptarchy, there was a house in Sandwich called “The House of the Apostles” , which is evidence that some of the Apostles must have visited that town.
But Theodoret’s statement spoke of “our fishermen and publicans”, Who were these? Who else indeed but those of the twelve apostles, who were “fishermen and publicans”. Beyond that, no actual names are mentioned. But now we have another lead from the Church Councils of Pisa (1409), Constance (1417), Sienna (1424) and Basle (1434), through whom it was written –
“The churches of France and Spain must yield in points of antiquity and precedence to that of Britain, as the latter church was founded by Joseph of Arimathea immediately after the passion of Christ.”
And the learned Archbishop James Ussher, (1581 – 1656) writing in his Brittannicarum Ecclesiarum Antiquitates said –
“The British National Church was founded AD 36, 160 years before heathen Rome confessed Christianity.”
Such a statement is mind-boggling to an average evangelical Christian today, on opening almost any book on Church History, who will be hard put to it to find any reference at all to Britain in the first three centuries AD. But we are not wanting in written evidence about Britain. Take for example Sabellius, (the Roman Catholic prelate and theologian, excommunicated by Pope Calixtus in 220 AD) writing in 250 AD he said –
“Christianity was privately confessed elsewhere, but the first nation that produced it as their religion and called it Christian, after the name of Christ, was Britain.”
And then we have the written testimony of Maelgwyn of Llandaff, Lord of Anglesey and Snowdonia, (AD 450)-
“Joseph of Arimathea, the noble decurion, entered his perpetual sleep with his XI companions in the Isle of avalon.”
And yet another voice adds to the list. It is that of Polydore Vergil, (1470 – 1555) the learned Italian historian, living in England, who wrote –
“Britain, partly through Joseph of Arimathea, partly through Fugatus and Damianus, was of all kingdoms the first that received the Gospel”.
And the eminent historian of the Roman Catholic church, Cardinal Baronius, (1538 – 1607) who became Curator of the Vatican Library in 1597, wrote in his Ecclesiastical Annals-
“In that year [i.e. AD 36, the year of the great persecution in Jerusalem, and the dispersion that followed] the party of Joseph of Arimathea and those who went with him into exile, was put out to sea in a vesse1 without sail or oars. This vessel drifted, and finally reached Massilia [Marseilles] where they were saved. From Massilia Joseph and his company passed into Britain and after preaching the Gospel there, died. “
It is indeed quite remarkable that the Roman Catholic authorities, such as St. Augustine, Cardinal Baronius, and Bishop Ussher should of all people be the ones to provide us with the knowledge that long before the Apostles reached Rome, they had been on missions to this land, and established Christian communities here. Personally, I don’t think it matters a great deal who was “first” in the matter of nations receiving the Gospel, that is, if you happen to be simply a Christian. But many people belong to great ecclesiastical institutions that are proud of their ancient heritage, and tend to assert authority, an unacceptable authority, over their members and all “outsiders” by virtue of such claims. At this point the sheer joy of historical research gets muddied by ecclesiastical dogma, and the bright lights of past recorded history become dimmed by the obstinacy of denominationalism.
But to return to the quest, and the exciting story of Joseph of Arimathea being put to sea in a boat without sail or oars. Do we have any further information in the records? Yes, and it comes again from the pen of Cardinal Baronius, who tells us that he obtained his information from very ancient documents in the Vatican Library. [I wonder how many other important documents lie hidden there, which ought to be the property of the whole Church of Christ?]. Baronius quotes Frederic Mistral in Mireio, (1859) and earlier (unnamed) sources, saying –
“These were the names of the castaways – Joseph of Arimathea, Mary the wife of Cleopas, Martha, Lazarus, Eutropius, Salome, Clean, Saturninus, Mary Magdalene, Marcella, (maid to the Bethany sisters, ) Maximin, Martial, Trophimus, and Sidonius. “
But a good number of other sources from early times state emphatically that Mary the mother of Jesus also accompanied Joseph. John the Apostle, who was to care for Mary as though she were his own mother, was apparently unable to fulfil this task when on Apostolic missions, and after ministering at Ephesus, he entrusted her to Joseph, who was Mary’s uncle and sole surviving relative, apart from Mary’s other children, whose work and ministry would presumably not allow them to care for their mother. Joseph therefore became “paranymphos” to Mary. This is a Greek word ordinarily used of a bridesmaid, one who cares for the bride, or for what we now call “the best man”, one who is in attendance on the bridegroom. But it was also used to signify the office of one who had some binding responsibility to care for a woman who had become a widow.
But let us go back a little. The records show that Joseph of Arimathea, together with his band of castaways, landed at Marseilles in the south of France. Other sources tell us that this was the centre of evangelism of the Apostle Philip. Let us hear what Isidore, the Archbishop of Seville from AD 600 – 636, had to say in his Historia-
“Philip of the city of Bethsaida, whence also came Peter, preached Christ to the Gauls, and brought barbarous and neighbouring nations, seated in darkness and close to the swelling ocean, to the light of knowledge and port of faith. Afterwards he was stoned and crucified and died in Hierapolis a city of Phrygia, and having been buried with his corpse upright along with his daughters rests there. “
Freculphus Bishop of Lisieux in France, AD 825 – 851, wrote concerning Joseph of Arimathea, that he was Philip’s “dearest friend,”
John Capgrave (1393 – 1464), the English chronicler and hagiologist, an Augustinian hermit, who lived most of his life in friary at King’s Lynn, Norfolk, was a voluminous writer of English history. In his “De Sancto Joseph ab Aramathea” he quotes an ancient manuscript ,which asserted, (when translated from the Latin) “Philip sent from Gaul a hundred and sixty disciples to assist Joseph and his companions.”
In this manner we learn that Joseph was appointed by Philip to preach Christ to the British people, and from other records we know that he fulfilled his function with great faithfulness, staying in Glastonbury until the death of Mary, the mother of Jesus, in AD 48.
Concerning the passing of Mary, Richard Pynson published an account of the life of Joseph of Arimathea in the years 1516 – 1520, and quoting from ancient sources he penned these lines –
“Now here how Joseph came into Englande;
But at that time it was called Brytayne.
Then XV yere with our lady, as I understande
Joseph wayted styll to serve hyr he was fayne.”
This is not the only source that speaks about Mary’s “fifteen years” in Britain, and working on the basis of this chronology we find that her death occurred in her 64th year, in AD 48. She is said to be buried in Glastonbury, which the Catholic Sisterhood always refer to as “Our Lady’s Dowry.” It may be mentioned here that a French convent in Alexandria, Egypt, was once housed by nuns who were members of the old French nobility. They taught that “St. Joseph of Arimathea took the Blessed Virgin with him to Britain and she died there.”
After the passing of Mary, Joseph is recorded as having returned to Marseilles for a few years, then to return to England in AD 63 where he continued to work and minister until his death on July 27th AD 82 at the grand old age of 98.
There is an ancient manuscript known as “Acts of Magdalen”, written by Rabanus Maurus, (AD 776 -856) the Frankish theologian, scholar and teacher, and Archbishop of Mayence (Mainz) from 847, which used to be in the Magdalen College Library at Oxford, but from a recent enquiry I made, I understand that it is now housed in the Bodleian Library. It contains the following account of the castaways journey from Palestine to France.
“Leaving the shores of Asia, and favoured by an east wind, they went round about, down the Tyrrhenian Sea, between Europe and Africa, leaving the city of Rome and all the land of Italy to the right. Then happily turning their course to the right, they came near to the City of Marseilles, in the Viennoise province of the Gauls, where the river Rhone is received by the sea. There, having called upon God, the Great King of all the world, they parted, each company going to the province where the Holy Spirit had directed them, presently preaching everywhere, the Lord working with them, and confirming His word with signs following.”
What more can we say? The records do not stop there, but this paper must now come to a conclusion. Without giving any further references, let me complete this survey by saying that after all the companions of Joseph reached Glastonbury, most of them eventually returned to France. All in fact except Mary the mother of Jesus, Martial, and Joseph himself. And French historical records are replete with traditions and allusions to each one, where they worked, how they lived, and how they died. Lazarus, for example, became Bishop of Marseilles, and lived there for seven years before he died. And so he lived for upwards of ten years after his resurrection in AD 33.
In a succeeding paper I shall continue this historical survey, majoring on events at Glastonbury in the half-century after AD 36.
The time has now arrived to take stock of the revelations contained within this paper and make an evaluation. What has been the purpose in pursuing the subject?
For quite the majority of my Christian life, which began in 1948, I had been wholly unaware of any of the sources quoted above. I had absolutely no idea that there were records relating to Britain at all , prior to Augustine in AD 597. This was the result of reading several books on church history. None of them even mentioned a British church beyond saying, in a sentence or two, that probably some of the Romans may have been converted and brought the message to our land. All the romantic and exciting events listed in this paper took me quite by surprise when I began to find books that revealed early historical facts. And I came to understand what former American President Franklin Roosevelt meant when he said, “All histories should be rewritten in truth.”
I still cannot find an adequate explanation for this grievous omission. Why, even the dubious merits of “heritage”, “patriotism”, and “national glory” should have spurred historians on to give the facts. But no. Just silence.
Some may argue and say, “How can you BELIEVE all those things? None of them are in the Bible.” No, I admit that. But these same people might be more than ready to accept the writings of secular historians of all ages and all nations. Egypt? Rome? Greece? the works of Tacitus? or Josephus? Juvenal? And what about our own Magna Carta, and the standard histories of the British peoples? Are they not universally accepted, apart from a few arguing points here and there? What is it that makes the average evangelical Christian nervous when it comes to such evidences as those advanced in this paper?
Again I hear someone say, “But it does nothing to our faith, so why spend time researching it?” But can we say the same about those who have recently been privileged to find the remains of Noah’s Ark, Sodom and the cities of the plain, the chariot wheels of Pharaoh’s army in the Red Sea, and more important than all of these – the finding of the Ark of the Covenant? Do these findings influence our faith? Personally I have been overjoyed to see the Videos, and intend to write about these finds again shortly. There has been a divine purpose unfolding, and I believe we must prayerfully find exactly what God is saying to us. But I think the same is true about early British Christianity. Because of this I have wanted to share these findings as widely as I can.
If these evidences are trustworthy, (and I cannot see why in the main they are not,) then we as a nation should take note and act on it . I do not see any grounds for national self-glorification. But historical precedent begets responsibility,and especially in these days, when as a nation we have begun to cast away the foundations of the faith first brought to this land in AD 36. And we do this at our peril. More than any other nation on earth, since the days of the resurrection, we have been privileged to be a Christian nation, with missionary responsibilities, but the fires are going out.
Much of my information has come from British Israel writings. Their enthusiasm for the truth is commendable. But they have not persuaded me that I belong to the “Ten lost tribes.” But even if this were true, Paul’s words, “There is neither Jew nor Greek” give the quietus to such theories. National privilege no longer exists, even for the Jew. But we have a great national and personal RESPONSIBILITY based on our history. My main purpose in writing this paper has been to reveal that fact.