Portrait of a Pope: St Gregory the Great, Apostle of the English7-min read (inc. footnotes)

“He removed the error of filthy heathenism from our parents.”

English History

The Lives of the Early English Saints
Prelude, with the Life of St Alban, Proto-Martyr of Britain


The Whig Interpretation of History – Its Lasting Influence
Suffering Under Persecution – the Example of Robert Southwell and the English Martyrs
The heroic and moving life of L’Abbé Henry Essex Edgeworth, Louis XVI’s Anglo-Irish confessor
A Forgotten Triumph – Hadrian’s Wall, St Oswald and the Battle of Heavenfield

Portrait of a Pope: The Life of St Gregory the Great

Part I: Introduction
The End of Imperial Rome

More on St Gregory the Great:
The Apostle of the English

Supporting The WM Review through book purchases

As Amazon Associates, we earn from qualifying purchases through our Amazon links. Click here for The WM Review Reading List (with direct links for US and UK readers).

“In the tenth year of [the reign of the emperor Maurice], Gregory, a man eminent in learning and in affairs, was elected pontiff of the Apostolic See of Rome; he ruled for thirteen years, six months, and ten days. In the fourteenth year of this emperor and about 150 years after the coming of the Angles into Britain, Gregory, prompted by divine inspiration, he sent a servant of God named Augustine and several more god-fearing monks with him to preach the word of God to the English race.”[1]

With these words St Bede the Venerable begins his account of the Roman mission to England, which was begun at the instigation of Pope St Gregory I, the Great. His role in the conversion of England makes him one of the most significant figures in English history and secured him a central place in the devotion of English Catholics from the earliest times, right through to the modern day.

In his Ecclesiastical History of the English People, (UK: here) St Bede wrote the following of Pope St Gregory:

“We can and should call him our apostle, for though he held the most important See in the whole world and was head of the Churches which had long been converted to the true faith, yet he made our nation, till then enslaved by idols, into a Church of Christ, so that we may use the apostle’s words about him, ‘If he is not an apostle to others yet at least he is to us, for we are the seal of his apostleship in the Lord.’ (1 Cor. 9:2)”[2]

This identification of St Gregory as belonging in a particular way to the English nation became a commonplace for English Catholics. For the seventh century bishop and poet St Aldhelm, St Gregory was “our watchful father and teacher”:

“Our teacher, ours I say, who removed the error of filthy heathenism from our parents and handed over the rule of regenerating grace.”[3]

A Northumbrian religious, probably a monk (but possibly a nun) of the double-monastery of St Hilda at Whitby, wrote a Life of Gregory in the early eighth century, which described him as:

 “Our St Gregory”, “our blessed master” and “our blessed apostolic Gregory”[4]

In 747, the Council of Clovesho, held in the kingdom of Mercia, authorised a litany in which he was referred to as:

“Pope and Father to the English people”[5]

By the end of the seventh century the cult of St Gregory was flourishing, with altars dedicated to him probably being present in Canterbury Cathedral and York Minister by this date, with a second liturgical feast – that of his ordination – being celebrated alongside the more universal feast of 12 March. This is possibly because the latter feast always falls in Lent. In the seventh century, relics were sent to the kingdom of Northumbria from Rome.  Many early churches, built as the faith spread throughout England, were dedicated to St Gregory. The cult continued in full vigour for centuries. 

The ninth century Laws of King Alfred the Great, gave particular importance to the feast of St Gregory the Great on 12 March, specifying it to be one of the days of rest which were, in addition to Sundays, to be conceded to all free men:

“To all freemen let these days be given… twelve days at Yule [Christmas], and the day on which Christ overcame the devil [Good Friday], and the commemoration day of St. Gregory, and seven days before Easter and seven days after, and one day at St. Peter’s tide and St. Paul’s, and in harvest the whole week before St. Mary-mass, and one day at the celebration of All-Hallows and the four Wednesdays in the four ember weeks.”[6]

The late tenth century writer, Ælfric of Eynsham, declared that he was:

“Rightly [named] the apostle of the English nation, for through his wisdom and his mission he rescued us from worship of the devil and inclined us to God’s faith.”[7]

The cult of St Gregory the Great, and the claim that he belonged in a special way to the English, remained vibrant after the Norman conquest of 1066. Lanfranc, the first Archbishop of Canterbury to be of Norman origin, referred to St Gregory the Great in monastic statutes drawn up for the monks of Canterbury, as:

“Our – that is, the English people’s – apostle”.[8]

A twelfth century sermon, probably preached by St Anselm of Canterbury, continues the same theme:

‘Yes, brothers – for perhaps some persons from that race are present giving ear to me saying these things – behold I say, you English, brothers brought to us in the Christian faith, you received the blessed Gregory predestined and sent to you an apostle by God, and you were subjected to your shared yoke of the Christian faith by him preaching through his representatives.”[9]

The sermon continues:

“[The English] beyond other peoples of the nations have felt his benevolence with a certain singular grace, so they more than other peoples are obliged by merit to be devoted around his cult with a singular solicitude”[10]

If an Englishmen rejoices that any of his race has been saved, St Anselm continues, thanks should also be given to St Gregory the Great:

“For if they believe that some being of their own nation was glorified with God for eternity because his holiness merited it and if they rejoice in his everlasting joy out of love for him, they ought, not only to have the benefit of love and delight in which they rejoice on account of this saint’s happiness, but also, if they understand aright, to attribute to the blessed Gregory the joy that the saint attained”.

In the post-Reformation period, English devotion to St Gregory the Great continued, and many of the new churches built in the century following the restoration of the hierarchy in 1850 were dedicated to him. Given the central role that St Gregory has played in the religious history of England, it is only right that we give him first place in our series about the Lives of the Early English Saints. After all:

“He saved our nation, by the preachers he sent hither, from the teeth of the old enemy, and made it partaker of eternal liberty. Rejoicing in the faith and salvation of our race, and worthily commending it with praise, he says, in his exposition of the blessed Job:

‘Behold, the tongue of Britain, which only knew how to utter barbarous cries, has long since begun to raise the Hebrew Hallelujah to the praise of God! Behold, the once swelling ocean now serves prostrate at the feet of the saints; and its wild upheavals, which earthly princes could not subdue with the sword, are now, through the fear of God, bound by the lips of priests with words alone; and the heathen that stood not in awe of troops of warriors, now believes and fears the tongues of the humble! For he has received a message from on high and mighty works are revealed; the strength of the knowledge of God is given him, and restrained by the fear of the Lord, he dreads to do evil, and with all his heart desires to attain to everlasting grace.’”[11]

St Gregory the Great, pray for us!

For more, see: The Venerable Bede – Ecclesiastical History of the English People (UK link: here)

English History

The Lives of the Early English Saints
Prelude, with the Life of St Alban, Proto-Martyr of Britain


The Whig Interpretation of History – Its Lasting Influence
Suffering Under Persecution – the Example of Robert Southwell and the English Martyrs
The heroic and moving life of L’Abbé Henry Essex Edgeworth, Louis XVI’s Anglo-Irish confessor
A Forgotten Triumph – Hadrian’s Wall, St Oswald and the Battle of Heavenfield

One-Time
Monthly

Make a one-time donation

Make a monthly donation

Help The WM Review by donating today – all donations go directly towards helping us produce real Catholic research and studies.

Choose an amount

$40.00
$60.00
$100.00
$40.00
$60.00
$100.00

Or enter a custom amount

$

Your contribution is appreciated and helps us to keep things going.

Your contribution is appreciated and helps us to keep things going.

DonateDonate monthly

Follow us on Twitter, Gab and Telegram

Want to read more?

See here for the full WM Review Reading List.

Like what you’ve read? Subscribe so we can say in touch.


[1] St Bede the Venerable, The Ecclesiastical History of the English People, St Bede the Venerable, The Ecclesiastical History of the English People, ed. McClure and Collins, (Oxford, 1999), Book I, Chapter 13. 

[2] St Bede, Ecclesiastical History, Book II, Chapter 1.

[3] Paul Hayward, “Gregory the Great as ‘Apostle of the English’ in Post-Conquest Canterbury”, Journal of Ecclesiastical History, (Vol. 55, No. 1, January 2004), p27.

[4] A double monastery was a foundation that contained two separate religious houses – one male, one female – under one overall superior. They were reasonably common in Anglo-Saxon England. 

[5] Hayward, “Gregory”, p28.

[6] The Laws of Alfred, https://sourcebooks.fordham.edu/source/560-975dooms.asp#The%20Laws%20of%20King%20Alfred

[7] Hayward, “Gregory”, p7.

[8] Hayward, “Gregory”, p20.

[9] Hayward, “Gregory”, p49.

[10] Hayward, “Gregory”, p51

[11] St Bede, Ecclesiastical History, Seller translation, (London, 1907), Book II, Chapter 1.

Leave a Reply