Posted by: anna | May 7, 2010

St Mellitus

Today (24 April) we commemorate St. Mellitus, 1st Bishop of London and 3rd archbishop of Canterbury (624). From Baring-Gould:

[Roman and Anglican Martyrologies. Authorities :— Bede, Hist. Eccl. lib. i, cc. 29, 30 ; ii. 3, 4, 5, 6, 7. NB Bede transcription is full of typos – St Mellitus quelled a fire, not a file, by prayer!]

S. Mellitus was a Roman abbot sent by S. Gregory the Great to England to the assistance of S. Augustine, in 601. He was the head of a second mission, and to him S. Gregory directed on his way an epistle, still extant. In this letter, S. Gregory enjoins great respect for the sacred places of the heathens, and forbids their demolition. He only commands them to be cleared of their idols, and to be purified by holy water for the services of Christianity. New altars are to be set up, and relics enshrined in the precincts. The oxen which the heathen used to immolate to their gods were to be brought in procession on holy days. The huts of boughs, which used to be built for the assembling worshippers, were still to be set up, the oxen to be slain and eaten in honour of the Christian festival ; and thus gently were the heathen to be turned to the truth, retaining all such customs as were harmless or beautiful, but baptized and sanctified.

After S. Mellitus had laboured three years in Kent, he was ordained bishop by S. Augustine, and sent among the East Saxons, to London. Sibert, king of the East Saxons, was baptized, and S. Mellitus laid the foundations of the church of S. Paul, in London, among the ruins of a temple of Diana, and of the church of S. Peter’s, Westminster.

But the men of Kent and Essex had not heartily embraced Christianity. The new king of Kent was pagan in morals as in creed. He was inflamed with an unlawful passion for his father’s widow. The rudeness of the East Saxons shows how little real knowledge of true religion had been disseminated ; they insisted on partaking of the fine white bread which the bishops distributed to the faithful ; and when the clergy refused unless they submitted to be baptized, they cast them out of the land.

Mellitus sailed to France with Justus, bishop of Rochester, but was afterwards recalled to Kent. On the death of S. Lawrence, archbishop of Canterbury, he was chosen to succeed him, and held the see for five years, being the third archbishop of Canterbury.


I am struck by the tolerance of Gregory’s letter – how different from conversion at the point of a sword! It must have been more effective than e.g. the modern lamentable habit of shouting ‘You’re all going to hell!’ at law-abiding shoppers in the high street. (Who wants to find out any more about such a god?) Once one of these ‘witnesses’ shouted ‘Jesus loves you, madam!’ at me. I found that almost as unnerving as the promises of fire and brimstone. But such people are a reminder to us, I suppose. If all our little lights shone, the shouters would be out of a job.

– St Mellitus is depicted on the icon of the Synaxis of the Saints of London, image on WSIP
Augustine Gospels (Cambridge, Corpus Christi Parker Library MS 286), which would have been in Canterbury when Mellitus was Archbishop, and which perhaps he took out from Italy to Augustine. A full description and images are online via Parker on the Web at Stanford; you may need to register to see some of the images.

Holy St Mellitus, pray to God for us.

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