St Gregory the Great (Ad 540-604)

Gregory was born at Rome, of a noble and wealthy family, in the year 540. In his youth he engaged in public business, and he rose to be proctor of Rome, which was one of the chief offices under the government. In this office he was much beloved and respected by the people. But about the age of thirty-five, a great change took place in his life. He resolved to forsake the pursuit of worldly honours, and spent all his wealth in founding seven monasteries. He gave up his family house at Rome to be a monastery, in which he became at first a simple monk, and was afterwards chosen abbot. A pope, named Pelagius, showed him great favour, by making him his secretary, and employing him for some years as a sort of ambassador at the emperor's court at Constantinople. And when Pelagius was carried off by a plague, in the year 589, the nobles, the clergy, and the people of Rome all agreed in choosing Gregory to succeed him.

Gregory was afraid to undertake the office. It was necessary that the emperor should consent to his appointment; and he wrote to beg that the emperor would refuse his consent. But the governor of Rome stopped the letter, and all the other attempts which Gregory made to escape the honour intended for him were baffled; so that in the end he was obliged to submit, and was consecrated as bishop of Rome in September, 590.

Gregory felt all the difficulties of his new place. He compares his Church to an old ship, shattered by winds and waves, decayed in its timbers, full of leaks, and in continual danger of going to wreck. The vast quantity and variety of business which he went through appears to us from the collection of his letters, of which about eight hundred and fifty still remain. We see from these how he strove to strengthen his Church in all quarters, and what steps he took for the government of it. Some of the letters are addressed to emperors and kings, and treat about the greatest affairs of Church or State. And then all at once we find him passing from such high matters to direct that some poor tenant on one of his estates should be excused from paying a part of his rent, or that relief should be given to some widow or orphan who had written from a distance to ask his help.

The bishops of Rome had by degrees become very rich. They had estates, not only in Italy and Sicily, but in Africa, in France, and even in Asia. And the people who managed these estates were employed by Gregory to carry on his other business in the same countries, and to report the state of the Church to him from all quarters. Very little of his large income was spent on himself. We may have some notion of the plain way in which the great bishop lived from one of his letters to the steward of his estates in Sicily. "You have sent me," says Gregory, "one wretched horse, and five good asses. I cannot ride the horse because he is wretched, nor the good beasts, because they are but asses." He lived chiefly in the company of monks and clergy, employing himself in study with them. And, in the midst of all the business which took up his time, he wrote a number of books, of which some are very valuable. He was also famous as a preacher. Among his sermons are a set of twenty-two on the prophet Ezekiel, which he had meant to carry further. But he was obliged to break off by the attacks of the Lombards, as he told his people in the end of the last sermon -- "Let no one blame me," he says, "if after this discourse I stop, since, as you all see, our troubles are multiplied on us. On every side we are surrounded with swords; on every side we dread the danger of death which is close at hand. Some come back to us with their hands out off; we hear of some as being taken prisoners, and of others as slain. I am forced to withhold my tongue from expounding, since my soul is weary of my life (Job x.1). How can I, who am forced daily to drink bitter things, draw forth sweet things to you? What remains for us, but that in the chastisement which we are suffering because of our misdeeds, we should give thanks with weeping to Him who made us, and who hath bestowed on us the spirit of adoption (Rom. viii.15) -- to Him who sometimes nourisheth His children with bread, and sometimes correcteth them with a scourge -- who, by benefits and by sufferings alike, is training us for an eternal inheritance?"

Gregory laboured zealously in improving the education of the clergy, and in reforming such disorders as he found in his Church. He founded a school for singing, and established a new way of chanting, which from him has the name of the "Gregorian Chant", and is used to this day. We are told that the whip with which he used to correct his choristers was kept at Rome as a relic for hundreds of years.

His charities were very great. On the first day of every month he gave out large quantities of provisions to the people of Rome. The old nobility had suffered so much by the wars, and by the loss of their estates in countries which had been torn from them by the barbarians, that many of them were glad to come in for a share of the good pope's bounty. Every day he sent relief to a number of poor persons in all parts of the city; and he used to send dishes from his own table to those whom he knew to be in distress, but ashamed to ask for assistance. Once when a poor man was found dead in the streets, Gregory denied himself the holy communion for some days, because it seemed to him that he must be in some measure to blame. He used to receive strangers and wanderers at his own table, out of regard for our Lord's words -- "Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto Me." (St. Matt. xxv.40).


Having thus seen something of Gregory's life at home, we must now look at his proceedings in other quarters.

He had a sharp dispute with a bishop of Constantinople, on account of the title of "Universal Bishop", which the patriarchs of the eastern capital had for some time taken to themselves. When we hear such a title, we may naturally fancy that it signified a claim to authority over the whole Church on earth. But, as it was then used, it really had no such meaning. The Greeks were fond of lofty and sounding titles, which seemed to mean much more than they were really understood to mean. This fondness appears in the titles of the emperors and of the officers of their empire, and it was by it that the patriarchs were led to style themselves "Universal Bishop." If the title had been intended as a claim to authority over all Churches, it could only have been given to one person at a time, but we find that the emperor Justinian gave it to the bishops both of Constantinople and of Rome, and that he styled each of them "Head of all the Churches"; and, whatever the patriarchs of Constantinople may have meant by it, they certainly did not make any claim to authority over Rome or the western Church.

But there was an old jealousy between the sees of Rome and Constantinople, ever since the time when the second general council in 381 gave the bishop of Constantinople the second place of honour in the whole Church (p 84). This jealousy had grown greater in late times, when there was no very kindly feeling between the emperors and their Italian subjects, and when it seemed not impossible that the bishop of the new capital, backed by the emperor, might even try to dispute the first place with the bishop of Rome. And Gregory, who did not understand the Greek language, or how little the Greeks meant by their fine titles, was ready to take offence at the name of "Universal Bishop." So, when a bishop of Constantinople, John the Faster, styled himself so on an important occasion, Gregory objected strongly, -- he wrote to John, to the emperor, and to the bishops of Alexandria and of Antioch, declaring that the title was proud and foolish, that it came from the devil, and was a token of Antichrist's approach, and that it was unfit for any Christian bishop to use. The emperor, however, would not help him against the patriarch. John would not yield, and the other eastern patriarchs (partly from a wish to be at peace, and partly because the words did not seem offensive to them, as they did to Gregory), were little disposed to take up his quarrel. After a time, another emperor, who had special reasons for wishing to stand well with Gregory; forbade the successor of John to call himself "Universal;" but the title was soon restored by the emperors to the bishops of Constantinople, although not until after the death of Gregory. The most curious part of the story, however, is this -- that Gregory's successors in the popedom have taken up the very title which he condemned so strongly; and that, instead of using it in the harmless meaning which it had in the East, they have intended it as a claim to power over the whole Church, -- that claim of which the very notion filled Gregory with such horror and indignation, and which he declared to be unfit for any bishop whatever to make.


Gregory did much to bring over the Lombards from their Arianism, and he succeeded in part, although the work was not completed until after his time. He also laboured earnestly to revive the Church in France and in other countries. But instead of dwelling on these things, I shall content myself with telling of the chief work which he did in spreading the Gospel; and it is one which very much concerns ourselves.

In those days slavery was common throughout all the known world, and, although the gospel had wrought a great improvement in the treatment of slaves, by making the masters feel that they and their slaves were brethren in Christ, it yet had not forbidden slavery. But there was a feeling of pity for those who fell into this sad condition by the chances of war or otherwise. It was a common act of charity for good Christians to redeem captives and to set them at liberty. This, indeed, was thought so holy a work, and so agreeable to the words of Scripture -- "I will have mercy, and not sacrifice" (Hos. vi.6; St. Matt. ix.13) that bishops often broke up and sold even the consecrated plate of their churches in order that they might get the means of ransoming captives whom they heard of. And, although slavery was still allowed by the laws of Christian kingdoms, those laws took care that Christian slaves should not be under Jews, or masters of any other than their own religion. Gregory, then, while he was yet a monk, went one day into the market at Rome, just after the arrival of some merchants with a large cargo of slaves for sale. Some of these poor creatures, perhaps, had been taken in war; others had probably been sold by their own parents for the sake of the price which they fetched; for we are told that this shocking practice was not uncommon among some of the ruder nations. As Gregory looked at them, his eyes fell on some boys with whose appearance he was greatly struck. Their skin was fair, unlike the dark complexions of the Italians and other southern nations whom he had been used to see, their features were beautiful, and they had long light flowing hair. He asked the merchants from what land these boys had been brought. "From Britain," they said; and they told him that the bright complexion which he admired so much was common among the people of that island. Perhaps Gregory had never thought of Britain before. It was nearly two hundred years since the Roman troops had been withdrawn from it, and its habitants had been left to themselves. And since that time the pagan Saxons had overrun it; the Romans had lost the countries which lay between them and it; and Britain had quite disappeared from their knowledge. Gregory, therefore, was obliged to ask whether the people were Christians or heathens, and he was told that they were still heathens. The good monk sighed deeply. "Alas, and woe!" said he, "that people with such faces of light should belong to the author of darkness, and that so goodly an outward favour should be void of inward grace." He asked what was the name of their nation, and was told that they were "Angles". "It is well," he said, "for they have angels' faces, and such as they ought to be joint-heirs with the angels in heaven. -- What is the name of the province from which they come?" He was told that it was Deira (a Saxon kingdom, which stretched along the eastern side of Britain, from the Humber to the Tyne). The name of Deira sounded to Gregory's ears like two Latin words, which mean "from wrath." "Well, again," he said, "they are delivered from the wrath of God, and are called to the mercy of Christ. -- What is the name of the king of that country?" "Aella," was the answer. "Alleluiah!" ("Praise to God!") exclaimed Gregory, "the praises of God their maker ought to be sung in that kingdom."

He went at once to the pope, and asked leave to go as a missionary to the heathens of Britain. But, although the pope consented, the people of Rome were so much attached to Gregory that they would not allow him to set out, and he was obliged to give up the plan. Yet he did not forget the heathens of Britain, and when he became pope, although he could not himself go to them, he was able to send others for the work of their conversion.

An opening had been made by the marriage of Ethelbert, king of Kent, the Saxon kingdom which lay nearest to the continent, with Bertha, daughter of Charibert, a Frankish king, whose capital was Paris (AD 570). As Charibert and his family were Christians, it had been agreed that the young queen should be allowed freely to practise her religion, and a French bishop, named Luidhard, came to England with her, and acted as her chaplain. Ethelbert by degrees became much more powerful than he was at the time of his marriage, and in 593 he was chosen "Bretwalda," which was the title given to the chief of the Saxon kings. This office gave him much influence over most of the other kingdoms; so that, if his favour could be gained, it was likely to be of very great advantage for recommending the Gospel to others. But Ethelbert was still a heathen, after having been married to Bertha about five-and-twenty years, although we may well suppose that she had sometimes spoken to him of her religion, and had tried to bring him over to it. And perhaps Bertha may have had a share in sending Gregory the reports which he mentions, that the Saxons in England were ready to receive the Gospel, and in begging him to take pity on them.


In the year 596 Gregory sent off a party of monks as missionaries to the English Saxons. The head of them was Augustine, who had been provost (that is, the highest person after the abbot -- p 150) of the monastery to which the pope himself had formerly belonged. And, at the same time, Gregory directed the manager of his estates in France to buy up a number of captive Saxon youths, and to place them in monasteries, that they might learn the Christian faith, and might afterwards become missionaries to their own countrymen.

When Augustine and his brethren had got as far as the south of France, they heard many terrible stories of the English, so they took fright at the thought of going among such savages, whose very language was unknown to them; and Augustine went back to Rome to beg that they might be allowed to give up their undertaking. But Gregory would not consent to this. He encouraged them to go on, and he gave Augustine letters to some French kings and bishops, desiring them to assist the missionaries, and to supply them with interpreters who understood the language of the Saxons. Augustine, therefore, returned to the place where he had left his companions. They made their way across France, and in 597 he landed, with about forty monks, in the Isle of Thanet.

Ethelbert lived at Canterbury, the capital of the Kentish kingdom, at no great distance from the place where the missionaries had landed. On receiving notice of their arrival, he sent to desire that they would remain where they were until he should visit them; and within a few days he went to them. The meeting was held in the open air; for Ethelbert had a superstitious fear that they might do him some mischief by magical arts, if he were to trust himself under a roof with them. The missionaries advanced in procession, with a silver cross borne before them, and displaying a picture of the crucified Saviour; and, as they slowly moved onwards, they chanted a prayer for their own salvation and that of the people to whom they had been sent. Ethelbert received them courteously, and desired them to sit down: and then Augustine made a speech, telling the king that they were come to preach the word of life to him and to his subjects. "These are indeed fair words and promises which you bring with you," said Ethelbert; "but, because they are new and uncertain, I cannot at once take up with them, and leave the faith which I and all my people have so long observed. But as you have come from far and as I think you wish to give us a share in things which you believe to be true and most profitable, we will not show you unkindness, but rather will receive you hospitably, and not hinder you from converting as many as you can to your religion."

He then granted them a lodging in his capital, and ordered that they should be supplied with all that they might need. As they drew near to Canterbury, they again displayed the silver cross, and the banner on which the Saviour was painted; and they entered the city in procession, chanting a litany which Gregory had made for the people of Rome, during the great plague which carried off pope Pelagius.

A little way outside the city they found a small church which had been built in the days of the old British Christianity, and in which Luidhard had since held his service for Queen Bertha and the Christians of her court. It was called by the name of St. Martin; for even before the Saxon invasion his name had become so famous that many churches were called after it; and we may well believe that Queen Bertha, on arriving from France, was glad to find that the church in which she was to worship had long ago been named in honour of the great saint of her own land. There Augustine and his brethren now held their service; and the sight of their holy, gentle, and self-denying lives soon drew many to receive their instructions. Ethelbert himself was baptized on Whitsunday, 597, and, although he would not force his people to profess the Gospel, he declared himself desirous of their conversion.

Gregory had desired Augustine, if he met with success in the beginning of his mission, to return from Britain into France and be consecrated as a bishop. He now obeyed this direction, and was consecrated at Arles; and without any delay he again crossed the sea, and renewed his labours among the Saxons. Such was his progress in the work of conversion, that at Christmas of the year in which he first landed in Britain ten thousand persons were baptized in one day. Four years later, Gregory made him an archbishop; and he sent him a fresh body of clergy to help him, with a large supply of books, vestments, and other things for the service of the Church. He also gave him instructions how to proceed, so as to advance the true faith without giving needless offence to the prejudices of the heathen.

Augustine's chief difficulties, indeed, were not with the Saxons, but with the clergy of the ancient British Church, whom he could not succeed in bringing to an agreement. We must not lay the blame wholly on either side; if the Britons were somewhat jealous and obstinate, Augustine seems to have taken too much upon himself in his way of dealing with them. But, whatever his faults may have been, we are bound to hold his memory in honour for the zealous and successful labours by which the Gospel was a second time introduced into the southern part of this island. Before his death, in 604, he had established a second bishop for Kent, in the city of Rochester, and one at London, which was then the capital of the kingdom of Essex. And by degrees, partly by the followers of St. Augustine, and partly by the Scottish monks of Icolumbkill (p 139), all the Saxon kingdoms of England were converted to the Christian faith.

In the same year with Augustine, Gregory also died, after a long and severe illness, which obliged him for years to keep his bed, but could not check his activity in watching over the interests of religion.

Gregory had intended that Augustine should be archbishop of London, because in the old Roman days London had been the chief city of Britain; and it might seem natural that the chief bishop of our Church should now take his title from the capital of all England. But when Gregory sent forth his missionaries he did not know that England had been divided by the Saxons into several kingdoms. In consequence of this division of the country, Augustine, instead of becoming archbishop of London, fixed himself in the capital of Kent, the first kingdom which he converted, and then the most powerful of all. Hence it is that his successors, the primates of all England, to this day, are not archbishops of London but of Canterbury.

And, although Canterbury be not now a very large town, it is a very interesting place, and is full of memorials of its first archbishop. The noble cathedral, called Christ Church, stands in the same place with an ancient Roman-British church which Augustine recovered from heathen uses and consecrated in honour of the Saviour. Close to it are the remains of the archbishop's palace, built on the same ground with the palace of Ethelbert, which he gave up to the missionaries. A little church of St. Martin still stands on a rising ground outside the city, on the spot where Bertha and Luidhard had worshipped before the arrival of Augustine, and where he and his brethren celebrated their earliest services. And, although it has been rebuilt since then, we may still see in its walls a number of bricks which by their appearance are known to be Roman, -- the very same materials of which the little church was built at first, while the Romans were yet in Britain, fourteen centuries and a half ago; nay, it is even supposed that some part of the masonry is Roman, too. Between St. Martin's and the cathedral lay the great monastery of St Peter and St. Paul, which Augustine began to build. He died before it was finished; but, as soon as it was ready, his body was removed to it, and in it Queen Bertha and her husband were afterwards buried. After a time the name of the monastery was changed to St. Augustine's, and for hundreds of years it was the chief monastery of all England. The Reformation in the sixteenth century put an end to monasteries; and the buildings of St. Augustine's went through many changes until in the year 1844 the place was turned to a purpose similar to that which Augustine and Gregory had at heart when they undertook the conversion of England; for it is now a college for training missionaries. And, as Gregory wished that Saxon boys should be brought up with a view to converting their countrymen, so there are now at St. Augustine's College young men from distant heathen nations, receiving an education which may fit them hereafter to become missionaries of the Church of England to their brethren. (Among those who were at the College when this volume was first printed was Kalli, the Esquimaux, of whom an account has since been written by the Rev. T. B. Murray, and published by the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge. He afterwards went to the diocese of Newfoundland, where he died of consumption.) Nor is the good Gregory forgotten in the city which owes so much to him; for within the last few years a beautiful little church called by his name has been built, close to the college of St. Augustine.

Here this little book must close. It ends with the replanting of the Gospel in our own land. And, if hereafter the story should be carried further, some of its brightest pages will be filled by the labours of the missionaries who went forth from England to preach the faith of Christ in Germany and the adjoining countries.

chapter xxx end of the
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