St Paulinus

King Edwin of Northumbria needed a wife. His first wife, a Mercian princess called Quenberg, had died. But a Kentish princess by the name of Ethelberga, or Tata for short, might well become Queen of Northumbria. There was an obstacle to the marriage however. Ethelberga was Christian, King Edwin was heathen and worshipped gods of war, storm and thunder. If they were to marry an accommodation would have to be found to allow Ethelberga to continue to practise her Christian religion.

Edwin surmounted the problem by agreeing to let Ethelberga continue to practise her religion. They were married at York in 625. Ethelberga brought with her, her own personal chaplain Paulinus, he had been newly appointed Bishop of York.

Almost all we know about Paulinus comes from the writings of Bede, who wrote some one hundred years after the events. Even so we know very little about the life of Paulinus. Legend suggests he was the son of a Welsh king and a refugee to Italy, but Bede does not mention this in his writings and in all probability it is untrue. We know he was a monk at Canterbury for 23 years and Bishop of Rochester for 10 years. But of what he did during that time we have little or no record. Bede does record that “ in the year of Our Lord 644, our most reverend father Paulinus, once Bishop of York, and then of Rochester, departed to be with the Lord on 10th October having held the post for nineteen years….and was buried at Rochester.”

Ethelberga continued to practise her religion and Paulinus came to Northumbria as her chaplain. Paulinus was consecrated Bishop lending weight to the importance given to his mission. He moved carefully in his attempts to convert the King and his Kingdom. As part of the royal household he became indispensable as the King’s adviser and secretary. Though he worked hard he made little or no progress. Until in 626, on Easter Day, two things happened that Paulinus thought to be the ‘hand of God’. The Queen gave birth to a daughter and Edwin survived an attempt on his life. The grateful King "gave his infant daughter to Paulinus to be consecrated to Christ. She was the first of the Northumbrian race to be baptised". King Edwin promised that if he defeated the attempted killer's king he would "renounce his idols and serve Christ". He backed out on this and was "unwilling to accept the mysteries of the Christian faith at once".

Meanwhile Paulinus arranged for the Pope to write to both the King and Queen. It was possibly the first letter that Edwin had ever received. Probably in Latin he would have needed to have Paulinus translate it. The king was converted finally after a Council at which Coifi, the pagan high priest "took a spear in his hand" and destroyed the idols. So "King Edwin, with all the nobles of his race and a vast number of the common people received Holy Baptism in the year of our Lord 627”. Paulinus' patience, skill and faith had been rewarded.

Paulinus travelled throughout the kingdom which stretched from Edwin's Burgh (Edinburgh) in the north to south of Hull. He baptised thousands in the River Glen, the pool at Holystone, the Rivers Swale and Trent. Paulinus seemingly had great influence on royal policy. Yet there are surprising things that, he didn’t do. He came from Italy to Canterbury to support the growing Mission. He baptised thousands but doesn’t appear to have made any arrangements for other monks to continue to teach the people. He seems to have done very little for church building or the training of people to lead worship in them. His excuse would probably have been that he thought he had more time.

The tragic ending was unexpected, sudden and total. King Edwin and his son were slain in battle and his kingdom collapsed. Paulinus, who had come north as the Queen's spiritual guardian, felt it right to take her and her daughters to safety in the south. Northumbria sank back into her pagan past.

But the building of the foundations and walls of a Church is more complex than it seems. All was not lost and out of the confusion that followed the Battle of Heavenfield, there emerged a new King and a new bishop with a different missionary vision: King Oswald and Bishop Aidan built securely on the damaged foundations left by Edwin and Paulinus.

We have no way of knowing for certain that Paulinus visited Haltwhistle. But tradition has it that he made a great missionary effort in and around Haltwhistle in between 625 and 632. Standing at the back of the church the old water Stoup is the oldest object we have, its survival is purely accidental, but it is not impossible that it is an adapted Roman altar used in an earlier church and hence possibly by Paulinus.

© Holy Cross Church Haltwhistle 2013