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Archaeology and Early History

SAXON RELIGION: PAGANS AND CHRISTIANS

THE TRANSITION FROM PAGANISM TO CHRISTIANITY IN THE DARTFORD AREA

Not a great deal is known about the religion that the pagan Saxons brought with them. Later Christian writers mention Saxon idols housed in shrines, holy trees, speaking stones, and holy springs. The Celtic Christian church established in the West showed little interest in converting the pagan Saxons who lived in the South East of England.

It is just possible that small pockets of Christianity survived from Roman times. The discovery of the Darenth Bowl (a glass communion chalice c.450 A.D.) discovered by the Dartford District Archaeological Group in a Saxon grave in the grounds of the old Darenth Park Hospital has raised all sorts of questions about the possible survival of Christian belief in and around Dartford.

In the early days Christianity found most of its followers in the towns and cities of the Roman Empire, but it was not long before wealthy landowners were establishing private house churches on the their country estates. Christianity became the official state religion of the Roman Empire in the early fourth century A.D. As the century progressed Christianity spread very quickly. Despite official recognition there was no mass conversion to Christianity; worship of the pagan gods and goddesses was not even formally banned until late in the fourth century.

At first, groups of Christian believers would have met in ordinary houses for worship. Purpose-built structures (churches) designed for public worship would not have existed until the fourth century.

 

  

Darenth Bowl

Click to enlarge

The serious work of evangelising the pagan Saxons in southern England was only begun in 597 A.D. when a mission was sent out from Rome under St Augustine. Within a century England was once more a Christian land. Missionaries were sent out from Rochester in the seventh century to preach Christianity to the communities of North West Kent. In subsequent centuries monasteries and churches were built and endowed. The earliest Saxon churches were built of wood. However, by the tenth century the church was sufficiently wealthy to enable new church buildings to be constructed in stone. Pre-Norman churches existed throughout the local area at Dartford, Wilmington, Sutton-at-Hone, Horton Kirby, Darenth, Fawkham, Southfleet, Swanscombe, and possibly Stone.

Next topic: Religion and burial traditions

 

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