Paul’s Mission to ‘The Farthest Limits of the West’ – Did the Apostle Visit Britain? The Roman Conquest & Religion, AD 43-63

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‘And did those feet …?’ – Glastonbury Myths:

When I moved out of my grandparents’ house (which I bought from my mother) in Coventry in 1991, I discovered a copy of George F. Jowett’s popular book on her old rotating bookshelf, where it had sat for thirty years. The Arthurian legends had always fascinated me, especially since my time in Wales and teaching about the ‘Dark Ages’ in Lancashire in the late seventies and eighties, so I kept the book following my mother’s death a few years later. Moving to Somerset in 1996, I became further fascinated by the Glastonbury myths my father had first told me on a childhood holiday walk to St Just-in-Roseland in Cornwall, to visit the grave of William Blake, who wrote the words of the famous hymn ‘Jerusalem’. I knew that my father had been interested in the ‘British Israel’ movement in the 1960s, but knew little about the movement until I became interested in Christian Socialism in the mid-nineties as an antidote to the collapsing edifice of Marxism I had witnessed in central Europe. So I approached the book with some interest, not knowing how or why my grandmother chose to acquire a copy, though aware that she, too, had been a lifelong Christian Socialist as well as being a Deacon in the local Baptist Church (as a proud seventh-generation Baptist), where my father was a minister in the early 1950s (and where he met my mother).

Glastonbury Tor, Somerset. A natural mound carved with a spiral path of ascent which some have said was a Bronze Age ritual path of initiation.

The book purports to trace several of Christ’s disciples and other associates, including Joseph of Arimathea, Paul, Simon, and even his mother Mary, to Britain, where they founded a Christian church which predates, and therefore has precedence over, the Roman Catholic Church. The book also espouses British Israelism, arguing that the Welsh and English are descended from the so-called “Lost tribes of Israel”, and claiming that they preserved their genetic and religious purity more assiduously than the Jews. Theories based on Jowett’s work are currently popular on the internet, among more recent British adherents of the Christian Identity movement. He cites classical historians, early church fathers, medieval and early modern writers, and also quotes the Sonnini Manuscript as evidence of St. Paul in Britain (p. 197). I shall return to this false or missing evidence later in this article, but it is worth pointing out here that the renowned Pauline scholar, Tom Wright, has recently given credence to the idea that such a visit could have been incorporated into a planned ‘western’ mission by Paul in the early to mid-sixties AD. If so, this would have taken place between his release from house arrest late in 61 or early in 62 AD and his possible martyrdom in Rome during Nero’s persecution of the Christians which followed the fire of 64 AD, and for which they were ‘scapegoated’ (see Wright’s chronology in the appendix below).

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The key component of British Israelism is its representation of the migrations of the Lost Tribes of Israel. Adherents suggested that the Scythians, Cimmerians and Goths were representatives of these lost tribes, and the progenitors of the later invaders of Britain. These assertions stem from the belief that the Twelve Tribes of Israel are the twelve sons of the patriarch Jacob (who was later named Israel) who elevated the descendants of Ephraim and Manasseh (the two sons of Joseph) to the status of full tribes in their own right, replacing the tribe of Joseph. We know from the Old Testament that a division occurred among the twelve tribes in the days of Jeroboam and Rehoboam, with the three tribes of Judah, Benjamin, and partially Levi, forming the Kingdom of Judah, and the remaining ten tribes forming the Kingdom of Israel (Samaria). Thus, the argument goes, “the great bulk of Israelites are not the Jews”. W. E. Filmer, writing in 1964, suggested that the fact that some Jews continue to search for the ten lost tribes implies that their representatives are not found among modern-day, multi-ethnic Jews. Several British-Israelites quote Josephus to support their claim that the lost tribes of Israel are not Jews:

“the entire body of the people of Israel remained in that country; wherefore there are but two tribes in Asia and Europe subject to the Romans, while the ten tribes are beyond the Euphrates till now, and are an immense multitude.”

Other Celtic ‘invaders’ would be given an analogous descent. In the Welsh (Cymry) the British Israelites would see a direct connection through the Cimbri to the Cimmerians, the Gimirri of Assyrian annals, a name sometimes also given by the ancient Babylonians to the Scythians and Saka. The perceived similarity between this and the name by which the Assyrian annals referred to Israel, B’rith Khumri, would lead the British Israelites to claim that the Welsh too were members of the Lost Tribes.

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The preface to Milton, as it appeared in Blake’s own illuminated version.

It would be wrong to dismiss British Israelism as ‘supremacist’ or anti-Semitic in origin, however. On the contrary, early British Israelites such as Edward Hine and John Wilson were ‘Philo-Semites’. British Israelism had several Jewish adherents and it also received support from rabbis throughout the nineteenth century. Within British politics, the movement supported Benjamin Disraeli, who was descended from Sephardi Jews. The radicals poet, artist and printer William Blake (1757-1827) also promoted its ideas, most notably in the poem And did those feet in ancient time…?”, from the preface to his epic Milton: A Poem in Two Books, one of a collection of writings known as the Prophetic Books (see the plate above). The date of 1804 on the title page is probably when the plates were begun, but the poem was printed c. 1808. The poem was supposedly inspired by the apocryphal story preserved among Cornish and Somerset miners that a young Jesus, accompanied by Joseph of Arimathea, a tin merchant, travelled to what is now England and visited Glastonbury during his unknown years. In suggesting that Jesus may have set foot in England (even though it did not exist before the tenth century as a unified country), Blake was resurrecting the old Glastonbury legend, invented in the fifteenth century, which told of Christ’s wanderings as a young man with Joseph of Arimathea. Most scholars reject the historical authenticity of this story out of hand, and according to British folklore scholar A. W. Smith, …

“there was little reason to believe that an oral tradition concerning a visit made by Jesus to Britain existed before the early part of the twentieth century”.

William Anderson (1983), however, claimed that while the ‘Glastonbury legend’ received its first full written record in the twelfth century, it drew on oral traditions of far greater antiquity. According to the legend, Joseph of Arimathea, with a band of missionaries, sent by the apostle Philip, brought the Christian faith to Britain in circa AD 37. He carried with him the Holy Grail, the cup used at the Last Supper in which he had caught drops of Christ’s blood at the crucifixion. Landing in Cornwall, they travelled towards Glastonbury. When nearly there, on the hill called ‘Wearyall’, Joseph thrust his hawthorn staff into the ground and it immediately burst into blossom. He settled on the present site of the abbey ruins at Glastonbury and built there the first Christian ‘shrine’ in Britain, made of wattle and daub (see the book cover below).

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The Drama of the Lost Disciples has gone through 16 editions (printed up to 2009 by Covenant Publishing) selling 55,000 copies. It was first published in 1961 (I have my grandmother’s first edition, without the cover). 

This vetusta ecclesia or ancient church was said to have existed up to the fire of 1184. Joseph was said to have buried the Grail in an unknown place near Glastonbury, thus connecting one myth with another, that of King Arthur and his Knights. Glastonbury, therefore, became forever identified with Avalon, ‘the island of apples’, Ynys Afallon in Welsh, to which Arthur was borne by the three black-robed queens after his fatal battle Mordred. Originally surrounded by marsh and water before the draining of the surrounding ‘Somerset levels’, the four-hundred-foot ‘Tor’, Chalice Hill, the site of the abbey and the town to the west all formed an island and still give the impression of insularity when viewed from a distance, especially from the nearby hills. Not far away were the villages of Celts of the La Téne culture. It is thought that that the Celtic monks who first founded a settlement here were inspired to make this a hallowed site of the new faith, though somewhat later than the first century.

Glastonbury. The ruins of the thirteenth-century crossing of the Abbey Church with, on the left, part of the nave.

The theme of Blake’s poem is linked to the Book of Revelation (3: 12 and 21: 2) describing a Second Coming, wherein Jesus establishes a New Jerusalem. Churches in general, and the Church of England in particular, have therefore long used Jerusalem as a metaphor for Heaven, a place of universal love and peace. In the most common interpretation of the poem, Blake implies that a visit by Jesus would briefly have created heaven in England, in contrast to the “dark Satanic Mills” of the Industrial Revolution. Blake’s poem asks four questions rather than asserting the historical truth of Jesus’s visit. Thus the poem merely wonders if there had been a divine visit when there was briefly heaven in England. The second verse is interpreted as an exhortation to create an ideal society in England, whether or not there was a divine visit. ‘Jerusalem’ later became a patriotic anthem, even a second national anthem, set to music by Sir Hubert Parry during the First World War. The hymn was first associated with meetings of a crusading movement, ‘Fight for the Right’, set up to build a better Britain for the millions of soldiers who would return home after the war. It was also sung at a meeting held in March 1918 at the Royal Albert Hall to celebrate the granting of votes to women. Millicent Fawcett, the leading Suffragist, agreed with Parry that it would be made the ‘Women Voters’ Hymn’.

The imagery of these verses is complex. Some of it is borrowed from the Bible, for instance, the ‘chariots of fire’ which are from II Kings 2: 11. But much of it is Blake’s own invention. There are two very different interpretations as to the main message in Blake’s poem. One school of thought regards it as a plea for intuition and imagination in the face of scientific rationalism. Developing this interpretation, the ‘dark, satanic mills’ represent the cold, logical approach of philosophers such as Locke and Bacon that Blake so much deplored, while Jerusalem represents the ideal life of freedom. The other, more common, way of interpreting the poem is as a call for those values of social justice and freedom which will build a new Jerusalem in Britain.

In 1919 the British-Israel World Federation (BIWF) was founded in London, and Covenant Publishing, which forty years later published The Drama of the Lost Disciples, was founded in 1922. William Pascoe Goard was the first director of the publishing house. During this time, several prominent figures patronized the BIWF organization and its publisher; Princess Alice, Countess of Athlone was Patron-in-chief before World War II. One of its highest-profile members was William Massey, then Prime Minister of New Zealand. Due to the expansive nature of the British Empire, believers in British Israelism spread worldwide and the BIWF expanded its organization to the Commonwealth. In twentieth-century America, however, the movement developed in a white supremacist and anti-Semitic direction. Howard Rand promoted the teaching and became National Commissioner of the Anglo-Saxon Federation of America in 1928. He published The Bulletin, later renamed The Messenger of the Covenant. More recently, it has been renamed, Destiny.

A gold model of a sailing ship from Broighter, late first century BC. The sea linked rather than divided the Iron Age communities of the Atlantic coasts.
Is this how the first Christian apostles, including Paul, arrived in Britain in the following century, from Celtic Iberia (northern Spain) or Gaul?

Critics of British Israelism note that the arguments which are presented by promoters of the teaching are based on unsubstantiated and highly speculative, amateur research. Tudor Parfitt, author of The Lost Tribes: The History of a Myth, states that the proof cited by adherents of British Israelism is “of a feeble composition even by the low standards of the genre.” Modern scholarly linguistic analysis conclusively shows that the languages of the British Isles (English, Welsh, and Gaelic) belong in the Indo-European language family, while Hebrew belongs in the Semitic branch of the Afro-Asiatic language family. In 1906, T. R. Lounsbury stated that “no trace of the slightest real connection can be discovered” between English and ancient Hebrew, while in 1993 Michael Friedman refuted claims that Hebrew was closely related to Celtic and Anglo-Saxon when he wrote that “the actual evidence could hardly be any weaker”. Parfitt suggests that the idea of British Israelism was inspired by numerous ideological factors, such as the desire of ordinary people to have a glorious ancestral past, pride in the British Empire, and the belief in the “racial superiority of white Anglo-Saxon Protestants.”

Its role in fostering anti-semitism in conservative Protestant Christianity has been highlighted, along with its role in fostering a feeling of “racial chauvinism” which is “not always covert”. Separately, the mythology of British Israelism has been blamed for fostering “nationalistic bellicosity”. To some adherents, British Israelism served as a justification for British colonialism and imperialism, and perhaps, it even served as a justification for genocide, and the American belief in ‘Manifest Destiny’.

The lost, last Acts of the Apostles:

However, the more fanciful assertions in Jowett’s book and the more extreme ideological uses of the myth should not blind us to the existence of supporting evidence for some of its claims, especially about the Pauline missions, since we have limited sources from Acts and the Epistles about the first generations of the Church. Indeed, Luke’s account of the spreading of the Gospel ends abruptly, unlike his Gospel, without an explanation of Paul’s last years. The references we do have, both from Paul’s own letters and the writings of contemporaneous church fathers deserve more than a sceptical glance.

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Paul’s return journey to Rome, circa 58-60 AD.

Tom Wright has recently pointed out that, in fact, we know very little about the last years of Paul’s life, but can surmise that, having arrived some time in 60 AD, he was held in house arrest for two years, which takes us to 62 AD. If, as Wright believes is most obvious, Paul was beheaded (as a Roman citizen) in the persecution of Christians that followed the great fire of Rome in AD 64, that leaves two more years to be accounted for after the two that Luke mentions. That would certainly have left enough time for a visit to Spain, or even to Britain. There was regular traffic between Rome and Tarraco, quite enough to justify, if not finally to vindicate, the enthusiastic advocacy of some today of the historic town of Tarragona as a place of sojourn for Paul. ‘Tarraco’ was the capital of Hispania Tarroconensis, which in the time of Augustus and after, had stretched right across the north of the Iberian Peninsula (Cantabria) to the Atlantic coast. The original temple of Augustus had been replaced in Paul’s day with a dramatic terraced complex to the imperial cult, in which the main temple was visible from several miles out to sea, as is the present cathedral on the same site. Wright has also written that, after all his research into Paul’s world and his missions, he is now more inclined to give more weight than he once did to the testimony of Clement, an early ‘bishop’ (or ‘elder’) of Rome. Writing about Paul in the late first century, before much of the NT had been written, he recorded the following:

“After he had been seven times in chains, had been driven into exile, had been stoned, and had preached in the east and in the west, he won the genuine glory for his faith, having taught righteousness to the whole world and having reached the farthest limits of the west. Finally, when he had given his testimony before the rulers, he thus departed from the world and went to the holy place, having become an outstanding example of patient endurance.”

1 Clement 5: 6-7.

The Expansion of the Roman Empire , 31 BC – AD 180. Dark blue areas were added by AD 14, light blue areas by AD 98.

“The farthest limits of the west” could of course refer to Spain, but it could just as easily refer to Britain. In his book, George Jowett renders Clement’s ‘farthest limits’ as’ Extremity of the West’ and claims that this was a more specific term used to indicate Britain. His translation also refers to Paul as the herald of the Gospel in the West as well as in the East. Clement could, however, have been simply extrapolating from Romans 15, in which the Apostle wrote, in AD 57, of his forthcoming visit to Jerusalem and his future plans for mission:

I would like to see you on my way to Spain, and be helped by you to go there after I have enjoyed visiting you for a while … When I have finished this task and have turned over to them all the money that has been raised for them, I shall leave for Spain and visit you on my way there.

Verses 26, 28.

He wrote this just before his planned visit to Jerusalem with the gifts for the poor in that city from the churches of Macedonia and Achaia. On his arrival there, he was seized by a Jewish mob from the diaspora who opposed his mission to the gentiles, and almost lynched, until the Roman garrison intervened. He was kept in protective custody in Caesaria by the Roman governor Felix, whose successor Festus, suggested he be tried in Jerusalem. But Paul refused and appealed to the emperor as a Roman citizen. He was taken under escort to Rome, surviving a shipwreck at Malta. After two years under house arrest in Rome (at which point the account in Acts ends) Paul was probably released in late 61 or 62 AD and spent further time in missionary work. Clement, writing at most thirty years after Paul’s death, just as Paul was writing nearly thirty years after the death and resurrection of Jesus, is far more likely to have been more familiar with more solid and reliable eye-witness accounts of Paul than we can invent in our own day. In Romans 15: 23, Paul had also declared that he had finished his work in the Eastern Mediterranean, Aegean and Asia Minor, though he also repeatedly made it clear that all his plans were subject to God’s leading of the moment and most carried the word ‘perhaps’ about them. But his plans to visit Spain, stated twice in this chapter, seem to have been far from speculative when he first wrote to the Church in Rome prior to his visit to Jerusalem. Of course, he may have changed his mind during his detention in Caesaria, his eventful voyage and two-year house-arrest in Rome, but we have no evidence of this, or of any motivations for returning East. Capellas, in his History of the Apostles, wrote:

I know of scarcely one author from the time of the Fathers downward who does not maintain that St Paul, after his liberation, preached in every country of the West, in Europe, Britain included.

If Paul did make it to Spain, and to its Atlantic coast, Tom Wright believes that he might also have gone north, possibly by ship, the quickest and safest route to Britain for a lone traveller. Theodoret, writing in the fourth century, wrote that ‘St Paul brought salvation to the Isles in the ocean’ and Ventanius, the sixth century Patriarch of Jerusalem, spoke very definitely of St Paul’s work in Britain, as did many other Roman chroniclers of early church history, including Irenaeus, Tertullian and Origen in the second and early third centuries. Jowett claims that the records of the Eastern, Gallic and Spanish churches all attest to the fact that Paul evangelised in Gaul and in Britain.

Paul’s travel plans to visit the West fit with the so-called ‘Pastoral Letters’. In addition, most scholars now agree there is little to no evidence that the Letter to the Hebrews was, even partly, the work of Paul. They also believe it to be unlikely that the letters called I Timothy and Titus were written by him. This belief stems partly from the great difficulty we have in linking what we know of Paul’s life; in several ways, their content indicates a different situation, later than that of the apostles’ day. The letters may have fragments of Paul’s own words in them, but (if they do) these have little bearing on their general content. I Timothy and Titus have a good deal about the ordering of the Church, but in II Timothy the subject is ‘false teaching’ which is vigorously attacked and the letter is therefore thought more likely to have been written by Paul. Its personal references are also of historical significance.

The ‘Pastorals’ come from a church that has to cope with the problems of living everyday life in the world; they present a Christianity for the ordinary believers when the first excitement had worn off. This suggests that these letters were authored and/or gathered together at the beginning of the second century. Second Timothy, however, is claimed to have been written (at least in part) from Rome during the two-year period of Paul’s house arrest, between his two legal hearings (Acts 28: 30-31). In this time, Paul had been lonely and bereft, though Onesiphorus, a friend from Ephesus, had sought for him and found him in Rome. In the ‘Personal Words’ (NEB) of the fourth chapter (obviously written by the apostle himself), Onesiphorus contrasts sharply and sadly with “all who are in Asia,” who Paul claimed had turned away from his more recent pastoral advice to something more like his earlier message to the Galatians in the late forties. The possible whereabouts of both Paul and Timothy at the time of the earliest words of II Timothy remains a mystery, and the letter implies that at this time, Paul really does believe he is facing death at last:

I am already being poured out as a drink-offering; my departure time has arrived. I have fought the good fight; I have completed the course; I have kept the faith. What do I still have to look for? The crown of righteousness! The Lord, the righteous judge, will give it to me as my reward on that day – and not only to me but also to all who have loved His appearing.

II Timothy 4: 6-8.

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Santa Pudenziana is a church of Rome, a basilica built in the 4th century and dedicated to Saint Pudentiana, sister of Saint Praxedes and daughter of Saint Pudens (mentioned by Saint Paul in 2 Timothy, 4: 21). It is one of the national churches in Rome and is recognized as the oldest above-ground place of public Christian worship in Rome. It was erected over a 2nd-century house, probably during the pontificate of Pius I in AD 140–55.

In the passage which follows (4: 9-10), he comes across as tired, anxious and disappointed with people who had let him down. But the letter also reveals a complex journey and a return to Rome, of which we know nothing else. This could either have been a further journey to the east, perhaps to Ephesus, or a journey west, as previously planned. These two alternative destinations might seem to cancel each other out. If Paul was back in Rome by the time of Nero’s persecution, facing additional hearings in difficult circumstances, two years would hardly have been enough for the relevant trips, both west and east. But perhaps the persecution of the apostle would not have needed an extensive legal process. The emperor has already laid the blame for the fire on the Christians. Paul might have returned to Rome at some point during or after the fire and persecution of 64 to find that it was all over, but that the social mood had changed and that, citizen or not, appealing to Caesar would no longer save him, and that he was now on trial simply as an indicted seditious troublemaker. Since most of the Christians in Rome lived on the impoverished southwest bank of the river, and since the fire was confined to the wealthier northeast side, they were an easy target. Like the Jews, they didn’t pay tribute to the Gods, which now included the self-proclaimed God, Nero, so they could be held responsible for such disasters. It is perfectly possible that Paul and perhaps Peter were among the leaders rounded up and made to suffer the penalty for a disaster whose actual origins remain unknown to this day. But, as Wright suggests, the chronicle of Paul’s life is likely to remain incomplete on the basis of currently available evidence:

We are left looking at small fragments of a jigsaw puzzle for which we have far too few pieces and no guiding picture to show us what might belong where.

Perhaps Wright exaggerates when he says that we have no guiding picture, however. The ‘bigger picture’ of Paul’s world and his challenge was, as Wright himself points out, the building of a new kind of community, koinonia (fellowship) a new kind of ‘politics’, or polis, a new way of running the city and, by extension, the city-states and provinces of the empire. Sophisticated theories had been advanced by theoreticians such as Cicero and Seneca, who were also hands-on members of the ruling élite. The main feature of Paul’s political landscape was, of course, Rome. Its empire had united the world, or so it claimed, but it was a top-down unity based on uniformity, in which diversity was only tolerated so long as it didn’t threaten the absolute sovereignty of Caesar. As such, it was always dictatorial and hierarchical and, in the case of Nero’s rule, maniacal. The Roman concept of diversity was not about ‘democracy’, but placed men over women, free over slaves, Romans over everyone else. Rebels were ruthlessly suppressed. One Caledonian chieftain commented, no doubt with a sigh:

“They make a wilderness and they call it ‘peace’.”

Tacitus, Agricola 30: 6.

It is not difficult to see, against this political and imperial backcloth, why Paul would feel strongly motivated to extend his mission for a different kind of Kyrios to the western provinces of the Empire. Paul’s messianic communities were not simply freestanding innovations, but part of a polis dating back nearly a thousand years; Augustus had been careful to have his court poets and historians explain that his innovatory rule was the climax to Rome’s long narrative of noble institutions and traditions. In his writings and actions, Paul had shown himself to be a proud inheritor of that narrative and those traditions, just as he was also proud of his Judaistic heritage. There is little else to illuminate more general Roman-Christian relations ‘after the fire’ except that both Acts and the Pauline tradition are concerned to be on as good terms as possible with the polis in Rome. First Peter and Revelation, on the other hand, show signs of persecution.

The Book of Revelation, especially, is full of bitter hatred and is thought to have been written in the reign of Domitian, on the Greek island of Patmos. The author of the book, thought by many to be ‘John the Divine’, had been banished to the island and makes one reference to a past martyrdom (2: 13), though more recent persecution seems to have been more limited and local; John’s fears are for the future. Imminent persecution by Rome is expected; Revelation is written to strengthen and advise those who face it and its message is given symbolically. It should be read as apocalyptic poetry, a continuous meditation on the similar literature of the Old Testament, with reading, interpretation and vision inextricably combined. Understood in its own terms and in the context of the times in which it was written, it is a picture of the situation of the early Christian Church in a hostile world in which the Spirit of Christ was still at work. As such, it has much to tell us about what it was like to be a Christian at the end of the first century and the turn of the second.

It was also at this time that Clement of Rome (d. circa AD 100) was formalising worship in the church, including a great prayer of intercession, drawn from the Church’s liturgy and appearing in his letter, I Clement, quoted above about Paul’s ‘visit to Britain’. The main purpose of his letter was to urge the Christians at Corinth to preserve the arrangements made by the apostles for controlling the congregation’s affairs. This was simply the kind of provision that Paul himself, and other subsequent pioneer missionaries helped to organise for a new church. Clement also insisted that ‘worthy celebration of the Lord’s Supper’ was only possible when conducted by church leaders, called ‘bishops’ or ‘presbyters’ (see the inset below). But Clement did not imply, at least in his letter, that the church in Rome had any superior authority. The association of the Roman church with the martyrdom of the apostles Peter and Paul had undoubtedly strengthened its role, as did the Fall of Jerusalem in AD 70 since it became almost impossible to evangelise the settlements of the Jewish diaspora in the province of Parthia to the east. Christianity’s centre of gravity shifted to the west, where Rome was well suited to play a central role.

Rome acquired a leading position among the churches, for whom all roads did indeed lead there. A remarkable number of prominent Christians made their way to Rome: Ignatius, Polycarp, Marcion, Valentinus, Tatian, Justin, Hegesipus, Irenaeus, Tertullian, Praxeas and Origen – as well as Peter and Paul. By the mid-second century, memorial shrines to Paul and Peter had been erected in Rome, on the Appian Way and the Vatican Hill respectively. Remains of the latter have been uncovered in modern excavations, but (as Tom Wright comments) there is no convincing evidence as to where Paul’s body was buried or entombed.

It needs to be emphasised that the apostles had not appointed bishops or presbyters in every church and that the ‘apostolic succession’ was not established as an accepted doctrine of the western church until the mid-second century, mainly as a response to the heresy of ‘Gnosticism’. It was only thereafter that bishops and presbyters became known as ‘apostles’, and the original apostles, including Simon Peter, were posthumously referred to as ‘bishops’. By contrast with the institutionalised, powerful Bishops of later centuries, the disciples and apostles who first stood for their Messiah were, in George F. Jowett’s turn of phrase:

Penniless, suffering poverty, incarcerated, tortured, exiled, and without a weapon in their hands; each stood alone in the midst of imperial hostility as they conquered the world for Christ, a conquest that has endured and thrived for two thousand years. …

Conquering Britain for Caesar or Christ?:

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Conquering Britain for Christ was by no means a simple proposition, however, as it would entail ‘going beyond’ the established boundaries of the Roman Empire to a virtually unknown western island, which had not yet been fully occupied and ‘pacified’ as a new province of the Empire. To begin with, there were very few ‘road maps’ of the western European provinces, let alone of Britain, and despite their long traditions of surveying, both civil and military, very few traces of Roman maps have come down to us. The 450 years of Roman involvement in Britain have left even less by way of cartography, with antiquarian reconstructions being one of the few routes into the world of Roman maps. There were clearly large-scale Roman maps. The emperor Augustus (27 BC-AD 14) is said to have commissioned one of the entire known world – but of these only fragments and later reconstructions of itineraries survived the empire’s collapse. What significant Roman remains there are in Britain date from the rea following the invasion of Claudius in AD 43, which had, within forty years, subdued all of Britain south of the Caledonian Highlands. Legionary marching camps, and more permanent stone forts, studded the landscape. Before AD 43, no maps of Britain survive (if they ever existed). However, the work of Matthew Paris, a thirteenth-century monk from St Alban’s, pictured below, shows what he imagined to be the pre-Roman network.

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Matthew Paris, thirteenth-century monk’s map of what he imaginedto be the pre-Roman network of roads, c. 100 BC.

Paris lays out the four routes which were traditionally believed to represent a system more ancient than even the Roman road network. He gives Fosse Way, Icknield Way, Watling Street and Ermine Street their Latin names and has them incongruously intersecting at Dunstable. He links them to the tradition begun in the 1230s by Geoffrey of Monmouth in his History of the Kings of Britain that the roads of very ancient construction, had been renovated by Belinus, king of southern Britain. Although fanciful in many ways, there was some basis for Paris’s map, as Roman roads such as the Icknield Way (from Norfolk to Wiltshire) and Watling Street (from Dover to St Alban’s) were built along the lines of ancient pathways which dated back at least to the beginning of the Iron Age in about 800 BC. By the beginning of the first century BC, some of the hillforts had grown to become almost proto-urban settlements (known as oppida) which acted as royal centres for tribal grouping such as the Catevellauni (north of the Thames), the Atrebates (to the south) and the Iceni in the east. Coinage, and with it a coin-using economy, spread to much of south-eastern Britain, and new market settlements or oppida developed at important route nodes. Some of these, like Calleva (Silchester), Verulamium (St Albans) and Camulodunum (Colchester) became the capitals of local kingdoms and were sufficiently well-established as economic centres to become towns under the new Roman administration.

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Map 3
A bronze-covered wooden bucket, probably used for mixing wine, from Aylesford, Kent, late first century BC. Wine was a luxury for the rich and such buckets were often placed in high-status burials of the Aylesford-Swarling culture, along with other prestige goods.

The first century BC was a time of renewed contacts in trade for the British Isles. Close relationships were growing between the Celtic communities on both sides of the Thames estuary and their neighbours in northern Gaul. Gallo-Belgic coinage was being introduced to Britain and was widely copied under the authority of the local élite, who also adopted some of the burial rites and pottery styles of their neighbours. It was also at this time that a migrant group from Belgic Gaul arrived in Britain, probably landing in the Solent area, and settled in what are today Hampshire, West Sussex and Berkshire. High-value goods from the Mediterranean, including wine and olive oil, were imported to capitals such as Verulamium (St Albans) – the main settlement of the Catevellauni – being landed in various ports and then transported overland. The economic links between the British kingdoms and their counterparts in Gaul grew stronger, but these ties and the roads which developed from them also made the British élites more vulnerable to Roman incursion and eventual conquest.

In the midst of all this economic activity, Julius Caesar made his twin exploratory expeditions to Britain in 55 and 54 BC, establishing true relationships with certain tribes in the south-east and introducing the Britons for the first time to the reality of Roman power. But his intentions remained those of keeping the tribal leaders of the south-east from interfering in Gaul, rather than acquiring territory in Britain. His achievements appear to have largely diplomatic.

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Caesar’s Camp at the Brill (54 BC), by William Stukely, an Anglican clergyman from Lincolnshire, who embarked on a series of wide-ranging tours of Britain between 1710 and 1725. At Brill, on the banks of London’s ancient Fleet River, he identified a Roman legionary marching camp, which he represented in the coloured plan showing the division of the camp into a neatly ordered grid with areas for the various categories of troops. Legionary marching camps, and more permanent stone forts, studded the landscape as far north as Inchtuthil in Perthshire. Their basic structure (of a grid of tents or barracks, divided by roads and with set positions for the senior officers’ quarters) reflect the layout which Stukely had given his imagined reconstruction. Whilst not a Roman map, it is certainly a precious insight into the heritage of early Roman Britain.

The ninety years between the expeditions of Caesar and the conquest of Claudius, beginning in AD 43, saw rapid social and economic change in Britain. But while the southeast developed rapidly, much of the rest of Britain and the whole of Ireland, remained largely unaffected by the Roman presence. There, traditional ways of life continued, and settlements established many centuries earlier remained in uninterrupted use. Nearly a century passed before the Roman ‘takeover’ was undertaken militarily. The delay suggests that the treaties between Rome and British chieftains had successfully reduced British British involvement in Gaul; Rome had established valuable trading links with Britain. Claudius’s decision to invade in AD 43 stemmed mainly from his need to create a favourable public image for himself at home in Rome. Nonetheless, by 43 AD, the tribes of southern Britain were beginning once more to pose problems: as the established leaders grew older, they may have found themselves overtaken by a ‘new nationalism’ promoted by a younger generation. Religion undoubtedly played a major role in this. According to contemporary Roman observers, these new leaders were influenced by Druidic priests, who had become more of a political force in Britain since they were outlawed in Gaul in the twenties. Typical of such leaders was Caractacus, who began to engage in aggressive expansionism in southern Britain. Caligula’s military activities on the Gallic coast in AD 40 were probably designed to encourage Rome’s friends in Britain and to intimidate Caractacus and his fellow anti-Roman leaders. Soon the trading trackways were to become roads binding the island close to the new imperial masters.

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Map 4

Three years later, Claudius initiated far more purposeful moves. His invasion force, which numbered approximately fifty thousand men, landed at the site of modern Richborough in the kingdom of the Cantiaci (Kent) and probably at other points on the south coast, such as Chichester harbour. The importance of the expedition is demonstrated by the fact that, after the initial military defeat of Caractacus and his brother at the Medway, Claudius himself came to Britain to Britain to participate in the victory parade at Camulodunum (Colchester), having seized the capital of his chief opponents, the Trinovantes, at Camulodunum, the fortress of the war god Camulus. He remained in Britain for sixteen days, long enough for the triumphal entry, with elephants, and to accept the submission of the increasing number of British tribes seeking surrender terms. He created his first legionary fortress there. Yet there was still room for diplomacy over the initial arrangements for the occupation. The ‘friendly’ British leaders – Cogidubnus of the Artrebates, Prasutagus of the Iceni and Cartimundua of the Brigantes were left with some control over their former territories. The Roman army ranged rather more widely across the countryside than surviving military maps sometimes suggest. A number of military sites large enough for substantial legionary detachments have been located, indicating that legionary troops must have been flexibly used. However, three lines of Roman advance stand out: north from London to Lincoln, later becoming Ermine Street, northwestward to Wroxeter and Caernarfon (Watling Street) and southwestward to Exeter (Stane Street).

Map 5: A very basic view of the main events of the Conquest. Since this was drawn in the 1930s, detailed research has produces maps like that below.

Archaeological evidence warns us to be wary of characterising the British tribes as primitive before the conquest. Some had well-developed oligarchic systems of government, and Rome related well to these oligarchies. In a few cases, existing British leaders were sufficiently highly regarded to be left in charge of their territories after the initial campaign – temporarily, at least. This implies a degree of political sophistication and wealth among these tribes, acquired through more than a century of contact with the Roman world. The Greek geographer Strabo, writing in about AD 14, records that the southern British tribes produced an exportable grain surplus and imported a variety of goods from the empire. Even in the north, deforestation was further advanced than modern observers once thought, and many Roman forts have been found to have been built on ploughed land. The rapid growth outside Roman forts of small towns shows that the army’s need for support services provided wealth-generating opportunities that the local people were willing and able to take. In the countryside too, the Roman need for food led to arrangements with tribes both inside and outside the province for the supply of grain. For many, therefore, the ‘peace that was a desolation’, prophesied by the Caledonian chieftain Calgacus, was a far cry from reality.

While Claudius was savouring the defeat of the tribes in the south-east, Vespasian began an advance into the south-west. This was the best-documented advance, the principal target of which was Caractacus himself. It took thirty battles against the two warlike tribes, the Durotriges of present-day Dorset and Somerset and the Dumnonii of present-day Devon and Cornwall, to subdue the West. Vespasian’s progress was marked by a series of violent if brief struggles for the possession of hillforts. Substantial gains were made, including the surrender of twenty hillforts, one of them being Maiden Camp (pictured above), where a hastily dug war cemetery provides an insight into the ferocity of the fighting. But Caractacus remained elusive, evidently escaping into Cambria. It is probable that Vespasian reached Exeter and his campaign may have extended into what later became Cornwall. There is no literary evidence for the activities of the remaining legions in Britain, but the archaeological evidence suggests that the XXth remained at Verulamium (Colchester) to establish a firm base and act as a strategic reserve. The Roman road known as the ‘Fosse Way’, running from Topsham near Exeter through Leicester to Lincoln provided an effective line of communication through a broad frontier zone stretching from the River Severn to the Humber. Thus, in AD 47, Publius Ostorius Scapula inherited a considerable military and administrative achievement as the new governor of Britain. A substantial part of the island had been occupied as a province of Rome and for the moment at least the occupation appeared reasonably secure.

But no sooner had Scapula arrived than he was faced by a new crisis in the west, precipitated by a potent combined resistance among the tribes outside the conquest who refused to accept the frontier, led by Caractacus and the Silures, and supported by the politically powerful Druids. They exercised considerable authority from their base at Mona (Anglesey) and their hatred of Rome was implacable. It seems probable that they helped Caractacus (Caradoc) become a supra-tribal leader in Cambria (Wales). They may also have furthered his attempts to enlist the support of the Brigantes in the north and the Iceni in the East. As Ostorius Scapula began his tenure as governor the Silures launched an attack across the Severn, deep into his new province. Scapula responded rapidly, marching with a force of auxiliaries to disperse the incursion and drive them back into their mountain strongholds. Despite the ease of his initial victory, Scapula realised that he would only be able to deal personally with Caractacus if the frontier was pushed westwards. To reduce the risk of a rebellion during his absence in Cambria, Scapula decreed that any tribes of doubtful loyalty must disarm or be disarmed. This led to a rebellion among the Iceni which Scapula had to crush before he could move against Caractacus, an act that led to a legacy of vitriolic hatred towards Rome which dominated relations over the next two decades.

The Roman Conquest of Britain took over forty years and ultimately remained incomplete. The politically and economically advanced Southeast, which had been open to Romanising influences for more than a century, was conquered quickly, though there were later rebellions and a temporary western frontier was established along the line of the Fosse Way. This success was due to diplomacy as well as arms, the Romans benefiting from alliances with sympathetic native rulers who were given favoured client status. The West and North proved much harder to subdue. Three main lines of the advance can be identified from the distribution of Roman forts and marching camps: north towards York and beyond; northwest towards Chester and Northern Cambria (Wales), and west towards Exeter.

Scapula began his campaign against Caractacus early in AD 48 with great caution, involving thorough preparation in the deployment of the legions and the construction of forts and supply bases. The Silures in southern Cambria and the Decangli in the north, waged an effective counter-campaign of guerilla actions and their territory proved difficult and costly to penetrate. The attack on Cambria was two-pronged: from the south via Gloucester and Usk, and from the Midlands via Wroxeter. By the late forties, the new Roman province consisted of all the land to the east of the Fosse Way, though this road was a line of lateral communication rather than a frontier, for it was not intended that the conquest would stop there. During the summer of AD 50, Caractacus eluded probing attacks from both north and south but only at the cost of devastating tribal lands. Moving north-west to the territory of the Ordovices, he resolved to give battle the next year. Tacitus described his chosen battlefield of AD 51 as …

one where numerous factors – notably approaches and escape routes – helped him and impeded us. On one side there were steep hills. Wherever the gradient was gentler, stones were piled into a kind of rampart. And at his front was a river without easy crossings.

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Llanymynych Village viewed from Llanymynych HillL lanymynech Hill is one of Wales’ earliest mining sites. Evidence suggests that copper was mined and smelted here in the late Bronze Age and that ores were used to make bronze weapons and other implements. The hill above Llanymynech is crowned with an extensive Iron Age hillfort, which extends over 57 hectares, and surrounds a cave opening known as the Ogof. The size of this hillfort is probably explained by the presence of the copper mines. The hillfort would have served as protection for the mine and housed the labourers employed in the extraction of copper.

There has been considerable speculation about the site of the battlefield on which Caractacus chose to challenge the legions. All that can be said is that with any certainty is that the site must have been in central Wales amongst a group of hills with an extensive plateau, with a sizeable river at their base. This would suggest somewhere close to the Pumlumon range on the River Severn. Cefn Carnedd, between Caersws and Llanidloes, on the western bank of the Severn, has been thought of as the most convincing site because the iron age fort may have been a stronghold of the Ordovices. Archaeological evidence lends support to this, but the landscape features described by Tacitus match Llanymynech Mountain (or ‘Hill’) further down the Severn on its tributary, the Vyrnwy, on the present border with Shropshire.

A tribal army, possibly as large as ten thousand strong, was positioned on the hills behind ramparts. Mainly Cambrian, it was also composed of Belgic and Brigantian warriors, but the Roman force probably outnumbered them by at least two thousand men. Both sides realised the importance of the forthcoming battle and Caractacus and his chieftains moved amongst the tribes encouraging them to fight as their ancestors had done against Caesar. Dismayed by the apparent strength of the British position and by the ferocious shouts and war cries of the tribesmen, Scapula ‘blinked’ and decided to retreat, but the legions’ eagerness for battle changed his mind. The Romans forded the river with little difficulty but suffered on the lower slopes as a storm of missiles rained down on them. Locking their shields over their heads in the testudo (tortoise) formation, the legionaries swarmed over the ramparts driving the Celts before them to the summit. Here their superior weapons and tactics of the legions took a heavy toll on the lightly equipped tribesmen and the resistance collapsed. The terrain precluded the use of either Roman cavalry or British chariots and there was no general pursuit. Although his wife, daughter and brother were captured, Caractacus evaded the legions and made his way to the territory of the Brigantes from where no doubt he hoped to renew the war. He appealed to Queen Cartimandua for sanctuary, but Brigantia was still, however, a client kingdom, and in accordance with her treaty with the Romans, she refused his request. There was little room for manoeuvre, and Caractacus handed himself over and was dispatched, together with his family, to Rome, where he was pardoned and paroled.

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Conquering Britain for Christ also entailed taking the spiritual ‘battle’ to both conquered and conquerors. The chief gods of the Roman state religion were Jupiter, Juno and Minerva and these were often associated with the cult of the Emperor and his dead deified predecessors. The worship of these and other gods and goddesses of the Mediterranean world was brought to Britain and soon spread among the native population, with interesting assimilations to local cults. These customs and beliefs originating in Etruscan and early Roman townships had become the basis of the state religion largely through the efforts of Emperor Augustus to found a cult that would assist in stabilising Roman society after the civil wars and that would enhance imperial authority with the glimmer of divinity. The founding of first-century towns by the Romans in Britain would have been accompanied by rites the Romans had absorbed from the Etruscans, the invocation of the gods for a favourable site, the consultation of omens, the marking out by plough of the perimeter where the walls were to stand, and the special rite associated with the naming of the town. Similar rites attended the founding of temples and shrines. The walls of a town were considered especially sacred.

The Mission of Aristobulus to Britannia:

Jowett claims that the Roman Christian, Aristobulus, was ostensibly Paul’s forerunner in Britain, sent by the Apostle from Rome to the Gentiles to prepare the way for his own particular mission, which was to follow later. Jowett himself acknowledges that this cannot be linked to the ‘earlier’ mythical mission associated with Joseph of Arimathea and that Aristobulus ‘laboured in the part of Britain now known as Wales’. His evidence for this is based on rather dubious and unsubstantiated links to Caractacus and Llyr (King Lear of Shakespearean fame and fiction) and the strange idea of early syncretism of ‘the Druidic with the Christian faith’. Interesting as all this may be, it cannot be taken any more seriously, as potential ‘history’, than other early British legends. Much of it is, at best pseudo-history. In any case, it needs to be remembered that, until after the fall of Jerusalem in AD 70, and probably not until well into the second century, can Christianity itself be regarded as a religion distinct from Judaism. That said, there is some evidence of a ‘Pauline’ mission to the Silurian kingdom, beginning at some point in the late forties or early fifties AD and led by Aristobulus.

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Saint Aristobulus of Britannia: First ‘Bishop’ of Britain

Aristobulus of Britannia is a Christian saint named by Hippolytus of Rome (170-235) and Dorotheus of Gaza (505-565) as one of the seventy-two disciples mentioned in Luke 10: 1–24 and as ‘the first bishop in Roman Britain’. Aristobulus may be mentioned in the New Testament in Paul’s Epistle to the Romans:

“…Salute them which are of Aristobulus’ household” (or “Greetings to those who belong to the family of Aristobulus” – New English Bible/ ‘Good News for Modern Man’).

Romans 16:10

According to Lionel Smithett Lewis, the writings of St Dorotheus, Bishop of Tyre AD 303, assert that he is the one saluted by Paul in the Epistle to the Romans. Orthodox tradition says Aristobulus was the brother of the Apostle Barnabas, of Jewish Cypriot origin. Like Barnabas, he accompanied Paul on his journeys. He was also one of the assistants of Saint Andrew and of other Roman missionaries (all of whose names are mentioned together by Paul in Romans 16). On his missionary journey to Britain, he stopped to preach to the Celtiberians of northern Hispania, which was probably the area of Spain that Paul himself twice refers to as his intended destination in Romans 15. Catholic tradition identifies Aristobulus with Zebedee, father of James and John in the Gospels. Aristobulus preached and died in early Roman Britain. While some Orthodox traditions say he “died in peace”, Catholic traditions say he was martyred in ‘Cambria’. Cardinal Michael Alford, author of Fides Regia Britannica Sive Annales Ecclesiae Britannicae and an authoritative Vatican historian, one of just a handful of British ecclesiastics to obtain high office there, gave Aristobulus’ death as occurring during Nero’s reign and asserts that:

“It is perfectly certain that, before St Paul had come to Rome, Aristobulus was away in Britain”.

This chronology would fit perfectly with that of the last decade of Paul’s life since the earliest Paul could have arrived in Britain was following his release from house arrest in Rome in 62 AD, after arriving in Rome two years earlier. This is also in accord with the date given by Gildas (c. 500–570 AD) that the “Light of Christ” shone in Britain in the last year of Emperor Tiberius. However, George Smith points out that this a misinterpretation of Gildas, and asserts that the Gospel was not preached in Britain before the reign of Claudius, whose full name was Tiberius Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus. From these traditions, it seems possible that Aristobulus was ‘the founder’ of the first British Christian church. However, as we have established above, there is no evidence for any connection with Glastonbury and John Scott shows in An Early History of Glastonbury that the legend purporting that Joseph of Arimathea founded the Abbey there is of twelfth or thirteenth-century origin and has no basis in fact. Rather, the early writings frequently centre on Aristobulus. There is no mention of Joseph before the Conquest. For this and other reasons, Smith also considers the account of Joseph of Arimathea a “superstitious fable of comparatively modern invention”.

Glastonbury Abbey ruins

Aristobulus has been associated with Arwystli Hen, a “man of Italy”, and one of four missionaries believed to have brought Christianity to the British Isles. There is a tradition linking him to one of the medieval Welsh saints Arwystyl ap Cunedda, but it is also thought that the title Arwystli Hen may have originated through a later British tradition. When Paul sent his greetings to ‘the family’ or ‘household’ of Aristobulus in his letter to the Romans, the implication is that the man himself was away from home, which has led some scholars to speculate that he was already in Britain before St Paul wrote his epistle. However, since Paul does not mention Britain, but does refer to Spain, it is perhaps more likely that Aristobulus was in Spain and went to Britain from there. There is, of course, no specific reference to a mission to Britain in Acts or the Epistles. Jowett dates Paul’s arrival in Rome to A.D. 56, four years earlier than the more careful dating provided more recently by Tom Wright. If a group of British missionaries still existed in Rome, Paul could only have planned the further evangelisation of Britain with them during his period of house arrest from AD 60-62, by which time Aristobulus, according to the sources quoted here, had been martyred in Britain.

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The church of St Ilid & St Curig, within Rhondda Cynon-Taf. The origin of the church is unknown, but the lower foundation stones are ancient in origin, believed to be pre-Norman Conquest.

It is more likely that the mission would therefore have arrived in Glamorgan at some point in AD 57, after Paul was prevented from realising his intention of joining them, as set out in his letter to the Roman church, by his detention in Jerusalem Caesaria and Rome. Apparently, the proto-missionaries then immediately began to erect a memorial church at Llanilid. According to Thomas Morgan, Llanilid follows the tradition of Welsh place names attached to a parish in taking its title from the dedicated saint of the local church. In Llanilid the local church is St. Ilid & St Curig’s Church, and Morgan states that this relates to Ilid, a person who introduced Christianity to the Silures in the first century.

However, this research seems to be connected to the assertions of famed literary forger Iolo Morganwg, who produced elaborate tales of Ilid. Jowett contested in his book that Aristobulus, Arwystli-Hén in Brythonic (the suffix meaning ‘aged’ or perhaps ‘elder’), was installed as the first ‘bishop’ of Llanilid. Somewhat more accurately, perhaps, he also wrote of how in the middle of the first century, there was a general inveterate hatred among the British for Rome, and anything associated with it, which persisted with unrelenting detestation well into the second half of the century. We have already seen that, from the beginning of the conquest, this was not so much the case among the southeastern tribes. Nevertheless, among the tribes north of the Thames in the forties and fifties, anything tinged with a Roman stigma was a cause for grave suspicion.

The missionaries were hard put to persuade the more northerly and western British tribes that not everyone who came from the imperial capital was out to steal from them and enslave them. According to Jowett, it was only their devout love for the home-grown Eurgain, the first female convert in Britain who also became the first female British saint, and their loyalty to Caractacus, still exiled in Rome if still alive, that made them willing to meet the Roman Christian missionaries. Aristobulus was well respected by the Silures since he was not a typical Roman by background or appearance, but in his preaching zeal, Aristobulus journeyed far beyond the territory of the Silurian shield into the lands of the British Ordovices, whose hatred for the Romans was even more bitter and black than that of his hosts. This blinded them to the facts about Aristobulus, who was unknown to them. Aware of the many ruses the Romans had instigated against the Britons to trick them into submission, they allied the presence of the aged elder brother of Barnabas to yet another act of political treachery, in which, as they saw it, Roman religion played a significant part in the plot to undermine the power of the Druids. They did not, evidently, identify the Christian faith as distinct from the Roman state religion. Christ must have seemed to them as just another Roman god, worshipped by this strange new sect, even if they had encountered it before meeting Aristobulus, which seems unlikely.

St Albans, Hertfordshire. A view between a gap in the Roman walls of Verulamium, looking towards a lake formed by the waters of the River Ver, showing the tower and nave roof of St Alban’s Abbey, the site of the protomartyr’s execution. The Norman tower was built of Roman bricks taken from Verulamium, the site of the mistaken killing of Aristobulus by the Ordovices.

According to Alford, writing in Regis Fides, in rising against the military occupation, they mistakenly slew Aristobulus at Verulamium (St Albans) in circa A.D. 59. The Genealogies of the Saints in Britain name Aristobulus as the first of the Lord’s disciples to be martyred in Britain (Simon Zealotes being named as the second shortly afterwards). The first church erected at the place of his martyrdom was built to his memory by the Ordovices when they realised their mistake, but following the martyrdom of the Roman soldier, Alban, two-and-a-half centuries later, the old church was reconstructed and renamed St Alban’s, becoming an Abbey. Of the ‘aged’ apostle there nevertheless exists an abundance of authentic records:

“Aristolobus was one of the seventy disciples and a follower of St Paul the Apostle, along with whom he preached the Gospel to the whole world, and ministered to them. He was chosen by St. Paul to be the missionary bishop to the land of Britain. He was there martyred after he had built churches and ordained deacons and priests on the island.”

Martyrologies of the Greek Church.

“Aristobulus, who is mentioned by the Apostle in his Epistle to the Romans, was made Bishop in Britain.”

Dorotheus, Bishop of Tyre, A. D. 303.

“The memory of many martyrs is celebrated by the Britons, especially that of St. Aristobulus, one of the seventy disciples.”

Haleca, Bishop of Augusta.

“March 15. Natal day of Aristolubus, Bishop of Britain, brother of Barnabas the Apostle, by whom he was ordained Bishop. He was sent to Britain where, after preaching the truth of Christ and forming a church, he received martyrdom.”

Adonis Martyrologia

The reference in the last of these to the ordination by Barnabas suggests that following this ordination (in Paul’s absence), he made his preliminary visit to Britain, possibly with Barnabas, as an exploratory agent of St Paul. Since Paul did not reach Rome until 60 A.D. at the earliest, the title, ‘bishop of Britain’ probably equated to ‘elder’ in the British mission, since he had already been ordained bishop, and the formal title of ‘Bishop of Britain’ was never conferred on any following apostle. ‘Britannia’ was, after all, a Roman nomenclature applied to their new ‘province’, and the concept of a ‘Braetwalda’, a ‘High King of All Britain’ was post-Roman. The ‘ancient Britons’ were fiercely loyal to their own tribe, and would not have identified themselves as ‘Britons’. On the question of his arrival in Britain, the British Achau, or Genealogies of the Saints, has this to say:

There came with Bran the Blessed from Rome to Britain, Arwystli Hén, Ilid, Cyndaw, men of Israel, and Maw, or Manaw, son of Arwystli.

Map of the Welsh ‘cantrefs’ (‘hundreds’)

The term ‘men of Israel’ would have referred to their Judao-Christian beliefs, not to their ethnic origins. We know that Aristobulus, though a Jew, was from Cyprus. A district, or ‘cantref’ on the headwaters of the River Severn, in Montgomeryshire, perpetuated the presence and name of Aristobulus in the original Cymric vernacular, Arwystli (see the map on the right). During the Roman era, Arwystli formed part of the territory of the Ordovices, the Celtic tribe responsible for Aristobulus’ martyrdom, that controlled much of northern Wales.

It is unclear when, if at all, the missionary group formed as a distinct ‘church’, but the name itself derives from the personal name Arwystl (according to Arthur Wade-Evans, a Welsh clergyman, writing in 1910 in ‘Parochiale Wallicanum’ – Y Cymmrodor, 22: Retrieved 2009). Following his death, Princess Eurgain became the chief influence in the Pauline Mission, according to Jowett. Her life is also chronicled in the Genealogy of the Saints in Britain. Ilid took charge of the Pauline Mission until Paul himself arrived. Little is known of him before his membership of the Mission except that he was a Judean convert out of Rome. According to the ‘Cymric Triads’, he was a very capable, energetic leader, whose devout, efficient administration endeared him to the Silures. He spent many years of his life in ‘Cambria’, espousing the original plan for the Mission that Paul had conceived with Aristobulus and the other Roman missionaries referred to in his letter to the church in Rome. The Greek Menology also gives 15th March as the day of the martyrdom of Aristobulus. The loss of his old friend must have been a grievous blow to Paul.

Remains of Roman wall at St Albans

Aristobulus may therefore have become the first British Christian martyr and the only one martyred by the British themselves, resulting from a misunderstanding of the genuine purpose of the bishop’s mission. When the Ordovices realised their mistake, they built erected a beautiful church in his memory on the spot where he was slain, now known as St Alban’s, named after the third-century martyr.

View of the west front of St Albans Cathedral

Verulamium was founded in AD 49-50, and grew quickly into a significant municipium, and as such received the attentions of Boudicca of the Iceni in AD 61 when it was sacked and burnt on her orders. Excavations preceding the museum’s new entrance done in 1996–97 within the centre of the Roman town gave archaeologists the chance to date a black ash layer to 60–65 AD, thus confirming the Roman written record. 

Warriors, Legionaries and Priests:

By AD 49-50, Camulodunum (Colchester) had become a ‘colonia’ or town settled by ex-soldiers on the conquered territory and the authorities built a vast temple there dedicated to the Emperor. Tacitus described it as the ‘stronghold of everlasting domination’; its size and splendour brought remark even at Rome and its presence as the centre of the Roman state religion centred on the numen or divine spirit of the Emperor was one of the many resentments that caused the rebellion led by Boudicca, queen of the Iceni, in AD 60. Although they adopted much of the Roman lifestyle and substance, many of the tribes who surrendered at the conquest and after Caractacus’s campaign of AD 51 still looked to the day when their freedom would be restored. At the very least they expected Rome, in return for their allegiance, to preserve their territories and respect the dignity of their tribal rulers and the Druidic religion. In their dealings with the Iceni and the Trinovantes of Eastern Britain, the Roman administration fell disastrously short of these expectations. When Presatagus, ‘king’ of the Iceni died, probably in 59 AD, the terms of his will made the emperor Nero co-heir with the king’s two daughters. To assess the extent of the estate due to the emperor, an inventory of Prasutagus’s possessions and land should have been taken. Instead, the local Roman governors began to plunder the whole territory of the Iceni. When the royal family resisted this pillage, the king’s widow, Boudicca, was flogged and her daughters raped.

The Trinovantes, still resentful about the confiscation of their lands for settlement by veteran legionaries, joined the Iceni in rebellion in 60 AD. The removal of Caractacus had allowed the Roman fortifications in Cambria to advance and the Roman legions under governor Gaius Suetonius Paulinus were moving towards the demolition of Druidic centres on the Isle of Mona (Anglesey/ Ynys Món) when the province was rocked by the rebellion among the Iceni and the Trinovantes. The Roman historian Tacitus (in Annals XIV) describes the portents before Boudicca’s descent on Colchester. The statue of Victory fell down, her back turned as though retreating. Women in frenzy chanted of approaching destruction and said the cries of the barbarian had been heard in the council chamber, that the theatre had resounded with shrieks, and that a reflection of the ‘colonia’ overthrown had been seen in the estuary of the Thames. The sea appeared blood-red, and spectres of human corpses were left behind as the tide receded.

In 61 AD the tribal warriors, led by Boudicca, descended upon the Colonia at Camulodunum (Colchester), massacring the veterans and their families. Boudicca’s forces besieged the soldiers for two days in the temple and slaughtered the inhabitants. A detachment of the IXth Legion hurrying to their aid was ambushed and destroyed. These events put Rome’s whole investment in Britain at stake and it is possible that, had it not been for the swift action of Suetonius, the entire province might have been lost. The Roman governor Suetonius Paulinus returned to Londinium from Mona with great speed, but without the majority of his troops. As the tribes swept towards London, Suetonius retreated northwards to meet his approaching legions and the city was left to its fate, that of utter destruction. Following Suetonius, the tribes then paused to destroy Verulamium (St Albans).

The governor rejoined his main body of troops, comprising the XIVth Legion, part of the XXth, and auxiliaries summoned from local garrisons. It was fortunate for Suetonius that with only ten thousand men he was able to give battle on ground of his own choosing, somewhere in the Midlands, possibly at Mancetter, to the southwest of Atherstone, close to Watling Street. The Roman battle line, with the legions flanked by auxiliaries in the centre and cavalry on the wings, was drawn up with forest to the rear and an open plain in front. The tribal warriors, by contrast, fought in open order and this placed them at a tactical disadvantage when attacking the close order formation of the legion. The weapon of the British warrior emphasised his individuality in battle since the long Celtic sword could only be used effectively when there was sufficient space to wield it with an extensive swing. Protected by only a small shield, the warrior painted his body with blue woad to gain the defence of ritual symbolism to strike terror into his foe.

Boudicca was born into a wealthy warrior family and trained as a warrior herself. What tends to be forgotten, however, is that both she and her husband, Prasutagus, were initially friends of Rome, the Iceni being treated as an important ally, being encouraged by payments of silver to remain loyal. In AD 60, following the death of Prasutagus, agents of the new emperor Nero stripped the Iceni of their lands and decided to rule them directly. Boudicca did not survive the rebellion and her tribe were almost wiped out in the punitive action which resulted from it. It is unsure how or where Boudicca died, though some have suggested that she poisoned herself rather than being taken as a prisoner to Rome.

Boudicca’s host, estimated to number as many as 230,000, paused to form a loose battle array and then charged up the slope towards the enemy position. The Romans halted the charge with a storm of javelins and then counter-attacked in a wedge formation. The tribal warriors were pushed back and trapped against the wagons bearing their women and children. Following the massacre of warriors and non-combatants alike, Tacitus put the final tally of deaths at forty thousand Britons and four hundred Romans. Boudicca escaped, later to commit suicide, while Suetonius, reinforced by legionaries and Gallic auxiliaries from the Rhineland, laid waste to the territories of the ‘rebellious’ tribes. Although the Roman forces eventually prevailed, Boudicca’s troops won at least one major engagement and caused widespread damage to Roman settlements and interests.

The extent of the destruction carried out by Boudicca’s warriors helps us to understand the depth of hatred and mistrust which existed towards the Romans when Aristobulus was killed two years earlier. At Camulodunum (Colchester), the Temple was restored and important Trinovantes were required to serve every year as its priests, paying for the rites and sacrifices associated with the imperial cult. A model of it (pictured above) stands in the Museum in the Norman keep of the castle on part of the podium of the temple. In front of it stood the altar flanked by statues within an impressive courtyard surrounding the precinct, which covered five acres. The importation of this state religion was a most important event in the religious and social consciousness of the inhabitants of the British Isles since the Neolithic period. First of all, because it was a deliberately supranational religion, including all the tribes and nations of the Empire from Parthia to the ‘client kingdoms’ of the Picts in north-eastern Britain. Secondly, because it introduced the concept of the ‘polis’, the city into the islands as provincial reflectors of the great imperial capital itself. Every township with its forum and temples became the centre of religious and administrative activity and the focus of ‘civilization’. The change of emphasis remains in the international Latinate words ‘civilization’ and ‘paganism’ referring to the culture of the civitas and the pagus, the countryside, with its narrower beliefs and superstitions. Verulamium (St. Alban’s) was soon rebuilt and enlarged, acquiring a forum and basilica, temples and a theatre.

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It was during this intervening dangerous period from the Boudicca rebellion to the conquest of the northern uplands by AD 63, that the Romans began to extend and consolidate their rule across Britain. It was clear that greater care would be necessary in handling British tribal sensibilities in future. In any case, such events had served to further exacerbate pro- and anti-Roman divisions among the Brigantes. The neutrality of that tribe, which had ‘handed over’ Caractacus to the Romans, was now under increasing internecine strain. It was against this tense political atmosphere that Suetonius Paulinus then decided to redirect his campaign back towards the shared religion of the Celtic tribes, that of Druidism on Mona. Celtic society was threefold, divided into the druids (priests, poets and prophets), the warriors and the farming peasantry. Julius Caesar had said the druids were under the rule of an arch-druid and that they officiated at the worship of the gods, ruled on religious questions, educated the young and judged pursuits. He particularly stressed their belief in immortality:

A lesson they take particular pains to inculcate is that the soul does not perish, but after death passes from one body to another; they think this the best incentive to bravery because it teaches men to disregard the terrors of death.

He also speaks of the range of their cosmological reflections and their belief in one supreme god, Dis Pater. The fascination with boundaries, with the places of the meeting, such as rivers and riverbanks, standing stones and trees, appearing to be offering ports of entry from and to other worlds, are characteristic of Celtic thought and mythology. The reverence for rivers felt by the Celts was so great that they would have the most elaborate offerings made, such as the famous shield now in the British Museum, solely for the purpose of throwing them into the water. The shield was thrown into the Thames at Battersea (pictured below). The site of the Llyn Cerrig Bach on ‘Mona’ (Anglesey) has revealed an astonishing number of artefacts offered in this way. It is significant that many rivers in England retain their Celtic names; such was the power attaching to them that the Anglo-Saxons could not supersede them with appellations of their own. As William Anderson has written (1983),

One only has to go to a great river such as the Thames, the Severn … and watch the eddies making their spiral patterns like the triskele forms on Celtic bronze work to experience the mood and atmosphere that these forebears of ours especially felt there.

Votive offering: This superbly crafted first or second-century BC shield was found in the river Thames at Battersea, where it had probably been deliberately deposited as a votive offering for the gods. It was probably made for show, as it was too cumbersome for use in battle.

The other great centres of holiness for druids were their groves and clearings in forests. Many of the classical authors, writing about them, refer to the awe in which such places were held. Meanings and symbolic associations attached to all trees (e.g. Cofa’s tree = Coventry) most especially to the oak. When the oak bore mistletoe, the druids would cut down the mistletoe with golden sickles, after which two white bulls would be sacrificed. The most important centre of these groves was across the Menai Straits on Mona (Anglesey). It was to destroy this nest of druid power that the Roman general Suetonius Paulinus in AD 61 conducted a swift and brilliant campaign across northern Cambria. His attack across the Menai Straits was completely successful. Tacitus described the scene:

The enemy lined the shore in a dense armed mass. Among them were black-robed women with dishevelled hair like Furies, brandishing torches. Close by stood Druids, raising their hands to heaven and screaming dreadful curses. This weird spectacle awed the Roman soldiers into a sort of paralysis. They stood still – and presented themselves as a target. But then they urged each other (and were urged by the general) not to fear a horde of fanatical women. Onward pressed their standards and they bore down their opponents, enveloping them in the flames of their own torches.

Tacitus, Annals XIV, tr. Grant (1977).

The savagery with which the Romans put down druidism owes more to their fear of it as a political force (and to their dislike of human sacrifice) than to any dogmatic or religious grounds. One of the most important uses of the Roman state religion was as an aid to military morale and discipline and as a means of uniting an army of legions drawn from hundreds of different tribes and races. The most important festival was that of Jupiter on 1st January when the new altars were dedicated to the god on all the parade grounds of the Empire. The tribal religion of the druids posed a real threat to this, and its extirpation was one of the major motivations for the invasion of Britain. Mona was not just the centre of British druidism, but of the religion throughout the Celtic peoples of the west.

Paul’s Missions among the Celts – last & first:

Édouard de Bazelaire (1819-1853), who was a writer, a member of the Académie de Stanislas, a chevalier of the order of Saint-Grégoire-le-Grand, and author of Promenades dans les Vosges (1838), traced the path of Paul’s journey, circa AD 62, along the Aurelian Way from Rome to Arles, in Gaul. With him went Trophimus and Crescens, who founded a church at Mayence in Vienne. Paul himself referred to the sickness of one of his disciples whom he was obliged to leave in Gaul. It is claimed by Jowett that Paul landed in Portsmouth in an area still known as ‘Paul’s Grove’. This ‘westerly’ landing point on the Solent would, of course, make sense in geographical terms if he had sailed from Iberia or southern Gaul along the Gallic coast. However, Jowett mistakenly claims that Paul made two visits, one earlier. If we take de Bazerlaire’s itinerary as accurate, we can assume that Jowett’s account should correctly be applied to this later date. From Portsmouth, then, he evidently made his way into ‘Cambria’, where he is said to have founded an abbey at Bangor-on-Dee (before that founded by St Dunod in 560 and destroyed in about 613 by the Anglo-Saxon king Æthelfrith of Northumbria after he defeated the British armies at the Battle of Chester). The doctrine and administration of the Abbey were known as ‘Pauli Regula’. Over each of its four gates was inscribed his motto, If a man will not work, neither let him eat. The Rev R. W. Morgan, in his book St Paul in Britain, claimed that all the Abbots that followed considered themselves as the direct successors of the Apostle and each was specially elected. It later developed into a monastery and is named by St Hilary and St Benedict as the ‘Mother of Monasteries’. Its educational curriculum was of the highest order, attracting thousands of scholars. Its membership is stated by Bede to have risen to over two thousand. Its twentieth Abbot was the famous Pelagius who fought so strenuously against the novel papal teachings that his defence of the ancient British church traditions was described as ‘the Pelagian Heresy’.

The River Dee

Paul’s Abbey, if it existed, was probably not completed during his brief visit, if it took place. No trace of the early monastery remains – some authorities believe that it lies under the present course of the River Dee (above). The apostle would have known that his time there was short, shared with helping to found churches in Gaul and Spain, before returning to a turbulent Rome in circa 64 AD. In reality, he would have been in Britain for no more than a year. Jowett speculates that he spent some of this time while resting, writing ‘The Triads of Paul the Apostle’. These were rules for Godly Christian life, recorded in Ancient British Triads. The term ‘triad’ is not used outside Britain, though Paul himself had used the form in the conclusion to his great ‘Hymn to Love’ in I Corinthians 13:

But now abideth faith, hope, love, these three; and the greatest of these is love.

I Cor 13: 13. (RSV)

The following triad might be considered comparable with Paul’s poetry in his Epistles:

There are three marks of the children of God: Gentle deportment; a pure conscience; patient suffering of injuries.

Many of the others are not so comparable in style, which may make us pause to consider whether these are really from the apostle’s own hand. The preservation of these ‘Triads of Paul’ was the work of Ilid, the ‘man of Israel’, chief architect and High Priest of the Cambrian mission. Merton College, Oxford also has an ancient manuscript, which purports to contain several letters between Paul and Seneca. In them are several allusions to Paul’s residence in Siluria. It is known as the Paulian MS. So perhaps we can conclude, with Bishop Burgess, that of Paul’s journey to Britain we have as satisfactory proof as any historical question can demand. A casual study of the life and works of Paul, after his arrival in Rome, shows blank periods which Scripture alone does not explain. Jowett claimed that these totalled six years, but Tom Wright’s more detailed studies over many years, published in many books, both scholarly and popular, have reduced these periods to three years at most, depending on conclusions about where, how and when Paul died.

Before Wright’s publications, the general opinion, supported by the secular sources, is that most of that time was spent in Gaul and northern Iberia. We now know that having arrived in Rome from the Eastern Mediterranean in 60 AD, Paul could not have left Rome before 62 AD, following Wright’s timeline. He could not, therefore, have reached Britain, on a first personal visit, until that year. The Rev. R.W. Morgan wrote:

There are six years of St. Paul’s life to be accounted for, between his liberation from his first imprisonment and his martyrdom at Aquae Salviae in the Ostian Road, near Rome. Part certainly, the greater part, of this period, was spent in Britain, in Siluria or Cambria, beyond the bounds of the Roman Empire; and hence the silence of the Greek and Latin writers upon it.

The ‘East End’ of Roman London, showing Lud’s Gate, where Paul is alleged to have preached. On the right is a second-century statue of Mercury, the god of commerce, holding a money bag. The statue was found in the Walbeck temple of the god Mithras.

In Britain, as in Gaul, the memory of Paul’s work was almost entirely lost if, of course, it had ever really existed. The only enduring memorials to Paul’s presence in Britain, of note, are to be found in ‘England’. Ludgate is mentioned in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae, written around 1136. According to the pseudohistorical work the name comes from the mythic Welsh King Lud son of Heli who he claims also gave his name to London. There is a tradition that Paul preached in London, from the summit of Ludgate Hill. St. Paul’s Cathedral is erected on the site and the ancient St. Paul’s Cross is thought to mark where Paul stood as he preached. There is a reference to this in The Lost Chapter of the Acts of the Apostles, also dubbed the Sonnini manuscript, which was allegedly found by Charles-Nicolas-Sigisbert Sonnini de Manoncourt (1 February 1751 – 9 May 1812), a French naturalist. Between 1799 and 1808, Sonnini de Manoncourt wrote 127 volumes of the Histoire Naturelle. The ‘Lost Chapter’ appeared in his publication Voyage en Grèce et en Turquie and was translated and published into English sometime not earlier than 1801. The work, which first appeared in London in 1871, received mixed opinions, with most Christian scholars rejecting it as a modern pseudepigraph.

The ‘Old’ Cathedral of St Paul’s, destroyed in the Great Fire of London, 1666. There is evidence for Christianity in London during the Roman period, but no firm evidence for the location of churches or a cathedral. The location of Londinium’s original cathedral is unknown. St Paul is an unusual attribution for a cathedral and suggests there was another one in the Roman period. Legends of St Lucius link St Peter upon Cornhill as the centre of the Roman Londinium Christian community. It stands upon the highest point in the area of old Londinium, and it was given pre-eminence in medieval procession on account of the legends. There is, however, no other reliable evidence and the location of the site on the Forum makes it difficult for it to fit the legendary stories. The fourth St Paul’s, generally referred to as Old St Paul’s, was begun by the Normans after the 1087 fire. In the 1630s a west front was added to the building by England’s first classical architect, Inigo Jones (shown above).

It is unlikely that Paul would have preached in Latin since the Vulgate version of the Scriptures was not produced until the late fourth century and earlier ‘Old Latin’ (Vetus Latina) translations can only be dated back as far as the middle of the fourth century. He wrote all his epistles in Greek, and for a long time after the apostolic age, Greek was the language of the Church in Rome. Even the Letter to the Hebrews, probably written in Rome, adopted Greek as its language; early Christian worship was conducted in Greek even in Rome, bequeathing to the modern Church the occasional Greek expression such as Kyrie Eleison (‘Lord have mercy’). We know that some among the ancient British were familiar with Greek as a common international language, but John Barton has recently concluded (2019) that Latin did not play a major role in the early transmission of the Christian message, despite the fact that all this happened in the Roman Empire. Latin did not become an international language so early. Romans used it to communicate with each other, but their subject peoples did so in Greek, and all educated Romans had some level of competence in Greek. Some Latin words, written in Greek letters, appear in the New Testament, but mostly in technical terms that would have been known through the ubiquity of the Roman army, e.g. praetorium, centurion, speculator (executioner), denarius, and the names of other coins.

From about the late first century CE onwards, especially in North Africa, Christian translations into Old Latin began to be produced, but it was not until much later in western Europe that Latin began to replace Greek as the language of high and low alike. Besides, although Paul would have been able to use the Greek version of the Old Testament, there were no Gospels or Act of the Apostles for him to refer to. Contrary to Jowett’s view that ‘the great similarity of the ancient Celtic language with ancient Hebrew’, the Celtic and Semitic language groups are quite distinct. Since Paul was only in Britain for a short time, it is also quite unlikely that he could have preached in the vernacular, expert linguist and polyglot though he seems to have been. For ordinary Celtic tribesmen to be able to hear his message, he would have needed the skills of a gifted native British interpreter. According to the canon he himself had laid down for the church at Corinth, Paul considered that preaching and praying in ‘unknown tongues’ was forbidden:

If I know not the meaning of the voice, I shall be unto him that speaketh a barbarian, and he that shall be a barbarian unto me. … I had rather in the church speak five words with my understanding … than ten thousand words in an unknown tongue.

I Corinthians 14: 9-11.

It was through country such as this that Paul and Barnabus travelled in Galatia (modern Turkey) on their arduous and dangerous first mission.

When an ‘unknown’ tongue was used, a translation into the common tongue of worship was required, according to Paul. It was not until the late Roman period in Britain that Latin words began to penetrate the Celtic languages in significant enough number to produce a ‘Romano-British’ or Brythonic tongue, the antecedent of Old Welsh. Paul’s time in Britain, if it happened at all, was in the period of military occupation and mutual animosity between the Romans and the Celtic tribes, so any attempt on his part to use Latin would no doubt have met with a mixture of incomprehension and contempt. Paul may have acquired ‘five words’ in the native language, and he had certainly encountered Celtic or ‘Gaulish’ peoples in Galatia in 47-48 AD, during his first missionary journey with Barnabus. There he found himself facing people in the highlands with their strange language and religion. Though many there could speak Greek, their everyday language was Celtic in origin, which Paul and Barnabus couldn’t understand, as Luke tells us. Paul and Barnabus had been greeted as gods or angels at Lystra, which had become part of the new province of Galatia in 25 BC. Some of the Jewish community there even hailed Paul as the Messiah himself. But a group of more devout Jews accused him of idolatry and of compromising with paganism. Paul and Barnabus rushed into the crowd, and, disrupting the careful liturgical procession and interrupting the music, they did their best to explain that this was exactly what their message was not about:

“Sirs!” they shouted. “What’s all this for? We are just ordinary men like you, and all we’re doing is bringing you good news. Stop all this nonsense and learn what God is really like… He’s the living God; he made the whole world. Until now he God let people everywhere do what they thought best. Yet even then he showed you what he was like. … All your happiness comes from him.” Even words like this hardly stopped the crowd from going on with their sacrifice.

Then Jews from the towns where Paul and Barnabus had already been came along and told the crowd what they thought about them. They turned the crowd against them, and they started throwing stones at Paul. They thought they had killed him, and dragged him outside the town.

Acts 14: 8-20 (Alan T Dale’s vesion).

Paul survives stoning in Lystra in the highlands of Anatolia, Galatia. Illustration by Trevor Stubley.

Paul recovered from this stoning, but it was an experience that left him battered and bruised both physically and spiritually, as his letter to the Galatians reveals. Clearly, Paul and Barnabus had faced problems in Galatia which, today, we would characterise not just as linguistic, but also inter-cultural. They could explain God’s message to Greek and Roman pagans, but Celtic peoples represented a different challenge in first century Europe. Possessing a strong cultural identity, it was not until the second century AD that the Galatians had become absorbed into the Hellenistic civilization of Anatolia. Even if Paul and Barnabus had learnt from this experience and picked up a little local knowledge in the process, the Celtic tribes of Britain would have spoken in very different tongues. There is no real evidence to suggest that Celtic migrant groups spread westwards to Britain, Ireland and Iberia as once thought. However, by the time of the migrations of the fifth and fourth centuries BC, much of western Europe, including Britain and Ireland, was using dialects of a language group which, since the seventh century, has come to be known, somewhat confusingly, as ‘Celtic’. Many would now argue that the ‘Celtic’ language group probably developed in Atlantic Europe some time towards the end of the second millennium BC and was already ‘ancient’ by the time the ‘La Téne’ chieftains had begun to wield their power.

In other words, there is no direct relationship between the extent of the Celtic languages and the middle and southern European migrants who spread as far as Galatia in the third century BC and became known to Paul and Barnabus on their first mission. While modern Welsh, Breton and Cornish have great similarities among them in vocabulary and structure, the Galatian language would undoubtedly have been very ‘foreign’ to the Celts of Britain. The Galatians were still speaking the Galatian language in the time of St. Jerome (347–420 AD), who wrote that the Galatians of Ancyra and the Treveri of Trier (in what is now the Rhineland) spoke the same language (Comentarii in Epistolam ad Galatos, 2.3, composed c. 387). For Paul, the linguistic and cultural ‘gap’ he needed to bridge would also have been just as difficult as it was in Galatia. More so, perhaps, since only the aristocratic and merchant classes among the Celts, together with the Romans, would have understood his Greek. Barnabus’ ‘brother’, Aristobulus had suffered martyrdom at the hands of Celtic tribesmen, and the early Christian mission to Britain seems to have only very limited success beyond its influence among the Silures. Even there, the evidence is scant, and there is no evidence for Jowett’s claim that Caractacus was converted to the ‘true faith’ before being sent to Rome, or that he ever returned to Britain having converted to the Christian faith.

It seems far more likely, then, that Paul would have done more of his preaching in Gaul and Spain, where he would have been more easily understood in Latin by the mass of the already conquered populations. His visit to the ‘Cambrian Mission’ would undoubtedly have been more pastoral than evangelical, and he would have left the preaching to those of its members more fluent in the native Celtic tongues. Anyone familiar with the tedious experience of receiving ‘the Word’ second-hand, even through a gifted ‘simultaneous’ translator, will realise how ineffective it can be for the audience, as Paul himself points out in the remainder of I Corinthians 14 (13-33). It was not until the reign of Charlemagne that Latin became the language of church services and it only became the language of worship and prayer in Britain during the Gregorian missions to Kent after 597 and the missions of the ‘Welsh’ and Irish saints to Northumbria and East Anglia. Even then, the native British church opposed the Augustinian imposition of this practice and demanded its abolition. We know from the early Anglo-Saxon chronicles that the missionaries from Lindisfarne and Iona continued to preach the Gospel both in their own tongues and in those of the Angles and Saxons, becoming skilled multi-linguists, with greater success in proselytising, before the Synod of Whitby established Roman supremacy. Towards the end of his life in (circa) 1654, Archbishop James Ussher wrote:

Archbishop James Ussher (1581–1656)

No two causes contributed so much to the declension of Christianity … as the suppression by the Church of Rome of the vernacular scriptures, and her adoption of image worship.

Many native British converts to Christianity could or would not accept that which came from Rome in the centuries after these initial missions and Rome’s conquest of Britain. It was identified as a Roman religion long before it became Roman Catholic.

According to Tom Wright, all we can really conclude about Paul’s whereabouts in the years between his release from house arrest in Rome and his return there at some point during Nero’s persecution of the Christians is that he was either in the East or the West and that perhaps both trips were feasible. We know that, for some time, his intention had been to lead a mission to Spain and ‘the West’. Wright adds, and leaves us with the following light-hearted questions and notes:

Might we not have had the chance of a Pauline version of Blake’s famous poem ‘Jerusalem’ (‘And did those feet in ancient time/ Walk upon England’s mountains green?’)? Perhaps on reflection, it is as well that we do not.

As well as being sung as the anthem of several women’s organisations, Jerusalem has also been heard at Labour Party conferences in Britain, referring us back to its origins of my grandparents’ time when the party’s mission was to build a better Britain. One of its greatest contemporary fans is the avowedly socialist singer Billy Bragg who told the BBC in 2004 that for him it asks the questions about what Jesus would find if he came to modern Britain and how far we have built the kind of British society based on the principles of social justice that he championed. Given that the Arimathean Mission is clearly a myth, while Paul’s visit to early Roman Britain is a legend, we might also ask how far the Pauline principles of liberty, equality and diversity in unity are reflected in church and society in Britain today.

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Appendix One: From Paul, A Biography by Tom Wright.

Appendix Two – Further Notes on ‘Gaul’ and the ’Galatians’:

George F. Jowett argued that Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians may not have been written to the small colony of Gauls who migrated into Asia Minor, but to the Celtic inhabitants of Gaul, who occupied most of modern-day France in the first century AD. This evidence is quite important to consider, substantiating the great Christian evangelisation in Gaul and the mass of evidence associating the Celtic tribes of Britannia with those on the mainland whom the Romans referred to as ‘Gauls’ at this time. Cesare Baronio (also known as Caesar Baronius; 30 August 1538 – 30 June 1607) was an Italian cardinal and ecclesiastical historian of the Roman Catholic Church. He wrote:

We have said in our notes to the Roman Martyrology that, “to the Galatians” must be corrected in the place of “to the Gauls”.

Much earlier, St Epiphanius, AD 315-407 wrote:

The ministry of the divine word having been entrusted St Luke, he exercised it by passing into Dalmatia, into Gaul, into Italy, into Macedonia, but principally into Gaul, so that St. Paul assures him in his epistles about some of his disciples – “Crescens”, said he “is in Gaul.” In(to) it must not be read ‘in Galatia’ as some have falsely thought, but in Gaul.

Despite the awareness of this ‘mistake’ from the fourth to the sixteenth century, the early modern and modern translations of the epistles have not corrected it: In English, the ‘Authorised Version’ (1611), the ‘Revised Standard Version’ (1884), and ‘The New English Bible’ (1966) all kept the mistranslation. In the fourth century Eastern Church however, Theodoret, Bishop of Cyrrhus, an influential theologian of the School of Antioch, did not fail to read ‘Gaul’ for ‘Galatia’ because the Greeks had already given this name to Gaul, and the ‘Galatians’ of Asia Minor were only named this way because they were seen as a ‘colony’ of the Gauls. Edouard de Bazelaire supported this view that Crescens was in fact in Gaul and not in Galatia. He traced the possible route of Paul in about the year 63 along the Aurelian Way from Rome to Arles in France and names his three companions as Luke, who had just finished his Acts of the Apostles, Trophimus whom he left at Arles and Crescens whom he had sent to Vienne. Edouard de Bazelaire also went on to report on Paul’s return journey:

On his return he retook Trophimus with him and was not able to keep him as far as far as Rome, for he wrote from there to Timothy, “Hasten and come and join me as soon as possible. Crescens is in the Gauls. I have left Trophimus sick at Millet (Miletus).” (II Timothy 4: 10)

The Abbé Maxime Latou, referring to Trophimus being in Gaul says:

In 417 the Pope Zozimus recognised in the Church of Arles the right of being Metropolitan over all the district of Narbonne because Trophimus its first Bishop had been for the Gauls the source of life whence flowed the streams of faith.

Edouard de Bazelaire quotes sources which told him that Peter sent missionaries into Italy, in the Gauls, and on the coast of Africa. The Churches of Vienne and Mayence in Gaul claim Crescens as their founder. Rev. Smithett Lewis, former Vicar of Glastonbury, also stated, all this goes to prove to corroborate that Galatia in II Tomothy iv, 10, meant Gaul, and (according to Isidore, Archbishop of Seville, 600-636) that Philip preached to the Gauls and not the Galatians of Asia Minor. St. Philip is referred to in the early Gallic church as the Apostle of Gaul, though he is said to have been martyred, aged eighty-seven, in Hierapolis, a city in Phrygia. Isidore wrote that Philip imbued the Gauls with the Christian faith. Finally, to substantiate Philip’s mission to the Gauls, Jowett quoted Freculphus, the Bishop of Lisieux, writing in AD 821-851:

Philip of the City of Bethsaida whence also came Peter, of whom in the Gospels and Acts of the Apostles praiseworthy mention is often made, whose daughters also were outstanding prophetesses, and of wonderful sanctity and perpetual virginity, as ecclesiastical history narrates, preached Christ to the Gauls.    


John Barton (2019), A History of the Bible: The Book and its Faiths. London: Allen Lane.

Tom Wright (2018), Paul: A Biography. London: SPCK.

David Shotter, (2001), The Penguin Atlas of British & Irish History. London: Penguin Books.

David Smurthwaite (1984), The Ordnance Survey Complete Guide to the Battlefields of Britain. Exeter: Webb & Bower.

Philip Parker (2017), History of Britain in Maps. Glasgow: Collins.

Ian Bradley (2005), The Daily Telegraph Book of Hymns. London: Continuum.

Robert C Walton (ed.)(1970), A Source Book of the Bible for Teachers. London: SCM Press.

Alan T Dale (1979), Portrait of Jesus. Oxford: OUP.

Tim Dowley (ed.)(1977), The History of Christianity. Berkhamsted: Lion Publishing.

William Anderson & Clive Hicks (1983), Holy Places of the British Isles. London: Ebury Press.

George F. Jowett (1961), The Drama of the Lost Disciples. London: Covenant Publishing.

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