Introduction: Roman Origins
Eastern England is made up of two of the seven ancient kingdoms of England, East Anglia and Essex, peopled by the East Angles and their cousins the East Saxons. This was once a self-contained area, bordered to the east and north by the North Sea, to the south by the broad River Thames, and to the west by the eastern Midlands, ancient Mercia. In times past that was an impassable area of river and marsh called the fens. In modern terms East Anglia and Essex mean the two counties of Norfolk and Suffolk with the area around the Isle of Ely (now in neighbouring eastern Cambridgeshire), and the county of Essex. However, Orthodox Christianity arrived here before England even existed, in the first centuries after Christ. Indeed, within a few years of Christ’s Resurrection Colchester in Essex briefly became the capital of Roman Britain until London had been founded, and it may have been there that the first Christian community appeared.
In any case it is recorded that there may have been a bishop from Colchester who attended a council in Gaul in 314. Certainly, archaeologists have confirmed the existence of a church in Colchester, one of the most important Roman settlements in the country, in the late fourth century. This lasted into the first half of the fifth century and its foundations can be visited. Other bishops from Britain are recorded attending councils abroad in 347 and 359. Baptismal fonts have been found from a villa at Icklingham in Suffolk from the same period and on the Norfolk coast there is an early place name ‘Eccles’, from the Greek word for church, ‘ecclesia’ (like the word ‘church’ itself, from the Greek ‘kyriakon’, ‘the Lord’s house’. However, such urban or villa Roman Orthodoxy had all but died out by the mid-fifth century, as the Roman elite had left these shores, leaving the people unconverted. Only archaeology can confirm even the existence of the little that they left behind.
Holiness: Twelve Saints (643-1016)
After the Roman period and the settlement of the English, there opened in the seventh century a new and deeper Orthodox Christian age, a golden age of saints, both missionaries from across the seas and native. Although nine of these twelve saints lived in the seventh century, three others lived later, continuing the tradition of holiness even into the early eleventh century. The two Irish saints, St Fursey and St Deicola, were ‘wandering saints’ and only stayed here for a short time. Nine of them are venerated only locally, like the two Irish saints above, St Sigebert, St Jurmin, St Osyth and St Withburgh, or regionally like St Felix, St Cedd and St Walstan, but St Botolph, St Audrey and St Edmund were and are venerated nationally and even internationally. Places of pilgrimage to their relics are Ely and Bury St Edmunds, places of pilgrimage to where they lived are Bawburgh, Bradwell-on-Sea, Burgh Castle, Hoxne and Iken. These twelve saints are:
St Sigebert (+ c. 643), King of East Anglia, had lived in exile in France and become a Christian. He was the son or stepson of King Raedwald, the first baptized King of East Anglia, whose burial-hoard became famous when discovered at Sutton Hoo in Suffolk in 1939. In 630 King Sigebert invited the future St Felix to come from Burgundy and evangelize his kingdom. Sigebert later founded a monastery in what became Bury St Edmunds in Suffolk and, having abdicated, became a monk there, but was later killed by pagan Mercians.
After seventeen years of activity St Felix (+ 647) came to be known as the ‘Apostle of East Anglia’. He established his centre at the old Roman port of Dunwich in Suffolk (though some say in the now vanished Roman shore fort in Felixstowe, which was in any case later named after him), and then penetrating inland along river estuaries. Thus, he founded the first church in East Anglia in Babingley in west Norfolk and in nearby Shernborne, and also in Loddon and Reedham on the Broads river system in east Norfolk. He also built churches dedicated to St Gregory the Great in Rendlesham and Sudbury, both in Suffolk, and founded a monastery in Soham, in eastern Cambridgeshire next to Suffolk and near Ely.
The Irish St Fursey (+ c. 650) came with his disciples in 633. He established a monastery in a still extant Roman shore fort in Norfolk, now called Burgh (pronounced Borough) Castle, and several churches before leaving for France in c. 644.
St Jurmin (+ 654) was a prince of the East Anglian royal family, a brother or step-brother of St Audrey and St Withburgh, killed in battle by pagans, and his relics were long venerated in Blythburgh and later in Bury St Edmunds, both in Suffolk.
The Irish-trained and bilingual St Cedd (+ 664) came in c. 653. In his brief period as Bishop of Essex, with his see in London, he became known as the ‘Apostle of Essex’. He established a coastal monastery in Tilbury and churches in Prittlewell, Great Burstead, West Mersea and above all in the old Roman shore fort at Bradwell-on-Sea, all in Essex, where there seem to have been some thirty monks. In the latter case this seventh-century ‘Cathedral on the marshes’ still largely and miraculously survives.
St Audrey (Etheldreda) (+ 679) was a royal princess born in Exning in west Suffolk just after 630 and was baptised by St Felix. She founded the monastery in Ely and was the first East Anglian saint to be venerated nationwide. Her hand relic can still be venerated in the Roman Catholic church in Ely.
St Botolph (Botulf) (+ 680) founded a monastery at Iken near the Suffolk coast and was widely venerated throughout Eastern England and well beyond, especially as a patron saint of travellers.
The Irish St Deicola (Dicul) (+ c. 685) gave his name to the small Norfolk town of Dickleburgh, where he founded a monastery in about 660, before leaving for the south of England.
St Osyth (c.700) was a Mercian princess who married the King of Essex, then founded and entered a convent in the coastal village of Chich in Essex and was martyred there. The village of Chich was named after her, being called to this day St Osyth.
St Withburgh (+ 743), a sister of St Audrey, lived as a hermitess at Holkham in Norfolk and then founded a convent in (East) Dereham in the same county.
St Edmund the Martyr (+ 869), KIng of East Anglia, was associated with Attleborough and Hunstanton in Norfolk and with Bures in Suffolk. He was martyred by the pagan Danes at Hoxne on the Norfolk-Suffolk border and was venerated nationwide, becoming the patron-saint of all England. His relics were moved nearby to the town that came to be called Bury St Edmunds and one of the most important pilgrimage centres in the whole country. Some of his relics can still be venerated in the Roman Catholic church there. Today his flag is flown throughout Norfolk and Suffolk and he is considered to be the patron-saint of East Anglia.
Finally, there is St Walstan (+ 1016), who became a simple and humble farmworker, and whose millennium it is this year. He probably came from Bawburgh in Norfolk and was associated with nearby Costessey (pronounced Cossey) and Taverham just outside Norwich. He closes this period of Eastern English holiness.
Disruption: Spiritual Decline
After St Walstan, Eastern England, like all England and the whole of Western Europe, clearly entered the period of spiritual decline common to Western Europe in the second millennium. This was symbolized by the appearance of foreign Viking rulers and their new ways. This decline was especially obvious during the rule from 1042 of the half-Norman King Edward, called ‘the Confessor’, who summoned the bloody invasion of the last Vikings, the Northmen (Normans) in 1066. These brought with them the new institutional religion that came to be called Roman Catholicism and substituted it for the original Orthodox Christianity. They destroyed the old churches and mocked the saints, as they had already done in southern Italy and would later do in the ‘crusades’ in the Holy Land.
Within less than half a millennium, this new, despiritualized institutional religion, centred in Rome, had itself been nationalized and robbed by the rapacious Tudor State. The new State religion that had been invented in turn began splitting into various moralizing Protestant sects, resulting in bloody civil wars. These sects were even more dissimilar to Orthodox Christianity than Roman Catholicism. In their turn, again within less than half a millennium, these sects unravelled and were rejected and the population dissolved and disintegrated into unbelief and paganism, its spiritual roots lost, forgotten or, incredibly, even flatly denied. At this, millennial ‘Western civilization’ entered into terminal decline, the new paganism, thus leaving the missionary field open to the Church, as in the first millennium. The situation has turned full circle.
Continuity: Renewal (1966-2016)
Although various immigrant groups did give some witness to Orthodoxy in Eastern England after 1945, their mononational or ethnic witness was very limited. Mononational communities and private ideologies, seemingly more attached to a culture than the Church, always age and die out. However, it was in 1966, exactly fifty years ago, that an English priest of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia renewed the native English links with the Orthodox Tradition in Eastern England. This was the ever-memorable Fr Mark (later David) (Meyrick) who lived and served for nearly thirty years in a village in Norfolk. Soon after his repose the Church Outside Russia renewed that uncompromised multinational mission with a small church in Felixstowe on the Suffolk coast. After eleven years of patience, this mission penetrated inland, slightly like that of St Felix of old, and founded public-access churches.
These include a large permanent multinational church in the former Roman capital of Colchester in north-east Essex and a permanent multinational church in Norwich, the historic centre of Norfolk and also once the second largest city in England. There is now hope that a church might eventually be founded in Bury St Edmunds, the historic centre of Suffolk. This would create one church in each of the historic centres of the three counties of Eastern England. Beyond this, however, there are other major centres of population which need church buildings, like Stratford in south-west Essex on the fringes of London or Kings Lynn in north-west Norfolk, but also in historic spiritual centres around which Orthodox people live, like Ely (now in the Cambridgeshire fenlands). However, nothing can be planned top-down, from above, nothing can start without the impetus of local people, as we have seen in Colchester, Norwich and also Bury St Edmunds.