Land of Angels

by Fay Sampson

Edition reviewed, Robert Hale, 2006, ISBN 0-7090-8097-2.

Set mainly in Kent in the period 583-604 AD, with scenes in Rome, Frankish Paris, the South of France and southern England, Land of Angels tells the story of St Augustine's mission to preach Roman Christianity in England. The major characters are historical figures, including Aethelbert of Kent, his Frankish Christian queen Bertha, their son Eadbald, Pope Gregory the Great, St Augustine and the various abbots and bishops of the mission to England.

Bertha is a Frankish Christian princess who makes a political marriage with the non-Christian English King of Kent, Aethelbert. Freedom of Christian worship for Bertha is a condition of the marriage, but she has to stand up to her husband to enforce the agreement. Meanwhile, in distant Rome, Gregory (not yet Pope) encounters two handsome English boys in the slave market, makes his famous pun "not Angles but angels" (the source of the novel's title), and vows to convert the English to Christianity. Circumstances intervene and Gregory cannot go himself, but despatches the timid monk Augustine in his stead. Bertha makes Augustine welcome, but Aethelbert is suspicious of this new religion and the English priests and priestesses are actively hostile. Has Gregory picked the right man for the job?

This period of history rarely makes an appearance in fiction, so I'm naturally very pleased to see an author exploring it. I have always been curious about the factors that persuaded the early English ('Anglo-Saxons') and Norse to change to Christianity. Both early English and Norse culture placed a high value on loyalty, so how did they reconcile this with changing their allegiance from their established gods to a new one? Kipling explored it obliquely in his short story The Conversion of St Wilfrid, and Fay Sampson explores it here. The novel illustrates how the image of Christ as hero - as seen in early poetry such as The Dream of the Rood, and therefore a genuine image of the time - could have appealed to a king whose power was earned, maintained and always at risk of being lost in battle. The political and status aspects of religious conversion are also mentioned, and the power struggle between king and priesthood. Aethelbert sees Augustine as a way of checking the power of the priests of the English gods and asserting his royal will. Does he recognise that this new religion, with its connections to power-bases across Europe, will challenge the authority of kings to come? I can't help but feel a shiver of foreboding for the struggle between Henry II and Thomas a Becket that would be played out at Canterbury in Kent more than half a millennium after Aethelbert's decision.

Land of Angels is narrated in third person, mainly from the viewpoints of Bertha and Augustine. Having two narrators provides some variety of scene and outlook, as Bertha and Augustine have different concerns. Aethelbert is an attractive and interesting character, and I would have liked to see more of him and the political, diplomatic and military concerns he must have had.

The novel makes the conventional assumption that English-British relations were governed by ethnic purity, racial conflict and genocide, and that the English settlements in Britain formed some sort of strategic grand plan. The characters talk of "English conquest" and of the Britons being "driven west" or enslaved, and Aethelbert looks at the hills of what is now Wales and muses that "we" will "take" that too. As I have said before, I think the reality of post-Roman Britain was probably a good deal more complex than this simple ethnic conflict model.

Land of Angels takes an uncritically pro-Roman-Christian line. The non-Christian English treat Augustine and Bertha with courtesy, permitting them freedom of worship and being prepared to listen to and engage with new ideas. Neither Augustine nor Bertha shows a similar open-mindedness. They take the English tolerance as no more than their due, because their Roman Christianity is right. The English religion is referred to as magic, superstition, barbarism, evil and 'darkness', for all the world as if one were reading about Sauron. The British bishops who refuse to accept Augustine's authority over them are shown as obstinate, arrogant and filled with vengeful racial hatred. The episode and Augustine's subsequent curse is taken from Bede and no doubt reflects the orthodox Roman Christian view. The conservatism and independence of Irish and British clerics was clearly a regular source of annoyance to the Roman Church at Canterbury from the Synod of Whitby to the Welsh bishops of the Middle Ages, and the Church in Wales is an independent entity today. No doubt this one-sided portrayal reflects the devout beliefs of both the primary characters in the novel, Bertha and Augustine, for whom anything other than their own religion is misguided at best. I doubt that it looked quite so clear-cut from the other sides, and I personally would have liked to see alternative views explored.

Curiously, there is no reference to Byzantine links with Britain, although luxury goods from the Mediterranean have been identified from archaeological excavations on sites of the mid-to-late sixth century in many of the kingdoms in western Britain. The British bishops who met Augustine in the novel may have been isolated from Rome, but not because of geography. It would be surprising if the trade links that brought a Byzantine jewelled seal ring to North Wales, Spanish glass to Tintagel and Mediterranean wine jars to Dinas Powys near Cardiff did not also carry letters, people and ideas. It's interesting to wonder whether the British bishops may have been in touch with contacts in the other churches of the Eastern Mediterranean and whether doctrinal disputes may have contributed to their opposition to Augustine's authority.

A retelling of St Augustine's mission to preach Roman Christianity to the English Kingdom of Kent.