In the year 590, much against his will, Abbot Gregory was unanimously elected Pope. Although this enormous responsibility as sole Patriarch for the Western part of the Empire daunted him, he did not forget his resolve to send missionaries to the inhabitants of distant Britannia. In September 595 he wrote a letter to a certain priest in Gaul, Candidus, instructing him to buy English slaves, aged 17–18, and to give them over to the care of a monastery. Gregory clearly wished that clergy, natives of the country, be prepared for that mission. But why did he do this in 595?
We may have the answer. This letter may have been the result of a visit to Rome in late 594 or early 595 of St Gregory, Bishop of Tours. It is he who knew of the existence in England of a Frankish Christian Princess who had married the pagan King of Kent. She was called Bertha and was the daughter of Charibert I of Paris. Moreover, she
came from a devout family. On her mother’s side she had the example of Ingoberg her mother who, widowed, had become a nun. Her great-grandmother was St Clotilde, her grandmother St Radegonde. Since the Bishop of Tours had known both Ingoberg and Bertha in Tours, it would seem highly likely that it was he who informed the Pope of these facts.
Gregory acted swiftly and it was through this action that he became known to history as ‘the Apostle of the English’, ‘he who will present the English people to the Lord at Doomsday as their teacher and Apostle’. In the year 596, ‘inspired by God’, Pope Gregory realised his ambition of old by sending out missionaries to convert the pagans, to make the Angles into Angels. He knew where to find missionaries. From St Andrew’s monastery he took the pupil of Felix of Messanaviii (today Messina) in Greek Sicily, his friend, perhaps from days in Constantinople, the Prior Augustine. Together with him he took some forty other monks of his acquaintance – not long before he had been their Abbot and probably spiritual father. He prepared them for the great mission which was to be the happiest event of his service as Pope and which within a century and a half would have changed the face of the West. Of the names of these forty monks we know only of the following: the priest Laurence (later Archbishop of Canterbury
after Augustine, and a saint), the monk Peter (later the sainted Abbot of St Peter and St Paul’s in Canterbury) and perhaps the deacon James (also counted as a saint), and John and Honorius (the latter becoming the fifth Archbishop of Canterbury from 627 to 653), both chanters. This group of monks, more or less a walking monastery, set out for this northern archipelago in the fourteenth year of the reign of the most pious Emperor Maurice in the summer, in other words, of the year 596.