Early Christian York

Image from the glass of York Minster of St Paulinus, the first Bishop of York.

In 601, Pope Gregory decided to send a mission to convert the British to Christianity.  He selected York to be the church's centre in the north.

Why York? His choice may well hark back to Roman times.  Constantine, who was declared Roman emperor in York, later decreed toleration of Christianity, and the city was a bishopric in the 4th century.

On a more practical level, the surviving Roman roads made travel to York easier.

A generation after the Pope’s decree his missionary Bishop Paulinus arrived.  We cannot be sure what he found there – a thriving settlement or a largely abandoned city.

Whatever its state, York lay within the Northumbrian kingdom of Deira.  King Edwin of Deira was apparently persuaded to convert after a successful campaign against the rival kingdom of Wessex.  He did so in a small, purpose-built wooden church dedicated to St Peter on Easter Sunday, 627.

Edwin rebuilt his church in stone.  It would probably have become home to an archbishop if the king hadn’t died in battle in about 633.  His death saw Paulinus flee to Kent with Edwin’s queen.  One of Paulinus’s companions, James the Deacon, apparently remained in York but the bishop’s seat moved to Lindisfarne in Northumberland.  The bishopric was restored in York by the first synod which was held at Whitby in 664.  In 735 York did finally became an archbishopric when Egbert became the first northern Archbishop. 

Later Archbishop Ethelberht built Holy Wisdom church, said to be magnificent - unfortunately it isn’t clear where it was.

Writings by Bede and Alcuin reveal that York was by now a city of churches.  It is thought that a monastic precinct had been created in Bishophill within which there were several churches.

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