At one time English schoolchildren were regaled with two tales of the Anglo-Saxons. They were told the story of King Alfred, carelessly incinerating the cakes, and they were told how the English were converted to Christianity. Pope Gregory, explained teacher, having spotted Saxon slaves in a Roman market, despatched St Augustine to Kent in AD 597. And half a century later, we were all converts.
If the first of these stories is shaky, the second is downright misleading. There already were Christian missionaries in England, long before Augustine turned up, and they were doing pretty well, even without the help of Rome. Celtic monks, mostly from Ireland, were spreading the Word across Wales and Cornwall, Scotland and Northumbria.
Now you wouldn’t imagine that this was a problem. Did it really matter whether the Good News was preached at you in an Irish or an Italian accent ? Well, yes, it did. The Roman Church and the Celtic Church were very differently organised, and (even more importantly) they differed as to how to calculate the date of Easter. Ultimately, it was a matter of which Church had authority; our island was not big enough for the both of them.
The decision over which model to follow – a kind of Anglo-Irish play-off final – was taken at the Synod of Whitby in 664. The King of Northumbria, Oswiu, listened to both arguments and plumped for Rome, and thus the English Church was safely gathered in.
But if theological differences were settled amicably in 664, things had looked far less cordial 60 years earlier. In 604 Augustine had travelled westwards to parlay with the seven Welsh bishops of the Celtic Church. It was an opportunity to nip in the bud any mutual distrust that might de-rail the English conversion before it was truly under way.
The two parties met somewhere on the Welsh-English border, in what we now call Herefordshire or Gloucestershire. Anglo-Saxon sources are always a bit coy about exact locations, especially when that location might only have been marked by a tree.
The Venerable Bede gives us an account of the meeting, which could not be said to have gone swimmingly; Syrian peace conferences have gone better. At the moment the Welsh bishops entered, Augustine was already sat in his chair. When the man from Rome did not rise from his seat to greet them, the bishops took it as a lack of respect, and an absence of proper humility. A deal was off, before anyone even spoke.
We could call St Augustine’s seat one of the most famous chairs in English history, alongside the coronation chair in Westminster Abbey. It couldn’t possibly still exist, could it? After all, it was made of timber and would now be more than 1,400 years old.
Take a trip down to the village of Stanford Bishop in Herefordshire (not far from Bromyard), and a surprise is in store. Inside the little church of St James, up by the altar, is a chair. It’s a bit rough and ready, admittedly, and certainly not suitable for a saint with arthritis. But a plaque on it makes exactly this claim.
The Stanford Bishop chair has had a chequered history, even if we only cover the last century or so of its life. The earliest claim for its importance was made in the 1840s. Some years afterwards, the chair was discovered in the church tower, when a restoration of the church was taking place, probably in the 1890s. Later on it was turfed out, and served the church sexton as a piece of garden furniture. Later still (in 1899), when it was recognised that the chair might be of major importance, the church authorities presented it to the Beaney Institute or Royal Museum in Canterbury. This was, after all, where Augustine’s missionary work first began, and the place of his burial.
Half a century down the line – in 1943 – the then Bishop of Hereford asked for the object back, and an agreement was drawn up between the city of Canterbury and the PCC in Stanford Bishop to repatriate the chair to its former home. It did and does, however, remain the property of the Kent museum.
It seems remarkably casual (on both sides) that almost certainly the oldest chair in Britain should be bartered back and forth like this. But it may well be that the curators of the Beaney Institute were not wholly convinced by the claim in the first place.
Once it was back in Stanford Bishop in 1943, members of the Woolhope Society – Herefordshire’s historical group – took a magnifying glass to the famous chair. After due consideration, they declared, much to everyone’s disappointment, that the famous piece of furniture probably only dated from the 18th century.
This was, however, a provisional, not a final, judgement and, as far as I can see, no carbon dating has been attempted on it. Hope springs eternal, despite the bucket of cold water that was thrown at it in 1943.
The shape of the churchyard at Stanhope Bishop suggests that this was a very early Christian site indeed and, given the standing stone in the hedge, may well pre-date even that. So the plaque claiming the chair’s connection with Saint Augustine remains in place.
It’s one of those historical riddles for which you don’t really want the definitive answer.