BRITAIN’S TITLE : “PRIMOGENITA ECCLESIÆ” by William Canon Fleming, Rector of St. Mary’s, Moorfields, London.

Transcribed from the Preface to A Complete History of the British Martyrs from the Roman Occupation to Elizabeth’s Reign by William Canon Fleming, Rector of St. Mary’s, Moorfields, London. Published by the Proprietors of the Catholic Repository, Little Britain, London. 1902.

¶ THE voices of the Apostles announcing the Gospel of Jesus Christ our Lord were heard in every land, and their words re-echoed from the utmost confines of the known world. Such is the claim which the church makes in behalf of the Galilean fishermen whom Our Saviour sent to teach all nations.

¶ Gildas, Britain’s most ancient historian, whilst lamenting the subjugation of his country by the Romans during the reign of Tiberius Caesar, finds consolation in the thought that during those dark days the light of the Gospel was spread throughout Britain. His words cannot be otherwise interpreted : they are as follows :—“In the meantime, whilst these things lasted, there appeared and imparted itself to this cold Island, removed farther from the visible sun than any other country, that true and invisible Sun, which, in the time of Tiberius Caesar, showed itself to the whole world I mean Christ vouchsafed to impart His precepts to the Britons.” (De excidio Brit., cap. 6.)

¶ The Roman Army under Claudius, which did not set out for Britain until some time after the Prince of the Apostles entered the gates of the Eternal City, and was being constantly recruited from Rome during the long and tedious war that followed, must have numbered multitudes of Catholics in its ranks. It may well be supposed, then, that Christianity marched into Britain with the Roman Army.

¶ Eusebius (A.D. 259), in his Ecclesiastical History, narrates that “some of the Apostles” passed over the ocean “to the British Isles.” The names of SS. Peter and Paul, Saints Simon Zelotes and Joseph of Arimathea are mentioned as having preached in Britain by one or other of the following historians : Gildas, Capgrave, Harpsfeld, Polydor Virgil, the Magdeburg Centuriators, Eysengranius in his “History ofthe First Century,” Simeon Metaphrastes, and Baronius in his famous Annals.

¶ It will be interesting to dwell on the reasons suggested for believing that St. Peter himself was one of Britain’s Apostles. There are many reasons which lead to that conclusion. The presence of so many Christians in the Roman Army occupying Britain, the greater number of whom were possibly his own converts, may well have inspired the Prince of the Apostles with a great desire of visiting Britain. Other circumstances also contributed to excite his active interest in native Britons. In the year of our Lord 52 Claudius made a triumphal entry into Rome, leading captive Bran, Prince of the Silures, and his brave son Caractacus. Bran and Caractacus were detained as captives in Rome for seven years, during which time Bran was instructed and baptized a Christian, most probably by St. Peter himself. On their release from captivity in the year 59 St. Peter, at Bran’s request, sent Aristobalus, his own disciple, as bishop, with two priests named Hid and Cynvan, to preach the Gospel to the Cymry, who inhabited the province governed by Bran, now called Wales. It is stated in the “Triads” that “Bran, the son of Lear the Stammerer, was that Bran that first brought the Christian Faith to this Island from Rome, where he was detained a captive through the treachery of Cartismandrua, the daughter of Avarny, the son of Lud.”

¶ This statement is confirmed by the “Genealogy of the British Saints,” which relates that “Bran, the son of Lear the Stammerer, was the first of the nation of the Cymry that embraced the Christian faith.” The same “Genealogy” informs us that Bran brought with him three missionaries, Hid and Cynvan, Israelites, and Aristobalus, a native of Italy and a disciple of St. Peter. It is added that Aristobalus was the first Christian Bishop of this Island. These facts are at least sufficient to prove that St. Peter must have taken a deep interest in the welfare of the Early British Church, and prepare us to believe that he may himself have visited Britain. That he actually did visit Britain and preach the Gospel there is distinctly stated by authorities of repute.

¶ Eysengranius, in his “History of the First Century” affirms that the first churches in Britain were founded by St. Peter during Nero’s reign. Simeon Metaphrastes (Apud Surium, 23 Junii, p. 362) directly, and Gildas indirectly confirm this statement (De excidio Brit. Epistola Secunda). Gildas calls Britain “The see of Peter,” for when alluding to the fearful massacre of the British priests and to the desecration of the churches in Britain by the Saxons under Hengist, he charges them with “trampling on the see of Peter with shameless feet” : “quod sedem Petri Apostoli invericundis pedibus usurpassant.”

¶ Baronius (Annales ecclae A.D. 58) is of opinion that St. Peter visited Britain in the year 58, when the Emperor Claudius banished all the Jews from Rome. He fairly urges that St. Paul would not have written his Epistle to the Romans unless St. Peter were absent at the time, or, if he had written it whilst the Prince of the Apostles was still there, he would have sent his salutations to him as he did to St. Peter’s disciple Aristobalus. (Rom. xvi., 10.)

¶ Assuming the truth of Baronius’s conjecture, it is clear that St. Peter visited Britain whilst his disciple was still in Rome, the year before Bran with Aristobalus, Hid, and Cynvan, returned to spread the Gospel among the Cymry in Wales.

¶ This theory may seem at first sight inconsistent with the statement already quoted from the “Triads,” viz., “that Bran, the son of Lear the Stammerer, was that Bran that first brought the Christian faith to this Island.” It must be noticed, however, that this declaration is considerably modified by what is stated further on, in the same ancient book, viz., that “Bran was the first person who introduced the Christian religion among the Cymry from Rome.”

¶ The “Genealogy of the British Saints” leaves this disputed question perfectly open, as it confines its statement to Welsh Cymry: “Bran, the son of Lear the Stammerer, was the first of the nation of the Cymry that embraced the Christian Faith.” Any other of the British nation, the Brigantes for instance, might have the Gospel preached to them by St. Peter in the year 58 without infringing this statement. The exact date, however, of St. Peter’s visit to Britain, though interesting in itself, is a matter of secondary importance. The really, important point is that historians of credit declare that St. Peter preached the Gospel in this country.

¶ As all the Christians in Britain at the time were altogether exempt from persecution, even during Nero’s reign, the sacred writers would be no doubt prudently silent concerning the progress of Christianity in that country, and it is for this reason, perhaps, that no mention is made in the Sacred Scriptures of St. Peter’s missionary labours there.

¶ The whole controversy on this point is well summed up by Doctor Richard Smith, second Vicar-Apostolic of England and Scotland, in his “Prudential Ballance of Religion,” published in 1609. The first chapter of this book commences with the question : “What religion was in this land before the coming of St. Austin?”

¶ “The ancient inhabitants of this Island were the Britons, whom we now call Welsh men. The faith of Christ was planted amongst them by the glorious Apostles Saints Peter and Paul and Simon, by the Apostolic man St. Joseph of Arimathea (who buried our Saviour) and by St. Aristobalus, of whom St. Paul maketh mention in his Epistle to the Romans. All these, Protestants grant to have preached Christ’s faith in this Island, except St. Peter, to whom some of them will not have this land beholden, which question, because it is beside my purpose, I will not stand to discuss ; only I assure the indifferent reader that St. Peter’s preaching to the Ancient Britons is on the one side affirmed by Greeks and Latins, by ancient, by foreign and domestic, by Catholic writers such as Protestants themselves account most excellent, learned, and great historians ; by Protestant antiquaries such as Protestant Divines term most excellent antiquaries; and, on the other side, denied by no ancient writer, Greek or Latin, foreign or domestic, Catholic or otherwise. And what better proof shall we require to believe a thing done so long ago than the assertion of many learned men of such different ages, of such different countries, and of such different religions, who have not been gainsaid by one single ancient writer.

¶ “To argue against so various and grave testimonies without any writer’s testimony to the contrary, is rather to cavil than to reason, and to show a mind more opposed to St. Peter and his successors than desirous of truth and honour.

¶ “This faith, implanted amongst the Britons by the Apostles and Apostolic men, perished not after their departure but remained, as Gildas (De excidio Brit., c. 7) writes : ‘Apud quosdam integre,’ amongst some entire ; which, about the year of Christ 158 was marvellously increased and confirmed by Pope Eleutherius, who, sending hither at the request of King Lucius his two legates, St. Fugatius and St. Damienus, the King and the Queen and almost all the people were baptized, and this land was the first that publicly professed the faith of Christ and justly deserved the title of ‘Primogenita Ecclesiae’—‘the first begotten of the Church.’ ”

¶ St. Bede, in his British Chronicle, informs us that in the year 156 Lucius, King of the Britons, sent messengers to Pope Eleutherius begging him to send missionaries to Britain in order that he and those of his subjects who were still pagans might be baptized Christians. Acceding at once to the King’s request St. Eleutherius sent two good bishops named Fugatius and Damienus, who converted multitudes and abolished idolatry throughout the whole of Britain. Soon afterwards a regular ecclesiastical Hierarchy, consisting of three Archbishoprics, viz., London, York, and Caerleon, and twenty-five bishoprics, was established in Britain.

¶ Although this revival of Christianity in Britain is confirmed by the Roman Martyrology and Breviary, and mentioned by Platina, an enemy of the Church, in his “History of the Popes,” superficial modern critics reject the whole narrative as a fable on the ground that as Britain long before the period in question was reduced to the condition of a Roman province it is futile to suppose that a Lucius, King of Britain, could be alive and flourishing in the year of our Lord 156. Now as it would take about a thousand modern antiquarians to make an Usher or a Camden it will be very interesting to listen to what these two of the greatest antiquarians have to say in behalf of King Lucius of Britain.

¶ Quoting from an old Saxon Chronicle, Archbishop Usher proves that Lucius was King ofthe Britons of Wales,beloved by his people and friendly to the Romans. In the history of the British Saints his pedigree is as follows : “Lleirog, son of Coil, the son of Cyllin the saint, who was the son of Caractacus.” In the Triads he is named one of the “three Blessed Princes” on account of his building a church at Llandaff. Camden, commenting on the position of those who deny the story of King Lucius, makes the following instructive observations :—“I would have them remember that the Romans, by an old custom, had kings as their tools of servitude in the provinces ; that the Britons at the time denied submission to Commodus ; that all the rest of the Island beyond the wall belonged to them ; and that they had their kings. Moreover, that Antoninus Pius, some years afterwards, having ended the war, left the kingdom to be ruled by its own kings, and the provinces to be governed by their own counts, so that nothing hinders that King Lucius might be king of those parts of the Island which was never subject to the Roman. For certainly that passage of Tertullian who wrote about the time refers to the conversion of the Britons to the Christian religion, and that very aptly, if we consider the words and the time :—“Some countries of the Britons that proved impregnable to the Romans are yet subjected to Christ,” and a little after : “Britain lies surrounded by the ocean. The Mauri and the barbarous Gentulians are blocked up by the Romans for fear they should extend the limits of their countries. And what shall we say of the Romans themselves who secure their empire by the power of their armies ? Neither are they able with all their force to extend that empire beyond these nations, whereas the Kingdom of Christ and His Name reach much farther. He is everywhere believed in and worshipped by all the nations above mentioned.” (Tertullian, Contra Judeos, cap. 7.)

¶ Again quoting Usher, Camden continues :—“That there was such a King in Britain as Lucius is proved by so many authors that no dispute can be made about it, and a learned writer (Usher, Primod, p. 39) tells us that he has seen ‘two coins with a Christian image on them’—as he conjectures by the crosses, and the letters Luc (that could be clearly deciphered) which probably denote the same Lucius.” (Camden, Britannia, vol. L, pp. 45, 46.)

¶ The existence of Christianity in Britain before and up to the time when St. Augustine converted the great enemies of the Britons, the Anglo-Saxons, to the faith, is clearly testified by ancient writers. Origen (A.D. 200) suggests this in his Homily on Ezekiel :—“The miserable Jews acknowledge that this is spoken of the presence of Christ, but are stupidly ignorant of the person, though they see the words fulfilled, when, before the Advent of Christ did the land of Britain agree to the worship of one God ?’ Arnobius (A.D. 306) commenting on the 147th Psalm, contributes his testimony :—“Whereas for so many ages the true God was known among the inhabitants of Judea alone, he is now known to the Indians in the East and the Britons in the West.”

¶ The presence of three British Archbishops, representing London, York, and Caerleon, at the Council of Aries, A.D. 314, shows the vigorous vitality of the British Church at that early period. Theodoret (A.D. 423) makes mention of the Church in Britain in his triumphant observations about the spread of the Christian religion :—“These our fishermen and our tentmakers have propagated the Gospel amongst all nations; not only among the Romans and those who are subject to the Roman Empire, but the Scythians and the Sauromatae, the Indians, also the Ethiopians, the Persians, the Hyrcani, the Britons, the Cimmerii, and the Germans ; so also it may be said in one word that all the different nations of the earth have received the laws of the Crucified.”

¶ It is pleasant to reflect that Britain always received the Christian faith direct from Rome, its fountain head ; first, from St. Peter and his disciples; and secondly, from Pope Eleutherius through his messengers Damienus and Fugatius in the days of good King Lucius; whilst the Anglo-Saxon robbers, to whom the Britons absolutely refused to preach the Gospel, were converted into honest and robust Christians by St. Augustine whom St. Gregory sent to convert the fathers ofthe fair-haired Anglo-Saxon youths whom he saw sold as slaves in the Roman market place.

¶ Sufficient has been written to prove the unbroken Apostolicity of the Catholic Church in Britain. The light of Divine faith diffused throughout Britain at the early dawn of Christianity has never been extinguished, and it has outlived the Roman, Saxon, and Danish persecutions before the “Reformation,” and since that national act of apostasy three hundred years of cruel and diabolical persecution have utterly failed to suppress the chosen few, who still survived to pay homage to the successor of St. Peter, St. Eleutherius, and St. Gregory—the Roman Pontiffs to whom the English nation, representing as it does the Britons, the Anglo-Saxons, the Danes, and the Normans, are indebted for the priceless pearl of Divine faith still in their midst, handed down to them by their British, Saxon, and Norman forefathers.

¶ The history of what English Catholics have suffered, both before and since the “Reformation,” to preserve their Apostolic faith, is faithfully recorded in the lives of the glorious multitude of British martyrs. The sufferings of the martyrs before the sixteenth century are briefly alluded to in the British Martyrology, and more fully treated in the writings of the pre-Reformation historians, and by Cressy, whose “History of the Church of Brittany” merited the praises of Wood, the celebrated historian of Oxford.

¶ This book endeavours to give a Complete History of the English Martyrs from the Roman Occupation until the beginning of Queen Elizabeth’s reign, when Doctor Challoner’s Memoirs begin.


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