Written English, a Gift from Rome?

Textus Roffensis

One of the greatest treasures along the Augustine Camino is a 12th Century book called the Textus Roffensis, which is displayed in the Crypt at Rochester Cathedral.  Normally, at the start of each pilgrimage, after we have visited Sergei Fyodorov’s striking fresco of the Baptism of Ethelbert, ascended the old pilgrim steps to the site of St William’s Shrine and received our blessing from the Canon; we descend to see the Textus.  The Textus contains King Ethelbert’s Laws – the oldest English Laws in existence – far older than Magna Carta and ancient even in King Alfred’s day.  They were likely first written down by one of the monks from the Gregorian Mission which arrived in Kent with St Augustine in 597.  A slim but remarkable booklet by the late Patrick Wormald, available at the Cathedral Bookshop, explains their extraordinary significance.

Until Augustine arrived the English had little in the way of written culture.  All we have from before this time are rare items with runic carvings and references to the English from other peoples.  The Welsh monk Gildas, for instance, saw the Anglo Saxons as nothing but a curse.  With Ethelbert’s Laws the character of the people we came to know as the English, first emerges.  The Laws are short and succinct, as you would expect from a document that was originally passed on orally.  They are focussed on compensation for injuries rather than rights and the concept of equal before the law is entirely foreign to them. The compensation due is given a monetary value which depends on who has been wronged and the details of the injury.  So, for instance, stealing from a Bishop requires recompense of eleven times the value stolen whereas stealing from a slave only requires payment of 3 shillings.  Meanwhile if an ear is struck off the compensation due is 12 shillings but this reduces to 6 shillings if it is only gashed or 3 if it is pierced.  Losing a toenail attracts a tariff of 1½ shillings. 

All very interesting, but there is another, far more important point about these Laws which is hidden in plain sight.  They are written using the Latin Alphabet, the one we still use today.  It is possible that they were first inscribed using runes and then translated later; but it is more likely, given that Augustine’s monks were from Rome, that this was the first time English was written using our now familiar letters.  As far as we know, neither the Irish monks in Northumbria who established monasteries in the decades following the death of Ethelbert, nor the literate Britons living in what is now England before Augustine landed, have left us any written English using the Latin Alphabet from before this date.

This means that Augustine and his monks may have a similar position in English history to Saints Cyril and Methodius who gave the Cyrillic script to the Slavs. 

There is one more point about Ethelbert’s Laws which is striking, and that is the fact that they are written in English at all.  By establishing written laws for his Kingdom, Ethelbert was emulating the King of the Franks, Clovis (great grandfather of his wife, Bertha).  Like Clovis he was baptised and like him he had a monastery built just outside his capital city in which he would be buried, dedicated to the Patrons of Rome, Saints Peter and Paul.  Also, like Clovis, he established written laws, but the decision, as Bede tells us, to have them written in English rather than Latin has repercussions down to our own times.  Here was a people very much part of European civilisation but distinct from it as well.

When Augustus Pugin built his ideal church in Ramsgate and dedicated it to St Augustine of Canterbury, he was drawing attention not just to the Birth of English Christianity but to the many other gifts that the missionaries brought with them, including the genesis of the written language you are reading right now.