Christianity wasn’t always wimpy. Nationalism and Christianity used to go together like ham and eggs.
I’ve been reading Peter Ackroyd’s 2012 book, Foundation: The History of England from Its Earliest Beginnings to the Tudors:
* For their part the kings were aware of all the advantages of the Roman faith. Christ was a more powerful support in war than Woden, and the Christian God offered more effective lordship than Thor. One hitherto pagan priest went to the trouble of destroying his own temple to prove the point. The Roman Church preferred the rule of strong kings and unified governments; it made the work of religious control much easier. The priests were the literate members of the kingdom and, at a time when legal documents and title deeds and proclamations of every kind were being published, they became the indispensable administrators of the state. Almost as soon as the first missionaries set foot on Thanet, the kings of the vicinity began to issue laws. ‘If anyone kills a man, he is to pay as ordinary wergild 100 shillings. If hair-pulling occurs, 50 sceattas [silver pennies] are to be paid as compensation.’
The kings were also happy to adopt a quasi-liturgical role as the embodiment of the people in public ritual. This was a way of enhancing authority. It was a way of enforcing respect and ensuring obedience. Kings and saints appear, in England, within the same period. And they are often the same thing. King Edwin and King Aethelbert are known to posterity as St Edwin and St Aethelbert. There were occasional reactions. King Sigeberht of Kent was killed by two of his kinsmen for the tiresome practice of forgiving his enemies.
Yet on the whole Christianity helped to bring unity to a kingdom. To adapt the old Catholic motto, a people who pray together stay together. The encouragement of moral discipline, by the priests, had a material effect upon the social discipline of the country. In the graveyard remains of great ladies in the seventh century, from Kent and Wessex, from Mercia and East Anglia, there is a much greater uniformity of ornament. The various regions of the country were slowly coming together. A single English Church seemed to require a single English nation as its stage. It was the time of the Christian conversion that turned all the people of the country, in the words of Pope Gregory the Great, into ‘Angelcynn, of English race’. Soon after a list was compiled of ‘the Saints of God who rest in Engla lond’. Bede wrote of ‘the Holy Church of the English nation’, implicitly excluding the Welsh and the Picts. England, as we understand it today, was created by the Christian Church.
So the Church was an essential aspect of government. That is why the boundaries of the dioceses followed the frontiers of the old tribal kingdoms. Worcester followed the same area as the district of the Hwicce, for example, and Hereford of the Magonsaetan. The lines of authority had been passed on. The diocesan synods were like parliaments, where laws were debated and where kinfolk could meet. Bishops were in any case aristocrats, members of the various royal families of the land. When the king called a Church synod in London, secular as well as spiritual lords would attend.
The king’s edicts invariably took an ecclesiastical tone. The archbishops, of York or of Canterbury, drew up the national law codes in consultation with the king. Only after the arrival of the Normans in England was there any formal separation between Church and State. In a similar spirit abbots and bishops were often part of the war-bands of the great magnates; one bishop of Sherborne, Heahmund, was killed in a bloody battle against northern invaders. He may have fulfilled the former role of the pagan high priest guiding companies of warriors.
There existed large organizations known as minsters, communities of priests and monks that, as the word suggests, ministered to their surrounding areas. Between the seventh and ninth centuries many hundreds of such foundations were planted so that every district had its minster. They represent the original expression of Christian England, with all the energy and power of first things. They acted as centres of patronage and learning; they maintained trade and agriculture. They organized the surrounding countryside with their constant demand for food rents. They were essentially royal courts, their abbots and abbesses an integral part of the aristocracy, where Christ was overlord.