“Non Angli, sed angeli”
A possible origin of the English sense of superiority
Once again, we dip into Bede (Book I, Chapter 23):
HOW POPE GREGORY SENT AUGUSTINE, WITH OTHER MONKS, TO PREACH TO THE ENGLISH NATION, AND ENCOURAGED THEM BY A LETTER OF EXHORTATION, NOT TO CEASE FROM THEIR LABOUR. [A.D. 596.]
IN the year of our Lord 582, Maurice, the fifty-fourth from Augustus, ascended the throne, and reigned twenty-one years. In the tenth year of his reign, Gregory, a man renowned for learning and behaviour, was promoted to the apostolical see of Rome, and presided over it thirteen years, six months and ten days. He, being moved by Divine inspiration, in the fourteenth year of the same emperor, and about the one hundred and fiftieth after the coming of the English into Britain, sent the servant of God, Augustine, and with him several other monks, who feared the Lord, to preach the word of God to the English nation. (http://sourcebooks.fordham.edu/basis/bede-book1.asp)
What allegedly compelled Pope Gregory to dispatch this mission was an encounter with some young boys in the Roman slave market. Most taken with their blond hair, fair skin and blue eyes, he inquired of their origin and was told that they were of the Angle tribe from the land of Britannia. On learning also that they were pagans — not Christians — Gregory was deeply dismayed, as the boys’ beauty might be compared with that of the angels — and their rightful place was surely in Heaven.
They having, in obedience to the pope’s commands, undertaken that work, were, on their journey, seized with a sudden fear, and began to think of returning home, rather than proceed to a barbarous, fierce, and unbelieving nation, to whose very language they were strangers; and this they unanimously agreed was the safest course. In short, they sent back. Augustine, who had been appointed to be consecrated bishop in case they were received by the English, that he might, by humble entreaty, obtain of the Holy Gregory, that they should not be compelled to undertake so dangerous, toilsome, and uncertain a journey. The pope, in reply, sent them a hortatory epistle, persuading them to proceed in the work of the Divine word, and rely on the assistance of the Almighty.
In other words, Augustine was hardly enthusiastic about this mission!
Augustine actually landed in the non-Anglo-Saxon Kingdom of Kent, ruled by King Ethelbert (a Jute). Ethelbert’s Frankish wife was a Christian, and the conversion of Ethelbert (and subsequently, his subjects) was easily accomplished. But, in due course, Augustine would have encountered the dreaded Anglo-Saxon riff-raff — and one can imagine having a rather sardonic attitude:
“His Holiness back in Rome must think that there’s something special about you lot,” we can fancy him saying. “Sent me all the way up here to this land of fogs, swamps and kings with unpronounceable names to save you from your pagan ways. I was all for chucking it in and returning to Rome where I could get a decent meal and a hot bath — but no! — His Holiness insisted I follow through with the plan.”
And we can imagine the Anglo-Saxons rather flattering themselves — especially if they also heard about the comparison with angels — and that their rightful place was in Heaven. The pope must have considered them to be rather special indeed to go to so much trouble on their behalf.
Perhaps the seed of a dangerous idea was planted in the Anglo-Saxon mind all those centuries ago…