BRITAIN I. Christian origins – II. Councils. I. Christian origins. The Christian origins of Britain are still unclear, and certainly no credit can be given to the legends, circulating widely in the Middle Ages, according to which the evangelization began with the missionary voyages of Sts. Peter and Paul and of at least four other apostles; the legendary presence of Joseph of Arimathea, who supposedly brought some drops of the blood of Christ and planted the sacred grove at Glastonbury, encountered just as much success already in ancient times, and this gave rise to numerous stories which flourished in the Middle Ages. Anyone who speaks of a Christianity widespread among the Britons in the 1st. Mesa Map c. AD is exaggerating; for it must be acknowledged that until the earliest years of the 4th c., although one may accept in principle the existence of individual believers, the absence of certain archaeological and literary evidence does not permit postulating the existence of conspicuous communities of believers on the island.
Also completely without foundation is the report, given in good faith by the Venerable Bede, but found by him in a passage of the Liber pontificalis, of a letter sent toward the end of the 2nd c. AD by a British king named Lucius, otherwise unknown and strangely characterized by his name as not of local origin, to Pope Eleutherus 175 189, in which he requested missionaries to facilitate his own conversion and to evangelize the pagan populations who inhabited the island. Equally fantastic, therefore, is the affirmative response of the pontifex but, as is easy to understand, an abundant and improbable literature was born in the course of time around these letters. A much more solid testimony, but to be considered not yet definitive for proving the existence of a substantial British Christian community, could be that of the Carthaginian apologist Tertullian who, writing at the beginning of the 3rd c., surprisingly describes Britain as a Christian stronghold.
Also in the first decades of the 3rd c. there is the testimony provided for us by the Alexandrian exegete Origen who, in his writings, three times refers to Christian Britain, one time even considering the new faith as a unifying force among the Britons. The literary and historical sources and the archaeological evidence, however, do not help us to understand with any precision when Christianity became important on the island, and it is difficult to understand how it really reached there, apart from missions and the spontaneous diffusion brought by the army or by merchants. Many modern scholars have maintained, without adequate literary or archaeological evidence, that Christianity reached Britain through the exiles from the Gallic community of Lyons that in 177 as we learn from the Martyrium Lugdunensium transmitted to us by Eusebius of Caesaraea underwent a very harsh persecution in which not even the bishop Pothinus, over 90 years old, was spared, expiring in prison after two days of atrocious tortures. Even if the martyrdom of Alban, and therefore the existence of Christian believers in Britain, is generically attributed to the time of the Diocletian persecution, the first certain testimony of the presence of a conspicuous Christian community on the island can be assigned to 314. Mesa Map At the anti-Donatist Council of Arles three British bishops, as well as a priest and a deacon, appear among the signers: Eborius episcopus de civitate Eboracensi provincia Britannia, Restitutus episcopus de civitate Londiniensi provincia suprascripta. Adelphius episcopus de civitate Colonia Londiniensium. Exinde Sacerdos presbyter, Arminius diaconus. This is an evident confirmation of an ecclesiastical apparatus organized into a hierarchy and subdivided into territorial dioceses with the borders adapted to the territorial division imposed by Diocletian? depending on urban sees.