Saint Augustine's Oak

  • 16 Jan 2012
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One of the most historic of meetings was that between Saint Augustine and the Bishop of the Britons in the summer of AD. 603. When the Romans left these shores, Britain was by no means abandoned to paganism. The Christian faith established in the days of Roman dominion survived in unbroken continuity. Christianity, once planted on British soil was never perished. Saint Augustine, having once established the authority of the Roman hierarchy in Saxon and Anglican parts, desired to bring the Celtic Christians into line. The Venerable Bede, in his History of the English Church says, 'Augustine, with the help of King Ethelbert, drew together to confer with him the Bishops and Doctors of the next provinces of the Britons at a place which is called to this day, Augustine's Ac (Oak), on the borders of the Hwiccas and the West Saxons'. Tradition has it that the British Bishops, hearing that Augustine was a haughty and proud man, and not of the humility of Christ, watched with care the way he received them. 'Should he' they say 'remain seated on his throne as they approached, and not rise and come to meet them, they would know that this was not the true way of Christ'. Augustine made no attempt to rise, and they, after polite exchanges, returned across the river, and he went back empty-handed. Where did the meeting take place? Five places have been stoutly contested as the scene of the meeting. They are: Aust Cleeve in Gloucestershire, Martin Hussingtree (anciently Aussuntree), Alfric, (Acfric), Rock, and at the Mitre Oak, Hartlebury. In the opinion of past antiquaries, Rock had a superior claim, for in Saxon days the village was called Ther Ac (The Oak) whilst in the Domesday Survey it is given as Halac (Holy Oak). And indeed, a famous oak of great antiquity stood there until the mid-18th century, but came to an untimely end in 1757. The trunk had become quite hollow, and during the rebuilding of the toll-keeper's house which stood near, the gate-keeper took up on his abode in the hollow tree trunk. One bitterly cold night he made a roaring fire in it. The tree took light and was in a few hours entirely consumed. Other traditions have just as strongly held that the meeting was at the Mitre Oak, and for this reason; it was the place specially chosen in 1575 for the Bishop and the clergy of Worcester to meet Queen Elizabeth on her historic visit to the county. This site would also fit the tradition that the British Bishops crossed the Severn. As at Rock, the great oak was used by the tollgate keeper, who lived in a quaint old house nearby, but he, Thomas Morris, used it as a stable for his three donkeys. The tree stands today, though it is said to be a sapling from the original, but very old, at the side of the busy Worcester to Kidderminster road; surrounded by an iron fence, for the land on which it stands is held on condition that the tree is not interfered with.