Mellitus, the saint who retook London from barbarians

By Boris Johnson

In an extract from his new book on landmark Londoners, Boris Johnson tells the tale of the Roman abbot who built the first church at St Paul’s

When Mellitus arrived, he found almost no evidence of the Christian presence. But he had a plan. He gazed about himself there on the top of Ludgate hill, and his eye settled on a dilapidated Roman temple. That would do, he thought.
His mission had been conceived in AD 591, when Pope Gregory had been mooching about a slave market in Rome. He spotted some male slaves with fair skin and golden hair. Where do that lot come from, he asked.
They are English, the auctioneer replied – or “Angli sunt.” Gregory clapped his hands and made a joke: “Haud Angli, sed Angeli!” (“Not Angles, but angels!”)
And tell me, he asked, are they Christian? Unfortunately not. Right, said Pope Gregory. We’ll see about that.
Gregory sent Mellitus with a letter on how to convert the heathen Brits. Whatever you do, said Gregory, don’t rush it. And don’t tear down their temples. Just build new huts on the side.
Somewhere on the site of what is now our cathedral, Mellitus persuaded the king (whose wife, as luck would have it, had Christian leanings) to allow him to construct a church. In the ruins of what had been a temple of Diana, he built a simple wooden nave and dedicated it to St Paul. Christianity was back in the soil of London – albeit only precariously. Following the death of two of his most important Saxon patrons, Mellitus was driven out of London, never to return.
In time, though, Mellitus’ legacy was to prove astonishing. That frail wooden Church of St Paul’s was to become the symbol of national de?ance during the Blitz; and to this day, the glimpses of St Paul’s are so sacred to Londoners that they are protected by elaborate viewing corridors. No building may impede the sight of the dome from Richmond Hill, Primrose Hill and other high spots around the city.
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