Thame Local History
The Coming of Christianity to Dorchester and Thame

Dorchester-on-Thames lies at the confluence of the rivers Thame and Isis, or Thames.

It had been an important settlement in the Iron Age and in the Roman period.

The early Saxon settlers concentrated around the Dorchester and Abingdon area in early seventh century were called the Gewisse.

At this time, an Italian Bishop called Birinus was sent from Rome by Pope Honorius I to help convert the 'pagan' Anglo Saxons.

Bishop Birinus was destined for the Midlands, but when he reached the land of the Gewisse he deemed them in need of conversion and did not travel any further.

It so happened that the Christian King Oswald, King of Northumbria, was at Dorchester when Bishop Birinus, in the year 635, baptised King Cynegils (611-642), King of the Gewisse, and so brought him into the Christian faith.

Oswald was to marry Cynegils's daughter and the baptism by Birinus was taken by Oswald as a Holy blessing on the wedding and on the marriage of their kingdoms.

The two kings, Oswald and Cynegils, granted Dorchester to Bishop Birinus for him to establish his episcopal seat, the first Bishopric in what was to become the kingdom of Wessex.

During his time as the first Bishop of Dorchester Birinus is credited with having built and dedicated several Christian churches and with having converted many people to the new faith.

Thame is connected to Dorchester both by the river Thame and by a minor Roman road that ran from Dorchester to the major Roman road called Akeman Street (now more or less the A41 between Aylesbury and Bicester).

The minor Roman road from Dorchester to Akeman Street passed by Thame at Long Crendon.

Birinus would have been able to travel to Thame from Dorchester with ease, and later evidence suggests that he may well have founded a Christian church at Thame.

Thame church was from its beginning a mother church to several smaller places of worship in the surrounding villages and hamlets, such as those at Towersey, North Weston and Tetsworth.

This suggests that the message of Christianity first reached Thame and spread to the smaller settlements around.

This may have been between the years 635 and 640.

King Oswald of Northumbria was slain in 642 by King Penda of Mercia. The kingdom of Mercia, centred in the Midlands, was now in the ascendancy.

Penda has been described as a 'warrior-king of the Germanic epic style' and although pagan himself, he was not antagonistic to Christianity. References

Bishop Birunis himself died in 650, and was succeeded at the see of Dorchester by Bishop Egelbert, from French Gaul.

King Penda of Mercia was in turn slain in 655. His sons had become Christian in his lifetime, and so the new faith spread rapidly within Mercia.

Wulfhere, the son of Penda, who was a Christian of some zeal, annexed the lands of the Gewisse, and his brother-in-law, the local sub-king Frithuwold, had his royal palace near Aylesbury.

Twenty years or so after the death of Bishop Birinus, history finds Wulfhere and Frithuwold at Thame, signing royal charters at the holy altar.

King Wulfhere was a patron of monastic foundations, and he may have turned Thame church into a Mercian royal minster, with monks able to read and write charters.

King Wulfhere died in 675 and for the following ten years, 675 to 685, the see of Dorchester was occupied by a Mercian Bishop, after Egelbert had returned to France.

The see of Dorchester then lapsed, as the Mercians absorbed the area into the sees of Lichfield and Leicester.

The see of Dorchester was re-established in 886, the year of the treaty between King Alfred of Wessex, who was by now allied to the Mercians, and the Danish King Guthrum.

This was the treaty that established the 'Danelaw' and saw Guthrum baptised into the Christian faith.

The Dorchester see now stretched from the Humber to the Thames, and covered much land within the Danelaw.

In the tenth century King Eadred (946-955), the grandson of King Alfred, appointed a Dane to the see of Dorchester. Bishop Oskytel, Bishop of Dorchester and Archbishop of York, died at Thame in 971.

Thame and several other Oxfordshire settlements, such as Great Milton and Banbury, belonged to the estates of the Bishop of Dorchester in the last decades of Anglo Saxon rule, in the early eleventh century.

This may well reflect the way that the message of Christianity spread through the region some four hundred years before, starting with the arrival at Dorchester of Bishop Birinus from Rome.

Dorchester Abbey history website

Thame as 7th Century Minster

The Death of Archbishop Oskytel

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  Local History Research Group
  Thame, Oxfordshire, England