The Northumbrian king was in fact supreme over Britain as no king of English blood had been before. Northward his frontier reached the Forth, and was guarded by a city which bore his name, Edinburgh, Eadwine's burgh, the city of Eadwine. Westward, he was master of Chester, and the fleet he equipped there subdued the isles of Anglesey and Man. South of the Humber he was owned as overlord by the whole English race, save Kent; and even Kent was bound to him by his marriage with its king's sister.
With the Kentish queen came Paulinus, one of Augustine's followers, whose tall stooping form, slender aquiline nose, and black hair falling round a thin worn face, were long remembered in the north; and the Wise Men of Northumbria gathered to deliberate on the new faith to which Paulinus and his queen soon converted Eadwine. To finer minds its charm lay in the light it threw on the darkness which encompassed men's lives, the darkness of the future as of the past. "
So seems the life of man, O king," burst forth an aged Ealdorman, "as a sparrow's flight through the hall when you are sitting at meat in winter-tide, with the warm fire lighted on the hearth, but the icy rain-storm without. The sparrow flies in at one door and tarries for a moment in the light and heat of the hearth-fire, and then flying forth from the other vanishes into the wintry darkness whence it came. So tarries for a moment the life of man in our sight, but what is before it, what after it, we know not. If this new teaching tells us aught certainly of these, let us follow it." Coarser argument told on the crowd. "None of your people, Eadwine, have worshipped the gods more busily than I," said Coifi the priest, " yet there are many more favoured and more fortunate. Were these gods good for anything they would help their worshippers." Then leaping on horseback, he hurled his spear into the sacred temple at Godmanham, and with the rest of the Witan embraced the religion of the king.
But the faith of Woden and Thunder was not to fall without a struggle. Even in Kent a reaction against the new creed began with the death of aethelberht. Raedwald of East Anglia resolved to serve Christ and the older gods together; and a pagan and Christian altar fronted one another in the same royal temple. The young kings of the East-Saxons burst into the church where Mellitus, the Bishop of London, was administering the Eucharist to the people, crying, "Give us that white bread you gave to our father Saba," and on the bishop's refusal drove him from their realm. The tide of reaction was checked for a time by Eadwine's conversion, until Mercia sprang into a sudden greatness as the champion of the heathen gods. Under Eadwine Mercia had submitted to the lordship of Northumbria; but its king, Penda, saw in the rally of the old religion a chance of winning back its independence. Penda had not only united under his own rule the Mercians of the Upper Trent, the Middle-English of Leicester, the Southumbrians, and the Lindiswaras, but he had even been strong enough to tear from the West-Saxons their possessions along the Severn. So thoroughly indeed was the union of these provinces effected, that though some were detached for a time after Penda's death, the name of Mercia from this moment must be generally taken as covering the whole of them.
Alone, however, he was as yet no match for Northumbria. But the old severance between the English people and the Britons was fast dying down, and Penda boldly broke through the barrier which parted the two races, and allied himself with the Welsh king, Cadwallon, in an attack on Eadwine. The armies met in 633 at Hatfield, and in the fight which followed Eadwine was defeated and slain. The victory was turned to profit by the ambition of Penda, while Northumbria was torn with the strife which followed Eadwine's fall. To complete his dominion over Mid-Britain, Penda marched against East Anglia. The East Engle had returned to heathendom from the oddly mingled religion of their first Christian king, Raedwald; but the new faith was brought back by the present king, Sigeberht. Before the threat of Penda's attack Sigeberht left his throne for a monastery, but his people dragged him again from his cell on the news of Penda's invasion in 634, in faith that his presence would bring them the favour of Heaven. The monk-king was set in the forefront of the battle, but he would bear no weapon save a wand, and his fall was' followed by the rout of his army and the submission of his kingdom.
Meanwhile Cadwallon remained harrying in the heart of Deira, and made himself master even of York. But the triumph of the Britons was as brief as it was strange. Oswald, a second son of aethelfrith, placed himself at the head of his race, and a small Northumbrian force gathered in 635 under their new king near the Roman Wall. Oswald set up a cross of wood as his standard, holding it with his own hands till the hollow in which it was fixed was filled in by his soldiers; then throwing himself on his knees, he cried to his host to pray to the living God. Cadwallon, the last great hero of the British race, fell fighting on the "Heaven's Field," as after times called the field of battle, and for seven years the power of Oswald equalled that of aethelfrith and Eadwine.
It was not the Church of Paulinus which nerved Oswald to this struggle for the Cross. Paulinus had fled from Northumbria at Eadwine's fall; and the Roman Church in Kent shrank into inactivity before the heathen reaction. Its place in the conversion of England was taken by missionaries from Ireland. To understand, however, the true meaning of the change, we must remember that before the landing of the English in Britain, the Christian Church comprised every country, save Germany, in Western Europe, as far as Ireland itself. The conquest of Britain by the pagan English thrust a wedge of heathendom into the heart of this great communion and broke it into two unequal parts. On the one side lay Italy, Spain, and Gaul, whose Churches owned obedience to the See of Rome, on the other the Church of Ireland. But the condition of the two portions of Western Christendom was very different. While the vigour of Christianity in Italy and Gaul and Spain was exhausted in a bare struggle for life, Ireland, which remained unscourged by invaders, drew from its conversion an energy such as it has never known since. Christianity had been received there with a burst of popular enthusiasm, and letters and arts sprang up rapidly in its train.