One day, the story goes, Gregory was walking through the Roman slave market when he noticed three fair, golden-haired boys. He asked their nationality and was told that they were Angles. "They are well named," said Gregory, "for they have angelic faces." He asked where they came from, and when told "De Ire," he exclaimed, "De ira (from wrath)—yes, verily, they shall be saved from God's wrath and called to the mercy of Christ. What is the name of the king of that country?" "Aella." "Then must Alleluia be sung in Aella's land."
This brief encounter in the Roman Forum between the monk Gregory – later Pope St. Gregory the Great – and the English youths planted in him such a desire to evangelize England that having secured the blessing of Pope Pelagius, he immediately set forth with several monk companions.
This ardent missionary desire, however, was not to be fulfilled by himself but by another.
Augustine was prior of a Benedictine monastery in the Eternal City when Pope St. Gregory the Great asked him and another thirty monks to take up the evangelization of England, a project close to the pontiff’s heart.
England had been Christianized before the seventh century, but the Saxon invasion had sent Anglo-Christians into hiding.
As Augustine and companions made their way to the isle, they heard so many stories of the cruelty of their future hosts, that by the time they reached France, they decided to turn back to Rome. But Pope Gregory who had heard differently, including the fact that King Ethelbert had married the Christian-French princess Bertha, respecting her religion, insisted on the mission being carried out.
On arriving in England, King Ethelbert in fact received the monks respectfully and allowed them to preach. In 597 the king accepted baptism, and although, unlike other kings of the time, he let his people free to choose, conversions began to happen.
Augustine was consecrated bishop of the English and ruled wisely, stepping carefully around the prevalent pagan practices, Christianizing old temples, and keeping certain holidays as feasts of Christian saints.
The holy prelate had more success with the pagans then with the old Christians who had taken refuge in Cornwall and Wales. They had a strayed a little from the teachings of Rome, and though Augustine met with them many times trying to bring them back, they could not forgive their Saxon conquerors and chose bitterness and isolation instead.
St. Augustine was primate of England for only eight years, and died in May of 605.