King Ethelbert: the first English monarch to become Catholic. His influence is barely acknowledged today
An important anniversary took place on February 24. It was the 1400-year anniversary of the death of King Ethelbert – the first Anglo-Saxon king to become a Christian.
Yet across England there was little fuss made and little celebration of the anniversary. Thankfully, there was a Tridentine Mass offered in the seaside town of Ramsgate – at the church of St Augustine’s and St Ethelbert’s – by the Kazakhstani Bishop Athanasius Schneider to commemorate the anniversary. Ethelbert was king of Kent from 560 – 616.
Born and raised a pagan, Ethelbert sought to marry the Christian Princess Bertha. Bertha was the daughter of Charibert, a Frankish king who insisted that a strict condition for his daughter Bertha marrying Ethelbert be that she would be allowed to practice her faith freely and she came with her own chaplain, Bishop Luihard.
For the early years of their marriage, Ethelbert and Bertha would have had what we now call a mixed marriage. Queen Bertha’s reign in Kent saw the beginning of a Roman Catholic influence on Anglo-Saxon society – it is thought that Bertha persuaded Ethelbert to welcome St Augustine and the Roman Mission in 597.
Sent by Pope Saint Gregory the Great, St Augustine was the prelate who was charged with evangelising England, and he was warned that England was “a barbarous, fierce and unbelieving nation.”
St Ethelbert was baptised by St Augustine, but it puzzled me why he was not baptised by his wife’s chaplain, Bishop Luihard. I asked myself this, and other questions, when researching this piece. Wouldn’t it have been easier for Ethelbert to have been brought to Christianity by the bishop who gave the sacraments to his wife? Couldn’t Ethelbert have converted to Christianity on or before marrying Bertha? And why did he wait?
Fr Hunwicke wrote an excellent blog that answered my questions. Had Ethelbert been received into the Church by Bertha’s personal chaplain, it “would have made him appear an appendage of her apron strings, if not a vassal of her father”.
Fr Hunwicke goes on to explain, that as St Augustine was sent directly from Pope Gregory the Great, it allowed Ethelbert, “to be instructed that the dedications and the liturgical dispositions and the choral arrangements of the churches being constructed in Canterbury precisely paralleled those of the great City itself, making Canterbury a new, Northern Rome.”
Aside from his great role in enabling the roots of Catholicism to be planted in English soil, Ethelbert also published the first written laws in England and re-established the use of coins as monetary currency. For someone who had such a great influence on England’s destiny as a nation, Ethelbert’s name is scarcely mentioned nowadays.
I wrote this post for The Catholic Herald following the guidance of Luke Coppen and Will Gore, my editors. You may see my author archive here.