It’s amazing how some things twist and some things turn and you have to question would something have happened eventually or was it only because of that single moment that it happened at all. That’s the statement and question I find myself asking when I look at the re-birth of Christianity within mainland England and has led me to explore the how’s and when’s of its happening.
We have to dig back towards the end of the 6th Century when Kent was a kingdom of its own and ruled by King Æthelberht. Æthelberht ruled Kent from roughly about 590 to his death on 24th February 616. He must have been quite important within modern England at the time as he is referred to as ‘bretwalda’ or British ruler in the entry in 827 of the Anglo Saxon Chronicle.
He is said within the Anglo Saxon Chronicle to be the first of the English kings to receive baptism.
‘This year died Ethelbert, king of Kent, the first of English that received baptism’
The Kentish people had strong ties with the Frankish people over the English Channel in modern day France. `Æthelberht looked to strengthen these ties with a marriage alliance. He had chosen Bertha of Paris, daughter to Charibert I of Paris and great granddaughter to the great Clovis I, king of the Franks. Bertha was already a Christian at the time of marriage and as part of the agreement she was to be allowed to carry on her faith in her new home.
This agreement then led to Bertha being allowed to restore a former Romano-British church at Canterbury, dedicating it to Saint Martin of Tours and it became Bertha’s private chapel and she brought with her Luidhard her own Chaplin and bishop.
This must have peaked Æthelberht’s interest in his wife’s religion as in 596/97 he welcomed what would become known as the Gregorian mission sent by Pope Gregory I to convert the people of Anglo Saxon England to their faith. The future St Augustine led the mission and baptised Æthelberht, himself becoming Bishop of Canterbury. Were Gregory’s hopes of conversion filled with the establishment of Bertha’s private chapel? St Martins Church in Canterbury is the oldest known English speaking church in the world today.
The king donated land to Augustine who founded the monastery to St Peter and St Paul which later became St Augustine’s Abbey. Pope Gregory had truly believed that Christianity had landed and taken a foot hold on the south east corner of the island and wrote in a letter to the patriarch of Alexandria that there had 10,000 conversions.
Augustine asks Gregory for assistance on how to set up the church and how it should act. In Bede’s The Ecclessiastical History of the English People written one hundred years later, Bede goes into great details of the questions asked and answered. Questions were asked about marriage within the family, about who could marry who, what should happen if someone steals from the church and how to deal with bishops from France and Britain amongst some.
Bertha of Kent
Bede also confirms that Gregory in 601 sends more ministers to add him in the larger establishment of the church.
‘Moreover, the same Pope Gregory, hearing from Bishop Augustine, that he had a great harvest, and but few labourers, sent to him, together with his aforesaid messengers, several fellow labourers and ministers of the word of whom the first and principal were Mellitus, Justus , Paulinus and Rufinianus’
In 604, Roman bishops were established in London and Rochester and a school for Anglo Saxon priests and missionaries. Augustine consecrated his successor at Canterbury, Laurence and properly died later that year himself and in 606 Pope Gregory also died.
Æthelberht also established the first set of written Germanic-language law code and is thought to be the oldest example of written English albeit in a 12th century manuscript Textus Roffensis. It is believed that some of the laws were previous oral traditions from within Kent but could it have been the churches influences that made Æthelberht write these down.
Æthelberht died on 24th February 616 and was buried in the Church of St Peter and St Paul but was later exhumed so the shrine could be placed in the high alter of the Norman Church. Æthelberht, Bertha and Augustine were all created as Saints showing their importance at the time of setting up and establishing the early Christian church in Kent.
Æthelberht successor as king was his son Eadbald. Eadbald had been baptised but went back to his pagan beliefs. His father Æthelberht remarried after the death of his mother Bertha, although his new wife’s name is not recorded. Eadbald went against church laws and married his step mother who it is believed was a pagan herself.
Bede records that the church suffered a setback with this. Sæberht, the king of Essex had also converted to Christianity with the influence of Æthelberht but upon his death his sons expelled Mellitus, Bishop of London. Eadbald was punished for his faithlessness by frequent fits of insanity and was possessed by an evil spirit (could this have been epilepsy?), although Eadbald did reconvert back to Christianity.
‘Then abjuring the worship of idols, and renouncing the unlawful marriage, he embraced the faith of Christ and being baptized, promoted the affairs of the church to the utmost of his power.’
Eadbald then founded a church to St Mary in 624 which later became part of St Augustine’s Abbey. He also re-married Ymme who was Frankish and the connections between Kent and Frankia grew stronger again. Trade would have been important to Kent and this could of assisted with Eadbald’s re-found faith.
Christianity was now truly established and here to stay within the southern part of England. Kent had been the forerunner and base for the Bishops to push out on their conversion of other parts of England. My thoughts are that the marriage of Æthelberht and Bertha ignited the spark and the close trade links that would develop between both their kingdoms would allow Christian missions to be welcomed easier into Kent just in later years Viking warlords would convert themselves to aid in peace agreement’s and their land grabs a few hundred years later.