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A Dictionary of Early Christian Biography
Ethelbert, King of Kent
Ethelbert (1) I. (properly Aethelberht or Aethelbriht; Bede, Aedilberct ), king of Kent, son of Irminric, and great-grandson of Oeric, surnamed Oisc, the son of Hengist, succeeded to the kingdom of the Kentishmen as the heir of the "Aescingas" in 560 (the date, 565, in the Chronicle is inconsistent with Bede's reckoning given below). Some years after his accession he provoked a conflict with Ceawlin, the West Saxon king, and Cutha, his brother, was defeated at Wimbledon with the loss of two ealdormen and driven back into Kent ( Sax. Chron. A.658). Ethelbert had already married Bertha or Berhte, daughter of Charibert, king of Paris, on the understanding that she should be free to practise "the rites of her own Christian religion," under a bishop named Liudhard, chosen by her parents (Bede, i. 25). Ethelbert faithfully observed this compact, but shewed no curiosity about his wife's creed. She and her episcopal chaplain worshipped undisturbed in the old Roman-British church of St. Martin, on a hill E. of Ethelbert's city of Canterbury (Bede, i. 26). Ethelbert succeeded, on the death of Ceawlin in 593, to that pre-eminence among the Saxon and Anglican kings usually described as the Bretwaldadom (see Freeman, Norm. Conq. i. 542). Four years later, in the spring of 597, he was brought face to face with a band of Christian missionaries, headed by Augustine, whom pope Gregory the Great had sent to "bring him the best of all messages, which would ensure to all who received it eternal life and an endless kingdom with the true and living God" (Bede, i. 29). Ethelbert had sent word to the foreigners to remain in the Isle of Thanet, where they had landed, and "supplied them with all necessaries until he should see what to do with them." He soon came into the isle, and sitting down with his "gesiths" or, attendant thanes in the open air (for he feared the effect of spells under a roof) listened attentively to the speech of Augustine. [See Augustinus.] Then he spoke in some such words as Bede has rendered immortal. "Your words and your promises are fair; but seeing they are new and uncertain, I cannot give in to them, and leave the rites which I, with the whole race of the Angles, have so long observed. But since you are strangers who have come from afar, and, as I think I have observed, have desired to make us share in what you believe to be true and thoroughly good, we do not mean to hurt you, but rather shall take care to receive you with kindly hospitality, and to afford you what you need for your support; nor do we forbid you to win over to your faith, by preaching, as many as you can." He gave them a dwelling in Canterbury, N.W. of the present cathedral precinct. They began to make converts, as Bede tells us, through the charm of their preaching, and the still more powerful influence of consistent lives. Shortly afterwards Ethelbert expressed his belief in the truth of those promises which he had described as unheard-of, and was baptized; the time, according to Canterbury tradition, was June 1, the Whitsun-eve of 597 the place, undoubtedly, was St. Martin's. The king proved one of the truest and noblest of royal converts. He built a new palace at Regulbium or Reculver, abandoning his old abode to Augustine, now consecrated as archbishop, and adding the gift of various "needful possessions" (Bede, i. 26). He assisted Augustine in converting an old Roman-built church into "the cathedral church of the Holy Saviour," and also built, "after exhortation," a monastery outside the E. wall of the city, dedicated to SS. Peter and Paul, but afterwards known as "St Augustine's." He received by the hands of Mellitus, who, with others, joined the mission in 601, a letter of congratulation and exhortation from pope Gregory; and lent his aid as Bretwalda to arrangements for a conference, near the Bristol Channel, between his archbishop and some bishops of the ancient British church. Among the many "good services which he rendered to his people," Bede reckons those "dooms" or decrees which, "after the example of the Romans, he framed with the consent of his wise men," and among which he first of all set down what satisfaction ( bÃ´t ) was to be made by any one who robbed the church, the bishop, or the clergy. For he was "minded to afford his protection to those whose doctrine he had received" (Bede, ii. 5). For these dooms, 90 in number, extant in the Textus Roffensis , see Thorpe's Ancient Laws and Institutes of England , p. 1. Ethelbert's nephew Sabert, the son of his sister Ricula, held the dependent kingship of the East Saxons, and embraced the faith under the persuasion of his uncle and overlord, who built a church of St. Paul in London for Mellitus as bishop of that kingdom. He also built at "Hrof's Castle," i.e. Rochester, a church of St. Andrew for a bishop named Justus: "gave many gifts to both prelates, and added lands and possessions for the use of those who were with them." It was doubtless in Ethelbert's reign and under his influence that Redwald, king of the East Angles, while visiting Kent, received baptism, although, as his after-conduct shewed, his convictions were not deep (Bede, ii. 19). After Bertha's death, Ethelbert married a young wife whose name is unknown. His last days must have been saddened by anxiety as to the future reign of his son Eadbald, who refused to receive the faith of Christ. Ethelbert died, after what Bede describes as a most glorious reign of 56 years, on Feb. 24, a.d. 616, and was buried beside his first wife in the "porticus" or transept of St. Martin, within the church of SS. Peter and Paul, leaving behind a memory held in grateful reverence as that of the first English Christian king (Hardy, Cat. Mat. i. 176, 214-216, 259). Cf. The Mission of St. Augustine, according to the Original Documents , by A. Jason, D.D. (Camb. 1897).
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Wace, Henry. Entry for 'Ethelbert, King of Kent'. A Dictionary of Early Christian Biography. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/eng/hwd/e/ethelbert-king-of-kent.html. 1911.