Æthelberht of Kent

Æthelberht was born around 550.  He was the son of King Eormenric. When Æthelberht was around 15, he became king after his father died.  When he was 20, he married Bertha, the Christian daughter of Charibert I, king of the Franks.  Bertha, brought a bishop, Liudhard, with her across the Channel, and for whom Æthelberht built a chapel, St Martin’s.

The Britons converted to Christianity under Roman rule. The invasions by the Anglo-Saxons separated the British church from European Christianity for centuries.  The church in Rome had no presence or authority in Britain.  Rome knew so little about the British church that it was unaware of any schism in customs.

Marrying Bertha may have influenced. Pope Gregory I, sent Augustine of Canterbury as a missionary from Rome. Gregory the Great wrote urging  Æthelberht to spread Christianity among those kings and peoples subject to him   In 597, a group of nearly forty monks, led by Augustine, landed in Kent. Æthelberht was distrustful of the newcomers.  He insisted on meeting them under the open sky, to prevent them from performing sorcery. The monks impressed Æthelberht, but he was not converted immediately. He agreed to allow the mission to settle in Canterbury and permitted them to preach. Shortly after, Æthelberht converted to Christianity, churches were established, and wide-scale conversion to Christianity began in the kingdom. Æthelberht gave his new church land in Canterbury. Through Æthelberht’s influence Sæberht, king of Essex, also was converted,  but there were limits to his effectiveness. The entire Kentish court did not convert: Augustine also was unsuccessful in gaining the allegiance of the British clergy.

After the arrival of Augustine’s mission, around 602 or 603, Æthelberht issued a set of laws, in ninety sections. These laws are the earliest surviving code and were among the first documents written in Anglo-Saxon. Æthelberht’s code talks about the church in the very first item.  It talks about the pay required for the property of a bishop, a deacon, a priest, and so on.  The laws are concerned with setting and enforcing the penalties for transgressions at all levels of society; the severity of the fine depended on the social rank of the victim. The king had a financial interest in enforcement.  

Some clauses define how much of the household goods a woman could keep, depending on whether she keeps custody of the children, in a divorce.

It may have been during Æthelberht’s reign that the first coins were minted in England since Romans left. These early coins were gold, and probably were shillings mentioned in Æthelberht’s laws.

Æthelberht died on February 24, 616.  He was succeeded by his son, Eadbald, who was not a Christian.  He had converted but went back to his pagan faith. He outraged the church by marrying his stepmother, which was contrary to Church law, and by refusing to accept baptism. His feast day was originally February 24 but was changed to February 25.