Saint of the Day – 24 February – Saint Ethelbert of Kent (552-616) King of Kent and Confessor. Born in 552 and died on 24 February 616 at Canterbury, England of natural causes. St Ethelbert of Kent is not to be confused with St Ethelbert, King of East Anglia, who died in 794 as a Martyr – also known as Albert or Albrigh. Also known as Ædilberct, Æthelberht, Aedilberct, Aethelberht, Aibert, Albert, Edilbertus.
Ethelbert, son of Eormenric, great-grandson of Hengist, Saxon conqueror of Britain. He was raised as a pagan worshipper of the pagan god Odin. He was the first English king to be converted to Christianity, which proved to be a crucial event in the development of English national identity. In 597, a Roman Monk St Augustine of Canterbury, arrived in Kent as leader of a group of Missionaries sent by St Pope Gregory the Great. There were Christians in Britain already and had been ever since Roman and early Celtic times, before the country was invaded from the mid-fifth century onwards by pagan English of various Germanic tribes, who in time set up small kingdoms.
Ethelbert’s wife, Bertha, was a daughter of the Merovingian Frankish king in what is now France. She was a Christian and it was a condition of the marriage that she would be free to practise her religion. Ethelbert evidently considered that an acceptable price for a close connection with the most powerful ruler in western Europe. The two had three children, including Saint Ethelburgh of Kent.
The details and dates are often uncertain but Bertha brought a Bishop with her from France as her Chaplain and presumably she had her own Christian retinue as well. For worship, she restored the ancient Church of St Martin of Tours, which dated back to Roman times.
Ethelbert had consequently been in close touch with Christianity and he soon accepted it for himself and was Baptised by St Augustine.
His example led to the Baptism of 10,000 of his countrymen within a few months and he supported Augustine in his missionary work with land, finances and influence.
Ethelbert now presided over the creation of a law code which gave the Roman Church a secure place in the Kingdom. St Augustine was made Archbishop of the English on the Pope’s orders and he appointed Bishops of London and Rochester before his death in 604. London was in the Kingdom of Essex, which was ruled by Ethelbert’s nephew Sebert, who had also became a Christian convert.
Bertha died in or soon after 601, it seems. Ethelbert apparently took a second wife. He was succeeded by his son Eadbald, who had reverted to paganism. He horrified the Roman clerics by marrying his father’s second wife, which was strictly against the rules, but he afterwards reverted to Christianity.
In time, other pagan English Kings were impressed by the Roman Church’s positive support for strong regimes, which in turn made religious control easier. These Kings accepted the Roman Church and carried their people with them. Over centuries the process would lead to the creation of a single unified English nation.
When he died in 616, St Ethelbert was buried in the side chapel of Saint Martin in the Abbey Church of Saints Peter and Paul. His relics were later translated to Canterbury.
In the Roman Martyrology, he is listed under his date of death, 24 February, with the citation: ‘King of Kent, converted by St Augustine, Bishop, the first leader of the English people to do so.’