King Ethelbert I of Kent

Ethelbert of Kent
Statue of Ethelbert on Canterbury Cathedral in England. Adapted from a photo by Wikimedia user Saforrest; made available through the GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.2

King Ethelbert I of Kent was also known as:

Aethelbert I, Aethelberht I, Ethelberht I, St. Ethelbert

Ethelbert was known for:

issuing the earliest Anglo-Saxon law code that is still extant. Ethelbert also allowed Augustine of Canterbury to evangelize in his lands, which would begin the Christianization of Anglo-Saxon England.

Occupations:

King
Military Leader

Places of Residence and Influence:

England

Important Dates:

Born: c. 550
Became King of Kent: 560
Died: February 24, 616

About King Ethelbert I of Kent:

Ethelbert was the son of King Eormenric of Kent, who was believed to have been descended from Hengist, of Hengist and Horsa fame. When Eormenric died in 560, Ethelbert became king of Kent, even though he was still in his minority. The first notable action made by Ethelbert was an attempt to wrest control of Wessex from Ceawlin, then king of Wessex. His efforts were thwarted when he was badly defeated by Ceawlin and his brother Cutha in 568.

Though he was evidently unsuccessful in war, Ethelbert was quite successful in his marriage to Berhta, daughter of the Merovingian King Charibert. Ethelbert had long been a pagan, worshipping the Norse god Odin; yet he made every concession to Berhta's Catholicism. He allowed her to practice her religion wherever and however she wished, and he even gave her the church of St. Martin, which had allegedly survived from the time of Roman occupation, in his capital of Cantwaraburh (which would come to be called "Canterbury").

Although it is entirely possible that Ethelbert's devotion to his bride sprang from sincere regard and even love, the prestige of her family may also have motivated the Kentish king to accommodate her Christian ways. The Catholicism of the Merovingian kings tied them strongly to the papacy, and the power of the family was growing in what is now France.

It is likely that Ethelbert allowed pragmatism and wisdom to govern these decisions.

Whether he was motivated by the influence of Berhta or the power of her family, Ethelbert readily communicated with missionaries from Rome. In 597, a group of monks led by Augustine of Canterbury landed on the Kentish coast. Ethelbert welcomed them and gave them a place to live; he supported their efforts to convert his people, but never forced conversion on anyone. Tradition has it that he was baptized not long after Augustine's arrival in England, and that, inspired by his example, thousands of his subjects converted to Christianity.

Ethelbert facilitated the construction of churches, including the church of St. Peter and St. Paul, which was allegedly constructed on the site of a pagan temple. It was here that Augustine, the first Archbishop of Canterbury, would be buried, as were several of his successors. Although there was at one point a move to make London the primary See of England, Ethelbert and Augustine together resisted the attempt, and the See of Canterbury thus became the foremost Catholic Church in England.

In 604 Ethelbert promulgated a law code known as the "Dooms of Ethelbert"; this is not only the first of several "Dooms" of Anglo-Saxon kings, it is the first known written law code in English.

Ethelbert's Dooms fixed the legal standing of the Catholic clergy in England as well as setting in place a good number of secular laws and regulations.

Ethelbert died on February 24, 616. He was survived by two daughters and a son, Eadbald, who remained a pagan all his life. Under Eadbald, Kent and much of southern England saw a resurgence in paganism.

Later sources would name Ethelbert a Braetwalda, but it is not known whether or not he used the title himself during his lifetime.

 

More Ethelbert Resources:

 

Ethelbert in Print
The links below will take you to a site where you can compare prices at booksellers across the web. More in-depth info about the book may be found by clicking on to the book's page at one of the online merchants.


by Eric John, Patrick Wormald & James Campbell; edited by James Campbell


(Oxford history of England)
by Frank M. Stenton


by Peter Hunter Blair

Ethelbert on the Web

St. Ethelbert
Brief bio by Ewan Macpherson at the Catholic Encyclopedia

Medieval Sourcebook: The Anglo-Saxon Dooms, 560-975
First in the document are Ethelbert's Dooms. Primary source taken from Oliver J. Thatcher, ed., The Library of Original Sources (Milwaukee: University Research Extension Co., 1901), Vol. IV: The Early Medieval World, pp. 211-239. Scanned and edited by Jerome S. Arkenberg, and placed online by Paul Halsall at his Medieval Sourcebook.

 


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