Early in the year 597, a small band of Benedictine monks, sent as missionaries to the English by Pope Gregory the Great under the leadership of Augustine, prior of the pope’s own monastery on the Coelian Hill in Rome, landed in southeastern England in the kingdom of Kent. Welcomed at Thanet by the pagan Kentish king, Ethelbert, and his Christian Frankish wife, Bertha, the king granted them a dwelling in his capital city of Canterbury. In his Ecclesiastical History of the English People, the Venerable Bede writes that as the monks approached the city, bearing before them a silver cross and an icon, “the likeness of our Lord and Savior painted on a board”, they sang this prayer:
We pray Thee, O Lord, in all Thy mercy, that Thy wrath and anger may be turned away from this city and from Thy holy house, for we are sinners. Alleluia.
Once in Canterbury, Bede tells us that the monks “began to emulate the life of the Apostles and the primitive Church.” He writes,
They were constantly at prayer; they fasted and kept vigils; they preached the word of life to whomsoever they could…They practiced what they preached, and were willing to endure any hardship, and even to die for the truth which they proclaimed.
Their mission to the Kentish people met with great success. Conversions followed rapidly – so rapidly, in fact, that extant sources tell us that Augustine and his monks were hard-pressed to keep pace. In a letter to Eulogius, the Patriarch of Alexandria, Pope Gregory wrote that on Christmas Day of 597, over ten thousand converts were baptized in and around Canterbury. (Even allowing for some exaggeration, this indicates that large numbers of the Kentish people became Christians through the Augustinian mission.) Around 601, Ethelbert, who had remained friendly to Augustine and his monks and sympathetic to the Gospel from the beginning of the mission, was converted to faith in Christ and was baptized, becoming the first Christian king in England.
Ethelbert (in Old English, Æthelberht) was king of Kent and the third bretwalda of England, exercising overlordship over all the country south of the River Humber. Under his rule, Kent was the most cultured of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. The kingdom had close ties with the Frankish Rhineland, and Ethelbert had married the Frankish princess Bertha, daughter of Charibert, king of Paris, before 588. Bertha, a Christian (as the Franks had been for nearly a century), had married Ethelbert on condition that she be allowed freely to practice her faith and to bring with her the bishop Liudhard as her chaplain.
When, at Ethelbert’s invitation, Augustine and his monks took up residence in Canterbury they assembled to worship, to celebrate the Eucharist, to preach, to pray and to baptize in an old church in the city, built perhaps two centuries before and dedicated to Saint Martin of Tours. This old church, which was probably already in use by Liudhard, Queen Bertha’s chaplain (it was perhaps he who had dedicated the church to Saint Martin), stood as a reminder of an earlier Christian presence in Britain, a presence that predated the invasions of the Angles, Saxons and Jutes in the fifth and sixth centuries and went back to the days of Roman Britain. With the king’s strong support, Augustine established episcopal sees at Rochester and at London, then the capital of the kingdom of the East Saxons (Essex) and under Ethelbert’s overlordship as bretwalda.
Ethelbert was the first Anglo-Saxon king to leave a code of laws, which included a law protecting the clergy and churches by exacting very high compensation for damage done to them. He died on February 24, 616 and was buried beside Bertha in the side chapel of Saint Martin in the church of the monastery of Saint Peter and Saint Paul, which he earlier had built outside the walls of Canterbury.
God our ruler and guide, we honor you for Queen Bertha and King Ethelbert of Kent who, gently persuaded by the truth of your Gospel, encouraged others by their godly example to follow freely the path of discipleship; and we pray that we, like them, may show the goodness of your Word not only by our words but in our lives; through Jesus Christ, who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen.
The icon of Saint Ethelbert is taken from Aidan Hart’s gallery of icons and is reproduced here with his generous permission.