Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Ethelbert (552?-616)

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ETHELBERHT, ÆTHELBERHT, or ÆDILBERCT (552?–616), king of Kent, son of Eormenric, the grandson of Oeric, called Oisc, from whom the Kentish kings took the patronymic of Oiscingas or Æscings, and who was the son of Hengest, is said on somewhat doubtful authority to have been born in 552 (A.-S. Chron. Canterbury). He succeeded to the throne of Kent in 560 (Bæda, Hist. Eccl. ii. 5; in 565 A.-S. Chron.), and in 568 endeavoured to extend his kingdom westwards by marching into the district between the Andredsweald and the Thames. Here, however, he was met by the West-Saxons under Ceawlin and his brother Cutha, who defeated him at Wibbandune or Wimbledon, and drove him back into Kent. He married Bertha [q. v.], daughter of Haribert or Charibert, king of the Franks, who reigned in Paris, by his wife Ingoberg, promising her parents that she and the bishop she brought over with her, Lindhard, bishop of Senlis, should be allowed to practise their religion without interruption. Accordingly he gave her the Roman church of St. Martin, to the east of his capital Canterbury, that she might worship there. On the death of Ceawlin in 593 Æthelberht's power appears to have increased greatly; he gained supremacy over all the English race south of the Humber, and is therefore reckoned as the third Bretwalda (Bæda, Hist. Eccl. i. 25, ii. 5; A.-S. Chron. 827). In 597 he heard of the landing of St. Augustine and his companions, and sent to them bidding them remain in the Isle of Thanet until he had determined what to do, and telling them that in the meantime he would provide for them. After some days he came to the island with his thegns, and, sitting in the open air lest the strangers should cast spells upon him, gave audience to the missionaries. When they had finished their discourses he answered that their words and promises were fair, but as they were new and doubtful he would not forsake what he and the whole English race had so long held. Nevertheless, as they had come so far in order to tell him what they believed to be true and profitable, he would use them hospitably; they should have whatever they needed, and might make such converts as they could. His answer shows that he had not learnt anything about christianity from the queen or her bishop, though he was willing to extend the fullest toleration to those who desired to teach it. He gave the missionaries a dwelling in Canterbury, provided them with food, and allowed them to preach. They used St. Martin's church, and gained several converts. Æthelberht himself was converted, and was baptised, doubtless in St. Martin's church, and most probably on Whitsunday 2 June. From that time onwards he vigorously forwarded the work of Augustine. He did not force any one to adopt his new religion, but showed special favour to those who did so, and at the Christmastide after his baptism as many as ten thousand English are said to have followed his example (Gregory to Eulogius, bishop of Alexandria, Eccl. Documents, iii. 12). He gave up his palace at Canterbury to Augustine, and moved his residence to Reculver. Augustine after his consecration, in November 597, is said to have purged the temple where Æthelberht and his nobles used to worship, and where an image of the king stood, and to have dedicated it as a christian church in honour of St. Pancras (Thorn, col. 1760). Æthelberht helped him to rebuild an ancient Roman church, which he dedicated in honour of the Saviour, that it might be the cathedral church for himself and his successors, and the king also built the church of SS. Peter and Paul (afterwards called St. Augustine's), which was not finished at Augustine's death. In 601 Mellitus and the second set of Roman missionaries brought him a letter from Pope Gregory, exhorting him to destroy idolatrous temples, and with the letter the pope sent him some presents. Before Augustine died (604) Æthelberht, with the advice of his witan, published a body of written dooms or laws ‘according to the Roman fashion;’ this code, which was thus a result of the king's conversion, contains ninety laws, chiefly dictating the pecuniary amends to be made for every kind and degree of injury, and beginning with the amounts to be paid for injuring the property of the church or the clergy (Thorpe, Ancient Laws, i. 1). Æthelberht built a church at Hrof, or Rochester, for Justus, who came to England in 601, and was ordained bishop by Augustine. It must also have been due to his influence that Sæberht, the son of his sister Ricula, the under-king of the East-Saxons, accepted the teaching of Mellitus, and he built the church of St. Paul in London, to be the cathedral church of Mellitus and his successors. Before his death Augustine set aside Gregory's scheme of organisation, which made London the metropolis of the southern province, by ordaining Mellitus bishop of London and Laurentius to be his successor at Canterbury, and this arrangement was doubtless made with the approval of Æthelberht, who would be unwilling that the primacy should be taken from Kent and transferred to an under-kingdom. Æthelberht must have persuaded Rædwald of East Anglia to embrace christianity, for he was baptised in Kent. Rædwald, however, turned back to the worship of his old gods, and seems to have extended his power at the expense of the Kentish king, for before Æthelberht died the leadership in England had passed from him to Rædwald. Queen Bertha died before her husband, and Æthelberht married another wife, whose name has not been recorded, probably because she afterwards married her stepson Eadbald [q. v.] Æthelberht died on 24 Feb. 616, after a reign of fifty-six years, and was buried in the porch or chapel of St. Martin in the church of SS. Peter and Paul. He left three children: a son, Eadbald, who had refused to accept christianity, and who succeeded him; and two daughters, Æthelburh, also called Tate, who married Eadwine, king of the Northumbrians, and Eadburh, abbess of Liming. Æthelberht's name appears in the calendar. One charter of his, granted on 28 April 604 to the church of St. Andrew at Rochester, is probably genuine; four others attributed to him, together with a letter said to have been written to him by Boniface IV, are doubtful or spurious (Eccles. Documents, iii. 54–60, 65).

[Bædæ Hist. Eccles. i. c. 25, 26, 30, ii. c. 5 (Engl. Hist. Soc.); Anglo-Saxon Chron. sub ann. 565, 568; Greg. of Tours, Hist. Francorum, iv. c. 26, ix. c. 26; Thorn, col. 1760, ed. Twysden; Acta SS. Bolland. Feb. iii. 476; Haddan and Stubbs's Councils and Eccles. Documents, iii. 5–67; Dict. of Christian Biog. art. ‘Ethelbert,’ by Bishop Stubbs; Green's Making of England, 111, 117, 235, 246.]

W. H.