May 27: Bertha and Ethelbert, Queen and King of Kent, 616

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Christianity had been known in Britain among the Celts since the third century, but in the fifth century the southeast was invaded by pagan Anglo-Saxons who drove the Celts north and west into Scotland, Ireland, and Wales. Ethelbert succeeded his father as Saxon king of Kent in 560. He was, according to the Venerable Bede, a fair ruler and the first English King to promulgate a code of law. Brisk cross-channel trade with France exposed Ethelbert to Roman customs and luxuries. His admiration for the Frankish ways led him to marry a French Christian princess, Bertha.  Although not a Christian himself, Ethelbert promised Bertha’s father that she could practice her faith. Good to his word, he welcomed her chaplain and granted him an old Christian mausoleum to convert into the Church of St. Martin, which still stands today.

In 597, the Roman mission to England under Augustine arrived. When he first heard the Gospel, Ethelbert was cautious and unconvinced. However, his fair-mindedness and hospitality were evident in his welcome to Augustine: “The words and promises you bring are fair enough, but because they are new to us and doubtful, I cannot accept them and forsake those beliefs which I and the whole English race have held so long. But as you have come on a long pilgrimage and are anxious, I perceive, to share with us things which you believe are true and good, we do not wish to do you harm; on the contrary, we receive you hospitably and provide what is necessary for your support; nor do we forbid you to win all you can to your faith and religion by your preaching.”

The following Pentecost, Ethelbert was baptized, becoming the first Christian King in England. Though he helped the missionaries and founded cathedrals and churches throughout southeastern England, including Canterbury Cathedral, he never coerced his people, or even his children, into conversion. Bertha’s kind and charitable nature and Ethelbert’s respect for law and the dignity of individual conscience represent, to this day, some of the best of the English Christian spirit.


I.    God our ruler and guide, we honor thee for Queen Bertha and King Ethelbert of Kent who, gently persuaded by the truth of thy 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 thy Word not only by our words but in our lives; through Jesus Christ, who with thee and the Holy Spirit liveth and reigneth, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen.

II.    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.


Psalm 144:9–15

Wisdom 9:7–12

1 Timothy 4:6–10

Luke 10:21–24

Preface of a Saint (1)

From Holy, Women, Holy Men: Celebrating the Saints © 2010 by The Church Pension Fund. Used by permission.

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We invite your reflections about this commemoration and its suitability for the official calendar and worship of The Episcopal Church. How did this person’s life witness to the Gospel? How does this person inspire us in Christian life today?

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20 thoughts on “May 27: Bertha and Ethelbert, Queen and King of Kent, 616

  1. This commemoration is for Trial Use. All elements (Title, Collect, Lections, and Proper Preface) are new.

  2. This seems an odd addition to the calendar. But I suppose if Kamehameha and Emma are in why not Bertha and Ethelbert?

    Readings: The Psalm does not include 144:16? “Happy are the people of whom this is so! * happy are the people who God is the Lord!’ What’s one more verse, particularly as it is the last verse of the Psalm?

    Bio: They need a ‘Who they are” and ‘Why are they important’ statement. They died the same year, 616? A statement regarding their death is needed.

    • Michael: “if Kamehameha and Emma are in why not Bertha and Ethelbert? ”

      JFL: It was only yesterday that Ethelbert was mentioned in the commemoration of Augustine AND the mission to England. Ethelbert was mentioned because he was part of the receptivity to that mission that allowed it to be the success it turned out to be. Creating a separate and somewhat redundant commemoration (especially the very next day) to highlight Ethelbert is more than slightly anticlimactic.

      At the same time, Queen Bertha is not mentioned at all in yesterday’s narrative, giving the impression that she was not a significant influence in Ethelbert’s receptiveness to the missionary endeavor. Yet, today’s narrative gives the impression she was of central importance in Ethelbert’s receptiveness.

      I suggest two things, first, make up our mind whether she was or was not important, and second, re-edit yesterday’s narrative to say what it needs to say, including Bertha and Ethelbert. That way, we don’t have to have a separate commemoration for “The Return of Ethelbert: The Rest of the Story.”

  3. I was brought up in East Kent in England and we have an apartment in Birchington. King Ethelbert and Queen Bertha’s School are in Birchington and our apartment is on Ethelbert Road. We learned a fair amount at school locally about these saints (when I was tiny – so cannot remember that much now)especially as there is a cross at Pegwell Bay near Ramsgate – where St Augustine landed. There are many street’s and even a golf course named after him. So we people of Kent know a fair amount about them. We also went to church (Episcopal) in North Berwick Scotland when we lived there and the church was called St Baldred’s. I believe he was a local saint.

  4. B&E were put into the Calendar at the request of the youth of the Convocation of Churches in Europe. Greg Howe

    • Thanks, Greg.
      Having been a youth once myself I realize how important I used to believe myself to be. But are not trial inclusions in the calendar to be brought forward by Dioceses – or in this case by the CCE? and then only after significant local commemorations?
      Maybe this was the case. I don’t know.

  5. The bio says a lot more about Ethelbert than Bertha, so perhaps the title (and collect) should be changed to “Ethelbert and Bertha.” Or do we always put the HW before the HM?

  6. I think anyone can suggest a name, Michael–but with a lot of data supporting the suggestion. –So much English history is forgotten, or not taught, especially outside of England itself. Doesn’t make sense when Anglicanism has so much to do with how the church developed in England. I agree that more needs to be said about Bertha, though.

  7. Strongly urge that these two worthies be folded into the commemoration under Augustine of Canterbury.
    That gives greater context for all parties. We must keep the dating clearer, dates of death in this case. With
    others on this thread– we need better balance in the biographies when there are 2 names. Why are we adding these folks to the list , clarity is lacking !

  8. I too don’t really get why Bertha is mentioned before Ethelbert (or at all, to be honest). Ethelbert seems to be the do-er in the bio and Bertha, unlike most historic wives who we commemorate, seems to not have played any significant role in his conversion. This seems like another case of having to mention a woman just to balance any mention of a man…. In the same vein, why “queen and king” in that order? She was not a Queen Regnant so she had no priority over Ethelbert and it’s such an obvious inversion of the standard formula that it has a “look at how inclusive we can be” ring to it.

    If we were to associate a virtue with this commemoration, the bio suggests that it would be something along the lines of not pressuring others into conversion. I agree that that’s a good thing to do, but it seems to be taken a little too far in this commemoration, particularly in Bertha who, according to the bio, was so not-very-in-your-face about her faith that it played almost no role in her husband’s latter conversion while the full time missionary got the job done. E.g., in the collect:

    God our ruler and guide, we honor thee for Queen Bertha and King Ethelbert of Kent who, gently persuaded by the truth of thy 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 thy Word not only by our words but in our lives; through Jesus Christ, who with thee and the Holy Spirit liveth and reigneth, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen. [For that matter, we don’t really have any info on Bertha’s conversion — was she

    It just feels over done…. (Also, the last paragraph of the bio seems a little self-congratulatory)

    Maybe there’s more to the story that I’ve missed, but I don’t really get this one. They didn’t seem to have memorable conversions themselves or get many others to convert and Ethelbert’s good king accomplishments are presented as mostly coming before his conversion.

    • Sorry, missed part of the text.

      Regarding Bertha’s conversion — was she “gently persuaded” as well (if so, by whom?) or is there a more interesting story on her end?

  9. If the subtitle shows the death dates for two persons, there should be two dates: “612, 616”.

    It is not clear why this date is chosen. We know that Ethelbert died on February 24, but here is apparently a reluctance to have anyone else share the date with an apostle.
    Add a new opening paragraph: “Although actual dates are uncertain, both Ethelbert and Bertha were born in the first half of the sixth Century. She reportedly died in 612, and he on February 24, 616.”

  10. As far as I can tell, very little is known about Bertha and Venerable Bede only mentions her in passing when writing about AEthelbert. But there is a letter written to Queen Bertha from Pope Gregory encouraging her to work harder at the convernsion of her husband. In it he compares Bertha to Helena, Constantine’s mother, and Gregory refers to the conversion of the English as her reward.

    ” And we bless Almighty God, who has been mercifully pleased to reserve the conversion of the nation of the Angli for your reward. For, as through Helena of illustrious memory, the mother of the most pious Emperor Constantine, He kindled the hearts of the Romans into Christian faith, so we trust that He works in the nation of the Angli through the zeal of your Glory. And indeed you ought before now, as being truly a Christian, to have inclined the heart of our glorious son, your husband, by the good influence of your prudence, to follow, for the weal of his kingdom and of his own soul, the faith which you profess, to the end that for him, and for the conversion of the whole nation through him, fit retribution might accrue to you in the joys of heaven. For seeing, as we have said, that your Glory is both fortified by a right faith and instructed in letters, this should have been to you neither slow of accomplishment nor difficult. And since, by the will of God, now is a suitable time, so proceed, with the co-operation of divine grace, as to be able to make reparation with increase for what has been neglected. Wherefore strengthen by continual hortation the mind of your glorious husband in love of the Christian faith; let your solicitude infuse into him increase of love for God, and so kindle his heart even for the fullest conversion of the nation subject to him that both he may offer, out of the zeal of your devotion, a great sacrifice to the Almighty Lord, and that the things related of you may both grow and be in all ways proved to be true: for your good deeds are known not only among the Romans, who have prayed earnestly for your life, but also through divers places, and have come even to the ears of the most serene prince at Constantinople. Hence, as great joy has been caused us by the consolations of your Christianity, so also may there be joy in heaven for your perfected work. So acquit yourselves devotedly and with all your might in aid of our above-named most reverend brother and fellow-bishop, and of the servants of God whom we have sent to you, in the conversion of your nation that you may both reign happily here with our glorious son your husband, and after long courses of years may also attain the joys of the future life, which know no end. Now we pray Almighty God that He would both kindle the heart of your Glory with the fire of His grace to perform what we have spoken of, and grant you the fruit of an eternal reward for work well-pleasing to Him.”


    This letter does suggest that Bertha played a greater role in the conversion of the pagan invaders to Christian English men and woman than would be gleaned from the passing comment in Venerable Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People.

    It seems as though the date of Bertha’s death is speculative since her son was not baptized by 616 and the last known mention of her living is this letter from Gregory just quoted. It is traditionally dated to 601 but the content certainly suggests an even earlier date, before AEthelbert’s baptism in 598. Given how long it took to get news from Kent to Rome and then mail from Rome to Kent, Ethelbert might have been baptized years before Pope Gregory knew about it. Certainly a letter from the Pope would suggest that inclusion of Bertha with AEthelbert is more than just political correctness.

    Given the lack of U.S. history taught in American schools and the even scantier British history, this sequence of Venerable Bede, Archbishop Augustine, and then Etherbert and Berta provides a brief glimpse of English history and the foundation of English Christianity, without which we would not be Episcopalians today.

    • I’m not sure that on this evidence alone we can merit inclusion of Bertha — certainly not with priority over Ethelbert — but it does begin to give a more balanced picture of the pair. It still seems clear that she was personally ineffectual, particularly if this letter is dated to pre-Augustine, but perhaps she, like Esther, can be remembered for pacifying the king, giving him reason to allow missionary activity to proceed unhindered, and thereby allowing Augustine to re-establish the hierarchy in Britain. Thank you.

      The dating does seem fuzzy — someone with more historical chops than I can hopefully clear this up.

      • Bertha is important for a few reasons: before his marriage to her what is Kent, what is Britain compared to the size of the Frankish realm. We , nowadays forget it, but at the time Kent was very small and the influence of Britain over European affairs was …nil. Kent in 580 : no written laws and no writing, no currency, an oral tradition and that is about it with ongoing warfare between tribal chieftains and about a total historical blackout between roughly and 597… Compare Aethelbert bloodline and the name of his ancestors, female included and that one of Bertha.
        Bertha may be considered a minor princess… because she was a female in a male only royal family, but if she had been a son… Her father’s kingdom would not have been torn apart. she is Clothar grandchild , from his eldest son Charibert, Clothar’s kingdom was not mean and naturally she is Choldwig and Clothilda’ great grand daughter.
        Which means she is born into a family where it has been known to have consorts who had a mind of their own and would play a role in their husband’ conversion to Christ.
        Her step grandmother Saint Queen Radegunda was from her history entertaining a deep real faith in Christ.
        Bertha marries Aethelbert, it is more her side which is the loser than his. she comes from a powerful wealthy family , from a Christian country and where contrary to Kent administration under church management is in working order…
        Then over a few years ,( we can rule out that she was born in 540- there is a confusion with a namesake aunt Aethelbert died in 616 and was born c560 , bertha likely same time0) she brings aside advisng her husband toward Christ, writing, and written laws- you have to know that her father was noted for his taste in legifering and the laws from Aethelbert look a lot like Frankish laws albeit with a Saxon flavour. We also know that her son Eadbald minted Kentish currency. Who knows possibly one day we shall find out coins from Aethelbert. Your vision of a meek queen is fading in favour of a women whose alliance was sought and who has been instrumental to a lot more than simple religious approval. Plus you also have a mother to St Aethelburgh etc…
        I am the first to doubt she was ruling the roast over her husband, but her achievements as results must not be overlooked. I feel quite moved at the image of this young woman raised into a Parisian palace (father was King of Paris, mother was issued from aristocratic background and her uncle was a bishop!) probably educated- Radegunda was not a mean intellect, ending up to what must have seemed to her the backwaters of civilization in a country where nomoer would she hear her native Frankish language.
        Finally , we also forget …how it ended. She dies between 601 last formal record and 612 – in between Aethelbert had given his kindgom a set of writen laws quite liberal to women as far as one could be labelled liberal and feminist in 616AD… Aehelbert died in 616, his son’s first years as a king seeing a backlash againts Christianity- yet this son who is a pagan at the time, buried his father with his mother… Come to think of it, it must have been a very interesting couple and it is quite nice to have them together. Aethelbert may not have been the paragon of virtues depicted by beady Bede and Bertha’s cahievements are the best one can expect of a time where female voices were mostly stiffled. But it is nice that this couple who started the very long story which is ending up in today’s Britain be still united in death and in memory sone 1500ys later, don’t you think. Are they great Christians, I cannot say; are they worth remembering ,yes.

        Thank you for your post. Next time please leave both first and last name.
        — Editor

  11. Presumably the youth of the Convocation of Churches in Europe gave a reason when they suggested the inclusion of this commemoration. It would be very interesting to know what it was.

  12. Just writing now to reiterate Michael Hartney’s question from Nov. 2011 on the omitted Psalm verse 144:16.
    I am nearing the end of 2 years of Bible Study classes which have looked at psalms verses in light of a saint’s life. (We’ll be looking at Psalm 144 tomorrow and thinking about the King, the Queen and Joan of Arc.) We’ve been asking how that psalm might have moved them to ministry and how we might be similiarly moved to be a saint too.
    My idea about the missing verse comes from the differences in source versification between BCP and most other standard translations.
    Thus my question: Is it possible that the recommendation for the chosen verses was based on the NRSV and not the BCP? Is it possible that no one caught this in preparing HWHM?

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