Wednesday, 8 April 2015

Bertha, Queen of Kent

Given the recent re-release of my England’s Queens: The Biography in two parts, I thought I would think about some of England’s and (later) Great Britain’s, most memorable queens. The word ‘English’ is derived from ‘Angle’ and, as such, the Anglo-Saxon queens are the earliest English queens. The first one that I am going to look at, was not English by birth, however.

Bertha, Queen of Kent, is a relatively well-known figure today as the woman who is usually credited with bringing Christianity to England. She was born in 539 and was the daughter of Charibert I, King of Paris and his wife, Ingerberg. Through her father, she was the great-granddaughter of King Clovis of the Franks who, at the instigation of his wife, Clotild, had converted to Christianity. While Bertha was raised as a Christian, her father was rather less committed to piety than his grandmother had been. According to the historian, Gregory of Tours, he dismissed Bertha’s mother to marry one of her servants, before divorcing his second bride to marry her sister. This led to the couples’ excommunication. Undaunted, Bertha’s father had taken a fourth wife by the time of his death in 567 – his daughter’s own marriage would prove rather more lasting.

At some point before her father’s death, Bertha had married King Ethelbert of Kent, crossing the channel to join him in his kingdom. From Ethelbert’s point of view, it was an excellent match, giving him links to the prestigious Merovingian kings of Francia. Bertha’s religion was important to her and her father secured a promise that she be allowed to practice Christianity before she sailed to Kent. Once there, she was given a converted Roman building to use as a chapel and she and her chaplain, Bishop Liuthard, set about trying to convert the king.

Bertha saw the conversion of England as her duty. According to the Anglo-Saxon historian, Bede, in 596, Pope Gregory decided to begin the conversion of England by sending a churchman, Augustine, and some monks to preach in England. They arrived in Ethelbert’s kingdom of Kent, an ideal landing place given the queen’s Christian beliefs. According to Bede:

‘On receiving this message, [that Augustine and the monks had arrived] the king ordered them to remain in the island where they had landed, and gave directions that they were to be provided with all necessaries until he should decide what action to take. For he had already heard of the Christian religion, having a Christian wife of the Frankish royal house named Bertha’.

Ethelbert agreed to meet with the embassy, while Bertha allowed Augustine to use her chapel to perform mass, preach and baptise his converts. It was there that Ethelbert also came to be baptised.

Bertha’s role in the conversion of Kent was widely known. In 602, she received a letter from Pope Gregory, instructing her to spread her faith to the other Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, with the pontiff exhorting her to be as Helena – the mother of Constantine – had been to the Romans. It is not clear whether she acted on this letter, although her daughter, Aethelberg, assisted in the conversion of Northumbria through her own marriage. Bertha’s date of death is not known, although her husband had remarried before his own death in 616. He chose to be buried with her in the Church of St Peter and St Paul that had been built in his kingdom.

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