St. Aethelbert I of Kent,
King of Kent
St. Aethelbert was the son and successor of Ermenric, King of Kent, and great great grandson of Hengist, the first of the Saxon conquerors of Britain. He reigned for fifty-six years over the oldest kingdom of the Heptarchy. He even gained, over all the other Saxon kings and princes, even to the confines of Northumbria, that kind of military supremacy which was attached to the title of Bretwalda, or temporary chief of the Saxon Confederation.
His wife was Bertha, daughter of Caribert, King of Paris. She was a Christian princess, who brought over to England as her chaplain, one Liudhard of Senlis, a bishop, who exercised his ministry in a church built around a Roman mausoleum, near the walls of Canterbury and dedicated to St. Martin. Tradition records the gentle and lovable virtues of queen Bertha, but little is known of her life. She has left but a brief and uncertain illumination on those distant and dark horizons, over which she sits like a star, the herald of the Sun. Her example, and the virtues of Liudhard, probably did much to break up the ground in the heart of King Aethelbert; but his conversion was reserved for the coming and preaching of St. Augustine of Canterbury and his companions, the missionaries sent from Rome by Gregory the Great.
These men landed first on the Isle of Thanet, which joins close to the eastern part of Kent, and thence they sent a message to King Aethelbert, saying why they had come into his land. The King sent word back to them to stay on the island till he had fully made up his mind how to treat them. He gave orders that they should be well taken care of in the meanwhile. After some days, he came himself into the isle and bade them come and tell him what they had to say. He sat under an oak tree and received them in the open air, for he would not meet them in a house, as he thought they might be wizards who would use some charm or spell, which, according to the superstition of the time, was held to be powerless out of doors. So they came, carrying a silver cross and a picture of Our Lord, painted on a wooden panel, chanting in procession the litanies in use at Rome, in the solemn and touching strains which they had learnt from Gregory, their spiritual father, and the father of religious music. At their head, marched Augustine, whose lofty stature and patrician presence attracted every eye. For, like Saul, "he was taller than any of the people from his shoulders and upwards." The king, surrounded by a great number of his followers, received them graciously and made them sit down before him. After having listened to the address which they delivered to him and to the assembly, he gave them a loyal, sincere and truly liberal answer. "You make fair speeches and promises," he said, "but all this is to me new and uncertain. I cannot all at once put faith in what you tell me and abandon all that I, with my whole nation, have for so long a time held sacred. But since you have come from so far away to impart to us what you yourselves, by what I see, believe to be the truth and the supreme good, we shall do you no hurt; but, on the contrary, shall show you all hospitality and shall take care to furnish you with the means of living. We shall not hinder you from preaching your religion and you may convert whom you can."
So he gave them a house to dwell in, in the Royal City of Canterbury and he let them preach openly to the people, of whom they quickly brought some over to the faith, moved by the innocence of their lives and the sweetness of their heavenly doctrine, which was confirmed by miracles. They were given, as Bede tells us, the Church of St. Martin in which "to sing, to pray, to say mass, to preach and to baptise." But it was not long before the King also submitted to the them and was baptised. Before the year was out, there was added to the Church more than ten thousand souls. It was on Whitsun-Day, in the year AD 597, that the Kentish King entered into the unity of the Holy Church. Since the conversion of Constantine, excepting that of Clovis, there had not been any event of greater moment in the annals of Christendom.
Then, the King told Augustine and his companions that they might build new churches and repair the old ones which Christians had used before the Saxons invaded England and drove the ancient Church into Cornwall and Wales. Aethelbert, faithful to the last to that noble respect for the individual conscience, of which he had given proof even before he was a Christian, was unwilling to constrain anyone to change his religion. He allowed himself to show no preference, save a deeper love for those who, baptised like himself, became his fellow-citizens in the heavenly kingdom. The Saxon King had learnt from the Italian monks that no constraint is compatible with the service of Christ.
From the time of his conversion, Aethelbert behaved, for the twenty remaining years of his life, as became a good king and a good Christian. He gave his Royal Palace in Canterbury for the use of the Archbishop, founded Christ Church Cathedral in Canterbury, St. Andrew's in Rochester, St. Paul's in London and built and endowed the abbey and church of SS. Peter and Paul without the walls of Canterbury, commonly called St. Augustine's. He was instrumental in bringing over to the faith of Christ, Sebert, King of the East Saxons, with his people, and Redwald, King of East Anglia. The former remained true to Christ till his death; but Redwald returned, at least in part, to the worship of Thor and Wodin. Queen Bertha died in AD 612 and King remarried soon afterward. Aethelbert died on 24th February AD 616 and was succeeded by his son, Edbald. He was buried in the Church of SS. Peter and Paul, near the body of his devout Queen Bertha and the holy prelate, St. Liuthard. A light was always kept burning before his tomb by our pious ancestors. Liuthard of Senlis, the chaplain of Queen Bertha, is also commemorated on this day.
Edited from S. Baring-Gould's "The Lives of the Saints" (1877).
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