Bertha of Kent: Bringer of Christianity?

Ellie Monks

Towards the end of the sixth century, the land that would one day be known as England was adrift from the rest of Europe.

Ever since the Romans had left their most far flung territory in 410 AD, the lands had been overrun with invading Angles, Saxons and Jutes. These pagan forces overwhelmed the Christian population and by 580 AD, the seven kingdoms (also referred to as the Heptarchy) were ruled by pagan kings who could ‘trace’ their descent back to the King of the Gods – Woden. All this would soon change, however, with the arrival of king Æthelberht of Kent’s new wife Bertha. …Or would it? Bertha of Kent, also known as Saint Bertha, is often credited for bringing Christianity to Kent and to England as a whole but it is hard to understand how much of an immediate impact that she had. Bertha was the daughter of the Merovingian king Charibert and his first wife Ingoberga. Bertha was also the granddaughter of Saint Clotilde who, whilst well remembered for her piety and charity, also commanded her sons to go to war with her brother in revenge for her parents’ supposed murder. The granddaughter may well have inherited the grandmother’s strength and fortitude. Bertha arrived in Kent with her chaplain Luidhard in 580, quickly settling into her role as the Kentish queen. An old Roman church was restored for the use of her and her household which was dedicated to St. Martin of Tours just outside of Canterbury. St. Martin’s still exists to this day and the church, along with Canterbury Cathedral and St. Augustine’s Abbey, has been made an UNESCO World Heritage Site because of the constant Christian worship that has taken place within its walls for over a thousand years. That is a major part of Bertha’s legacy, if she had not been in Kent when the mission led by Saint Augustine in 597 AD, it’s highly likely that London would have become the centre of Christianity in England. If St. Augustine had even made it that far without Bertha’s help, as some historians believe that it was because of Bertha’s presence in Kent which influenced the Papacy sending him there, although Kent also had much more significant ties with the Continent than the rest of the Heptarchy did even before Bertha arrived. It was only after Saint Augustine arrived, however, that Æthelberht converted to Christianity.
Bertha of Kent: Bringer of Christianity?
Stained glass windows in the Chapter house, Canterbury Cathedral, Canterbury, England

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Bertha of Kent: Bringer of Christianity?
Queen Bertha The statue in Lady Wootton's Gardens

Bertha had been given the freedom to worship when she arrived in Kent, but she had not appeared to be that interested in convincing her husband of the merits of her faith.

In a surviving letter from Pope Gregory the Great to Bertha in 601, the Pope almost tells her off for not doing more to convert Æthelberht herself in the years prior to Saint Augustine’s arrival. But he goes on to say, essentially, that she can correct this oversight by ensuring that Æthelberht converted the rest of Kent. Unfortunately this was not to happen either as when her son Eadbald succeeded his father he was still a pagan and did not convert until at least eight years into his reign. However Bertha’s daughter, Æthelburg, was a Christian and her marriage to the king of Northumbria triggered the conversion of the most northern kingdom of the Heptarchy – much like her parents’ marriage had done in Kent. If anything, this just shows how history is not linear and does not move forward constantly. The kingdoms of the Heptarchy did not just turn to Christianity one by one after Bertha and Saint Augustine’s arrivals. There was a constant gain and loss to the process and no one person would have been able to manage it alone. However, I do not believe that we should dismiss Bertha’s contribution to the Christianisation of what would become England simply because she may not have been entirely active in it. If Bertha had not been queen of Kent, had not created a space in the Kentish court where Saint Augustine would feel welcomed, the world might be a very different place.
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Bertha of Kent: Bringer of Christianity?

Ellie Monks

Ellie Monks is a historian and history blogger from the north west of England. She gained a BA (Hons.) at the University of Winchester in 2018 and got her MA at Bangor University over the academic year 2019-2020, writing her dissertation over the first two lockdowns in Britain. Currently, Ellie owns and runs the history blog Historians Edge and it’s attached Instagram @historiansedge where she discusses gender, social history and has recently written a series about Henry V.
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