Celts to the Creche: Day 19
St. Bertha of Kent
On this 19th day of our journey with the Celts to the Creche, we meet St. Bertha, who was married to the pagan Anglo-Saxon King of Kent, Æthelberht. She was one who prepared the way for Christianity to enter Anglo-Saxon England.
Bertha was a Frankish princess, the daughter of Charibert I, the Merovingian King of Paris and his 1st wife Ingoberga. She was also the great-granddaughter of Clovis, the first king of the Merovingian dynasty and his wife Clothilde who helped convert him to faith in Christ. Bertha was born about 539. Charibert died in 567, and her mother in 589. We learn about Bertha from The Venerable Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People and from the Decem Libri Historiarum of Gregory of Tours who was a contemporary witness and who may have met Bertha.
Preparing the Way for England’s Conversion to Christianity: Bertha had been brought up near Tours, France. Her marriage to King Æthelberht of Kent was likely brokered by King Chilperic of Merovingian France who would have used the daughter of his deceased half-brother to extend his influence across the Channel.1 Her marriage was conditioned on her being allowed to practice her faith in Christ. To ensure that this stipulation was met, she brought her chaplain, Bishop Liudhard with her to England.
Bertha restored a Christian church in Canterbury which dated from the Roman occupation, dedicating it to St. Martin of Tours. It became her private chapel even before Augustine arrived from Rome. The present St. Martin’s of Canterbury continues in the same building. It is the oldest church in the English-speaking world and is part of the Canterbury World Heritage site.
Much of the favorable reception that Augustine received for his mission when he was sent by Pope Gregory I to preach the gospel to pagan Anglo-Saxon England in 597, is owed to the influence of Bertha.
Pope Gregory wrote to the Eastern Church’s Patriarch of Alexandria, Eulogius, reporting that by Christmas 597, more than 10,000 English had been baptized in just a few short months. In 601, Pope Gregory addressed a letter to Bertha, in which he compliments her highly on her faith and knowledge of letters.
Her family and influence: Anglo-Saxon records indicate that Saint Bertha had two children: Eadbald who later became King of Kent and Æthelburga of Kent who married King Edwin of Deira (later part of Northumbria). King Edwin’s conversion to Christianity was linked to his marriage to Æthelburga who brought her chaplain, Paulinus with her to Northumbria. Paulinus baptized Edwin and all of his family including the young Hilda, the future St. Hilda of Whitby (see Day 2 of Celts to the Creche) and her sister Hereswith (see day 3 of Celts to the Creche) at the hastily built minster in York.
The Bertha Trail (Queen Bertha’s Walk) in honor of St. Bertha of Kent consisting of 14 bronze plaques set in pavement that includes St. Martin’s Church, Canterbury Cathedral, and St. Augustine’s Abbey.
Feast Day May 1
Aren’t we thankful for those who prepare the way for us? Jesus had his cousin John the Baptist who walked ahead of him and prepared the way by plowing the hard hearts of the people and allowing the seeds planted by Jesus to grow, to flourish, and to come to fruition. Bertha prepared the way for Anglo-Saxon England to receive the Gospel.
Prayer: Thank you God for sending those ahead of us to prepare the way for us to do the work you have sent us to do. These soul preparers are a sacred and holy gift from the Spirit and we thank you. Amen.
1 Higham, Anglo-Saxon England, 148.
Colgrave, Bertram, ed. The Earliest Life of Gregory the Great: by an Anonymous Monk of Whitby. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1968, 2007 reprint from University of Kansas.
Dales, Douglas. Light to the Isles: Mission and Theology in Celtic and Anglo-Saxon Britain. Cambridge: James Clarke & Co., 1997.
Fletcher, Richard. The Barbarian Conversion: From Paganism to Christianity. New York: Henry Holt, 1997.
Geary, Patrick J. Before France & Germany. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1988.
Higham, Nicholas J. and Martin J. Ryan. The Anglo-Saxon World. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2013.
Higham, Nicholas J. The Convert Kings: Power and Religious Affiliation in Early Anglo-Saxon England. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1997.
Jones, Trefor. The English Saints: East Anglia. Norwich: Canterbury Press, 1999.
Kirby, D. P. The Earliest English Kings. London: Routledge: 1991, 1994 reprint.
Leyser, Henrietta. Beda: A Journey Through the Seven Kingdoms in the Age of Bede. London: Head Zeus, 2015.
Lucas, Angela M. Women in the Middle Ages: Religion, Marriage, and Letters. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1983.
Mayr-Harting, Henry. The Coming of Christianity to Anglo-Saxon England. University Park: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1972, 1991 reprint.
Pope Gregory I’s Letters About the Augustinian Mission. from Saxon Rabbit.com
“St. Bertha of Kent.” A DVD of her life. www.marysdowryproductions.org.
Queen Bertha’s Walk (this Walk links the 3 World Heritage sites of Canterbury Cathedral, St. Augustine’s Abbey, and St. Martin’s Church)
Thorpe, Lewis. History of the Franks. (a translation of Gregory of Tours’ Decem Libri Historiarum), Penguin Classics reprint, 1976.
Wallace-Hadrill, J.M. The Long-Haired Kings. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1982.
Wood, Ian. The Merovingian Kingdoms, 450-751. London: Longman, 3rd ed. 1991.
Yorke, Barbara. Kings and Kingdoms of Early Anglo-Saxon England. London: Routledge, 1990, 1992 reprint.