Celts to the Crèche: Day 11
St. Bertha of Kent
On this 11th day of our journey with the Celts to the Crèche, we meet St. Bertha, who was a Frankish princess with a devoted faith in Christ. She married the pagan Anglo-Saxon King of Kent, Æthelberht. As Queen, she was one who prepared the way for Christianity to enter Anglo-Saxon England.
You may desire to continue reading more about Bertha or go on to the Meditation towards the end of this page.
Her early life: Bertha was a Frankish princess with quite a royal pedigree. She was 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 and her father 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.
Bertha and her husband Æthelberht 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 King Edwin and all of his family including his nieces, the young Hilda who was the future St. Hilda of Whitby and her sister Hereswith at the hastily built timber minster in York on Easter Sunday, 627AD.
St. Bertha’s granddaughter by her daughter Æthelburga and husband Edwin was Eanflæd who married King Oswiu of Northumbria. Eanflæd and Oswiu’s daughter, (Bertha’s great-granddaughter) was Ælfflæd (see day 29 of Celts to the Crèche) who was given to St. Hilda to be raised first at Hartlepool Abbey and then later at Whitby Abbey. At St. Hilda’s death in 680AD, Queen Eanflæd, who was now a widow and her daughter Ælfflæd became joint Abbesses of Whitby. Ælfflæd was a good friend to St. Cuthbert of Lindisfarne.
Bede wrote that Bertha’s grandson King Eorcenbert (whose father was Eadbald) destroyed all the idols in England and instituted the season of Lent into the Christian calendar in England. In 655, Eorcenbert also appointed Deusdedit as Archbishop of Canterbury, making him the first Anglo-Saxon Archbishop in England. Eorcenbert married Princess Seaxburh, the daughter of the much-loved Christian King Anna. After Eorcenbert’s death, his wife Seaxburh became the Abbess of the famous Ely Monastery (about 14 miles northeast of Cambridge University) and then their daughter Ermonild also became the Abbess of Ely. Their other daughter Eorcengeta became a nun and later Abbess of the well-respected Faremoutiers Monastery (see day 21 of Celts to the Creche concerning Faremoutiers) in central France where Seaxburgh’s half-sister Sæthryth was Abbess when Eorcengeta arrived. The great spiritual legacy of Bertha continued to live on long after her death.
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. Who has prepared the way for you to find God, to find a mate in life, to succeed in school, to find a job or ministry?
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.
Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of England. Book I. Fordham University.
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.
The History Blog. Elite Anglo-Saxon Burial Found in Canterbury. November 22, 2019.
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
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.