Celts to the Creche: St. Bertha of Kent

Queen Bertha and her daughter Queen Ethelburga of Kent who married Edwin the King of Northumbria, as his second wife. St. Martin's Church, Canterbury

Queen Bertha and her daughter Queen Ethelburga of Kent who married Edwin the King of Northumbria, as his second wife. St. Martin’s Church, Canterbury

Celts to the Creche: Day 11

St. Bertha of Kent

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On this 11th day of our journey with the Celts to the Creche, we meet St. Bertha, who was a French princess with a devoted faith in Christ who married the pagan Anglo-Saxon King of Kent, Æthelberht.  She was one who prepared the way for Christianity to enter Anglo-Saxon England.

King AEthelbert of Kent, husband of Bertha. Stained glass at All Souls College Chapel, Oxford

King AEthelbert of Kent, husband of Bertha. Stained glass at All Souls College Chapel, Oxford

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.

Chaplain Liudhard's picture on this coin or small medal.

Bishop Liudhard’s picture on this coin or small medal discovered  in a late 6th c. grave near St. Martin’s Chapel in Canterbury

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.

St. Martin's Church, Canterbury. This was St. Bertha's private chapel

St. Martin’s Church, Canterbury. This was St. Bertha’s private chapel and likely where her husband King AEthelbert of Kent was baptized by Augustine

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.

Statue of St. Bertha at Lady Wooton's Gardens, Kent

Statue of St. Bertha at Lady Wooton’s Gardens, Kent

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.

Queen Bertha's Walk Plaque. About a two hour walk.

Queen Bertha’s Walk Plaque. About a two hour walk.

Meditation

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.

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Footnote: 

1 Higham, Anglo-Saxon England, 148.

Some Resources:

Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of England. Book I.

The Canterbury Historical and Archaelogical Society . “Bertha.”

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.

Gregory of Tours (539-594), History of the Franks, Book 4

Grierson, Philip. The Canterbury (St. Martin’s Hoard) of Frankish and Anglo-Saxon Coin Ornaments.

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.

Warren, Brenda G. Queen Bertha of Kent, A Preparer of the Way. May 1, 2017. www.godspacelight.com

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.

 

About pastorpilgrim

Pastor Pilgrim is an ordained Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) clergy. I am married with two grown sons, a Hurricane Rita gift cat, and two Maine Coons.

My interests include illuminated manuscripts, pilgrimage, Franciscan and Celtic spirituality, Shakers, Anglo-Saxon and Merovingian abbesses and their double monasteries, comfy cute shoes, Native American spirituality, and genealogy. I am a “Dancing Monk” with the online Abbey of the Arts (known as the Disorder of Dancing Monks!).

Join me as we travel with the Celtic/Anglo-Saxon saints in an Advent devotional entitled, “Celts to the Creche” at www.saintsbridge.org.
I also write of some of my pilgrimages, musings, and another Advent devotional, “Pilgrimage to Bethlehem” at www.pastorpilgrim.wordpress.com

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