Daily Reading for May 27 • Bertha and Ethelbert, Queen and King of Kent, 616
Gregory would certainly have little enough knowledge about this island on the fringes of his world; a few old geographies and a little hearsay might have accounted for most of it. But as Ethelbert was married to a Frankish Christian princess (Bertha, daughter of King Charibert), as Kent of which Ethelbert was king had important trading and other contacts with Gaul, particularly south of the Loire, and as Gregory also had contacts with Gaul, he clearly could have had an impression of Ethelbert’s position. . . .
King Ethelbert met the party on the island of Thanet—in the open air for fear that indoors they might get the better of him with their magical arts. Augustine preached effectively, and the king, though not willing to abandon his own religion there and then, gave them a place in Canterbury and complete liberty to preach their religion. In the following year, July 598, Gregory wrote to the Patriarch Eulogius of Alexandria. He had already had news of his mission to the English, a people “placed in the corner of the world and until this time worshipping sticks and stones.” Augustine had been so resplendent with miracles that he seemed to imitate the powers of the apostles; and on his first Christmas Day amongst them it was said that over 10,000 of these people had been baptized. In due course Augustine sent Laurentius, the priest, and Peter, the monk, to Rome and in the summer of 601 Gregory sent a second mission, headed by Mellitus, to join Augustine. With these he sent some answers to questions of church discipline which Augustine had put to him, and various books, sacred vessels, vestments and relics. . . .
We cannot be certain when King Ethelbert was baptized. . . . All that is certain is that he was baptized before his death in 616. There were, of course, some good reasons why Ethelbert should want to be a Christian. Quite apart from spiritual considerations about which we have no evidence, it was worth having the notice of the pope and being drawn closer to the civilized and wealthy axis of Mediterranean life. More particularly—and this was the point to impress an old warrior bretwalda–the Christian God seemed to serve his adherents well in battle. Ethelbert had been married 30 years to a Frankish queen and could not be ignorant of the handsome dividends which the great Merovingian, Clovis, and his successors had reaped from their Christianity and Catholicism. It may well be asked why he had not allowed his wife to convert him earlier. The answer seems to lie in the implication of political dependence on the Franks which such a step might raise. . . . Ethelbert was ready by 597 to think of accepting Christianity from Rome, where he had not been ready to accept it from the Franks earlier. On the other hand, there were also good reasons why he should pause before being converted, or why if he were converted, he should be tolerant towards those who remained loyal to the old religion. The chief reason was the strength of the attachment to paganism in Kent and in the other kingdoms of which Ethelbert was overlord. As Sir Frank Stenton, remarked, “five undoubted places of heathen worship can still be identified within a radius of 12 miles from Augustine’s church of Canterbury.” . . .
The strength of Anglo-Saxon paganism impressed itself on Gregory’s mind. . . . He did not think their temples should be destroyed; they should be sprinkled with holy water and used for Christian worship. Moreover, on the great feasts of the Church they should be allowed to slaughter cattle and have feasts as they had formerly done; people with such obdurate minds had to be allowed to reach the highest peaks by gradual steps rather than by sudden leaps.
From The Coming of Christianity to Anglo-Saxon England by Henry Mayr-Harting (Avon: The Bath Press, 1972).