An Anglo-Saxon Enigma: Who Was Queen Bertha? | History Hit

An Anglo-Saxon Enigma: Who Was Queen Bertha?

Bertha of Kent in the stained glass windows in the Chapter house, Canterbury Cathedral, Canterbury, England.
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

History is full of enigmatic characters who are remembered through a combination of fact and myth. Queen Bertha of Kent is one such enigma, with the few surviving 6th-century accounts of her life offering us a glimpse into the life she led. However, like many women from history, what we know of her life is informed by accounts of her relationships with men.

In Queen Bertha’s case, because of records which refer to her husband King Æthelberht, we know that she helped to influence her pagan husband to convert to Christianity, resulting in him being the first Anglo-Saxon king to do so. These events fundamentally altered the course of history in the British isles and later resulted in Bertha being canonised as a saint.

But what else do we know about the enigmatic Queen Bertha?

She came from a dysfunctional family

Bertha was born in the early 560s. She was a Frankish princess, daughter of the Merovingian King of Paris, Charibert I, and his wife Ingoberga, and was granddaughter of the reigning King Chlothar I. She was raised near Tours, France.

It seems that her parents’ marriage was unhappy. According to the 6th-century historian Gregory of Tours, Charibert took two of his wife’s serving women as mistresses, and in spite of Ingoberga’s attempts to prevent him, he eventually left her for one of them. Charibert later married the other mistress, but since the two were sisters, he was excommunicated. A fourth wife survived him after he died, and a third mistress gave birth to a stillborn son.

Bertha’s father died in 567, followed by her mother in 589.

This period of her life offers an interesting insight into her later actions since she was portrayed as a deeply religious figure who assisted in the Christian conversion of her husband’s country. However, the actions of her father certainly didn’t live up to the Christian ideal.

She married King Æthelberht of Kent

Sculpture of King Æthelberht of Kent, an Anglo-Saxon king and saint, on Canterbury Cathedral in England.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Bertha married King Æthelberht of Kent, and it is for this reason that we know about her. It is unclear exactly when their marriage took place, but the historian Bede implied it was when her parents were both still alive, which pinpoints her as being wed in her early teenage years.

Similarly, Gregory of Tours mentions her only once, stating “[Charibert] had a daughter who afterwards married a husband in Kent and was taken there”.

Bede recorded further information about the couple, stating that a condition of their marriage was that Bertha was free to “maintain inviolate the practice of the Christian faith and of her religion”.

Anglo-Saxon records indicate that Bertha and King Æthelberht had two children: Eadbald of Kent and Æthelburg of Kent.

She helped convert her husband to Christianity

The monk St Augustine was sent from Rome by Pope Gregory the Great on a mission to convert the pagan Anglo-Saxons to Christianity. He began with the kingdom of Kent in 597 AD, where King Æthelberht gave him the freedom to preach and live in Canterbury.

The Anglo-Saxon period is vital for the formation of England and the UK as we know it but is a difficult era to fully understand. The departure of the Romans left a power vacuum that was filled by warlords with violence, foreign invasion, occupation and religious strife being endemic. But out of this turbulent period the foundation of what we now call England came into being. Dan is joined by Marc Morris one of the most distinguished medieval historians in the world and author of a new book called The Anglo-Saxons: A History of the Beginnings of England. Marc guides us through these difficult centuries separating truth from legend and illuminating this dark period in history.
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Nearly every modern description of St Augustine’s mission, which was successful in converting King Æthelberht to Christianity, mentions Bertha, and suggests that she played a part in welcoming St Augustine and influencing her husband to convert. However, medieval accounts do not mention this; instead, they record the actions of St Augustine and his companions.

The historian Bede later wrote that “the fame of the Christian religion had already reached [Æthelberht]’ because of his wife’s faith. Equally, at that time Christianity was already an international religion that would have certainly caught Æthelberht’s attention.

Pope Gregory wrote to her

Though Bertha may not have first introduced her husband to Christianity, it is generally agreed that she contributed towards his conversion. A letter to Bertha from Pope Gregory in 601 suggests that he was disappointed that she was not more active in converting her husband, and that to compensate she should encourage her husband to convert the whole country.

The Pope does, however, give Bertha some credit, praising “what charity you have bestowed upon [Augustine]’. In the letter he compares her to Helena, the Christian mother of Emperor Constantine who later became the first Christian emperor of Rome.

Saint Gregory the Great by Jusepe de Ribera, c. 1614.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The letter also gives us valuable insight into her life, since the Pope states that she is “instructed in letters”, and has an international reputation: “your good deeds are known not only among the Romans … but also through various places”.

She had a private chapel in Kent

Upon moving to Kent, Bertha was accompanied by a Christian bishop named Liudhard as her confessor. A former Roman church was restored just outside the city of Canterbury and dedicated to St Martin of Tours, which had a private chapel used only by Bertha, and was later taken over by St Augustine when he arrived in Kent.

The present church still continues on the same site and incorporates the Roman walls of the church in the chancel. It has been recognised by UNESCO as part of Canterbury’s World Heritage Site. It is the oldest church in the English-speaking world: Christian worship has continuously occurred there since 580AD.

She might be buried at St. Martin’s Church

St Martin’s Church, Canterbury

Image Credit: Shutterstock

The date of Bertha’s death is unclear. It is certain that she was alive in 601 when Pope Gregory wrote to her, and it seems that she was consecrated in St Augustine’s Abbey in 604. However, she must have died before her husband Æthelberht did in 616 because he remarried.

Bertha’s legacy has been variously debated. While it is clear that Augustine managed to convert England into a Christian country, it is unclear how much of a part Bertha played in the process. Indeed, even the conversion of her family was incomplete, with her son Eadbald refusing to convert when he became king in 616.

She is probably buried under the step of St Martin’s church.

Lucy Davidson