Holy Righteous Æþelberht of Kent, King and Confessor
Today in the Orthodox Church we commemorate the first Christian King in Old England, Æþelberht of Kent – for whom I have a particular reverence as he is my son’s patron saint. Christianity had been present on the British Isles long before the arrival of the saintly monk Augustine in the Kingdom of Kent at the behest of Pope Saint Gregory the Dialogist. The first Christians in Britain were converted after the death of Saint Alban in the third century; thus was established the tradition of Celtic Christianity in Britain. But, as Saint Bede relates, the heresy of Pelagius found a ready hearing among the Celts of Britain, and it was only with great efforts of Saint Germanus of Auxerre, among others, that the Orthodox faith was preserved. In addition, the landing in three longships at the invitation of British king Vortigern of three groups of heathen mercenaries – the Saxons (of what is now northwestern Germany), the Jutes (of what is now northern Jylland in Denmark) and my own forebears the Angles (of the region of Schleswig straddling Germany and southern Denmark) – indelibly changed the religious landscape of Britain.
In the early years of this Teutonic presence on the British Isles, the Angles, Saxons and Jutes followed the religious practices of heathenry. Little remains of these practices; but we can tell that all the groups of insular Teutons – Angles, Saxons and Jutes – held to these beliefs. Popular gods in the Teutonic pantheon attested in place-names and other linguistic clues appear to have been Grim, Þunor, Tíw and Frige. Heathen worship often occurred in the open, in sacred groves or near other sacred natural landmarks. The heathen worldview incorporated a certain tragic and fatalistic cosmology, which nonetheless inculcated a certain sense of nobility and heroism in the face of death and defeat.
Perhaps it was these latter qualities and virtues in the still-heathen English people that attracted the attention of Pope Saint Gregory, that moved him to a holy Christian love for them, and motivated him to send Saint Augustine to British shores to preach the Gospel among them. As Saint Bede recounts:
In the fourteenth year of [Emperor Maurice] and about the one hundred and fiftieth year after the coming of the English to Britain, Gregory was inspired by God to send his servant Augustine with several other God-fearing monks to preach the word of God to the English nation. Having undertaken this task at the Pope’s command and progressed a short distance on this journey, they became afraid, and began to consider returning home. For they were appalled at the idea of going to a barbarous, fierce and pagan nation, of whose very language they were ignorant. They unanimously agreed that this was the safest course, and sent back Augustine – who was to be consecrated bishop in the event of their being received by the English – so that he might humbly request the holy Gregory to recall them from so dangerous, arduous and uncertain a journey. In reply, the Pope wrote them a letter of encouragement, urging them to proceed on their mission to preach God’s word, and to trust themselves to his aid. This letter ran as follows:Augustine took heart from this letter, as did the monks under his care. They journeyed onward and eventually reached the shores of Kent, which was then ruled by Æþelberht king, who held sway over all the lands from the coasts of Kent in the south to the south bank of the Humber in the north. Augustine landed with his monks at the isle of Thanet – the very land which, as legend has it, Vortigern king promised to the Jutish heretugs Hengist and Horsa for defending his realm against the Scots. The monks under Augustine then sent a Frankish embassy declaring their arrival and their purpose to Æþelberht.GREGORY, Servant of the servants of God, to the servants of God. My very dear sons, it is better never to undertake any high enterprise than to abandon it when once begun. So with the help of God you must carry out this holy task which you have begun. Be constant and zealous in carrying out this enterprise which, under God’s guidance, you have undertaken: and be assured that the greater the labour, the greater will be the glory of your æternal reward. When Augustine your leader returns, whom We have appointed your abbot, obey him humbly in all things, remembering that whatever he directs you to do will always be to the good of your souls. May Almighty God protect you with His grace, and grant me to see the result of your labours in our heavenly home. And although my office prevents me from working at your side, yet because I long to do so, I hope to share in your joyful reward. God keep you safe, my dearest sons.
Dated the twenty-third of July, in the fourteenth year of the reign of our most devout lord Maurice Tiberius Augustus, and the thirteenth year after the Consulship of our said Lord. The fourteenth interdiction.
The king received this embassy with a mixture of hospitality and caution. Through the Frankish messenger he bade the monks stay where they were, but also bade that they be given from his stores all provisions and necessaries of life until he could decide what answer to make to them. The Jutish king had already heard of Christianity and was well-disposed to the monks; he had taken a Frankish bride named Berhte, a Christian, on the condition that she be given the freedom to practise her faith without hindrance, and she had brought with her a bishop named Leodheard to celebrate the Liturgy and minister to her the Divine Mysteries.
Even so, when he went to meet them at Thanet several days later, Æþelberht took precautions according to his customs. Saint Augustine was to meet him in the open air. Again, according to the heathen beliefs, Thanet was holy ground and meeting in the open would afford him a degree of protection against evil witchcraft – to which, if he were to meet in a private home, he would supposedly be vulnerable. ‘But the monks,’ says Bede,
… were endowed with the power of God, not from the Devil, and approached the king carrying a silver cross as their standard, and the likeness of our Lord and Saviour painted on a board. First of all they offered prayer to God, singing a litany for the æternal salvation both of themselves and of those for whose sake they had come. And when, at the king’s command, Augustine sat down and preached the word of life to the king and his court, the king said:
‘Your words and promises are fair indeed, but they are new and strange to us, and I cannot accept them and abandon the age-old beliefs of the whole English nation. But since you have travelled far, and I can see that you are sincere in your desire to instruct us in what you believe to be true and excellent, we will not harm you. We will receive you hospitably, and take care to supply you with all that you need; nor will we forbid you to preach and win any people you can to your religion.’
The king then granted them a dwelling in the city of Canterbury, which was the chief city of all his realm, and in accordance with his promise, he allowed them provisions and did not withdraw their freedom to preach. Tradition says that as they approached the city, bearing the holy cross and the likeness of our great King and Lord Jesus Christ as was their custom, they sang in unison this litany: ‘We pray Thee, O Lord, in all Thy mercy, that Thy wrath and anger may be turned away from this city and from Thy holy house, for we are sinners. Alleluia.’
Augustine, now Bishop Augustine, and the monks at Canterbury were nonetheless incredibly circumspect in their missionary activities during their first few years on English soil. Their mission, such as it was, consisted of prayers and vigils held in the Church, and fasting – they did not abuse Æþelberht’s hospitality but took only what they needed. They would preach to individuals who desired to hear them, but did not proclaim the faith in the open. However, the simplicity and sincerity of their monastic life attracted the English of Kent and aroused their curiosity – soon throngs of folk were desirous of hearing the Gospel and of being baptised. In due time, no doubt being swayed by the example of his wife, Æþelberht King himself joined them – and only after that did the monks begin preaching openly.
True to his word, Pope Gregory the Dialogist took an active and sincere interest in the progress of Saint Augustine and his party – and he established a fruitful pastoral correspondence with Saint Augustine on the needs and questions of his new but growing English flock. According to the testimony of Saint Augustine, it seems that the early English converts struggled most with questions of sexual ethics and cleanliness: in his letters and Pope Gregory’s answers, rules were established concerning double in-law marriage; marriage between close kin; taking the Eucharist after sex, after childbirth or during menstruation; and taking the Eucharist after a nightly disturbance. Pope Gregory patiently and with pastoral love gave answers to Saint Augustine and the English flock on all of these questions. He also kept in regular contact with the Bishop of Arles regarding the progress of the English church and gifted an omophor to Saint Augustine on his accession to the office of bishop. On the occasion of the saintly king’s conversion, Pope Gregory composed a personal letter to him. It read as follows.
If Saint Bede’s Ecclesiastical History is any indication, Æþelberht King received this letter and did exactly as he was bidden by it. He gave Saint Augustine his permission to rebuild an old disused Roman church that had once stood in Canterbury, and used it as the cathedral. Æþelberht King also founded for Bishop Saint Augustine and his monks an abbey church dedicated to the Holy Apostles Peter and PaulTo our excellent son, the most glorious King Æþelberht, King of the English: the Bishop GREGORY.
Almighty God raises good men to govern nations, in order that through them He may bestow the gifts of His mercy on all whom they rule. We know that this is so in the case of the English nation, over whom you reign so gloriously, so that by means of the good gifts that God grants to you, He may bless your people as well. Therefore, my illustrious son, zealously foster the grace that God has given you, and work to extend the Christian faith among the people committed to your charge. Make their conversion your first concern; abolish the worship of idols, and destroy their shrines; raise the moral standards of your subjects by your own innocence of life, encouraging, warning, persuading, correcting and showing them an example by your good deeds. God will most surely grant you His rewards in heaven if you faithfully proclaim His Name and truth upon earth; and He whose honour you seek and uphold among your peoples will make your own name glorious to posterity.
The devout Emperor Constantine in this way turned the Roman State from its ignorant worship of idols by his own submission to our mighty Lord and God Jesus Christ, and with his subjects accepted Him with all his heart. The result is that his glorious reputation has excelled that of all his predecessors, and he has outshone them in good works as greatly as in reputation. Now, therefore, let Your Majesty do your utmost to bring to your subject princes and peoples the knowledge of the One God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, so that your own merit and repute may excel that of all the former kings of your nation. And when your subjects are thus absolved from their sins, you will stand with greater confidence before the judgement seat of God.
Our most reverend brother Bishop Augustine has been trained under monastic rule, has a complete knowledge of Holy Scripture and, by the grace of God, is a man of holy life. Therefore I beg you to consider his advice with care and follow it exactly; for if you listen to him when he speaks in God’s name, his prayers for you will be the sooner answered. But if you ignore his advice – which God forbid – and disregard him when he speaks in God’s name, how will God answer his prayers on your behalf? Work sincerely and wholeheartedly with him in fervent faith, and support him in all his work, so that you may receive a place in the Kingdom of Christ, Whose Faith you profess and uphold in your own realm.
We would also have Your Majesty know what we have learned from the words of Almighty God in holy Scripture, that the end of this present world and the æternal kingdom of the Saints is approaching. When the end of the world is near, unprecedented things will occur – portents in the sky, terrors from heaven, unseasonable tempests, wars, famines, plagues and widespread earthquakes – all of which things will not happen during our own lifetimes, but will ensue in due course. Therefore if any such things occur in your own country, do not be anxious, for these portents of the end are sent to warn us to consider the welfare of our souls and remember our last end, so that when our Judge comes, He may find us prepared by good lives. I have mentioned these matters in this short letter, my illustrious son, in the hope that as the Christian Faith grows more strong in your kingdom, our correspondence with you may become more frequent, and we shall be pleased to write further when we receive the glad news of the complete conversion of your people.
I have sent some small presents, which will not appear without value since they are accompanied by the blessing of the blessed Apostle Peter. May Almighty God continue to perfect you in His grace, prolong your life for many years, and after this life receive you among the citizens of your heavenly home. May the grace of heaven preserve Your Majesty in safety.
Dated the twenty-second day of June, in the nineteenth year of our most devout lord and Emperor Maurice Tiberius Augustus, and the eighteenth of his Consulship. The fourth indiction.
As a ruler, Æþelberht King was vigorous and effective, eventually becoming recognised by the other English kings as ‘Brytenwealda’ or ‘high king’ by virtue of his military and administrative skill. He crafted for the people of Kent the first written law-code in any Teutonic language, which is similar in most respects to customary Teutonic law but which entails specific protections and privileges for the Christian Church in his realm. He also, as part of this law code, re-established a system of weights and measures and the standard use of coinage in his realm in England. Æþelberht King reposed in the Lord after a long fifty-six year reign, on the twenty-fourth of February, 616; he was buried alongside his saintly wife Berhte in the Abbey Church he founded.
Having acquired all the Christian virtues,
O right-believing King Æþelberht,
Thou didst attain glory in doing godly deeds,
And art now enrolled among the choirs of the saints on high;
For, having passed from the things of this fleeting world,
In glory thou reignest now eternally with Christ our God,
Whom do thou beseech to grant us great mercy!