10 March 2009

The 'Noble Light' of England—St Æthelberht, King of Kent

Today, 25 February on the Church’s calendar, we commemorate the Right-believing King, St Æthelberht of Kent (c. 560-616), the first Christian king of the Anglo-Saxons (his name—which could be translated as ‘noble light’—is sometimes modernised to ‘Ethelbert’). The entry for the year 616 in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles begins: ‘Aethelbryht king of Kent passed away, the first of the English kings to receive baptism—he was the son of Eormenric—who has reigned for fifty-three years’ (The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, coll. and trans. Anne Savage [NY: Barnes & Noble, 2000], p. 40). It is a deceptively simple record for a man whose baptism, along with that of Clovis in 496, Christopher Dawson has said marks ‘the real beginnings of a new age in Western Europe’, that is, the age of Christendom (Religion and the Rise of Western Culture: Gifford Lectures Delivered in the University of Edinburgh, 1948-1949 [Garden City, NY: Image, 1958], p. 31).

We are indebted to the Venerable Bede for our real details about the life of St Æthelberht. In Book I, Chapter 25 of the Ecclesiastical History, we learn that he was ‘a very powerful monarch’ who had the distinction of receiving the first-ever mission to the Anglo-Saxons—that of St Augustine of Canterbury and his companions, who had been sent to England by St Gregory the Great. Here is St Bede’s account (from The Ecclesiastical History of the English People, trans. Bertram Colgrave, ed. Judith McClure and Roger Collins [Oxford: Oxford U, 1994], pp. 39-40):

Augustine sent to Æthelberht to say that he had come from Rome bearing the best of news, namely the sure and certain promise of eternal joys in heaven and an endless kingdom with the living and true God to those who received it. Some knowledge about the Christian religion had already reached him because he had a Christian wife of the Frankish royal family whose name was Bertha. He had received her from her parents on condition that she should be allowed to practise her faith and religion unhindered, with a bishop named Liudhard whom they had provided for her to support her faith.

Some days afterwards the king came to the island [Thanet, where the missionaries had landed] and, sitting in the open air, commanded that Augustine and his comrades come thither to talk with him. He took care that they should not meet him in any building, for he held the traditional superstition that, if they practised any magic art, they might deceive him and get the better of him as soon as he entered. But they came endowed with divine not devilish power and bearing as their standard a silver cross and the image of our Lord and Saviour painted on a panel. They chanted litanies and uttered prayers to the Lord for their own eternal salvation and the salvation of those for whom and to whom they had come. At the king’s command they sat down and preached the word of life to himself and all his gesiths [‘royal officials’ or ‘companions’] there present. Then he said to them: ‘The words and the promises you bring are fair enough, but because they are new to us and doubtful, I cannot consent to accept them and forsake those beliefs which I and the whole English race have held so long. But as you have come on a long pilgrimage and are anxious, I perceive, to share with us things which you believe to be true and good, we do not wish to do you harm; on the contrary, we will receive you hospitably and provide what is necessary for your support; nor do we forbid you to win all you can to your faith and religion by your preaching.’ So he gave them a dwelling in the city of Canterbury, which was the chief city of all his dominions; and, in accordance with his promise, he granted them provisions and did not refuse them freedom to preach. It is related that as they approached the city in accordance with their custom carrying the holy cross and the image of our great King and Lord, Jesus Christ, they sang this litany in unison: ‘We beseech Thee, O Lord, in Thy great mercy, that Thy wrath and anger may be turned away from this city and from Thy holy house, for we have sinned. Alleluia.’

One is struck, of course, by the unusual graciousness with which St Æthelberht, still a pagan, received the Christian missionaries. It seems that apart from the ‘knowledge about the Christian religion’ he had received through his wife and her spiritual father, St Æthelberht may have been rather subtly prepared for this encounter with the missionaries by the prayers and examples of these two Christians in his own house. But his wonderful handling of the situation, as providential as it was, proved to be merely the doorway through which God’s mercy and grace was to flood, not only into St Æthelberht’s kingdom, but into his own heart. St Bede goes on to tell us, in EH I.26:

At last the king, as well as others, believed and was baptized, being attracted by the pure life of the saints and by their most precious promises, whose truth they confirmed by performing many miracles. Every day more and more began to flock to hear the Word, to forsake their heathen worship, and, through faith, to join the unity of Christ’s holy Church. (p. 41)

Concerning this chronology, McClure and Collins note that St Bede ‘lacked clear chronological information on the dating’ of St Æthelberht’s baptism, ‘but his words do not necessarily suggest it was long delayed, as this translation implies’ (St Bede, p. 372). Indeed, Peter Hunter Blair points out that the landing of the missionaries occurred in early 597, while—‘Before the year was out, and by later Canterbury tradition the date was 1 June, Æthelberht himself was converted and the first and most important stage of the mission was completed’ (An Introduction to Anglo-Saxon England [Cambridge: Cambridge U, 1962], p. 117). Surely one cannot but be astounded by the rapidity with which St Æthelberht’s conversion occurred! There seems to be nothing in his words to the missionaries in EH I.25 that would suggest he was so close to his own baptism that it would take place within the year.

It seems to me that it is explained in the first sentence of the excerpt I have quoted from EH I.26 above: St Æthelberht was ‘attracted by the pure life of the saints and by their most precious promises, whose truth they confirmed by performing many miracles’ (St Bede, p. 41). It is a very brief explanation of a profound miracle, and it is fortunate that some of Dawson’s words seem to elabourate on it a bit. He writes:

It was obviously impossible for peoples without any tradition of philosophy or written literature to assimilate directly the subtle and profound theological metaphysics of a St Augustine or the great teachers of the Byzantine world. The barbarians could understand and accept the spirit of the new religion only when it was manifested to them visibly in the lives and acts of men who seemed endowed with supernatural qualities. The conversion of Western Europe was achieved not so much by the teaching of a new doctrine as by the manifestation of a new power, which invaded and subdued the barbarians of the West, as it had already subdued the civilized lands of the Mediterranean. And as the martyrs had been the heroes and witnesses of the conquest of the Empire, so it was the hermits and the monks who were the confessors and apostles of the faith among the barbarians.

. . . The lives of the saints and ascetics impressed the mind of the barbarians because they were the manifestation of a way of life and a scale of values entirely opposed to all they had hitherto known and accepted. But the contrast was not between the higher civilization of the Christian Roman world and the barbarism of the pagans, but a contrast between two spiritual worlds or two planes of reality. For behind the ethical contrast between the life of the saint and the barbarism of society there lies the eschatological dualism of the present world and the world to come which was the background of the medieval Christian view of life. (pp. 34-5)

Dawson does not mention them by name in this context—although I have already noted that he did indeed refer to St Æthelberht as the ‘real beginning’ of the Christianisation he is speaking of here—, but his words could easily apply to the story of St Æthelberht and the missionaries under St Augustine, at whose ‘simple and innocent way of life and the sweetness of their heavenly doctrine’ the heathens ‘marvelled’ (St Bede, p. 41). Indeed, who could not but be impressed by a brotherhood like that which St Bede describes at the beginning of EH I.26?:

As soon as they had entered the dwelling-place allotted to them, they began to imitate the way of life of the apostles and of the primitive church. They were constantly engaged in prayers, in vigils and fasts; they preached the word of life to as many as they could; they despised all worldly things as foreign to them; they accepted only the necessaries of life from those whom they taught; in all things they practised what they preached and kept themselves prepared to endure adversities, even to the point of dying for the truths they proclaimed. (p. 40)

With such an example of the Christian life before his eyes, it is little wonder that St Æthelberht was moved so deeply so quickly. Furthermore, it is striking to see the faithfulness with which he imitated that example:

It is related that the king, although he rejoiced at their conversion and their faith, compelled no one to accept Christianity; though none the less he showed greater affection for believers since they were his fellow citizens in the kingdom of heaven. But he had learned from his teachers and guides in the way of salvation that the service of Christ was voluntary and ought not to be compulsory. It was not long before he granted his teachers a place to settle in, suitable to their rank, in Canterbury, his chief city, and gave them possessions of various kinds for their needs. (St Bede, p. 41)

In this way, St Æthelberht was not only a more gracious pagan among other pagan rulers, but a gracious Christian among other Christian rulers. It was he, along with ‘his teachers and guides in the way of salvation’, that set the tone for the peaceful, yet thorough conversion of Anglo-Saxon England to the one, true Faith. St Æthelberht was truly a ‘noble light’ of England.

Incidentally, here one can read some of the laws St Æthelberht established after his conversion in order to bring justice and order to the English land. St Æthelberht's code is the 'earliest surviving Anglo-Saxon document written in the vernacular' (Blair, p. 329). The icon above is by Aidan Hart.

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