Aethelberht I of Kent

Aethelberht I of Kent
(d. 616)
   A powerful and important king of Kent, in southern England. Although he was recognized by his English contemporaries as the leading power in the south, his marriage to a Frankish princess brought little excitement from continental chroniclers. Although of little note to the chroniclers, he was recognized as important enough to marry a Merovingian princess and received attention from Pope Gregory I. Aethelberht is important as the first king in England to convert to Christianity. He was also the first Anglo-Saxon king to issue a legal code. Even if Frankish chroniclers did not notice it, Aethelberht had an important impact on early medieval England.
   Aethelberht was king of the most sophisticated and most populous kingdom of England in the late sixth and early seventh century. Although Bede says that he ruled from 560 to 616, it is more likely that he assumed the throne at some time between 589 and 593 and was born in 560. He was the most powerful ruler of his time, extending his authority across most of southern England, and is identified by Bede as the third king to rule all of England south of the Humber. Perhaps in recognition of his status in England or possibly as a result of his own desires to associate himself with the most powerful family of the continent, Aethelberht married at some point before 588 Bertha, the niece of the Merovingian king Chilperic and the daughter of Charipert, king of Paris. Even though Frankish chroniclers made little of the marriage, it was an important alliance for Aethelberht, and his association with the Frankish dynasty shaped the remainder of his reign.
   The closeness of Aethelberht's ties with the Merovingians is, perhaps, revealed in the two great accomplishments of his reign. His most important achievement was his conversion to Christianity. In 595, after having seen angelic boys from England sold as slaves in the market place at Rome, Pope Gregory the Great - who bought and freed them - sent an evangelical mission to England led by St. Augustine of Canterbury. Aethelberht welcomed the mission, although with some hesitation at first, since he feared that they were practitioners of the magical arts who would try to deceive and control him. But after meeting the missionaries, the king gave them permission to preach in his kingdom, and, as Bede notes, Aethelberht was so impressed by their preaching and miracles that he converted and accepted baptism from them. Although he would not compel his subjects to convert, the king did favor Christians in his kingdom and built a number of churches for the missionaries, including St. Paul's Cathedral in London and a church in Rochester. He also allowed them to settle in Canterbury, which later became the most important episcopal see in England.
   The king's conversion restored the connection with Rome that had been severed by the invasions of the fifth century. This connection was further confirmed by letters that Aethelberht received from the pope, including one in which Gregory praised the king, compared him with Constantine, and encouraged him to spread the faith throughout his kingdom. Although his son Eadbald (616-640) at first turned his back on Christianity, giving it a temporary setback, Eadbald later converted to the faith and furthered the process of conversion of his people.
   Aethelberht's other great achievement was the codification of the law. Although the codification may not have been a thorough one, the king's legal reforms were important nonetheless. His publication of Anglo-Saxon laws reveals the influence of the Merovingians once again, because it recalls the famous codification of the Salic law by Clovis (r. 481-511), the first great Merovingian king. It also suggests Christian or Roman influence, because the great Christian emperor Justinian had codified Roman law a generation before Aethelberht's code. Indeed, the king not only demonstrated the importance he attached to his continental connections with the code, but revealed the sophistication his kingdom had achieved. The code was unique in one regard: Unlike the codes of Clovis and the other Germanic kings, which were in Latin, Aethelberht's code was in the Anglo-Saxon tongue. As a result, it was the earliest code written in any Germanic language.
   The code did not reflect any advanced legal theory, but it did define the laws of the land and relations among the king's subjects. The code, among other things, established the scale of payment owed for injury, such as the payments (called wergeld) due for killing men and women of various social ranks and for other violations of person and property. The code also established the preeminent place of the king in Kentish society, as well as the important place of the bishops in the kingdom. The laws also established the legal rights and status of the clergy in the kingdom. Although Aethelberht is less well known than some other Anglo-Saxon kings, his importance is no less than theirs, since he was the first to reform the law and the first to convert to Christianity.
   See also
 ♦ Attenborough, Frederick L., ed. and trans. The Laws of the Earliest English Kings. Felinfach, Wales: Llanerch Publishers, 2000.
 ♦ Bede, Ecclesiastical History of the English Church and People, trans. Leo Sherley-Price. Revised edition. London: Penguin Classics, 1968.
 ♦ Kirby, David P. The Earliest English Kings. London: Unwin Hyman, 1991.
 ♦ Sawyer, Peter H. From Roman Britain to Norman England. 2d ed. London and New York, 1998.
 ♦ Stenton, Frank M. Anglo-Saxon England. 3d ed. Oxford: Clarendon, 1971.
 ♦ Yorke, Barbara. Kings and Kingdoms of Early Anglo-Saxon England. London: Seaby, 1990.

Encyclopedia of Barbarian Europe. 2014.

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