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Aethelberht I

(c. 592—616) king of Kent


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With Aethelberht, the first Anglo-Saxon king to be baptized, we are on more secure historical ground, though chronological difficulties remain. The son of Eormenric, he turned Kent briefly into a dominant English power, with some claim to overlordship as bretwalda. The date of his accession implied by Bede (560) has been questioned, and it may have been one or two decades later. His first wife, Bertha, was daughter of Charibert, one of the Merovingian kings of Paris; on her death, he married again, and his eventual widow then married his son Eadbald (i.e. her stepson). His daughter, Aethelburga, married Edwin, king of Northumbria, in 625.

The great event of Aethelberht's reign was the arrival of St Augustine in 597 on his evangelical mission. Bede reported that Bertha was already a Christian, that the king allowed Augustine a dwelling in Canterbury, and that he himself was subsequently baptized. By the end of his reign, the framework of a Christian hierarchy was apparent, with the archbishopric of Canterbury supported by bishoprics at Rochester and London, and plans for a second archbishopric at York.

Further evidence of a more settled society was Aethelberht's promulgation, after his conversion, of a list of ninety laws. They were concerned largely with compensation for injury: three shillings for a thumb-nail, fifty shillings for the loss of a foot. Bede reported, very precisely, that Aethelberht died on 24 February, ‘twenty-one years after accepting the faith’. This implies 617 or 618, though the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle enters it under 616. He was buried at Canterbury.

From The Kings and Queens of Britain in Oxford Reference.

Subjects: British History.


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