The responsibilities of political leadership are great. Whether a public official is elected or receives his position through inheritance, his (or her) duty to protect, defend, and guide the people in his charge must be taken very seriously. The world has known many leaders who yielded to the temptation for selfish, tyrannical rule or who, through weakness, abandoned and neglected the needs of their people. But St. Paul reminds us that all governing authority comes from God [Romans 13:1] and – praise be to God – the world has also known many rulers who, through Him, were able to lead their people to better, holier lives. St. Ethelbert of Kent was such a ruler.
When Ethelbert inherited his position from his father in 560, the kingdom of Kent was being ruled by several overlords. After a long period of peace, the kingdom reached a high level of prosperity and culture. Through peaceful relations and diplomacy, Ethelbert rose to the pre-eminent position of power and influence among the English people, eventually to be called “King of the English”.
Ethelbert was a shrewd politician. In order to broaden the prestige of his kingdom, he cultivated relations with the kingdom of the Franks. This led to marriage with Bertha, the daughter of Charibert, the king of Paris. Determined to be well thought of on both sides of the channel, Ethelbert agreed to the condition of the marriage contract that allowed Bertha to practice her Christian religion and to bring with her a bishop as chaplain.
As all good rulers have done, King Ethelbert allowed a certain amount of personal freedom among his subjects, and he showed this most prominently with Queen Bertha. Not only was she allowed to be openly Christian, but the king gave her chaplain the ancient Roman church of St. Martin to use for Christian services. The king continued in the worship of Odin, the religion of his ancestors, but the fact that he did not impose this religion on others made for good relations, not only within his family, but also with other kingdoms.
The arrival of a large group of Christian monks from Rome in the year 597 presented Ethelbert with a new challenge. He could have taken this as an “invasion” of sorts and banned the party from entering his kingdom. He could have feared a greatly increased influence by foreigners, one which would tip the balance toward the religion of the foreigners. He was cautious in meeting with this delegation – insisting that the meeting be outdoors to prevent the monks from casting a magic “spell” on him, a precaution which his pagan subjects would have appreciated. Ethelbert knew full well that Christians did not cast spells, as in all the years of his marriage, his Christian wife had not bewitched him, but this action made for good public relations.
Augustine and the other monks from the monastery of St. Andrew had been sent by a diplomat with greater political experience and expertise than the king. St. Gregory the Great, who had fulfilled a life-long missionary desire by sending the monks to convert the Angles, had served as the Roman prefect before becoming a monk and then had served as a papal emissary in Constantinople. St. Gregory knew how to open relations with a minor ruler in a small corner of the world, in a part of the Empire which Rome had abandoned. He instructed Augustine’s party to take Frankish interpreters with them. Ethelbert had to be receptive to his wife’s people, who spoke the same language and who knew the proper protocol when approaching a man of his stature. Gregory also sent gifts and letters of greeting, and, in Ethelbert’s mind, these came from a very great man who was a subject of the greatest man, the Roman Emperor.
The king listened politely to the initial speeches of the Romans. He said that, although he personally did not share their beliefs, he would not prevent others from doing so. The monks were given a place to live in Canterbury and freedom to preach Christianity.
As more and more of his subjects accepted the Christian religion, King Ethelbert continued to receive letters from Pope Gregory, encouraging him to establish a Christian kingdom as the Emperor Constantine had. Gradually, the king’s heart and mind were opened to accept the good news of the resurrected Christ, and Ethelbert was baptized into the Church. He was not afraid to abandon the traditions of his pagan forefathers when he became convinced of the Truth. But once again, Ethelbert did not force his subjects to do the same. Slowly, through his example, the people followed in his footsteps.
Now the politician strove to become close to God, to be not only a good ruler, but to live a holy life. One of the first tasks that the now Christian King Ethelbert undertook was the passing of just laws for the fair governance and safety of the people. Among these laws were provisions for protection from violence for Christians (the clergy particularly) and churches. Although his desire was to destroy the houses of pagan worship, Ethelbert followed Pope Gregory’s advice and sanctioned the re-consecration of these buildings – as well as the seasonal festivals celebrated in them – for Christian worship. The king built a monastery and church dedicated to Ss. Peter and Paul, he founded a cathedral in Canterbury and provided for the establishment of churches in Rochester and London.
When he fell asleep in the Lord in 616, the king’s relics were buried in the Church of Ss. Peter and Paul, where he was venerated from very early times. Many miracles were reported at his shrine through the centuries until the destruction at the time of the Reformation.
We pray that St. Ethelbert, King and Confessor, will intercede for our civic officials, that they may, through tolerance and by good example, rule the people justly, pass laws for the common good of all, and finally rest in the kingdom of Christ, our King and God.
Sources: Christianity in England from Roman Times to the Reformation, by Kenneth Hylson-Smith; The Lives of the Fathers, Martyres, and Other Principal Saints, Vol. I, by Rev. Alban Butler; The Rise of Western Christendom by Peter Brown.