Page 6, 21st February 1941

21st February 1941
Page 6
Page 6, 21st February 1941 — England Owes Its Christianity To Kentish King Ethelbert

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Organisations: Oriel College, royal house


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England Owes Its Christianity To Kentish King Ethelbert

by W. A. Pantin

SAINT ETHELBERT was King of Kent from 560 to 616; it was during his reign and in his territory that St. Augustine and the Roman missionaries sent by St. Gregory arrived in 597, and he was in fact one of the principal instruments in the conversion of the English people. It is

(Fellow of Oriel College, Oxford) worth considering what we, as Catholics and Englishmen, owe to him.

It is extremely important for us to realise that these early English .saints like Ethelbert are not archaeological specimens or museum pieces; they are very much alive and very relevant. Tales ambio defensores; every part of England can find its natural protectors during the present dangers in the English saints. like SS. Ethelbert, Dunstan and Thomas, for instance, for the south east, or St. Edmund and the saints of Lindisfarne for the east coast.

And these English Saints are vety relevant in another way: for the civilisation which we are defending is largely their work.


Why was it to Ethelbert's Kingdom of Kent that the Roman missionaries came? It was because Kent wa,a the nearest point to the continent ; it was there that the Romans and the Jules had 'landed. The men of Kent already had trading and other contacts with the Franks; Ethelbert himself was married to a Christian Frankish princess, Bertha, and was therefore naturally well disposed towards the missionaries. Bede tells the wellknown story of how St. Augustine and his fellow monks landed on the Isle of Thanet, and how the king came out with his court from Canterbury to meet them and to hear what they had to say. His answer to them is worth repeating: " The words and promises you bring are fair, but because they tar new to us and uncertain. I cannot assent to them so far as to forsake that which I have for so long followed with the whole English nation. Bui because you are come hither from afar, and, as I understand, desire to share also with us those things which you believe to be true and most beneficial, we do not wish to molest yatl, but rather will give you favourable hospitality and food; nor do we forbid you to preach and gain as many as you can to your religion."


This speech and the king's subsequent conduct give us a very attractive view of the man ; we can sec his caution, and the reluctance to break with custom that was characteriatie of his race, his desire for fair play, and his generous appreciation that here was a body of men who had made a long and dangerous journey to do him a great service. When he himself was baptised soon after, he took great care, we are told, not to compel his subjects to conversion by force. Kentish men were to come to Christ as free men: Servitium Christi voluntariunt non coarticium.

Ethelbert showed himself generous as well as just; he stands out as a great founder of

churches. Before the coming of the missionaries he had given to his Christian wife and her chaplain, Bishop Liudhard, the little church of St. Martin-on-the-Hill, outside Canterbury to the east. After his own conversion, he handed over to St. Augustine his own palace inside the walls of Canterbury, together with the remains of a RomanoBritish church, which St. Augustine rebuilt

as his cathedral of St. Saviour — the local equivalent of the Lateran basilica at Rome: there is also an obvious parallel between Ethelbert and C'onstantine, as St. Gregory was not slow to point out.

Outside the city to the east had stood the pagan temple or idol-house where Ethelbert had worshipped; the temple itself was cleansed, rebuilt and dedicated to St, Pancras, the Roman boy martyr; and in the grounds of the temple site Ethelbert founded the monastery of St. Peter and St. Paul, afterwards known as St. Augustine's, which was to serve for several centuries as the burial place of the archbishops and of the kings of Kent, the Westminster Abbey of Kent.

Here, in the chapel of the Frankish Saint

Martin (a pleasing tribute to his wife),•Ethelbert was hurled, along with his wife and Bishop Liudhard. He had also founded the cathedrals of Rochester and London, so that Londoners, too, have good cause to remember him; he is no doubt as interested in their welfare now, as then.

HIS WERE ENGLAND'S FIRST WRITTEN LAWS Ethelbert is important historically as the first English King to issue written laws; with him the laws of England may be said to begin; for the coming of the new Faith made it necessary to begin adapting and recording the old customary law. He also began that intimate connection and collaboration between the monarchy and the Church which was the backbone of medieval England.

His house, the royal house of Kent, was famous for its piety: it produced about eighteen Saints in a century ; the women of the royal house, like Dianna Eva and St. Mildred of Thanet, or St. Ethelreda of Ely, seem to have had a special genius for founding and ruling religious houses of women.

With Ethelbert's conversion, then, English monarchy became Christian monarchy—and also by that very fact, limited monarchy. In this, medieval English Kingship differed from the GodKings of the ancient world, or from the absolute monarchies of modern times; just because government was sacred, it was also something limited by law, by

God's law, by natural law, by the law of the land, and something to be held only during the good behaviour of the ruler.

The condition of the king's anointing was the coronation oath, with its promises of good government, out of which grew the charters of liberty and the Great Charter: and the right of resistance was constantly exercised whenever the oath was held to be broken. " The king ought not to be under any man, but under God and under the law, because the law makes the king, For there is no king, where arbitrary will governs, and not the law."

English liberties, the rights of the subject and the rule of law, things for which Englishmen have always been ready to fight, owe in the long run something at least to Ethelharts conversion. That conversion also has an even wider significance: for it began that historical miracle by which a barbarian people, the Anglo-Saxons, were transformed by Christian faith and Gram:Li-Rum:in culture, yet without losing their identity as a people, without becoming less English. That will always remain the historical refutation of racialism, the myth of inherent racial superiority or inherent racial depravity. It is moral and cultural habits that make men what they are. It is not blood hut sin that can damn a people ; not blood but Grace that can save them.

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