Bertha – from France — ‘Mother of England’? And how Kent got two Cathedrals?

Bertha’s history seems somewhat to have been overwritten by that of her husband, King Ethelbert of Kent – but it was through their marriage and Bertha’s influence, that Christianity was re-established in Kent. This in turn led to the building of a cathedral at Rochester, and provided a basis for unifying ‘warrior communities’ under one monarch. Together these ‘developments’ laid the foundations of the English Nation. I wonder therefore whether Princess Bertha of ‘France’ / Queen Bertha of Kent, could legitimately be regarded as the ‘Mother of the England’?

(The dates in the following are approximations – various sources offer differing dates.)

Very little is known of Bertha (b565AD d612AD?). She was born to King Charibert / Queen Ingoberga of Paris, and into the most powerful family in western Europe. Around 580, Princess Bertha agreed to marry the pagan Prince Ethelbert of Kent on condition she could bring her church with her to Kent, and that she could continue practicing her Christian faith. Ethelbert agreed.

Tall Bertha
Princess Bertha – clothing contemporary with the 6th Century Frankish style.

On her arrival at Canterbury Bertha and her Bishop took over St. Martins – a church that had existed since Roman times. 

Christianity had first been established as the nation’s religion around 400AD – about ten years before the Roman’s withdrawal; too shorter time for it to have become truly imbedded. (Had Bertha not settled in Canterbury, could one assume it would not enjoy the status it has today – around the world?)

Following the Roman’s departure around 410AD, the Pope expected the Bishops based in France to provide leadership to maintain and develop Britain’s conversion to Christianity. It is clear they failed in this responsibility as Paganism returned to these shores with the invading nordic and germanic tribes.

By 590AD Ethelbert had been crowned the King of Kent and Queen Bertha, who had established her Church at Canterbury, was in correspondence with Pope Gregory.

Ethelbert
Ethelbert’s statue at Lady Wooten Green, Canterbury

Probably as much to do with her well established ‘regal credentials’ as to her missionary zeal, Pope Gregory I, commonly known as Saint Gregory the Great, decided the time was right to re-establish or reinvigorate Christianity on this island. As the Bishops of France had not taken this lead the Pope decided to send a mission to Kent directly from Rome. 

It could perhaps also be fair to assume that Pope Gregory was also of the view that his emissaries would be safe, and that the British were likely to be receptive to receiving the Christian message. If this was the case credit needs to be given to Bertha who in addition to her Christian faith, came from a family that was skilled in ‘state-building’ in that they had united the waring Frankish tribes under one leader and one faith – Christianity.

Augustine arrives in Kent on his Papal Mission

Augustine – later St. Augustine – arrived via France at the Isle Richborough, Kent, in 597AD with an entourage of around 40. Securing, at this time, the number of boats that would be required to transport this number of people along with their luggage, would have been challenging. One therefore has to wonder whether the King of France and/or Ethelbert used their ‘influence’? 

The story is that Ethelbert only agreed to meet Augustine if they could meet outside, as he didn’t get ‘infected by his magic’. If this were true a meeting outside had limited affect as most sources believe Ethelbert was baptised soon after Augustine’s visit; it was further reported that 10,000 converts had been baptised by Christmas 597. 

Augustine Etherbert

How Bertha succeeded in her mission to persuade her husband of the merits of Christianity over his pagan religion, is unrecorded. However the ‘points of persuasion’ may have been based as much on politics as faith as Ethelbert would have been aware of how Christianity had helped secure the peaceful coalition of Frankish tribes.

In 601 the Pope wrote to Bertha encouraging her to do more to promote the adoption of Christianity. This led to a request for more books and priests to be sent from Rome to enable the expansion of Christianity into West Kent, and perhaps beyond. 

Regardless of the precise order of events from 597, it is accepted that by 604 Ethelbert had given money and land to Bishop Justus to construct a church at Rochester in West Kent – thereby making Kent the first county to adopt Christianity. Having said that Justus’ cathedral was served by secular canons – a body of clergy that did not follow any monastic rules. (Seems this arrangement continued until around 1080 when Bishop Gundulph sacked the secular monks and replaced them with his ‘religious’ Benedictine monks.)

Sadly it would seem that the church at Rochester soon fell into ‘disrepair’. Eadbald who succeeded Ethelbert in 616, was not a committed Christian and returned Kent, for some years, to its Pagan ways. (He did later convert to Christianity.) This could have impacted on the maintenance of Rochester’s cathedral, but it would certainly have suffered significant damage in 676 when Ethelred of Mercia ravaged Kent and destroyed Rochester. If anything remained of the cathedral after this attacked, it probably would have suffered further ‘assaults’ in 842 and again in 888 when Rochester was sacked by the invading Danes.

I’m not clear as to what would have remained of Justus’ cathedral by the time of the Norman Conquest in 1066. Clearly there was sufficient for it to still be considered as a place of religious significance as the French monk Gundulf constructed his cathedral on that site. The location of part of the footings of Justus’ cathedral are marked out today by cobbles at the front of the present cathedral. (An archeological study of Justus’s cathedral concluded that it was built in a Roman style and of Roman materials. The later could in part be explained by the discovery of the footings of a sizeable Roman dwelling being uncovered during the recent restoration work on the crypt. This could have provided some of the building materials for the church.)

Saxon Footings  The Cobbles

Is this why Kent has two ancient cathedrals?

As far as I can tell Kent is the only County with two ancient Cathedrals – Canterbury and Rochester.  Why should this be the case and why should Rochester have been chosen for the second cathedral? From my reading there could be at least two connected reasons:

  • Kent was once comprised of two Kingdoms – Jutish and Saxon. Indeed there is some evidence that during the the seventh century Kent was ruled by two kings. As the bridge at Rochester would have been strategically significant – militarily and commercially – Rochester could have been the ‘capital’ of the West Kent kingdom. As Ethelbert ‘negotiated’ with the ‘elders’ of West Kent I suspect they would not have wanted to be totally subordinate to Canterbury in the east. Therefore could including a cathedral for Rochester in the deal have been a good ploy?
  • Secondly Rochester or more accurately Eccles, probably remained Christian after the departure of the Romans – something that Bertha would have been aware of and would have probably supported. Rochester would therefore have been a prime choice for the building of a cathedral both strategically and for ‘ease of implementation’.

Going beyond Kent

Bertha’s influence in the Christianisation of England was not limited to Kent. One of Ethelbert and Bertha’s daughters, Ethelburga, married Edwin the first sole King of Northumbria. Just as her mother before her, Ethelburga consented to the marriage on condition she and her entourage could continue practicing her Christian faith. Edwin agreed and went further – he said he would examine the new religion and if it was better than his he would adopt it – its another story but he did convert to Christianity.

St. Hilda / Hild was brought up in the Court of King Edwin and would have come within the influence of Bertha and Ethelburga. As an adult Hilda entered the monastery and eventually became the abbess of the monastery at Whitby. It was here in 664 the Synod of Whitby was held at which the course for the future of Christianity in England was set,

The overview-story ends here. Below is a more in-depth look at that is known or can be inferred concerning the influence that Bertha brought to bear in laying the foundations of the England we know today.  

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Some more detailed info / thoughts

Post-Roman Britain.

Before the Romans departed, Britain was receiving incursions from – Jutes, Saxons and Vikings. Because of the proximity of Kent to northern Europe the invaders were more Germanic than Nordic. 

Invaders map

Archeological evidence suggests that Jutes from Jutland that had links to Francia, settled in East Kent, and the Saxons settled in West Kent – their settlement reputedly being founded by the brothers Hengist and Horsa. These two communities, based on a ‘warrior culture’ as evidenced by their grave goods, would have fought for control in Kent. Eventually the East Kent tribes which had close links with the powerful Franks in France gained dominance in Kent.

It is perhaps worth speculating – in the hope that someone might correct me – as to whether the fact that East and West Kent were effectively separate tribal kingdoms could explain why Kent is the only county with two ancient cathedrals?

Post-Roman France.

Similar to Britain many tribes tried to fill the void created by Roman’s withdrawal. The French tribes however reached an ‘accommodation’ sooner than the British tribes. Much of the credit for this has to go to Clovis I – Bertha’s grandfather – who by the late 5th century had united all Frankish tribes under one ruler. The unification of the tribes was further cemented when Clovis converted to Christianity in 496 – largely at the behest of his wife (Bertha’s grandmother). This was followed by the conversion of all the Frankish people.

Bertha was therefore born into a Christian family / dynasty that had been successful in unifying warring communities under one leader and one religion. 

The Frankish kingdom was managed in accordance with a written code introduced in the early 6th century. This code,  Pactus Legis Salicae, “The Roman Laws”,  directed how a civilised kingdom was to be run, how individuals were to conduct themselves, and brought proportionality to the punishments to be imposed for particular crimes. It thereby laid the foundations for the national identity of a future France. A similar document for England / in English – the Textus Roffensis / “The Tome of Rochester” – was not produced until some 500 to 600 years later

The marriage of Ethelbert and Bertha.

There were links between their families if only cultural. The Frankish kingdom was the most powerful in western Europe. It is there quite probably that Ethelbert’s mission to France – on which he met Bertha – was one to establish a defensive alliance and to extend ‘French’ influence.

It should have also been apparent that communities – monarchs – that do not expend huge resources can still acquire wealth and resources through trade.

The fact that Bertha ‘agreed’ to the marriage and stipulated terms concerning her Christian faith, suggests that she – at least as a royal woman – had some say in the matter. Without written records it is difficult to be sure of the true status of women in pre-Norman Britain but there is much to suggest that they had more authority and independence than they had after 1066.

Bertha’s Christianity.

Clearly this has to be one of supposition / inference. Historians believe that as Augustine did not arrive on his mission with relics Bertha practiced her religion through pray and providing for the poor, as opposed to worshiping relics and icons.

Bertha’s influence?

Again one of supposition but Bertha clearly influenced Ethelbert’s conversion. He may well have embraced the Christian faith but I suspect he would have been very aware of how Bertha’s ancestors had used the common religion of Christianity to embed and maintain a peaceful coalition of previously warring communities. 

Quite probably the Pope would have got round, sooner or later, to ‘reconvert’ the British to Christianity. He was apparently aware of heathen slaves from Kent, being sold in Roman slave markets. However I suspect it would have been much later had Ethelbert not married the Christian Bertha.

Status of Anglo-Saxon women.

It was only after the Norman Conquest that women lost the right of inheritance. William introduced primogeniture – inheritance by the eldest son /male relative – that supplanted Gravelkind ‘practiced’ by the Anglo-Saxons. Under Gravelkind the property owner could determine how it was to be disbursed on their death. Should they die intestate then the estate was distributed equally between offspring regardless of their gender. (William apparently allowed the practice of Gravelkind to continue in Kent. Until 1925 all land in Kent was presumed to be held by gavelkind until the contrary was proved.)

With the adoption of Christianity the king would appoint bishops and established monasteries. These religious communities were endowed with resources and authorities by the King and were expected to represent him locally. It was not unusual for women – particularly female relatives of the King – to be appointed to run Abbeys. Prior to the Norman Conquest theses would have largely been ‘secular’. (Perhaps worthy to note that Bishop Gundulf ‘dismissed’ the Anglo-Saxon monks on his appointment as Bishop of Rochester and brought in monks from his religious order – the Benedictines.)

1066 – the return of a military culture – and the diminution of the status of Women.

Following the Norman Conquest there was a major shift in British culture. William’s strategy for maintaining authority depended on having a call on men should he need to raise an army. He did this by giving land to loyal Barons along with authority over the people that lived and worked on that land. In order not to undermine this arrangement, through land being fragmented between descendants, he introduced ‘primogeniture’. Through ensuring that land was inherited by the elder son – or nearest eldest male relative – he ensured estates remained whole.

To establish this practice soon after his ‘conquest’, William permitted the aristocratic wives of Anglo-Saxon men who had died at the Battle of Hastings, to retain their land – so long as they married a Norman.

Other alternatives for Anglo-Saxon women was exile or to seek refuge in a convent. This later option appears to have been taken up by a number women at this time – perhaps indicated by Bishop Gundulf using his own land/money to establish a nunnery, St. Mary’s Abbey c1090, in West Malling.

Unsurprisingly some women who had sought refuge in a convent subsequently found a monastic life was not for them. This posed an issue for the Bishop of Rochester who sought advice from the Archbishop of Canterbury, who replied along the following lines:

“… As to those who as you tell fled to a monastery not for love of the religious life but fear of the French, if they can prove that this was so by the unambiguous witness of nuns better than they, let them be be granted unrestricted leave to depart. This is the king’s policy and our own.”

As the women probably desired to leave monastic life in order to resume a ‘free life’ – and to potentially marry – this would have fitted well with William’s strategy to use Anglo-Saxon women as ‘peace-weavers’ and to ‘legitimately’ secure rights of inheritance over Anglo-Saxon lands. 

(I’ve discovered no evidence of women entering the monastery at Rochester but Bishop Gundulf was probably the first post-Conquest bishop to establish a convent.)

Main sources: 

Medieval women – social history of Women in England 450-1500. Henrietta Leyser.

The Anglo-Saxon World. Nicholas Higham and Martin Ryan.

Augustine of Canterbury. Leadership, Mission and Legacy. Robin Mackintosh.

and various websites – and ‘reflective tongue chewing’. (History records notable events but they were experienced at the time by the likes of you and I.)

 

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