Date of Birth: c. 560
Spouse: Bertha, daughter of Charibert I, king of Paris
Reign: c. 590 – 616
Summary: The England of Æthelberht was very different than that of his grandfathers or his grandchildren. The Anglo-Saxon migrations had mostly ended but England was not yet under the full domination of the Saxons. Of all the English kingdoms, Kent was the oldest and held prominence for many years. Æthelberht was the son of the previous king, Eormenric. While his early life is largely unknown and mired in speculation, his reign is one of the best documented of the early Anglo-Saxon period due to his conversion to Christianity around 595. Æthelberht married the daughter of the king of Paris and, because of that, had many reasons to convert to Christianity. His marriage provided Kent with access to continental goods, something the other English realms lacked. It also brought Frankish influence to England for the first time, something that would come in waves following the Norman Conquest. Yet the very fact that Æthelberht's wife was Christian may have been the most important gain for England. While today it is uncertain precisely when Æthelberht became the first Christian monarch in England, two probable scenarios are possible. Either Bertha influenced his conversion, or Augustine converted him. Augustine has been the likely conclusion for many centuries because he landed in Kent and began preaching there. Æthelberht allowed Augustine to set up shop at Canterbury, a place that remained the episcopal home of Christianity in England to this day. Yet it is still possible that Bertha either oversaw his conversion or influenced it since Æthelberht had likely been married to her as early as 567. Regardless, the success of the conversion spread to neighboring Essex as well but was short-lived as neither of those kings' heirs were Christians at the time of their coronations.
To return to the reign of Æthelberht, Bede names this king as the third Bretwelda, or overlord, of the English. What this true title entails is unclear but it was thought to be a military title rather than a true title of overlordship. For Æthelberht, though, he certainly did have power. By 600, he held sway over Essex, another Anglo-Saxon state, and he may have controlled East Anglia directly, maintaining the king as a sort of local military leader. Other regions in England including Sussex and Mercia may also have been under Æthelberht's direct or indirect control. A code of laws, the oldest among all Germanic tribes, is attributed to the reign of Æthelberht, and it set forth rules and penalties for all levels of society. It was created after the king's conversion because it includes Christian law among its text. Little else is known of Æthelberht's reign. He died in 616 leaving the country to his pagan son, Eadbald. The king and his wife were later canonized by the Roman Catholic Church for their role in establishing Christianity in England.
Date of Death: 24 February 616
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