View Full Version : Reasons for Æthelberht's Conversion

Thursday, February 16th, 2006, 04:49 PM
Early Germanic Kingship in England and on the Continent
JM Wallace-Hadrill; 1971; ISBN 0198710119

This was not an occasion when the pope found it expedient to
emphasize something else that was much in his thoughts and discussed
at other times: namely, that the true basis of all earthly rule was
humility. Any man placed above his fellows filled a God-given office,
and Gregory is the first to call kingship an office. It thus followed
that a king should never overlook the moral root of his power.
Medieval preoccupation with kingly humility was mainly to rest upon
Gregory's interpretation of Augustine, reinforced by the Bible: rule
is a service, and the man who exercises it will fail when he forgets
that he is a man. One sees why King Æthelberht might not have
welcomed this part of the missionary message. It was enough for him
that conversion could be identified with victory and that the warfare
proper to a Bretwalda [overking] had a Christian justification. What
was Christian war and peace? Peace was God's peace and God's gift,
won by fighting his enemies and compelling the observation of his
commands. Such had been the warfare of the People of Israel, at once
more mystical and more tremendous than any heroic feat by a Germanic
warrior. Thus the Hebraic tradition came to reinforce the other
traditions of warfare to which .Aethelberht was heir: the Roman,
namely, with its message that peace was born of victory, and the
Germanic, where war was a manifestation of vitality.

It seems to me that there were two possible (and conflicting) reasons
why Æthelberht should have accepted conversion when he did. The first
is that he had made himself a powerful king by force of arms. That he
should then wish to enter the community of what might be called
Gregorian kings would seem natural enough, once he had been persuaded
of the advantages and reassured that the Merovingian grip upon his
house would not be tightened thereby.

The pope meant it to be understood that the new convert was entering
the family of Catholic kings of whom the emperor was the father.
Papal and imperial correspondence of the period leaves no doubt about
this. Politically this might mean little or nothing. But one certain
consequence would be that the new convert would enter into the
tradition of written law of which the emperor was the fountain-head.
This is one reason why Æthelberht's laws must be dated after his
conversion. Law books were a Roman, and specifically a Christian-
Roman, gift to the Germanic kings.

Friday, February 15th, 2019, 05:26 PM
This looks like an interesting book to read.

Æthelberht's wife, Bertha (later St. Bertha), was already Christian, and her father, Charibert I, only allowed Æthelberht to marry her on the condition that she'd be allowed to practice her faith. She even brought a Frankish bishop, Liudhard, with her to Kent. I read a letter to Bertha from Pope Gregory I, and he encouraged her in the conversion of her husband, comparing Bertha to Saint Helena, mother of Constantine.