I’ve been meaning to compose an entry about Bertha of Kent probably for as long as I’ve had this blog. That’s going on four years. Just goes to show you, hell hath no highway department like good intentions.
Bertha intrigues me because she’s such an enigma. What we know about her – what few details survive in the historical record – would probably fit on the point of a thumb tack. In this regard, she’s not so far different from many women in the early Middle Ages. That she is not only mentioned at all, but in multiple sources even, is notable in itself. Yet given her reputed role in the mission to convert the Anglo-Saxons to Christianity at the turn of the seventh century, the silence of the sources on Bertha is both disappointing and tantalizing.
What do we know about Bertha? Gregory of Tours tells use that she was the daughter of King Charibert of Paris (r. 561-567) and his first wife, Ingoberg. (The History of the Franks 4.26, trans. Lewis Thorpe.) She married “a man from Kent” (4.26), later described as “the son of a King of Kent.” (9.26)
Bertha is never actually named in The History of the Franks, but is rather described in both passages as simply “a daughter.” Compare this to Berthefled, another of Charibert’s daughters, whom Gregory names as a nun at Ingitrude’s convent at St. Martin’s who flees to Le Mans, where she “ate and slept a lot, and… had no interest at all in the holy offices.” (9.33)
Our chief source for information about Bertha is Bede’s Ecclesiastical History. From here we learn that King Æthelberht of Kent was already familiar with the Christian faith when Augustine and the other missionaries from Rome arrived in 596, because
he had a Christian wife of the Frankish royal family whose name was Bertha. He had received her from her parents on condition that she should be allowed to practice her faith and religion unhindered, with a bishop named Liudhard whom they had provided for her to support her faith. (The Ecclesiastical History of the English People 1.25, trans. Bertram Colgrave)
Later Bede reports that Bertha had been worshipping in a church on the outskirts of Canterbury, built during the Roman occupation of Britain and dedicated to St. Martin. (1.26) If true, the building must have been about 200 years old at the time, as St. Martin died c. 397 and the Romans withdrew from Britain by c. 410. Whether it is coincidence or not that Bertha happened to have a church dedicated to the patron saint of the Franks to worship in is not clear.
The last direct mention of Bertha in the Ecclesiastical History is in the narrative of Æthelberht’s death, which relates that the king “was buried in the chapel of St. Martin, within the church of the Apostles St. Peter and St. Paul, where his queen, Bertha, also lies.” (2.5) Earlier Bede says that Æthelberht died in 616, so from this we can presume that she died between Augustine’s arrival in 596 and 616.
Bertha also benefits from a couple of negative mentions in the Ecclesiastical History, by which I mean that references to other people and events shed a little light on her. For example, Bede’s account indicates that Æthelberht and Bertha had at least one, and possibly two, children. Æthelberht’s successor, Eadbald, “took his father’s wife” (2.5) upon his father’s death. Since it becomes clear elsewhere that Eadbald did not marry his own mother but rather his stepmother, it’s safe to presume that Bertha was his mother.
Eadbald had a sister, Æthelburh, for whom he arranged a marriage to King Edwin of Northumbria in 625. (2.9) Though Æthelburh is named as Æthelberht’s daughter, it is not absolutely certain that Bertha was her mother. Depending on the date of Bertha’s death and Æthelberht’s remarriage, she could have been the daughter of Æthelberht’s second wife. When describing Edwin’s baptism, Bede names the respective mothers of Edwin’s children (2.14) but Eadbald and Æthelburh are named as the children of Æthelberht only (2.5, 2.9). However, this discrepancy may be explained by the fact that Bede was writing his history in a Northumbrian monastery and thus probably had access to more complete information and a greater interest in telling Northumbria’s history.
The final source about Bertha is in a letter Pope Gregory I wrote to her in 601 (Registrum Epistolarum 11.35). In this letter he praises Bertha for her support of Augustine’s mission, as reported to him by Laurence and Peter, comparing her to Constantine’s mother Helena. This letter reveals that Bertha was literate, or at least able to read Scripture (recta fide gloria vestra munita et litteris docta est). Gregory also gently chastises Bertha for failing to use her faith and education to convert her husband to Christianity:
Et quidem iam dudum gloriosi filii nostri coniugis vestri animos prudentiae vestrae bono, sicut revera christianae, debuistis inflectere, ut pro regni et animae suae salute fidem quam colitis sequeretur, quatenus et de eo et per eum de totius gentius conversione digna vobis in caelesyibus gaudiis retributio nasceretur.
From the date on the letter it is possible to shorten the possible time frame of Bertha’s death by 5 years, to some time between 601 and 616. We learn, too, that Bertha knew how to read, though the extent of her education (whether it went beyond the Bible) and who taught her to read are open to conjecture.
At this point, anything we know – or think we know – about Bertha is the result of conjecture. A variety of suppositions, legends, and half-truths about Bertha have been put forth over the years, some of them coming to be accepted uncritically as fact. In a later post(s) I intend to examine some of the more prevalent beliefs about Bertha in light of the very scant (and not always reliable) historical evidence.