Æthelberht (also Æthelbert, Aethelberht, Aethelbert, or Ethelbert) (c. 560 – February 24, 616) was King of Kent from about 580 or 590 until his death. In his Ecclesiastical History of the English People, the monk Bede lists Aethelberht as being the third king to hold imperium over other Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. In the late 9th century Anglo-Saxon Chronicle Æthelberht is referred to as a bretwalda, or "Britain-ruler". He was the first English king to convert to Christianity.
He was the son of Eormenric, whom he succeeded as king, according to the Chronicle. He married Bertha, daughter of Charibert, king of the Franks, thus building an alliance with the most powerful state in Europe at that time; the marriage probably took place before Æthelberht came to the throne. The influence of Bertha may have led to Pope Gregory I’s decision to send Augustine as a missionary from Rome. Augustine landed on the Isle of Thanet in 597, and shortly thereafter, churches were established and efforts began to convert the people to Christianity. Æthelberht provided the new church with land in Canterbury, thus establishing one of the foundation-stones of what ultimately became the Anglican church.
Æthelberht’s code of laws for Kent, the earliest written code in any Germanic language, instituted a complex system of fines. Kent was rich, with strong trade ties to the continent, and it may be that Æthelberht instituted royal control of trade. Coinage began circulating in Kent during his reign for the first time since the Anglo-Saxon invasion.
 Historical context
In the fifth century, raids on Britain by continental peoples had developed into full-scale migrations. The newcomers are known to have included Angles, Saxons, Jutes and Frisians, and there is evidence of other groups as well. These groups captured territory in the east and south of England, but at about the end of the fifth century, a British victory at the battle of Mons Badonicus halted the Anglo-Saxon advance for fifty years. Beginning in about 550, however, the British began to lose ground once more, and within 25 years it appears that control of almost all of southern England was in the hands of the invaders.
Kent appears to have been conquered by the Anglo-Saxons prior to Mons Badonicus. There is both documentary and archaeological evidence that Kent was primarily colonized by Jutes, from the southern part of the Jutland peninsula. According to a well-known legend, Hengist and Horsa, two brothers, landed in 449 as mercenaries for a British king, Vortigern. After a rebellion over pay, and the death of Horsa in battle, Hengist established the kingdom of Kent. This account is now thought by some historians to be mostly legendary, though the underlying story of a rebelling mercenary force may be essentially accurate, and the date for the founding of the kingdom of Kent is thought to be about the middle of the fifth-century, in agreement with the legend. This early date, only a few decades after the departure of the Romans, also suggests that more of Roman civilization may have survived into Anglo-Saxon rule in Kent than in other areas.
The Anglo-Saxon invasion may have involved military coordination of different groups within the invaders, with a leader who had authority over many different groups: Ælle of Sussex may have been such a leader. Once the new states began to form, conflicts between them began, and dominance of the other nations could lead to wealth in the form of tribute. A weaker state might also ask for the protection of a stronger neighbour against a warlike third state. Overlordship, for either reason, was a central feature of Anglo-Saxon politics; it is known to have begun before Æthelberht's time, though the details are unknown, and kings were being described as overlords in this sense as late as the ninth century.
Sources for this period in Kentish history include The Ecclesiastical History of the English People, written in 731 by Bede, a Northumbrian monk. Bede was primarily interested in the Christianization of England, but since Æthelberht was the first Anglo-Saxon king to convert to Christianity, Bede provides more substantial information about him than about any earlier king. One of Bede’s correspondents was Albinus, who was abbot of the monastery of St. Peter and St. Paul (subsequently renamed St. Augustine's) in Canterbury. Also of importance is the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, a collection of annals assembled in about 890 in the kingdom of Wessex, which mentions several events in Kent during Æthelberht’s reign. In addition to these, there is a history of the Franks written in the late sixth century by Gregory of Tours which mentions Kentish events. This is the earliest surviving source to mention any Anglo-Saxon kingdom. Some of Pope Gregory the Great’s letters survive that relate to the mission of St. Augustine to Kent in 597; these provide information about the mission specifically, but can also be used to draw conclusions about the state of Kent and its relationships with its neighbours. Other sources include regnal lists of the kings of Kent, and early charters. Charters were documents drawn up to record grants of land by kings to their followers or to the church, and provide some of the earliest documentary sources in England. None survive in original form from Æthelberht’s reign, but some later copies exist. There is also a surviving lawcode of Æthelberht’s.
 Ancestry, accession, and chronology
According to Bede, Æthelberht was descended directly from Hengist. Bede gives the line of descent as follows: “Ethelbert was son of Irminric, son of Octa, and after his grandfather Oeric, surnamed Oisc, the kings of the Kentish folk are commonly known as Oiscings. The father of Oeric was Hengist.”An alternative form of this genealogy, found in the Historia Brittonum among other places, reverses the position of Octa and Oisc in the lineage. The first of these names that can be placed in history with reasonable confidence is Æthelberht’s father, whose name is now usually spelled Eormenric. The only direct written reference to Eormenric is in Kentish genealogies, but Gregory of Tours does mention that Æthelberht’s father was the king of Kent, though Gregory gives no date. Eormenric’s name provides a hint of connections to the kingdom of the Franks, across the English channel; the element “Eormen” was rare in names of the Anglo-Saxon aristocracy, but much more common among Frankish nobles.
The dates of Æthelberht’s birth and accession to the throne of Kent are alike a matter of debate. Bede, the earliest source to give dates, is thought to have drawn his information from correspondence with Albinus. Bede states that when Æthelberht died in 616 he had reigned for fifty-six years, placing his accession in 560. Bede also says that Æthelberht died twenty-one years after his baptism. Augustine’s mission from Rome is known to have arrived in 597, and according to Bede it was this mission that converted Æthelberht. Hence Bede’s dates are inconsistent. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, an important source for early dates, is inconsistent with Bede and also has inconsistencies between different manuscript versions. Putting together the different dates in the Chronicle for birth, death, and length of reign, it appears that Æthelberht’s reign was thought to have been either 560-616, or 565-618, but that the surviving sources have confused the two traditions.
It is possible that Æthelberht was converted to Christianity before Augustine’s arrival. Æthelberht’s wife was a Christian, and had a Frankish bishop attend her at court, so Æthelberht would have had knowledge of Christianity before the mission reached Kent. It is also possible that Bede had the date of Æthelberht’s death wrong; if Æthelberht in fact died in 618, this would be consistent with baptism in 597, which is also in accord with the tradition that Augustine converted the king within a year of his arrival.
Gregory of Tours, in his Historia Francorum, writes that Bertha, daughter of Charibert, king of the Franks, married the son of the king of Kent; and Bede says that Æthelberht received Bertha "from her parents". The traditions for Æthelberht’s reign would imply that Æthelberht married Bertha before either 560 or 565; and if Bede is interpretedly literally, the marriage would have had to take place before 567, when Charibert died.
The extreme length of Æthelberht’s reign has also been regarded with suspicion by historians; it has been suggested that he died in the fifty-sixth year of his life, rather than the fifty-sixth year of his reign. This would place the year of his birth at around 560, and he would not then have been able to marry until the mid 570s. According to Gregory of Tours, Charibert was king when he married Ingoberg, Bertha’s mother, which places the marriage no earlier than 561. It is therefore unlikely that Bertha was married much before about 580. These later dates for Bertha and Æthelberht also solve another possible problem: Æthelberht's daughter, Æthelburh, seems likely to have been Bertha's child, but the earlier dates would have Bertha aged sixty or so at Æthelburh's likely birthdate.
However, Gregory also says that he thinks that Ingoberg was seventy years old in 589; and this would make her about forty when she married Charibert. This is possible, but seems unlikely, especially as Charibert seems to have had a preference for younger women, again according to Gregory’s account. This would imply an earlier birthdate for Bertha. On the other hand, Gregory refers to Æthelberht at the time of his marriage to Bertha as simply a “man of Kent”, and in the 589 passage concerning Ingoberg’s death, which was written in about 590 or 591, he refers to Æthelberht as the son of the king of Kent. If this does not simply reflect Gregory’s ignorance of Kentish affairs, which seems unlikely given the close ties between Kent and the Franks, then Æthelberht’s reign cannot have started before 589.
The above contradictions cannot all be reconciled, but the most probable dates that can be drawn from the data place Æthelberht’s birth at around 560, and his marriage to Bertha at around 580. His reign is most likely to have started in about 589 or 590.
 Kingship of Kent
The later history of Kent shows clear evidence of a system of joint kingship, with the kingdom being divided into east Kent and west Kent, though it appears that there was generally a dominant king. This evidence is less clear for the earlier period, but there are early charters, known to be forged, which nevertheless imply that Æthelberht ruled as joint king with his son, Eadbald. It may be that Æthelberht was king of east Kent, and Eadbald became king of west Kent; the east Kent king seems to have generally been the dominant ruler later in Kentish history. Whether or not Eadbald became a joint king with Æthelberht, there is no question that Æthelberht had authority throughout the kingdom.
The division into two kingdoms is most likely to date back to the sixth century; east Kent may have conquered west Kent and preserved the institutions of kingship as a subkingdom. This was a common pattern in Anglo-Saxon England as the more powerful kingdoms absorbed their weaker neighbours. An unusual feature of the Kentish system was that only sons of kings appeared to be legitimate claimants to the throne, though this did not eliminate all strife over the succession.
The main towns of the two kingdoms were Rochester, for west Kent, and Canterbury, for east Kent. Bede does not state that Æthelberht had a palace in Canterbury, but he does refer to Canterbury as Æthelberht's "metropolis", and it is clear that it is Æthelberht's seat.
 Relations with the Franks
There are many indications of close relations between Kent and the Franks. Æthelberht’s marriage to Bertha certainly connected the two courts, though not as equals: the Franks would have thought of Æthelberht as an under-king. There is no record that Æthelberht ever accepted a continental king as his overlord, and as a result historians are divided on the true nature of the relationship. Evidence for an explicit Frankish overlordship of Kent comes from a letter written by Pope Gregory the Great to Theuderic, king of Orléans, and Theudebert, king of Metz. The letter concerned Augustine’s mission to Kent in 597, and in it Gregory says that he believes “that you wish your subjects in every respect to be converted to that faith in which you, their kings and lords, stand”. It may be that this is a papal compliment, rather than a description of the actual relationship between the kingdoms. It has also been suggested that Liudhard, Bertha’s chaplain, was intended as a representative of the Frankish church in Kent, which could also be interpreted as evidence of overlordship.
A reason for the willingness of the Franks to connect themselves to the Kentish court is suggested by the fact that a Frankish king, Chilperic I, is recorded as having conquered a people known as the Euthiones in the mid-sixth century. If, as seems likely from the name, these people were the continental remnants of the Jutish invaders of Kent, then it may be that the marriage was intended as a unifying political move, reconnecting different branches of the same people. Another perspective on the marriage can be gained by considering that it is likely that Æthelberht was not yet king at the time he and Bertha were wed: it may be that Frankish support for him, acquired via the marriage, was instrumental in gaining him the throne.
Regardless of the political relationship between Æthelberht and the Franks, there is abundant evidence of strong connections across the English Channel. There was a luxury trade between Kent and the Franks, and burial goods include clothing, drink, and weapons that reflect Frankish cultural influence. The Kentish burials have a greater range of imported goods than those of the neighbouring Anglo-Saxon regions, which is not surprising given the easier access to trade; in addition the grave goods are both richer and more numerous in Kentish graves, implying material wealth was derived from that trade. Frankish influences can also be detected in the social and agrarian organization of Kent. Other cultural influences can also be seen in the burials, though, so it is not necessary to assume that there was direct settlement by the Franks in Kent.
 Rise to dominance
In his Ecclesiastical History, Bede includes a list of seven kings who, he said, held “imperium” over the other kingdoms south of the Humber. The usual translation for “imperium” is “overlordship”. Bede names Æthelberht as the third on the list, after Ælle of Sussex and Ceawlin of Wessex. The anonymous annalist who composed one of the Anglo-Saxon chronicles repeated Bede’s list of seven kings in a famous entry under the year 827, adding one further king, Egbert of Wessex. The Chronicle also adds the information that these kings held the title "bretwalda", or “Britain-ruler”. Just what it meant to be a bretwalda has been the subject of much debate; it has been described as a term “of encomiastic poetry”, but there is also evidence that it implied a definite role of military leadership.
The prior bretwalda, Ceawlin, is recorded by the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle as having fought Æthelberht in 568. The entry states that Æthelberht lost the battle, and was driven back to Kent. The dating of the entries concerning the West Saxons in this section of the Chronicle is thought to be unreliable, and a recent analysis suggests that Ceawlin’s reign is more likely to have been about 581-588, rather than the dates of 560-592 that are given in the Chronicle. The battle was at “Wibbandun”, which can be translated as Wibba’s Mount; it is not known where this was.
At some point Ceawlin ceased to hold the title of bretwalda, perhaps after a battle at Stoke Lyne, in Oxfordshire, which the Chronicle dates to 584, some eight years before he was deposed in 592 (again using the Chronicle’s unreliable dating). Æthelberht was certainly a dominant ruler by 601, when Gregory the Great wrote to him: Gregory urges Æthelberht to spread Christianity among those kings and peoples subject to him, implying some level of overlordship. If the battle of Wibbandun was fought in about 590, as has been suggested, then Æthelberht must have gained his position as overlord some time in the 590s. This dating for Wibbandun is slightly inconsistent with the proposed dates of 581-588 for Ceawlin’s reign, but those dates are not thought to be precise, merely the most plausible given the available data.
 Relationships with other kingdoms
In addition to the evidence of the Chronicle that Æthelberht was accorded the title of bretwalda, there is evidence of his domination in several of the southern kingdoms. In Essex, Æthelberht appears to have been in a position to exercise authority shortly after 604, when his intervention helped in the conversion of King Sæberht, his nephew, to Christianity. It was Æthelberht, and not Sæberht, who built and endowed St Pauls in London, where St. Paul’s Cathedral now stands. Further evidence is provided by Bede, who explicitly describes Æthelberht as Sæberht’s overlord.
Bede describes Æthelberht’s relationship with Rædwald, king of East Anglia, in a passage that is not completely clear in meaning. It appears to say that Rædwald retained ducatus, or military command of his people, even while Æthelberht held imperium. This tells us both that being a bretwalda usually included holding the military command of other kingdoms, and also that it was more than that, since Æthelberht is bretwalda despite Rædwald’s control of his own troops. Rædwald was converted to Christianity while in Kent, but did not abandon his pagan beliefs; this, and the fact that he retained military independence, together imply that Æthelberht’s overlordship of East Anglia was much weaker than his influence with the East Saxons. However, an alternative interpretation is that the passage in Bede should be translated as "Rædwald, king of the East Angles, who while Æthelberht lived, even conceded to him the military leadership of his people"; if this is Bede's intent, then East Anglia was firmly under Æthelberht's overlordship.
There is no evidence that Æthelberht’s influence in other kingdoms was enough for him to convert any other kings to Christianity, though this is partly due to the lack of sources—nothing is known of Sussex’s history, for example, for almost all of the seventh and eighth centuries. Æthelberht was able to arrange a meeting in 602 in the Severn valley, on the northwestern borders of Wessex, however, and this may be an indication of the extent of his influence in the west. No evidence survives showing Kentish domination of Mercia, but it is known that Mercia was independent of Northumbria, so it is quite plausible that it was under Kentish overlordship.
 Augustine’s mission and early Christianization
The native Britons had converted to Christianity under Roman rule. The Anglo-Saxon invasions separated the British church from European Christianity for centuries, so the church in Rome had no presence or authority in Britain, and in fact Rome knew so little about the British church it was unaware of any schism in customs. However, Æthelberht would have known something about the church from his Frankish wife, Bertha, who had brought a bishop, Liudhard, with her across the Channel, and who had a chapel built for her.
In 596, Pope Gregory the Great sent Augustine, prior of the monastery of St. Andrew in Rome, to England as a missionary, and in 597, a group of nearly forty monks, led by Augustine, landed on the Isle of Thanet in Kent. According to Bede, Æthelberht was sufficiently distrustful of the newcomers to insist on meeting them under the open sky, to prevent them from performing sorcery. The monks impressed Æthelberht, but he was not converted immediately. He agreed to allow the mission to settle in Canterbury, and permitted them to preach.
It is not known when Æthelberht actually became a Christian. It is possible, despite Bede’s account, that he was already a Christian before Augustine’s mission arrived. It is likely that Liudhard and Bertha pressed Æthelberht to consider becoming a Christian before the arrival of the mission, and it is also likely that a condition of Æthelberht’s marriage to Bertha was that Æthelberht would consider conversion. However, conversion via the influence of the Frankish court would have been seen as an explicit recognition of Frankish overlordship, and so it is possible that Æthelberht’s delay of his conversion until it could be done via Roman influence was an assertion of independence from Frankish control. It has also been argued that Augustine’s hesitation—he turned back to Rome, asking to be released from the mission—is an indication that Æthelberht was a pagan at the time Augustine was sent.
At the latest, Æthelberht must have converted before 601, since that year Gregory wrote to him as a Christian king. An old tradition records that Æthelberht converted on June 1st, in the summer of the year that Augustine arrived. Through Æthelberht’s influence Sæberht, king of Essex, was also converted, but there were limits to the effectiveness of the mission. The Kentish court did not entirely convert: Eadbald, Æthelberht’s son and heir, was a pagan at his accession. Rædwald, king of East Anglia, was only partly converted (apparently while at Æthelberht’s court), and kept up a pagan shrine next to the new Christian altar. Augustine was also unsuccessful in gaining the allegiance of the British clergy.
 Law code
Some time after the arrival of Augustine’s mission, perhaps in 602 or 603, Æthelberht issued a set of laws, in ninety sections. These laws are much the earliest surviving code composed in any of the Germanic countries, and were almost certainly one of the very first documents written down in Anglo-Saxon, as literacy would have arrived in England with Augustine’s mission. The only surviving early manuscript, the Textus Roffensis, dates from the twelfth century, and now resides in the Kent Archives Office in Maidstone. Æthelberht’s code makes reference to the church in the very first item, which enumerates the compensation required for the property of a bishop, a deacon, a priest, and so on; but overall the laws seem remarkably uninfluenced by Christian principles. Bede asserted that they were composed "after the Roman manner", but there is little discernible Roman influence either. In subject matter, the laws have been compared to the Lex Salica of the Franks, but it is not thought that Æthelberht based his code on any specific previous model.
The laws are concerned to set and enforce the penalties for transgressions at all levels of society. The king had a financial interest in enforcement, for part of the penalties would come to him, but the king was also responsible for law and order, and avoiding blood feuds by enforcing the rules on compensation for injury was part of how the king maintained control. Æthelberht’s laws are mentioned by Alfred the Great, who compiled his own laws, making use of the prior codes created by Æthelberht, as well as those of Offa of Mercia and Ine of Wessex.
One of Æthelberht’s laws seems to preserve a trace of a very old custom: the third item in the code states that “If the king is drinking at a man’s home, and anyone commits any evil deed there, he is to pay two-fold compensation.” This probably refers to the ancient custom of a king traveling the country, being hosted and provided for by his subjects wherever he went. The king’s servants retained these rights for centuries after Æthelberht’s time.
Items 77-81 in the code have been interpreted as a description of a woman’s financial rights after a divorce or legal separation. These clauses define how much of the household goods a woman could keep in different circumstances, depending on whether she keeps custody of the children, for example. However, it has recently been suggested that it would be more correct to interpret these clauses as referring to women who are widowed, rather than divorced.
 Trade and coinage
There is less documentary evidence about the nature of trade in Æthelberht’s Kent. It is known that the kings of Kent had established royal control of trade in the late seventh century, but it is not known how early this control began. There is archaeological evidence that suggests that the royal influence predates any of the written sources. It has been suggested that one of Æthelberht’s achievements was to take control of trade away from the aristocracy and make it a royal monopoly. The continental trade provided Kent access to luxury goods which gave Kent an advantage in trading with the other Anglo-Saxon nations; and the revenue from trade was important in itself.
Kentish manufacture before 600 included glass beakers, and also jewelry; Kentish jewellers were highly skilled, and before the end of the sixth century they gained access to gold. Goods from Kent are found in cemeteries across the channel, and further away, at the mouth of the Loire. It is not known what Kent traded for all this wealth, though it seems likely that there was a flourishing slave trade. It may well be that this wealth was the foundation of Æthelberht’s strength, though his overlordship, and the associated right to demand tribute, would have brought wealth in its turn.
It may have been during Æthelberht’s reign that coins first began to be minted: none bear his name, but it is thought likely that the first coins predate the end of the sixth century. These early coins were gold, and were probably the shillings (scillingas in Old English) that are mentioned in Æthelberht’s laws. The coins are also known to numismatists as "thrymsas".