King of Kent; b. 552; d. 24 February, 616; son of Eormenric, through whom he was descended from Hengest. He succeeded his father, in 560, as King of Kent and made an unsuccessful attempt to win from Ceawlin of Wessex the overlordship of Britain. His political importance was doubtless advanced by his marriage with Bertha, daughter of Charibert, King of the Franks (see BERTHA I). A noble disposition to fair dealing is argued by his giving her the old Roman church of St. Martin in his capital of Cantwaraburh (Canterbury) and affording her every opportunity for the exercise of her religion, although he himself had been reared, and remained, a worshipper of Odin. The same natural virtue, combined with a quaint spiritual caution and, on the other hand, a large instinct of hospitality, appears in his message to St. Augustine when, in 597, the Apostle of England landed on the Kentish coast (see AUGUSTINE OF CANTERBURY).
In the interval between Ethelbert's defeat by Ceawlin and the arrival of the
Roman missionaries, the death of the Wessex king had left Ethelbert, at least
virtually, supreme in southern Britain, and his baptism, which took place on
Whitsunday next following the landing of Augustine (2 June, 597) had such an
effect in deciding the minds of his wavering countrymen that as many as 10,000
are said to have followed his example within a few months. Thenceforward
Ethelbert became the watchful father of the infant Anglo-Saxon Church. He
founded the church which in after-ages was to be the primatial cathedral of all
England, besides other churches at Rochester and Canterbury. But, although he
permitted, and even helped, Augustine to convert a heathen temple into the
church of St. Pancras (Canterbury), he never compelled his heathen subjects to
accept baptism. Moreover, as the lawgiver who issued their first written laws to
the English people (the ninety
Dooms of Ethelbert, A.D. 604) he holds in
English history a place thoroughly consistent with his character as the temporal
founder of that see which did more than any other for the upbuilding of free and
orderly political institutions in Christendom. When St. Mellitus had converted
Sæbert, King of the East Saxons, whose capital was London, and it was proposed
to make that see the metropolitan, Ethelbert, supported by Augustine,
successfully resisted the attempt, and thus fixed for more than nine centuries
the individual character of the English church. He left three children, of whom
the only son, Eadbald, lived and died a pagan.
STUBBS in Dici. Christ. Biogr., s.v.; HUNT in Dict. Nat. Biogr., s.v.; BEDE, Hist. Eccl., I, II; GREGORY OF TOURS, Historia Francorum, IV, IX; Acta SS.; BUTLER, Lives of the Saints, 24 Feb.
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