Who was Ethelburga?

Ethelburga was daughter of King Æthelberht I of Kent.  She was probably born around 605 AD, died around 647 and was buried in Lyminge.  Today, she is more commonly known by the latinised version of her name, but in her lifetime, she would have been known as Æthelburh (pronounced  ‘Athelburch’, with the “Æ” like “a” in “apple” and “ch” quite guttural as in Scottish “loch”).

Æthelberht became the first Christian king in England following the arrival of the mission from Rome led by St Augustine in 597.  He seems to have invited the mission under the influence of his queen, Bertha, Christian daughter of King Charibert I of the Frankish kingdom based on Paris and Queen Ingoberga.  Bertha can have been born no later than about 562, since her parents separated in 561.  At a time when girls were often married at age 14 or 15, and were bearing children from their mid teens onwards, it seems doubtful if Bertha could have married Æthelberht much later than around 580, as otherwise she would have been quite old by the standards of the time and this would not have been seen as an advantageous alliance from the point of view of the Kentish Kingdom.  That Bertha was Æthelburh’s mother is nowhere stated explicitly, but it is implied by Bede in his Ecclesiastical History, completed in 733.  If Bertha was 18 in 580, normal human biology and simple arithmetic suggest that Æthelburh could have been born in the early 600s, though by then Bertha was probably at least 40, which at the time was a late age to be having children.  We know that Bertha died before Æthelberht, though we do not know when,  and that he remarried.  Æthelberht’s second queen seems to have been a pagan, and it is perhaps unlikely that Æthelburh, who is known as a Christian princess, would have been born of a pagan mother.  So if we accept that Bertha is most likely to have been her mother, it seems likely too that she was born sometime between about 600 and perhaps 605, with a later date more probable because of her later life-story.

Æthelberht allowed Augustine to build the first English cathedral in the old Roman city of Canterbury, which is why the senior archbishop in England is still the Archbishop of Canterbury.  We still have a very tangible link to this period in the form of the Gospels of St Augustine, a book that all the evidence indicates was brought to England by St Augustine himself.  If this is so, it is almost certain that it would have been handled by Æthelburh as she learned about Christianity, though probably not from Augustine himself as he was probably dead by the time she was born.  It is probably the oldest non-archaeological man-made object in the country.

St Augustine's Gospels

In the early 600s, Kent was a powerful kingdom and the other Anglo-Saxon kingdoms were keen to ally themselves with Kent.  Accordingly in 625, when she was perhaps 19 or 20, her brother Eadbald, who had succeeded as King of Kent following the death of their father Æthelberht, agreed that Æthelburh should marry Edwin, King of Northumbria.  Part of the agreement was that Edwin should consider becoming a Christian like his bride, which he duly did on Easter Sunday 627 in York after much debate and contemplation.  This began the conversion of the North, which was a significant event in the international politics of the time.  Both Æthelburh and Edwin are recorded as receiving correspondence and gifts from Pope Boniface in Rome.  This marriage was extremely high profile.  But in 633 (or possibly 634, the date is uncertain), the mission received a dramatic set-back.  Edwin was killed in battle at Hatfield Chase near Doncaster, fighting King Cadwallon of Gwynedd and King Penda of Mercia.  Æthelburh, accompanied by Bishop Paulinus, fled back to Kent with her children and sought refuge with her brother King Eadbald.

It is recorded that Eadbald gave Æthelburh his estate at Lyminge where she established a household that later came to be regarded as one of the first Christian communities in Anglo-Saxon England, though it is unlikely to have followed a formal monastic rule during her lifetime.  She probably lived in the hall complex that Dr Gabor Thomas has discovered on Tayne Field, and it is quite likely that she founded the church on the chalk bluff that still overlooks the centre of the village.  The remains in the churchyard that we excavated in the summer of 2019 as part of this project are those of a very early Anglo-Saxon church.  Stylistically this church appears to be mid 7th Century in date, and we have found unstratified pottery of the same date within the churchyard.  The foundations of the church that were excavated were built in a single phase, so it is likely that the church in its entirety dates to the time of Æthelburh or very shortly afterwards.  Bede records that although King Edwin was baptised in a wooden church in York built specially for the purpose, a new church, the first York Minster, was immediately started in stone, since this was considered to be the proper material for churches.  If Æthelburh arrived in Lyminge expecting to stay for any length of time, it is very likely that she would have invested time and effort in building a stone church for the use of herself and her household.

Through the archaeological excavations carried out in 2019, we have revealed one of the first stone structures constructed in England after the departure of the Romans.  The presence of stone imported from Marquise near Boulogne, very fine quality and exceedingly hard mortar using powdered Roman brick, and a concrete floor in one of the halls on Tayne Field , all attest to the likely presence of Frankish stone masons in Lyminge.  This seems to reveal Æthelburh as an innovative patron of novel construction methods in a continental style.  She appears as the forerunner of the many powerful royal women who went on in the later 7th and 8th Centuries to wield significant political power within Anglo-Saxon society.  Almost all abbeys at the time were run by Abbesses, including the joint houses that contained monks as well as nuns.  Their role was to protect the spiritual well-being of the kingdom in the fight between the forces of Good and Evil, in just the same way as men in the temporal world did so on the battlefield.  Lyminge presents a wonderful opportunity to bring this story to life.

We do not know when Æthelburh died.  It is often said to be in 647, but this date does not seem to have an ancient provenance.  Current research indicates that it derives from The English Martyrologe written by John Wilson, an English Jesuit in 1608. We can speculate that Æthelburh could have died around the middle of the 7th Century. At that time, she is likely to have had around her a largely or entirely Christian household, which as noted already probably lived in the complex of buildings on Tayne Field. It is doubtful if this community would have been recognisible as an abbey in even the sense that that term was understood 50 years later. It was certainly not like the monasteries of the Late Middle Ages, and it is most unlikely to have followed a monastic rule, like that of St Benedict. The evidence for structures to the south and west of Æthelburh’s church dates no earlier than the late 7th or even the early 8th Century, suggesting perhaps that an abbey was founded at a later date around what had become Æthelburh’s mortuary chapel.

Visualisation of the Anglo-Saxon monastery in Lyminge, Kent c800 (© Dominic Andrews – http://www.archaeoart.co.uk)

None of the sources dispute that Æthelburh was buried at Lyminge initially, and that her remains stayed there until they were removed to Archbishop Lanfranc’s new foundation of St Gregory’s in Canterbury in 1085. We now believe her tomb was located in the area of the south porch of the standing Parish Church, and you can read more about our excavations and conclusions here.

Visualisation of Queen Æthelburh’s tomb at Lyminge from the interactive software now accessible in Lyminge Parish Church (© Centre for the Study of Christianity and Culture)

You can read more about Æthelburh and much more about Anglo-Saxon England at:

A Clerk of Oxford – Aethelburh

There is more information about the excavations in Lyminge from 2008-15 at:

Lyminge Archaeology

You can read more about how Æthelburh became confused with St Eadburg and how the dedication of the church came to be what it is today in the following article in Archaeologia Cantiana 138 (2017)   A shorter version of this paper appeared in Lyminge a history, volume 7.  A further article about the fate of the relics of Lyminge “Whatever happened to St Ethelburga? – the after-lives of the saints of Lyminge” is now available in Lyminge a history Part 10.

If you like your history to have a little more colour and life, the Northumbrian Thrones trilogy of novels by Edoardo Albert entitled Edwin: High King of Britain, Oswald: Return of the King and Oswiu: King of Kings are recommended.  These stories feature Æthelburh as well as her daughter Eanflæd who probably lived in Lyminge for a while with her mother.  Eanflæd subsequently married King Oswiu of Northumbria, and seems to have played a significant role in the adoption of the Roman tradition of Christianity in the north of England, establishing the link with Rome that persisted for the next 900 years until the reign of Henry VIII.  The church at Paddlesworth near Lyminge is dedicated to Oswiu’s brother King (later Saint) Oswald, the only ancient church in southern England with such a contemporary dedication.  This may indicate that it too had a very early foundation, although the current structure dates to after the Norman Conquest.  There are suggestions for further reading on the period here.