Posted by: anna | October 30, 2009

Ethelred and Ethelbert

Today we commemorate the young martyrs Ethelred and Ethelbert, princes of Kent (England) (ca. 640)

from Baring-Gould, vol. 12:

Ethelbert, King of Kent, was succeeded by his son, Edbald, who married Emma, daughter of Clothair II. King of the Franks. By her he had Ercombert, who ascended the throne after his death in 640, S. Eanswitha, and Ermenred. Ercombert married S. Sexburga, sister of S. Etheldreda, S. Ethelburga, and S. Withburga; and by her he had Egbert, S. Ermenilda, Lothair, and S. Earcongotha. Ermenred, the brother of Ercombert, married Oslava (Aslaug), and by her became the father of SS. Ethelred and Ethelbert, of S. Ermenburga, and of three other daughters.

On the death of Ercombert in 664, his son Egbert seized on the throne of Kent. A claim might have been put in for Ethelred or Ethelbald, sons of Ermenred, but they were young. Ercombert had been a younger son of Edbald, and had displaced his elder brother Ermenred, so that Egbert was alive to the insecurity of his position so long as the two little princes lived. They were at Eastry in Kent. An officer of King Egbert, named Thunor, undertook to murder the little sons of Ermenred, their cousin pretending not to sanction the deed, but not forbidding it. They were put to death, and secretly buried. According to Simeon of Durham a column of light revealed the place where their bodies were laid.

S. Ermenburga, their sister, wife of Merewald, king of Wessex, at once claimed weregeld, or mulct, for the murder ; and Egbert promised to give her as much land on the Isle of Thanet as a tame deer could run over in one day. Ermenburga consented. The claim of the princess had been supported by Theodore, Archbishop of Canterbury, and Adrian, Abbot of S. Augustine’s. It was in accordance with the Teutonic laws of the nation and mth the sentiment of the times.

Thanet was a very fertile spot, the flower and jewel of the country—a sort of terrestrial paradise. King Egbert met Ermenburga on the island. She had brought the tame doe with her. It was let loose, and the king and his court followed it with their eyes, when the villain Thunor arrived, crying out that the princess Ermenburga had bewitched the king to make him give up his fair lands to the instinct of a brute. Then, being on horseback, he pursued the doe to stop her ; but the horse floundered in a morass, and sunk with its master before help could be afforded. The doe’s course included forty-two plough-lands ; she crossed the island in two different directions before returning to her mistress. The land thus marked out was given over to Ermenburga and her spiritual posterity.

Archbishop Theodore immediately consecrated the new foundations, which took the name of Minster. Ermenburga became a widow, and was the first abbess of the new community, which was soon occupied by seventy nuns. But she soon gave up the government to her daughter Mildred [St Mildred of Thanet], whom she had sent into France, to Chelles, to receive a literary and religious education. Ermenburga is also called Domneva, the latter being probably her name in religion, Domina Ebba.

I need a family tree for this one! Nothing is said of the princes’ personal piety, or indeed anything specifically about them at all. They were in the wrong place at the wrong age, with the wrong relatives. It seems a complicated way to become a saint, such a mixture of religion, law and politics. We are far from the fathers and mothers of the desert. There is a much more detailed and decidedly florid Life in the preface to Simeon of Durham‘s History of the Kings. Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints – all of them.

Holy saints Ethelred and Ethelbert, pray to God for us.

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