Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Æthelberht's Supremacy

Æthelberht's authority reached far beyond his native Kent. Within a few years after his marriage he had gained a supremacy over most of the other kings to the south of the Humber. There is no tradition of any war between Æthelberht and these kings, and he certainly did not thrust them out from the leadership of their own peoples. The exact nature of his supremacy is, however, unknown to us, though it is possible that they were bound to follow him if he went to war with peoples not acknowledging his supremacy, in which case his position towards them was something of the same kind as that of a lord to his gesiths.

Æthelberht's position as the over-lord of so many kings and as the husband of a Christian wife drew upon him the attention of Gregory, the Bishop of Rome, or Pope. Many years before, as a deacon, he had been attracted by the fair faces of some boys from Deira exposed for sale in the Roman slave-market. He was told that the children were Angles. "Not Angles, but angels," he replied. "Who," he asked, "is their (p. 039) king?" Hearing that his name was Ælla, he continued to play upon the words. "Alleluia," he said, "shall be sung in the land of Ælla." Busy years kept him from seeking to fulfil his hopes, but at last the time came when he could do something to carry out his intentions, not in the land of Ælla, but in the land of Æthelberht. He became Pope. In those days the Pope had far less authority over the Churches of Western Europe than he afterwards acquired, but he offered the only centre round which they could rally, now that the Empire had broken up into many states ruled over by different barbarian kings. The general habit of looking to Rome for authority, which had been diffused over the whole Empire whilst Rome was still the seat of the Emperors, made men look to the Roman Bishop for advice and help as they had once looked to the Roman Emperor. Gregory, who united to the tenderheartedness of the Christian the strength of will and firmness of purpose which had marked out the best of the Emperors, now sent Augustine to England as the leader of a band of missionaries.