Æthelburh (Ethelburga), Princess of Kent and Queen of Northumbria

Æthelburh was daughter of King Æthelberht I of Kent. She was probably born around 605 AD, died around 650 and was buried in Lyminge. Today, she is more commonly known as Ethelburga, 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”).

 Queen Ethelburga and Bishop Paulinus, in York Minster (© Liz Coleman)


Æthelberht became the first Christian king in England following the arrival of the mission from Rome led by St Augustine in 597.  That Bertha was Æthelburh’s mother is nowhere stated explicitly, but it is implied by the historian 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 very 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 new 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 it is most likely Bertha was 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 believed to be the oldest non-archaeological man-made object in the country.

 Page illustrating St Luke from the St Augustine Gospels (©Wikimedia Commons)


In the early 600s, Kent was a powerful kingdom and the other English 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 Æthelburh would take a bishop, called Paulinus, with her when travelling north and also that Edwin should consider becoming a Christian like his bride.  After much debate and contemplation, he duly did in York on Easter Sunday 627.  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 Early Medieval 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 were excavated in the summer of 2019 are those of a very early Anglo-Saxon church. Stylistically this church appears to be mid 7th Century in date, and unstratified pottery of the same date was found within the churchyard. The mortar of the church has been scientifically dated to the mid 7th Century. The excavated foundations 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 her own use and that of her household.

The archaeological excavations carried out in 2019 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 Early Medieval English 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, just as men in the temporal world did 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 the way that term was understood even 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 excavated 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.

Tomb of Queen EthelburgaQueen Æthelburh’s tomb in the church we believe she built, from the 3D digital reconstruction available to view in St Mary and St Ethelburga Church, Lyminge (©Centre for the Study of Christianity and Culture)



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 dedicated to St Gregory in Canterbury in 1085. We now believe her tomb in Lyminge was located in the area of the south porch of the standing Parish Church, where it is possible surviving fragments of the floor, made of red concrete, were observed during excavations in the 1860s.  At that time, their presence was recorded but no one suspected what they might be.  This is tantalising evidence for what might be the chapel where Æthelburh’s body was first laid to rest in the mid 7th Century, and these fragments may still survive beneath the floor of the standing church.   


This page is managed by the Lyminge Parish Council Historic Environment Working Group