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.
Date of birth unknown; d. 794; King of the East Angles, was, according to the "Speculum Historiale" of Richard of Cirencester (d. about 1401), the son of King Ethelred and Leofrana, a lady of Mercia. Brought up in piety, he was a man of singular humility. Urged to marry, he declared his preference for a life of celibacy, but at length consented to woo Altrida (Alfrida), daughter of Offa, King of the Mercians. Leofrana foreboded evil and tried to dissuade Ethelbert; but in spite of an earthquake, an eclipse of the sun, and a warning vision, he proceeded from Bury St. Edmunds to Villa Australis, where Offa resided. On his arrival Altrida expressed her admiration for Ethelbert, declaring that Offa ought to accept him as suzerain. Cynethryth, the queen-mother, urged by hatred of Ethelbert, so poisoned Offa's mind against him, that he accepted the offer of a certain Grimbert to murder their guest. Ethelbert, having come for an interview with Offa, was bound and beheaded by Grimbert. The body was buried ignominiously, but, revealing itself by a heavenly light, was translated to the cathedral at Hereford, where many miracles attested Ethelbert's sanctity. The head was enshrined at Westminster Abbey.
The "Chronicon" of John Brompton (fl. 1437) adds a few particulars: the body with the head was first buried on the banks of the Lugg. On the third night the saint commanded one Brithfrid, a nobelman, to convey his relics to Stratus-way. During the journey the head fell out of the cart and healed a man who had been blind for eleven years. Finally the body was entombed at Fernley, the present Hereford. According to Brompton, Altrida became a recluse at Croyland. Offa repented of his sin (Matthew of Paris represents Offa as ignorant of the plot till after Ethelbert's murder), gave much land to the martyr, "which the church of Hereford holds to the present day", founded St. Albans and other monasteries, and made his historic pilgrimage to Rome.
St. Ethelbert figures largely in the Missal, Breviary, and Hymnal of the Use of Hereford. His feast is on 20 May. Thirteen English churches, besides Hereford cathedral, are dedicated in honour of Ethelbert; and one of the gateways of Norwich cathedral bears his name.