Medieval Christian Brides

Medieval Christian Brides

            The biblical rule of not marrying unbelievers wasn’t always binding in the first centuries of Christianity, especially when it came to the nobility. Priority was given to political concerns and family alliances. And, at a time when rulers determined the religion of their people, church leaders encouraged the Christian wives who found themselves in high places to work toward the conversion of their husbands.

            In spite of the leaders’ optimism (“This [bringing your husband to faith] should have been neither slow nor difficult for you,”[1] Pope Gregory I wrote to Queen Bertha), converting a powerful husband was not easy. Pagan kings judged gods by their fruits. To them, the very fact they were still ruling in a violent and unpredictable world testified that their gods had served them well. And, since their people held to the same persuasion, a converted king ran the risk of losing their support.

            Understanding the challenges these wives had to face is hindered by the fact that chroniclers wrote sparingly about women, and even more sparingly about their feelings.

Clotilde (c. 470-545)

            We find an example of unsatisfactory reporting in the life of Clotilde, a Burgundian princess given in marriage to Clovis, King of the Franks. According to Gregory of Tours, author of The History of the Franks, Clotilde was beautiful and wise. She was also a devout Christian.

            Clotilde’s early life was a testimony to the brutality of her times, as her parents were killed by her ambitious uncle, while she and her sister Chrona were sent into exile. Chrona became a nun, while Clotilde was discovered by some of Clovis’s envoys, who reported her beauty to the king.

            Clovis sent back envoys to Clotilde’s uncle, asking for her hand in marriage. Since Clovis was not a king to be refused, her uncle agreed.

            At the birth of their first son, Clotilde expressed the desire to have him baptized. According to Gregory, who wrote about a century later, her reasoning was based on the futility of Clovis’s idols, who were “images carved of wood, stone, or metal.”[2] Even the Roman gods he had adopted were unprincipled and fallible, starting with Jupiter, “the lewdest practiser of all debaucheries and of unnatural vice, the abuser of women of his own family.”

            She exhorted him to believe in the God “who at His word had created out of nothing the heavens and the earth.”[3]

            If her speech left Clovis indifferent to the God she was praising, he allowed her to baptize their son. Tragically, the baby died soon after, still clothed in his baptismal gown. Clovis was “moved to bitter wrath,” Gregory tells us. To him, this was proof that Clotilde’s God was not powerful enough to help. In fact, he thought she might have angered the more powerful gods of his fathers.

            Gregory is quick to highlight her trust that her son, newly baptized, was in heaven, being “nurtured in the sight of God.” In fact, he quoted her as saying that she was “untouched by grief,” knowing “that they which be called from this world in the white robes of baptism shall be nurtured in the sight of God.”[4] It’s hard to believe she was truly “untouched,” but this might have been the attitude of faith she wanted to show to her husband.

            Her faith persisted. About a year later, when the couple had a second son, she insisted in having him baptized. Suddenly, the baby fell ill. One can only imagine the whirlwind of emotions that must have swept through her mind, especially if her husband was ready to take it as one more proof against her God. Thankfully, the boy recovered, and the couple went on to have two more sons and a daughter.

            The following year, 496, Clovis found himself in dire straits during a battle against the Alamans, a fierce confederation of Germanic tribes. Faced with almost certain defeat, he decided to pray to Clotilde’s God, vowing that if he won he would be baptized. The Alamans were defeated, and Clovis went home to fulfil his vow. Remigius, bishop of Reims, provided to his catechesis.

            Still, Clovis had some apprehensions. His people might rebel if he changed his religion. To his surprise, when he publicly announced his conversion, they showed themselves eager to “follow that immortal God whom Remigius preaches.”[5]

            After Clovis’s death, Clotilde retired to Tours, where she spent most of her life devoted to works of charity, while her sons continued the gruesome power struggles typical of that time.

Bertha (ca. 565-601)

            Bertha, daughter of King Charibert I of Paris, and great-granddaughter of Clotilde, was given in marriage to the pagan Ethelbert, son of the king of Kent, “upon condition that she should be permitted to practice her religion with the Bishop Luidhard, who was sent with her to preserve her faith.”[6]

            When she arrived in Canterbury, in the British county of Kent, the sparks of Christianity that had been lit in that area were dying down due to a lack of ecclesiastical organization and to the Briton’s general unwillingness to preach the gospel to their conquerors, the Anglo-Saxons. Keeping to his commitment, Ethelbert allowed Bertha to restore and use the old Roman church of St. Martin’s outside of Canterbury’s city walls.

            We know a little more about her from a letter sent in 601 by Pope Gregory I, where he praises her for laboring “more zealously for the benefit of her creator.”[7] He also thanked her for her assistance to Archbishop Augustine (of Canterbury), who had been sent by Gregory in 597 as missionary to Kent.

            Reluctant at first about their mission to a barbarous, fierce, and unbelieving nation, to whose very language they were strangers,”[8] Augustine and his companions were goaded on by Gregory, who supplied them with interpreters.

            Equally reluctant to receive them, Ethelbert asked them to stay on the island of Thanet where he allowed them to preach only outdoors. Once he was satisfied with their message, he agreed to their move to Canterbury.

            We don’t know when Ethelbert was converted, but it was before 601, when Gregory wrote letters both to him and Berta. The pope encouraged Ethelbert to destroy idols and shrines and to strive for the conversion of his subjects. He encouraged Bertha to “strengthen with constant exhortation the mind of [her] glorious spouse in love of the Christian faith” and to let her “solicitude pour into him increase of love for God and thus inflame his heart even for the fullest conversion of the people subject to him.”[9]

            He expected Bertha to have already done so. He didn’t consider it a difficult task because she was “strengthened by right faith and learned in letters” and could look forward to heavenly rewards.

            After this, little is known of Bertha. She might have died before her husband because, after his death in 616, his son Eadbald “kept his father’s wife,”[10] which was not Bertha. Initially, Eadbald repudiated the Christian faith and encouraged the worship of idols, but eventually converted to Christianity.


            Ethelburga, daughter of Ethelbert and possibly of Bertha, was instrumental in bringing Christianity to Northumbria. She was given in marriage to King Edwin, once again under condition that she would be allowed to worship according to her faith, under the care of her bishop, Paulinus.

            Like Bertha, Ethelburga received a letter for the pope (in this case Boniface IV), rejoicing in reports of her “performance of works pious and acceptable to God” and that she was “so wholly taken up with the love of your Redeemer, as never to cease lending your assistance for the propagation of the Christian faith.”

            As in Bertha’s case, the pope exhorted Ethelburga, “with the help of the Divine inspiration” not to “defer to do that which, both in season and out of season, is required of us; that with the co-operating power of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, your husband also may be added to the number of Christians; to the end that you may thereby enjoy the rights of marriage in the bond of a holy and unblemished union.”[11] To give force to his appeal, he quoted Paul as saying, “The unbelieving husband shall be saved by the believing wife.”[12]

            The couple was married for just a year when Edwin was attacked by an assassin sent by the king of the West Saxons and was saved by a knight who jumped in front of him to be pierced instead. Ethelburga reacted with such fright that she gave birth to a daughter prematurely. Both mother and baby were in danger, but recovered in answer to prayer.

            Obviously shaken by these events, Edwin, who had been showered by Paulinus’s and Ethelburga’s pleas to convert to Christianity, promised to do so if God granted him victory over this antagonizing king. Once again, God did.

            As Ethelberth before him, Edwin still feared his people’s reaction to his conversion, and was surprised by the rational and poetic line of reasoning of one of his chief men:

            “The present life of man, O king, seems to me, in comparison of that time which is unknown to us, like to the swift flight of a sparrow through the room wherein you sit at supper in winter, with your commanders and ministers, and a good fire in the midst, whilst the storms of rain and snow prevail abroad; the sparrow, I say, flying in at one door, and immediately out at another, whilst he. is within, is safe from the wintry storm; but after a short space of fair weather, he immediately vanishes out of your sight, into the dark winter from which he had emerged. So this life of man appears for a short space, but of what went before, or what is to follow, we are utterly ignorant. If, therefore, this new doctrine contains something more certain, it seems justly to deserve to be followed.”[13]

            Edwin was baptized on Easter Sunday 627, becoming the first Anglo-Saxon king to accept Christianity. According to Bede, Edwin’s reign marked a time of “such perfect peace in Britain ... that, as is still proverbially said, a woman with her newborn babe might walk throughout the island, from sea to sea, without receiving any harm.”[14]

            After Edwin’s death in battle in 633, however, Ethelburga returned to her family in Kent, together with two of her children (two had died young) and Paulinus. She established one of the first Benedictine convents at Lyminge, Kent, which she led until her death in 647.

            For a Christian woman, the prospect of marrying an unbelieving husband was often presented as a mission. This was the only motivation that induced Margaret of Scotland, in the eleventh century, to marry King Malcolm III “against her will.” According to a later biographer, this was part of God’s plan. “The Creator in his foreknowledge knew beforehand what he wished to do through her because she was destined to increase the glory of God in the land and set the king right from the path of error and turn him to the better way, and his people as well, and put down the evil customs that this nation had practiced, just as she afterwards did.”[15]

            Writing in the thirteenth century, Thomas of Chobham stated, “In imposing penance, it should always be enjoined upon women to be preachers to their husbands, because no priest is able to soften the heart of a man the way his wife can.”[16]

            Given the heavy responsibility placed on women’s shoulders – especially those married to rulers who determined the religion of whole nations – it’s no surprise that many of them retired into convents once their husbands died.

[1] Epistolae, “A letter from Gregory I, pope (601, June),”

[2] Patrick Geary, Readings in Medieval History, Fifth Edition, University of Toronto Press, 2016, p. 118

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid. p. 119

[5] Ibid.

[6] Bede, Ecclesiastical History of the English Nation, Book 1, chapter XXV,

[7] Epistolae

[8] Bede, Ecclesiastical History, Book 1, chapter XXIII

[9] Epistolae

[10] Bede, Ecclesiastical History of the English Nation, Book 2, chapter V,

[11] Bede, Ecclesiastical History, Book 2, chapter XI

[12] Bede, Ecclesiastical History, Book 2, chapter XI, quoting 1 Cor. 7:14

[13] Bede, Ecclesiastical History, Book 2, chapter XIII

[14] Bede, Ecclesiastical History, Book 2, chapter XVI

[15] The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, a revised translation, ed. by Dorothy Whitelock, New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1961.

[16] Thomas of Chobham, Summa confessorum, 7.2.15, quoted in Sharon Farmer, “Persuasive Voices: Clerical Images of Medieval Wives,” Speculum, 6/3 (1987)


Simonetta Carr