Olga of Kiev v. Bertha of Kent

Welcome to the ONLY Saturday matchup of Lent Madness 2023. From here on out, every weekday of Lent will feature a new opportunity for learning and voting. We won't stop until Spy Wednesday! (more about that in due time)

Today it's Olga of Kiev vs. Bertha of Kent. A woman who played a role in converting Russians to Christianity vs. a woman who played a role in converting the English to Christianity.

Yesterday, in the second romp in as many days, Florence Li Tim-Oi defeated Nicolaus von Zinzendorf 79% to 21%. Don't worry! We'll get some nail biters soon enough. It's all but guaranteed.

Well, go vote and we'll see you first thing Monday morning as Scholastica takes on Richard Hooker.

Olga of Kiev

“Vengeance is mine, says the Lord,” (Romans 12:19). Or was it Olga’s? A controversial figure in church history, Olga of Kiev is best known and canonized by the Orthodox Church for her role in the conversion of Russia to Christianity. She was born around the beginning of the tenth century in the northwest area of Russia that had been invaded by the Vikings (think Russia/Ukraine/Belarus/Estonia). Her husband, Igor, was murdered by the Drevlian tribe that no longer wished to be aligned with Igor. To make their distaste in his leadership abundantly clear, they tore him in half.

In an act both cunning and treacherous, Olga invited the new chief to court her. When his entourage arrived, she had her people escort them to a carefully prepared trench where she had all the men buried alive in revenge for the death of her husband. Olga continued to exact revenge and murder the people of Drevlian by playing their chief like a violin, capitalizing on his desire to marry her. She continued to have his emissaries killed through skillful plotting and ultimately had their village burned to the ground. To ensure her control over the area, she assumed leadership through regency for her son.

In the early to mid 900s, Olga traveled to the seat of the empire at Constantinople to ally with the Byzantine Empire. It is said that the emperor found Olga to be beautiful and wanted her to become a Christian. Olga said she would convert only if she was baptized by the emperor himself and instructed in the ways of the faith by the patriarch. It is said that during her baptism, she saw God. She became steadfast in her faith and began to shine with the light of God. The patriarch remarked that she would be a beacon to the people of the Rus’ and their descendants would find favor with God. Olga returned to Kiev and worked to bring the Russian people to the faith. Although her grandson, Vladimir, is recognized as the founder of Russian Christianity, Olga is remembered in the Orthodox Church as “Equal to the Apostles.”

Olga’s story is controversial. She was a brutal and revengeful ruler who brooked no mercy on her enemies. Much of her life is an example of the ways we are taught not to live our lives in the Christian faith. But God has a habit of using the least expected, the most unqualified, and the least desirable to teach us about mercy, love, and who God is. Her story shows us that God’s mercy can soften and redeem even the hardest of hearts.

Collect for Olga of Kiev
Almighty and everlasting God, we thank you for your servant Olga, whom you called to preach the Gospel to the people of Russia. Raise up in this and every land evangelists and heralds of your kingdom, that your Church may proclaim the unsearchable riches of our Savior Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Anna Fitch Courie

Bertha of Kent

Bertha of Kent is one of those historical women whose imprint on medieval Christianity is indelible, though you might not know much about her.

The exact dates and years of her birth and death are unknown, and records vary. It’s generally accepted that Bertha was born a princess around 565 into the royal French Merovingian family. As a young girl, she practiced her Christian faith. Her arranged marriage in 580 to the King of Kent was steeped in economic, military, and political motives. King Ethelbert was a pagan, worshipping Woden (aka Odin), Thunor (aka Thor), and other Norse deities. Her marriage agreement with Ethelbert was that she could continue to practice her Christian faith. Not only did he agree to her terms, but also Ethelbert renovated an old Roman church close to Canterbury, the capital of Kent, for his new queen. The chapel was dedicated to Saint Martin of Tours and served as her private chapel throughout her life.

In 597, Bertha welcomed none other than Augustine, who had been sent to the strategically important kingdom of Kent by Pope Gregory the Great. Augustine’s travels and successes became intertwined with Bertha. Thanks to Bertha’s influence, Ethelbert allowed Augustine and his 40 companions to preach Christianity, beginning what is known as the great Christian conversion in England. Augustine was later named the first Archbishop of Canterbury.

Ethelbert was baptized on the Pentecost following Augustine’s arrival, and history records him as the first English king to convert to Christianity.

Though Bertha died sometime after 601 in Canterbury, evidence of the queen’s influence is still clear today throughout the area. You can travel The Bertha Trail, also called Queen Bertha’s Walk, which features 14 bronze plaques in various locations, including St. Martin’s Church, Canterbury Cathedral, and St. Augustine’s Abbey. A statue of Queen Bertha graces St. Martin’s.

UNESCO named Bertha’s Chapel in St. Martin’s in Canterbury as the oldest church in the English-speaking world, with Christian worship taking place continuously since the sixth century. It is believed she is buried under the steps of St. Martin’s.

Her feast is celebrated on May 1.

Collect for Bertha of Kent
Almighty God, by your Holy Spirit you have made us one with your saints in heaven and on earth: Grant that in our earthly pilgrimage we may always be supported by this fellowship of love and prayer, and know ourselves to be surrounded by their witness to your power and mercy. We ask this for the sake of Jesus Christ, in whom all our intercessions are acceptable through the Spirit, and who lives and reigns for ever and ever. Amen.

Neva Rae Fox


Olga of Kiev: Mikhail Nesterov, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Bertha of Kent: Mattana, CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons


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190 comments on “Olga of Kiev v. Bertha of Kent”

  1. Canterburians are right to give thanks
    To St. Bertha, princess of the Franks;
    Who in spite of the danger
    Warmly welcomed the stranger
    To her town on the Great Stour’s banks.

    1. Love your work. Hope you don't mind that we use them during "Elite 8" in our Morning Prayer "Lent Madness" version.

  2. Why on earth do you let people see the standings again? That is the most dissed, honest part of the whole set up. I was thrilled when you couldn’t see the results the beginning off lamp, madness, and I am very disappointed that you can see them again now before you vote.

    1. I asked to be able to see the current vote, because sometimes it is difficult to choose . . . and I often vote for the underdog 🙂 It used to be a button that you could choose or not, but maybe that is no longer an option. Not sure why it is a problem . . . Are the good voters of Lent Madness really so easily swayed by "seeing the score"? And if we are emulating "March Madness" is there really any contest where you don't know who is winning until the end? I'm glad to be able to see how many people have voted and for whom when I leave my vote.

      1. Actually, yes, there are MANY contests that one does not know who is winning prior to voting, or watching. I do not believe we are swayed by such, but I, for one of many, do not wish to see who actually “wins” until the following day.

      2. I am not at all easily swayed! Maybe I just like that little dopamine hit when I see a that others agree with me. It is not at all the same to see the standings first.

        Yes, I would prefer to have the ability to choose whether or not to see them. Then we could “all” be happy

          1. Addition to previous comment:

            First click on name of preferred candidate, then click on "vote".

          2. I'm in Firefox on Mac (because the site will not load in Safari on either my Mac of my iPhone beyond the main page) and unlike years past where I had to click a button to see the vote amounts if I hadn't voted yet, now I see the number of votes *before* I vote, without having to click anything. Once I vote the little round buttons next to each bar of votes disappear, but otherwise nothing changes.

            I wish I had a way to attach screenshots . . .

        1. I didn’t even see the button to see the current results. I read the information, then read through some comments before I vote. I’m glad I have a choice not to see current results. I like it to be a surprise to see if people agree with me.

      3. I agree. I just chose not to look but I might another time. Today, I was shocked that the current voting was exactly the opposite of what I expected it to be!

          1. I really wanted to vote for Olga, but her actions prior to her conversion wound up being too much for me. I read more about her and wondered if George R.R. Martin modeled Daenerys Targaryen on her, the story of Olga burning the envoys in a bathhouse is just too similar to a Game of Thrones plot point to be coincidental.

        1. How do you not look when the bars showing the number of votes for each Saint are right next to the little round buttons that you get to choose between to vote?

          1. The bars don’t show up on my phone until I vote. Maybe it’s a difference in whether you are on computer or phone. I have an iPhone. Interesting.

        2. I thought there would be a lot of solidarity votes for St. Olga. Certainly she had a lot of repenting and "growing in the faith' to do but then, don't we all? I'm always awed and blown away to realize the trust, grace, and love God extends to every one of us...saints or sinners. I caste my vote for Olga.

      4. I am with you. I see the button was back today and that us the better way. If people don't want to use it they are free from the exposure. I often vote for the underdog when I'm am particularly torn. On those dats when I am perched I read the comments first time see if anyone there sways me. If not I like to vote for the underdog, just because.

        Isn't lent madness for the fun? I do like learning about the good souls that have graced our world. But we could all read books for that.

    2. I totally agree with the comment about removing the vote totals before voting is finished. Please remove that feature.

      1. I didn’t see the results prior to my voting. Was just the names , Vote button and See Results button.

        1. What browser are you using? (I'm having to use Firefox because I can't get anything beyond the main page to load in Safari on multiple devices.) I remember the "see results" button from previous years, but haven't seen hide or tail of it this year.

    3. Seems to me Olga gives a bit of insight into the brutality of the current conflict in Ukraine. I pray for a just and peaceful end to that war.

      1. I agree about Olga and the whole conversion of the area of Russia/former USSR. As a third year EfM student have been recently reading of her time period, and it has been enlightening, to say the least. Had to vote for her, even though Bertha was certainly a strong and influential person in our early church history!

      1. I seem to be in the minority. No one should be thrust into knowing the vote totals if they dint want to. But I like having the option.

  3. I think there is a glitch. I can't select a candidate, and I’m seeing the percentages before I vote. Website link via email.

    1. I prefer the way it used to work: if you haven't voted yet, you don't see the current tally, but there's a button to push if you want to see it. After you've voted, you see only the tally.

      Why? Not seeing the vote tally before voting is important to people who want to vote without being influenced by peer pressure. Being able to see the vote tally on any device without having voted on that device is important to those who vote at home in the morning and then want to check how it's going later from work.

      I hope that feedback helps. We like Lent Madness!

  4. Olga's story is compelling, and I don't even fault her entirely for her actions in early life. It isn't as though they were completely unprovoked. She reminds me a little of Paul in the sense that some of the least likely Christians can make the most substantial and enduring contributions to the Church. I felt obligated to go with Bertha though, for her direct contribution to establishing Christianity in England as that has a greater personal impact on my life.

    1. I, too, noted the similarity to St. Paul. I'm dithering about which of these interesting people to vote.

      1. Hi Verdery I'm glad to see a familiar name in Lent Madness. Yes, I voted for Bertha too. Olga was too vicious for me. Plus I didn't see that she ever expressed remorse for killing a lot of soldiers just because they were in the wrong army. Not convinced that she converted!

    2. I hadn't thought of Olga's similarity to Paul. Although such a notion would not have won her my vote, you are right to remind us that God does work through unlikely people

  5. Though I love that God can change and use for good even those whose lives point so clearly away from compassion, my heart just can’t take Olga’s story this morning. In a world so steeped in bloodshed and psychological violence, I’m not able to lift more of the same up right now. Bertha got my vote today.

  6. Voted for Olga, who shows us the power of redemption, and for Kiev, which needs all the help and support we can give.

  7. Interesting .. on Thursday and Friday, I could only see the buttons to vote and the tally after submitting my vote. Today, I saw the radio buttons as well as the tally. I'm not sure if I wanted to know how little impact my choice would be before I voted. On the other hand, one does wonder how it's going as you approach the ballot moment.

    I'd like to do a pilgrimage to Canterbury someday, think about Bertha and visit her chapel.

    1. Yes. I am very sorry that I didn't know about Bertha when I visited Canterbury years back. I'm going to look and see if there is a "walk" online. Or maybe I will get to return one day.

  8. I gave my vote to Olga. I see her conversion of the Russians as a way to look at the fierce fight the Ukraine is waging right now. She does indeed remind me of St. Paul and while I find her revenge tactics horrible, I also see her dedication after her conversion to be one of God's mysterious ways. I pray for God once again to work for a conversion of the present Russian leadership and for His light to be seen in the Ukraine as their saving Grace.

    1. Amen! I wanted to vote for Olga and Ukraine and the need to bring Christianity to the Russian leaders. However Bertha gets my vote because of her welcoming Augustine and preparing the way for Christianity to spread in England.

  9. I’m voting for Bertha of Kent, and her story was one I didn’t know. I hoped Olga’s story would’ve been more compelling rather than overly murderous with all those she killed for Christianity.

    1. The way I read Olga's biography, I understood that she was vengeful before her conversion to Christianity but not after.

    2. Olga committed those acts prior to her conversion. She wasn't killing for Christianity. She was killing out of revenge for her husband.

      I think maybe it would have been helpful for the bio to have emphasized that point more clearly. I found her conversion story compelling, because she had been a violent person from a violent place.

  10. Admins: I don't think I usually see the vote tally until after I've voted, but today I did. I don't believe I voted twice, I play by the rules, but if I mistakenly did, please don't bounce me, just strike my vote. I love playing Lent Madness!
    So, my spiritual home is the UK, and I voted for Bertha, but kudos to Anna Fitch Courier for another great (and honest) write up of Olga.

  11. I initially thought 'Olga' - in support of present day Ukraine in their struggles.
    But then I read about her. Just too brutal to vote for (while giving thanks for her conversion and subsequent Christian work).
    So I'm voting for my English compatriot Bertha.
    Only 4 days into Lent Madness and already we're learning lots!

    1. Yes, everything you said Sue! Just couldn’t bring myself to go with Olga, though her story is inspiring

  12. While I found common threads in Olga’s story and other old and New Testament stories (Judith, Diana, Saul) where people commuted atrocities in “righteous” revenge or persecuted but then “saw the light” and became worthy servants of the Lord, I feel this has become an excuse for violent and treacherous behavior that is seen very clearly today in the evangelical wing—the means justify the ends. Accept liars, adulterers , rapists, whatever to force one’s beliefs on others. Claim God sends imperfect leaders. Sell one’s soul to advance one’s desires for power, control and to subjugate others i won’t celebrate or accept this behavior. So while Olga may have ended up doing good for the Church, she won’t get my vote.

  13. FYI, there’s an error and current votes are showing before vote is cast! I’m still voting for Olga, though!

    1. I still voted for Olga even the vote is less than Bertha. I would rather know at the end and not during the vote it made it anticipating and sometimes nail biting

  14. I wanted to vote for Olga. My son was born in Ukraine and I spent almost 3 weeks there when adopting him. But I just can't stomach that story. I've also always been a sucker for dark ages England and love Bertha's story. Plus my daughter just got a history assistantship at Kent (State, in Ohio) so I'm feeling for Kent as much as I am for Ukraine today. So Bertha it is.

  15. Not that I think she will win, but I love the feistiness of Olga. She reminds me of Paul.

  16. In 2008, during the Lambeth Conference, my wife and I had the privilege of visiting St. Martin's Church. One of their parishioners was there and gave us a very informative tour. I was in awe as I thought of the countless women and men who have worshiped in this little church for hundreds of years, including Bertha.

  17. Although Bertha exemplified a Christian ideal, Olga's conversion from a life of violence inspires me to renounce the evil that still lurks in the corners of my mind.

  18. I agree with "Saint" below. Why list the results before we're done voting? It takes away the fun of looking to see who won the next day?

  19. Although my heart is with Kiev at this time, I also have fond feelings for Canterbury, having lived in England for a short time and visited Canterbury several times. So, my vote goes to Bertha. She had the greatest influence on Christianity in her time.
    And I agree that I don't want to know how others vote before I cast my ballot!

    1. I voted for Olga, largely because Kiev needs prayers today. I didn't like seeing the numbers voted for each before I voted, though. I did like Bertha, and if Kiev didn't need our prayers right now, I might have voted for her.