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. Have to vote for Olga. Christianity is so often used to force women to "forgive" their tormentors, and whatever happened to her husband, Olga's fate would have been worse. I think of all the women in Ukraine who have had to do difficult and morally questionable things to protect themselves and their children--not to mention all those currently on the front lines fighting for their country and, indirectly, for democracy around the world. They don't have the privilege of being able to turn away from violent stories--they have been living daily with violence or the threat of violence for years.

    1. I'm with you on that one! Olga is truly a woman of her time, avenging her husband death a one does in that time and place. Nonetheless, she later saw the light of Christ and tried to show others the Way and the Life. We have all sinned, some of us with anger and even violence. The most broken human can become the most perfect messenger for the Lord. No disrespect to Bertha, she sounds awesome, but I vote for Olga and Kiev! (& Slava Ukraini!!)

  2. Go Olga! Despite the terrible glitch that's causing the standings to be visible before we vote, I'm going with Olga of Kiev. Why?

    1. This is a story of repentance to rival anyone's. It takes a lot of soul-strength to repent and leave one's childhood tradition as an adult.

    2. Although Olga is described as a Russian (or 'Rus) in her bio, the "of Kiev" is a reminder of how central ancient Kiev was to the development of Russia, and to what's now Ukraine. With the Ukrainian people under assault from Russia, I'm drawn to this story of a woman warrior whose name is associated with Kiev.

    1. I did some further reading and saw no account of her repentance for her obscene, murderous vengeance. I can only assume that her conversion to Christianity was just another calculated bit of political strategy on her part.

  3. How could I not vote for the Anglo-Saxon Queen who supported my patron Saint Augustine of Canterbury? Sr. Dana Augustine

  4. Why did I see voting results for Olga and Bertha BEFORE I voted?? That’s unfair- it must be a tech glitch. Please fix it O Supremes before it drives your loyal Lent followers into Madness indeed! Peace.

  5. Without Bertha of Kent would we have the Anglican Communion?

    That's why she got my vote, though Olga's conversion was inspiring, that she is from Kiev and not Kyiv does not help her cause on day 367 of the unjust Russian invasion of Ukraine.

    Salva Ukraine!

  6. I had hoped to vote for Olga simply because of the war in Kiev, but I just couldn't bring myself to vote for her after hearing about her blood thirsty nature. On the other hand, Bertha lived a holy life. She has my vote.

  7. I am in agreement -please do not show the tally before you cast your vote. I believe it possibly changes the devotional thought pattern in our selection

  8. Nah, I'll go with the underdog who because of having her husband torn in half must have changed her heart, turned around and converted a country!

  9. Today, I feel a great sadness because of the first anniversary of the Russian-Ukrainian War and our failure to faithfully follow the Prince of Peace.

  10. My reasons for voting Bertha this morning are very unsophisticated; Olga’s violence even in response to horrific provocation, bothered me. Sp Bertha it is.

  11. Dear Executive Committee

    Unlike previous years, I am able to view voting results before placing my vote. I am concerned that seeing results before voting might influence voters.

  12. Without Bertha, there might have been an Anglican Church and, therefore, no Episcopal Church. This, I must vote for her.

  13. How fun are these two!!! Decided on Olga of Kiev for the profound reason my grandson was adopted from Ukraine. As usual I've never heard of either these wretched converted women. Surely I am a lesser sinner even on my worst days. Loved the blogs. This is my favorite Lenten study.

  14. I’m off Russians these days and Olga lost me at “buried alive”; plus ca change etc. Bertha, on the other hand, is just my kind of saint who keeps her head down and gets on with the conversion of Kent to little acclaim.

  15. The Augustine mentioned in Bertha's writeup is Augustine of Canterbury, not the Augustine of Hippo for whom we voted earlier this week.

  16. Bertha, hands down. I'm grateful for an easy choice (for me) on a Saturday morning. I'm looking forward to reading all the comments today.

  17. Horrified by Olga's vengeful acts, I did further reading and find crickets about any true remorse or repentance on her part. As our PB says, if it's not about love, it's not about Jesus -- did Olga have a true conversion into the Lord of loving your enemies, forgiveness, and turning the other cheek? Or was her "conversion" just a cold, calculated political move?
    Even the pre-Jesus standard of "an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth" was put forth as moderating force against vengefulness -- to prevent things like the burying alive and burning of your enemy's emissaries, or the taking down of thousands in retaliation for one man's murder.
    Have we not evolved at all? I am appalled that this murderous monster is in the brackets, and have swiftly voted for Bertha of Kent. And I pray that the bloodthirsty spirit of Olga is kept far, far away from the people of Ukraine and their Russian attackers, and from the hearts of all of us.

    1. Saint Augustine of Canterbury, missionary to England and the first Archbishop of Canterbury. Yesterday's Saint Augustine of Hippo was a Bishop in northern Africa, near the modern town of Annaba, Algeria.

  18. I vote "not to see results until after I make my choice." When there's a wide gap between candidates, it makes me feel like my vote doesn't matter either way.

  19. While Olga’s actions may have been “a way for the times”, I just can’t look beyond those horrific acts for my vote this morning. Bertha gets my nod this morning. Love reading these!

  20. Two very intelligent women. Bertha of Kent raised Christian and through her gentle and firm insistence she was able to practice her faith despite her husband being a pagan. She used her position as Queen to quietly expand the faith. Then you have Olga born a Viking and marrying a leader. She set up legal, political, and social systems that united large parts of Eastern Europe, bringing Christianity. Two great Evangelical women who introduced Christianity through their own examples. Difficult decision and I chose the one that built a nation through her wisdom and leadership.

  21. Please refrain from showing the "score" prior to people casting their vote. That's just wrong!

  22. Just in case anyone else was confused as well, the Augustine Bertha received in England was NOT Augustine of Hippo. I had to do a quick Wikipedia reference myself - Augustine of Hippo lived a bit earlier, and while he corresponded with Pelagius (who was born in Britain) I don't know that Augustine of Hippo ever went to England. Bertha received Augustine of CANTERBURY, who I didn't know anything about, but seems like an alright dude.

  23. It seems to me that on Thursday and Friday the tally came up as soon as I cast a vote, but NOT before, and I was disappointed to see the totals first this morning. I voted how I wanted anyway, and I wonder if it was a glitch in the algorithm maybe b/c this is the only Saturday and some little byte got left behind, but I sure want it back the way it used to was come Monday, and it looks like I'm not alone.

  24. Wow, Anna, good job trying to get this murderess through to the next round. All I originally saw was "Kyev," and I was sure I would vote for her, because . . . Slava Ukraini! and there's a certain Russian leader I'd like to see publicly torn in half. But I simply cannot vote for someone who practices violence on such a mass scale. Burying people alive? burning villages to the ground? shelling civilians and torturing people in Bucha? Not nice! Very un-Christlike. Both women sound pretty mythical, so I am voting for the oldest church in the English-speaking world. I would like to walk Bertha's Trail. And I urge Kirill to follow Jesus and not Olga.