Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Osthryth: Murdered Queen of Mercia

By Kim Rendfeld

For Osthryth and her family, living into old age was a luxury.

She was born to Northumbrian King Oswy and his second wife, Eanflaed. My best guess of when is the mid-650s. She might have grown up hearing about her father’s brother Oswald, who had been king before Oswy.

Oswald was a conqueror and a devout Christian. In 742, the pagan king of Mercia, Penda, killed Oswald on the battlefield, ritually dismembered him, and displayed his head, arms, and hands on stakes. Oswy retrieved the trophies a year later and sent Oswald’s head to Lindisfarne and his arms and hands to Bamburgh. In those places, they became relics worthy of veneration. Perhaps Osthryth prayed before those relics.

Northumbria and Mercia were still at war, but Osthryth was too young to remember. In 655, Osthryth’s father was fighting Penda, even though two of her six siblings were married the Penda’s children. Her half-brother Alchfrith had wed Penda’s daughter and her half-sister Alhflæd had wed Penda’s son Peada. (The Mercian prince had converted to Christianity as part of the marriage agreement, with Oswy as his godfather.) Her 10-year-old full brother Ecgfrith was a hostage in Penda’s court.

Perhaps, she would have known that her father, with Alchfrith, went into battle against Penda at the River Winwæd when she was a baby. She might have understood that her full sister, Ælfflæd, was at a convent because her father had promised to give her and 12 estates to the Church if God granted him victory on the battlefield. Oswy had triumphed: he beheaded Penda.

Stained glass window at Worcester Cathedral
(by Violetriga, GFDL or CC-BY-SA-3.0,
via Wikimedia Commons)
She might have known Oswy took over Mercia and allowed Peada to succeed his father. But not for long. Peada died in 656, allegedly due to Alhflæd’s treachery. But Osthryth might have been told to see this another way: Alhflæd’s loyalty lay with her father rather than her husband. It’s not too much of a stretch to speculate that Oswy was displeased with Peada, let his daughter know, and she acted accordingly. Would such tales have taught Osthryth the family loyalty trumped everything, even the nuptial vow?

Yet Oswy’s rule over Mercia was short-lived. In 658, another of Penda’s son, Wulfhere, wrested it from him.

Oswy didn’t fight to keep it. Perhaps he was diverted by turmoil within the family. Oswy had rewarded Alchfrith by crowning him subking of Deira (Northumbria is the union of Deira and Bernicia), but father and son disagreed about ecclesiastic policy in the 660s. At issue was whether to practice Christianity like the Celts or the Romans. Osthryth’s parents, Oswy and Eanflaed, often celebrated Easter at different times—an awkward situation when the husband is feasting to celebrate the Resurrection while the wife is fasting for Lent.

Oswy relented and agreed to the Roman rule at the Synod of Whitby in 664, but that did not bring peace. Father and son disagreed over who should be bishop, and Alchfrith rebelled. And then disappeared.

History is silent on whether young Osthryth mourned her brother. She would face another loss soon. Her father, in failing health, died on Feb. 15, 670 (one of the few royal deaths from natural causes in that era), and Ecgfrith succeeded him.

Northumbria and Mercia were still at odds. In 674, Wulfhere led soldiers, wanting to force the Northumbrians to pay tribute. It didn’t work out that way for the Mercian king. Ecgfrith won and forced his adversary to pay tribute. Wulfhere died soon afterward, and his brother Æthelred succeeded him.

By User:Hel-hama, GFDL or CC-BY-SA-3.0,
 via Wikimedia Commons

Osthryth was a marriageable age, and Æthelred was single. This is the point in the story where I think, “Really, Ecgfrith? You’re going to arrange for your sister to marry Æthelred, even though your brother’s and sister’s marriages failed to uphold peace? What makes you think it will work this time?”

Osthryth and Æthelred were wed. She might have borne Æthelred a son, but we don’t know for certain. Apparently, the peace held for a while. Together, Osthryth and Æthelred patronized the monastery at Bardney in the province of Lindsey, a territory Mercia and Northumbria had fought over. Her young full brother Ælfwine was apparently a frequent visitor and beloved in both kingdoms.

But Osthryth's loyalty would be tested. Northumbria and Mercia would fight again, this time in 679 near the River Trent. Ælfwine died. Ecgfrith wanted to avenge his brother’s death, but an archbishop brokered a peace deal, and in a show of goodwill, Osthryth and Æthelred exiled a bishop at odds with the Northumbrian king.

After Ælfwine’s death, Osthryth had her Uncle Oswald’s remains—the parts of his body not in Lindisfarne or Bamburgh—moved to Bardney. To her, these were a martyr’s relics, and she wanted to promote Northumbrian sympathies. To the monks at Bardney, Oswald had been an oppressor, and they at first refused to take them. If we are to believe legend, the monks changed their minds after seeing a light come from the tent in which the remains were housed.

Oswald, from a circa 1220
manuscript (public domain,
via Wikimedia Commons)
The peace would remain uneasy. Ecgfrith died in a battle against the Picts in 685, and Osthryth’s half-brother Aldfrith, born out of wedlock before her father married the first time, succeeded him. When the bishop whom Ecgfrith hated quarreled with Aldfrith, Æthelred gave the guy a bishopric. We don’t know how Osthryth felt about this.

Like Alchfrith, Ecgfrith, Oswald, and her in-laws, Osthryth would be denied the luxury of old age. In 697, Mercian nobles murdered her. That’s all we know. Were they seeking justice for the king killed by her sister over 40 years ago? Or did they fear her influence on her husband?

She was buried at Bardney. Perhaps, Æthelred had some affection for his wife, or maybe he felt guilty and hoped to make amends with her spirit. He gave a monastery on lands his wife controlled to the bishopric of Worchester for the forgiveness of his and his wife’s sins.

Like Oswald, Osthryth and Æthelred would be venerated as saints.

Related story: Saint Etheldreda: Twice Married and Still a Virgin

Sources

Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, including:
“Osthryth (d. 697)” by S.E. Kelly
“Peada (d. 656)” by S.E. Kelly
“Wulfhere (d. 675)” by S.E. Kelly
“Oswiu (611/12–670)” by D. J. Craig,
“Oswald [St Oswald] (603/4–642)” by D. J. Craig
“Æthelred (d. after 704)” by Ann Williams
“‘Aldfrith (d. 704/5)” by Rosemary Cramp
“‘Ecgfrith (645/6–685)” by J.R. Maddicott

Bede's Ecclesiastical History of the English People, ed. and trans. B. Colgrave and R. A. B. Mynors

The Haskins Society Journal 6: Studies in Medieval History by Robert B. Patterson

Kim Rendfeld has written two novels set in early medieval times and is working on a third.

You can order The Ashes of Heaven's Pillar, about a Saxon peasant who will fight for her children after losing everything else, at AmazonKoboBarnes & Noble, and iTunes. Kim's first novel, The Cross and the Dragon, in which a Frankish noblewoman must contend with a jilted suitor and the fear of losing her husband, is available at Amazon, Kobo, iTunes, Barnes & Noble, Smashwords, CreateSpace, and other vendors.

Connect with Kim at on her website kimrendfeld.com, her blog, Outtakes of a Historical Novelist at kimrendfeld.wordpress.com, on Facebook at facebook.com/authorkimrendfeld, or follow her on Twitter at @kimrendfeld.





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