Saturday, August 13, 2016

The Wolf and the Lamb - Wulfhere of Mercia and Ermenilda of Kent

by Jayne Castel

Highborn marriage in 7th Century Anglo-Saxon England was one of political alliances and peace-making. War was a way of life, and kingdoms rose and fell with frightening swiftness. Unsurprisingly, love did not come into noble unions.

Meet Wulfhere and Ermenilda

The marriage between Wulfhere of Mercia and Ermenilda of Kent was no exception. He was a ruthless king, she a pious princess. Theirs was a union that would strengthen the bonds between kingdoms.

Wulfhere was Penda of Mercia’s second son. His father was England’s last pagan king, a powerful warlord feared by his neighbours. Wulfhere followed his elder brother, Paeda, to the throne. Paeda was assassinated shortly after he came to power—many believe by his wife.

Wulfhere came out of exile to claim the throne and take it back from Oswiu of Northumbria—restoring the power of Mercia after its disastrous defeat at the Battle of Winwaed. He ruled from 658 AD to his death in 676 AD, and was the first Christian king of Mercia. However, his path away from paganism to Christianity does not appear to have been an easy one.

Ermenilda was described as “saintly and beautiful”. She was the daughter of King Eorcenberht of Kent, very pious himself, as was his wife, Seaxburgh. After Wulfhere’s death, Ermenilda was said to have taken the veil and become abbess of Ely, like her mother before her. Later, she was sainted. Ermenilda’s feast day is February 13.

An unlikely match

There is quite a bit of evidence to suggest that Wulfhere and Ermenilda’s marriage was one of opposites—the wolf and the lamb. One such version of events (source: Virgin Saints of the Benedictine Order, pp. 59–64, Forgotten Books) paints Wulfhere in a very poor light.

Apparently, Wulfhere had inherited not just his father’s courage and military prowess but also his “violent and cruel temper”. Ermenilda, gentle and virtuous, seemed an unlikely choice of bride.

Although Wulfhere was baptized before his marriage, it appears he did not shed his pagan beliefs. He and Ermenilda had four children: Werburgh (the only girl), Ulfald, Rufifin, and Kenred. Wulfhere did not allow his sons to follow Christianity, yet he allowed his daughter to do so. It did not matter what religion his daughter worshipped—but he wished his sons to grow up to be warlords like him, and his father before him. Christianity had no place in his plans.

The arrival of St. Chad

Meanwhile a monk named Chad—who would later become the Bishop of Lichfield—was living as a hermit in the forest near Tamworth. Ermenilda, flouting her husband’s authority, started sending her two eldest sons (Ufald and Rufifin) to Chad in secret, to be instructed in the ways of God. The youngest, Kenred, was too little to accompany them (which in retrospect was a good thing).

The boys readily accepted Chad’s teachings and begged him to baptise them, which he gladly did.

Werburgh and Werbode

Meanwhile, Wulfhere’s daughter, Werburgh, had reached marriageable age. She was described as “sweet and gentle,” like her mother. However, she repulsed all suitors as she wished to dedicate her life to god.

Her piety did not please a nobleman named Werbode. Chief advisor to the king, and described as a “headstrong and haughty” man, Werbode managed to convince Wulfhere to give him his daughter. However, Werburgh rebuffed all his advances.

Rejected, and blaming her religion for Werburgh’s lack of interest in him, Werbode took his revenge. He had noticed the princes’ secret trips into the forest to visit Chad and informed the king about it. Then, he took Wulfhere to Chad’s hut, where they found the two boys praying.

Wulfhere lost his temper and demanded his sons renounce their beliefs and return home but they ignored him. In a fit of rage, he murdered them both.

Remorse sets in

Ermenilda was understandably devastated by the loss of her sons and by her husband’s terrible act. Wulfhere, himself, did not stay angry for long.

Filled with regret, he listened to his wife and daughter’s advice to seek forgiveness, and went to St Chad to confess his sins. After that, Wulfhere embraced Christianity. His dead sons, Ulfald and Rufifin, were later sainted.

How much of that story is true?

We will never really know. Most of what we have learnt about 7th Century Britannia came from Bede, and his accounts do not mention Ermenilda or her daughter. Also, the early historical accounts were mostly written by monks, so stories like this one were often told as cautionary tales against pagan ways.

However, it appears that Wulfhere and Ermenilda did actually exist, and they would have been an odd match – the Wolf and Lamb, indeed.

Illustration attributions: 

Depiction of Wulfhere on the right at Lichfield Cathedral. By Sjwells53 at en.wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Saint Chad in a stained glass window. By Randy OHC - Flickr

Saint Werburga (detail).

Wolfgang Sauber - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0; File:Chester Cathedral - Refektorium Ostfenster 1 St.Werburg.jpg

Jayne Castel has published six novels set in 7th Century Anglo Saxon England (The Kingdom of the East Angles and The Kingdom of Mercia). Dawn of Wolves (Book 3, The Kingdom of Mercia) is the story of Wulfhere and Ermenilda and was a Kindle Scout winner. Dawn of Wolves is available on Amazon. She has now started work on the next series, The Kingdom of Northumbria, which will take her up to the end of the 7th Century.

Connect with Jayne through:
Email (, 
Twitter (@JayneCastel), 


  1. I really enjoyed this story. Thanks for sharing.

    1. Thanks, Cryssa - I'm glad you enjoyed reading about Wulfhere and Ermenilda.


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