Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Cyneburg: A Child of Wodan Who Became a Saint

By Kim Rendfeld

When she was growing up, Cyneburg might have believed she was a descendant of the god Wodan and expected to marry to strengthen her family’s political alliances. So how did this 7th-century Mercian princess feel when she learned she would wed the son of her father’s enemy and abandon her gods?

The marriage was before 653, which puts Cyneburg’s birth year around 640 or before. We don’t know what her childhood household was like, but judging by Cyneburg’s and her sisters’ names, Queen Cynewise must have had some influence. Cyneburg grew up with her father, King Penda, constantly at war with Northumbria, the union of Deira and Bernicia.

Although the kings of Mercia and Northumbria practiced different religions, the disparate faiths didn’t cause the conflict. Penda likely used his lineage to Wodan as his claim to power, but he was remarkably tolerant. Both Christians and pagans believed deities determined victory in war or success of the harvest – and they wreaked havoc if displeased. Yet Penda did not bother Christian missionaries on his lands. His reasons might have been political; it would be easier to make alliances with Christian rulers against a common foe if he didn’t persecute their holy men.

At the battle of Maserfield in 642, Penda killed Northumbrian King Oswald, then ritually dismembered his foe and displayed his head and arms as trophies. To the Mercians, Penda got rid of an oppressor. In Northumbrian eyes, Oswald was a martyr. (A year later, Oswald’s brother and successor, Oswy, retrieved the remains, which became relics.)

Penda’s attacks on Bernica went on years. It’s easy to imagine Cyneburg seeing Oswy, his children, and his people as oppressors and loathing them.

We don’t know which father suggested two marriages between their children. Cyneburg would marry Oswy’s heir, Alchfrith, and her eldest brother, Peada, would marry Oswy’s daughter. A condition for the marriages was that Cyneburg and Peada accept baptism.

Saint Chad, with Peada and Wulfhere at Lichfield Cathedral
(by Sjwells53, CC BY-SA 3.0 or GFDL,
via Wikimedia Commons)
We can assume the royal families were trying to make peace. The heaviest burden fell on the daughters: both fathers and husbands expected the women to use their connections to help the men get their way. If the wife gave birth to a healthy son, her position would be that much stronger.
History doesn’t record what Penda and Cyneburg discussed when she was betrothed. Did Cyneburg have doubts about leaving her old gods behind? About her husband? About whether the marriage would stop the wars?

The hoped-for peace was not to be.

In the 655, Oswy killed Penda in the battle of Winwæd and took over Mercia, but he allowed Peada to ascend to the throne. That is, until Peada’s untimely death a year later because of his wife’s betrayal.

Was Cyneburg heartbroken as her father, then her brother, died at the hands of her in-laws? Her husband was not innocent. He had fought alongside his father and was rewarded by being crowned subking of Deira.

The sources conflict on what happens next. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle says Wulfhere, also a convert to Christianity, succeeded his brother and worked with Oswy to donate land to the monastery at Medeshamstead (later Peterborough), which Oswy and Peada had started. Wulfhere did this with the counsel of Cyneburg and sister Cyneswith.

From Encyclopædia Britannica, 1911
(public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Bede tells a different story: Wulfhere was a youth and hid from Oswy. Then with support from noblemen, he wrested Mercia back from Oswy in 658, and Oswy accepted that loss.

Despite this turmoil, Cyneburg appears to be a faithful wife. She and her husband might have had six children (this fact depends on which source you believe). She also seems to have embraced her adopted faith. Like Cyneburg, four of their children were later revered as saints.

Cyneburg and her husband were responsible for building monasteries at Ripon and Stamford. Ripon got off to a rough start. The monks renounced the gift when they learned they had to give up the Celtic practice of Christianity and follow the Roman rule as Alchfrith wanted. The land was then entrusted to Wilfred, a cleric who followed Roman tradition.

The clash over Celtic vs. Roman rule would extend to Alchfrith and his own father in the 660s. Cyneburg was with her husband the 664 Synod of Whitby, where Oswy relented and agreed to the Roman rule. But father and son didn’t stop fighting. This time, they disagreed over who should be bishop. Alchfrith rebelled. And then disappeared.

We don’t know how the widowed Cyneburg reacted. Did she regret, or question, why she had become part of a family that fought each other? In Mercia, her enemies were not close relatives. Did she grieve for her husband? Did she despise Oswy? Or did she accept the tragedy as God’s will?

Her children probably stayed in Oswy’s court, but Cyneburg left. Was that departure yet another loss on top of so many?

She turned to Wulfhere and must have still been important in her homeland. Joined by her sister, Cyneburg became the abbess of Castor (originally Cyneburgecaestre). It was common for widowed queens to retire to abbeys. In her case, the nunnery might have been a refuge, and for Wulfhere, the move ensured that the land was in the hands of an ally.

Castor (By John Salmon, CC BY-SA 2.0,
via Wikimedia Commons)
Perhaps, Cyneburg wielded more power at Castor than in Northumbria. Although she was officially under the authority of a bishop, difficult travel and lack of instant communication meant she controlled the convent’s land and made decisions over the nuns she ruled. This was also a time when Christian kings wanted monks and nuns to pray for them. The act would please God, who would then allow pious kings win battles and stay healthy.

She embraced the religious life, showing compassion to the poor and zealously instructing the women in her care. She tried to influence her brothers – Wulfhere and his successor, Æthelred – to give alms and show mercy.

After her death around 680, her reputation for virtue lived on. The Bewcastle Cross, a stone monument created in the late 7th or early 8th century, has an inscription with her and Alchfrith’s name in rune. In the 10th century, she and two kinswomen were translated to Peterborough—a tribute to her fidelity to Christ.


The Lives of the Saints by Rev. Alban Butler

“Cyneburg,” New Catholic Encyclopedia

Woman Under Monasticism: Chapters on Saint-lore and Convent Life Between A.D. 500 and A.D. 1500 by Lina Eckenstein

"Cyneburg of Mercia (fl. 655)." Dictionary of Women Worldwide: 25,000 Women Through the Ages, edited by Anne Commire and Deborah Klezmer, Gale Virtual Reference Library

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, translated by E.E.C. Gomme

Oxford Dictionary of National Biography:
‘Penda (d. 655)’ by S.E. Kelly
‘Alchfrith (fl. c.655–c.665)’ by Rosemary Cramp
‘Wulfhere (d. 675)’ by S.E. Kelly
‘Osric (d. 729)’ by D.J. Craig


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, her blog, Outtakes of a Historical Novelist at, on Facebook at, or follow her on Twitter at @kimrendfeld.


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