Oswine the Anti-Hero

(A post from the archive on the anniversary of King Oswine’s death.)

King Oswine of Deira (Yorkshire) 20 August 651

Modern Eastern Orthodox icon of King Oswine of Deira

Today is the anniversary of the execution of King Oswine of Deira, considered by some to be a saint. All we know of Oswine is included in Bede’s History (Book III:14). Bede writes a curious tale for Oswine.

“King Oswine was tall and handsome, pleasant of speech, courteous in manner, and bountiful to nobles and common alike; so it came about that he was beloved by all because of his royal dignity which showed itself in his character, his appearance, and his actions; and noblemen from almost every kingdom flocked to serve him as retainers. Among all the other graces of virtue and modesty with which, if I may say so, he was blessed in a special manner, his humility said to have been the greatest” (McClure and Collins, ed; 1994:132)

This all seems well and good. Bede proceeds to narrate an example of Oswine’s great humility to St. Aidan, Bishop of Lindisfarne. However, at the end of the episode, Aidan turns to an Irish colleague and says “I know that the king will not live long; for I never before saw a humble king. Therefore I think that he will very soon be snatched from this life; for this nation does not deserve to have such a ruler.” (p. 133). Oswine death follows and Aidan himself dies only 12 days “after the murder of the king he loved”. The implication is that Aidan dies of a broken heart.

Bede actually begins his tale with Oswine’s murder/execution. Oswine has gathered his army to meet King Oswiu (who would later rule at the Synod of Whitby) in battle near Catterick. When Oswine realized how outnumbered he was by Oswiu, he disbanded his army and went into hiding with a retainer he believes is his friend. This retainer betrayed him to Oswiu who had his rival executed. There is no doubt that this murder caused an outrage in the church. Oswiu’s queen, Eanflaed, was the cousin of Oswine and demanded a weregeld (blood price) paid by the founding of the monastery of Gilling where prayer was to be offered daily for the soul of King Oswine and his murderer King Oswiu.

The question is why does Bede include the story in his History. There is no evidence that he sees Oswine as anything other than a sad victim. Bede provides no evidence that Oswine was considered to be a saint by his day. Oswine was much later reported to be buried at Tynemouth, not the new monastery of Gilling.

The usual explanation is that Bede includes the story because his beloved Abbot Coelfrith came from Gilling, Coelfrith’s family monastery (meaning that Coelfrith was also a kinsman of Oswine). This isn’t really a very satisfying answer. Gilling had ceased to exist before Bede was born and Coelfrith is not mentioned in the story. An interesting side note is that Gilling seems to disband as a monastery after the plague of 664 when all the surviving monks joined Abbot Wilfrid at Ripon (victor of the synod of Whitby the same year). Thus within months of deciding for Rome, the monastery Oswiu had to found as weregeld/penance was allowed to disappear.

Another explanation is that it was part of Aidan’s death story. This isn’t very satisfying either because Aidan’s death is not elaborated on, as it is in a later chapter (which doesn’t mention Oswine at all). These look like two reports of Aidan’s death.

The chapter begins with an assessment of Oswiu’s reign and the next chapter records a miracle of Aidan’s in assisting in the arrival of Eanflaed to her marriage to Oswiu. The context of the story places it within Oswiu’s story as Oswald’s successor. Miracles of St. Aidan and Aidan’s death are then inserted. After Aidan comes the life and death of pious King Sigeberht of East Anglia who had entered a monastery, but his people pulled him out of the monastery to lead them into battle against Penda, the evil pagan of Bede’s History. Sigeberht refused to carry a weapon in to battle and rode to his death carrying only his royal scepter.

Bede has set up a story of three example kings

  • Oswald: Bede’s ideal king: brave, victorious in battle, supporter of the church and evangelist, humble enough to translate Aidan’s sermons before his people, but not too humble to loose their respect, protector of his people up to his death.
  • Oswine: too humble to be a king. A perfect picture of a king, but when it came down to it, not brave enough to ride in to battle and die. He is an anti-hero.
  • Sigebert: a pious king, but nevertheless Bede did not favor kings who retired to monasteries. The fact that his people came to him to lead them in battle suggests that he once was victorious in battle and was still young and healthy enough to do so again. He did not protect his people. Penda destroys the army, Sigebert’s co-king, and then ravages the monasteries and people of East Anglia.

Bede believed that people should live up to the position in life they were given: king, bishop, monk, commoner. A king should be a good king: protector of the people, patron of the church, obedient to the bishop. He offers Oswine as an example to his readers of how a king should not behave.

Perhaps he was also eager to ensure that King Oswiu would not be too glorified. He tallied plenty of pious attributes during his 28 year reign. He may have been the greatest patron of the church of his age, judge at the synod of Whitby, and slayer of Northumbria’s worst enemy (Penda of Mercia), but he was also capable of murdering his rivals and having his own kinsmen, his nephew Oethelwald son of Oswald and his own son Alhfrith, rebel against him. His rebellious kinsmen are never heard from again. Bede does make sure to casually mention these rebellions in the beginning of the chapter before he narrates Oswine’s story. The execution of Oswine may be Bede’s way of indicating the fates of Oethelwald and Alhfrith by implication in a way that would not offend the contemporary rulers of Northumbria.

6 comments on “Oswine the Anti-Hero

  1. Curt Emanuel says:

    Oswine’s an interesting character. I can come up with three fairly common themes which the Oswine story fits into as reasons why it exists (beyond those you mention). In the order which I like them, these are:

    1) Aidan’s foretelling Oswine’s death is prescient and another example of his holiness – only God would give him the ability to predict the future.

    2) Oswine’s kneeling before the Bishop indicates that Kings should be willing to demonstrate subservience to the Church, at least when appropriate (like after arguing about horse-gifts, apparently).

    3) England and the English people are too violent and war-loving. Oswine will be taken from them because they don’t deserve him.

    • I think these are all subcurrents in the story. It all depends on the context of the reader, doesn’t it? Oswine is an unrealistic ideal. I can’t imagine any of the royals would consider him to be a success, even if churchmen see him as an ideal.

  2. highlyeccentric says:

    I’m intrigued by the part where Eanfled demands weregild from her own husband. That must’ve been an interesting marital conversation…

  3. [...] favourite kind of story. Over at Heavenfelth, Michele talks about the humble and very much dead King Oswine, who was murdered by King Oswiu after a period of intrigue involving battles that never happened [...]

  4. florentios says:

    saint Oswine pray for us!

    He is Passion-Bearer as SS. Boris and Gleb http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Boris_and_Gleb

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