Anglo-Saxon Martyr Kings

We often talk about how easy and bloodless the conversion of England was, and yet it seems to me that we ignore some pretty obvious royal martyrs. It is true that we don’t know of any missionaries who were martyred while at work, such as the Hewalds among the Old Saxons or Boniface among the Frisians. Yet, if we define a martyr as someone who dies because of his or her Christian actions then we have several royal martyrs. And if we have so many royal martyrs, how many regular folks must have been murdered/martyred for their beliefs?

Royal martyrs to about the year 869 when St Edmund of East Anglia (whose feast day is today) dies: (some of the names below are links)

  • King Eorpwald of East Anglia (c. 633): killed by a heathen Ricberht; he kept Christianity out of the kingdom for three years until the kingdom was taken back by Eorpwald’s brother Sigibert.
  • King Sigiberht of East Anglia (c. 640s): Died in battle because he had taken the vows of a monk and refused to carry a weapon.
  • King Oswald of Bernicia and Deira (5 Aug 642): died defending his kingdom and therefore the kingdom of Christ he built therein. Considered a martyr early.
  • King Oswine of Deira (15 Aug 651): executed for refusing to fight a battle he was doomed to loose. Questionable martyr, early records just call it an unjust murder. Veneration of Oswine does not seem to begin until his body was rediscovered by Earl Tostig in c. 1065.
  • King Anna of East Anglia (c. 653): died in battle against pagan Penda of Mercia, the same king who slew Oswald of Bernicia and Deira. Bede talks about King Anna being very pious and the Addendum on Foillian calls him the “Divine Right Hand of God”. The Addendum specifically talks about him defending monasteries from Penda’s destruction, making him as much of a martyr as Oswald. There is some evidence of local veneration but it may have been wiped out during the Danish invasions.
  • King Peada of South Mercia and Middle Anglia (656): Murdered with the help of his wife, Queen Alhflæd, daughter of King Oswiu of Northumbria “during the very time of the Easter festival.” Questionable martyr but we know very little about his death or Mercia during this period.
  • King Sigiberht the Saint of East Saxons (c. 660s): Sigibert was murdered by two of his kinsmen. “When they were asked why they did it, they could make no reply except that they were angry with the king and hated him because he was too ready to pardon his enemies, calmly forgiving them for the wrongs they had done him, as soon as they asked his pardon. Such was the crime for which he met his death, that he had devoutly observed the gospel precepts.” (Bede, HE III:22)
  • Princes Æthelred and Æthelberht of Kent (669): Murdered and considered saints immediately. Minister-in-Thanet was given to their sister Eormenburgh, wife of King Merewealh of the Magonsæte, as a blood price for their deaths. St. Mildrith was Eormenburgh and Merewealh’s daughter.
  • Queen Osthryth of Mercia (697): Murdered by her own thanes; considered a saint at Bardney. Too little is known about her veneration to know if her murder was part of the reason for her veneration or if she was a founder saint due to her support of Bardney.
  • King Ælfwald I of Northumbria (788): Murdered, considered a saint almost immediately.
  • King Æthelberht II of East Anglia (794): Murdered by Offa of Mercia, considered a saint almost immediately. He is the patron saint of Hereford Cathedral.
  • King Kenelm of Merica (811): Murdered at about age 25 and considered a martyr almost immediately. His legend has warped to such a degree there is no certainty on the facts of his death.
  • King Edmund of East Anglia (869): Tortured and murdered by the Danes after being defeated in battle; considered a martyr and saint almost immediately. Unlike a recent History Channel episode (Barbarians II), there is no evidence that I know of that Edmund got the ‘bloody eagle’. This is another elaboration of the myth. The most common story of his martyrdom has him shot full of arrows like St. Sebastian.

Of course not all kings who met violent deaths are listed here. Edwin of Deira is a notable absence because he died at the hands of a Christian, Cadwallon of Gywnedd, in battle. Whatever the ultimate cause of Cadwallon’s ‘rebellion’ it is unlikely to have been due to Edwin’s Christianity or his bishop’s authority. There is no real evidence that Paulinus of York tried to take control of British churches. For the first couple Christian centuries many, if not most, kings died violent deaths, so this is not a matter of just being a violent death.

So what made some of these kings major saints, and others were nearly forgotten? The early spreading of veneration is of course a major boon to a burgeoning cult. If the veneration had spread west, as it did for Oswald, Æthelberht of East Anglia, and Edmund of East Anglia, then it is more likely to have survived Danelaw. But even before Danelaw there are some obvious differences. King Sigibert the Saint of Essex is a good example. Bede goes out of his way to show that Sigiberht is a saint, in obvious contradiction to the information he got that tried to claim that Sigiberht’s death was because he defied Bishop Cedd’s orders not to visit kinsmen who had made a marriage that the bishop did not approve. Bishop Cedd’s attitudes to royal saints are a vital piece of the puzzle and Lindisfarne in particular did not venerate royalty. Oswald became a saint in spite of Lindisfarne’s attitude. Recognition of martyrdom is very much in the eyes of the beholder and we are certainly influenced by our attitudes toward martyrdom when we evaluate the past.

For more information:

Bede, Ecclesiastical History of the English People. McClure and Collins, eds. Oxford UP, 1994.

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