Oswiu’s Bribe to Penda and to God

Penda’s last campaign against Northumbria is one of the few scenes in Bede’s History where we can see Northumbrian propaganda exposed. At Penda’s siege of Oswiu in 655, Bede reports that Oswiu tried to offer a couple bribes to get out of the situation, first to Penda and then to God. Lets look at what Bede actually says:

“At length dire need compelled him to offer Penda an incalculable quantity of regalia and presents as a price of peace, on condition that he returned home and ceased his ruinous devastation of the provinces of his kingdom. But the treacherous king refused to consider his offer, and declared his intention of wiping out the entire nation from the highest to the humblest in the land. Accordingly Oswy turned for help to the mercy of God, who alone could save the land from its barbarous and godless enemy; and he bound himself with an oath, saying:’If the heathen refuses to accept our gifts, let us offer them to God.’ So he vowed that, if victorious, he would offer his daughter to God as a consecrated virgin and give twelve estates to build monasteries.” (Bede, Historia III:24, Farmer ed, p. 183)

It goes on to narrate Oswiu’s victory over Penda in the battle of Winwaed. Now the Historia Brittonum gives a different, garbled version.

“He slew Penda in the field of Gai, and now took place the slaughter of Gai Campi, and the kings of the Britons, who went out with Penda on the expedition as far as the city of Judeu*, were slain.

65. Then Oswy restored all the wealth, which was with him in the city, to Penda; who distributed it among the kings of the Britons, that is, Atbert Judeu. [Redistribution of Iudeu/Stirling] But Catgabail alone, king of Guenedot, rising up in the night, escaped together with his army, wherefore he was called Catgabail Catguommed. [Cadafael Battle Shierker)” (Historia Brittonum)

Ok, so the Historia Brittonum version is very garbled. I think this is mostly because the separate paragraphs have been copied/written to each make a separate point and there was little regard for putting them in the correct order. Paragraph 64 is a summary of Oswiu’s reign and it concludes with his victory over Penda and the slaughter of the British kings with Penda. That is fitting as it was Oswiu’s greatest achievement and responsible for all that followed after it.

I think the Cadafael paragraph is included so that King Merfyn (c. 825) could trash a rival as a battle shierker (Catguommed); it a pun on his name which means Battle-Prince (Cadafael) Battle Shirker (Catguommed) — sort of like Aethelred the Unred. I actually doubt that Cadafael abandoned Penda before a pending battle. Winwaed is usually placed somewhere in Elmet, and the Roman road toward Wales would have branched off before then, so it would have been natural for an army from Gwynedd to take the road over the mountains toward Chester rather than going down through the lowlands. Some of the lessor British warlords/’kings’ from say Powys may on the other hand have wished to stay with Penda as long as possible because they needed his support.

Normally, Bede’s version would trump all other versions, particularly from a text like the Historia Brittonum, but I just don’t buy it — the idea that Oswiu offered wealth turned down by Penda to God. It comes down to a couple of fundamental things:

  1. You don’t crow about loot you don’t get! The Britons are bragging about the spoils they brought home. Note that Cadafael of Gwynedd and his army escaped from the battle and presumably brought their share of the loot home.
  2. We are talking about completely different types of loot. Penda is being offered portable loot — gold, silver, jewels, and perhaps other portables as well, like livestock and slaves. Oswiu offers to God what Penda can’t carry away — land and his daughter (only if he defeats Penda). Livestock and slaves might have been just what slowed Penda’s army down enough that Oswiu could raise his army and catch up with them before they were inside Mercia.
  3. The Annals Cambriae lists the death of Penda in 657 and in 658 “Oswy came and took plunder”. It could be that Oswy is just punishing the Britons for being allied with Penda (although he isn’t recorded as punishing other kings who came with Penda), or he could be trying to reclaim some or all of the loot that the Britons got home with. Reclaiming loot is particularly attractive if some of it had symbolic meaning.

Lets stop and consider what kind of immense loot Oswiu would have had to offer. Bamburgh and its kings had the accumulated wealth of kings Æthelfrith, Edwin, Cadwallon and Oswald. Æthelfrith, Edwin and Oswald had fallen on campaign away from home, so there was some hope that their wealth was passively taken by their successor. Cadwallon who had killed Edwin and taken Deira was killed by Oswald far from home and so Oswald likely reclaimed most of the Deiran wealth Cadwallon had taken from his camp. However, Aethelfrith, Edwin, and Cadwallon’s wealth had been immediately redistributed, Oswald had the ability by succession or conquest to collect it all at Bamburgh. Bede (HE III:16,17) also tells us that Penda had tried to capture Bamburgh rock before 651. Anglo-Saxons normally didn’t besiege fortresses, preferring open field battles. Consequently, Penda was unsuccessful in both the siege of Bamburgh in c. 650 and of Stirling in 655. Could Penda have been so persistent at trying to take the fortresses of Bernicia because they contained fabled wealth?

Getting back to Oswiu’s bribes, I don’t see any reason why Oswiu could not have tried both bribes. Paying off Penda to get him to leave and then not being able to stand the shame of it, mounting a rash attempt to catch up to Penda on his way home and ambush him. His offer to God stiffened his nerve to make such a rash assault. I’m sure afterwards Oswiu was convinced that had been God on his side; on paper it was a foolish attempt to take on Penda’s mighty army. Oethelwald’s refusal to take part in the battle, the early break up of Penda’s army, the flood swollen river, all turned in Oswiu’s favor and so he survived and died in his bed, an old man, undefeated.

As a side note, one of those 12 estates offered to God would have almost certainly been Whitby….so this story would have been preserved as part of Whitby’s foundation legend.

*Judeu/Iudeu has been identified with the site of Stirling castle. The city of Urbs Guidi may also be the same site. The evolution of the castle of Stirling has obliterated any early medieval archaeology that presumably lies under the current castle.

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6 comments on “Oswiu’s Bribe to Penda and to God

  1. I like the idea of Bamburgh being the repository of famous wealth. It might help explain the possibility of Fiachnae mac Báetáin, high king of the Ulaid, beseiging Bamburgh c. 623 (the subject of the lost poem ‘Sluagad Fiachnae meic Báetáin co Dún nGuaire i Saxanaib’). I can’t think why else he’d stretch his supply lines so far… Unless I’m missing something really obvious?

  2. I don’t think I’m familiar with an Irish raid on Bamburgh in c. 623. That would be during Edwin’s reign when most of the wealth would have been at York.

    If this is the Irish joining Aedan mac Gabran in attacking Aethelfrith (d. 616), then that was before Aethelfrith really expanded his domain and probably had typical wealth.

  3. I’m trying to remember where I read about it (Byrne? I’m a novelist, not an academic, so I’m not always scrupulous about sources and footnotes, sigh; must do better…), but it was supposedly/possibly during the armed argument Edwin and Fiachnae mac Báetáin were having over the Isle of Mann in the early 620s.

    I’ve always assumed Edwin didn’t really move into York until Rædwald was dead and Edwin started dreaming overking dreams. But I have a tendency to jump to conclusions for which there is no evidence. If there’s anything to indicate he spent serious time in York before the death of Rædwald and his marriage to Æthelburg, I’d really appreciate it if you could point me in the right direction.

  4. I don’t know if Raedwald’s death was the critical factor. I think he moved to York, or made York his capital, under the influence of Bishop Paulinus who wanted to be in the former Roman city. York was within the kingdom of Deira, no matter what Raedwald’s status was. If I recall correctly, Goodmanham where Edwin had his main pagan shrine isn’t that far from York.

    In some ways I can see why the Anglo-Saxons settled away from Roman ruins. After the cities had fallen into ruin (even if still occupied), it would have seemed like fixing the city up was more trouble than its worth. Why not set up your royal settlement elsewhere, where you can build to suit without all those ruins getting in the way? York was so large that it would have taken a lot of troops to defend properly so it could actually be hazardous to try to hold a city larger than your army can defend. The last British warlord who is located with York wasn’t called “Eliffer of the Great Retinue” for nothing. It would have taken a great retinue to hold York. By the mid-point of his reign, Edwin would have had enough men to hold York and enough wealth to fix it up; then the status was worth it… at least in my opinion, for what that is worth…

  5. Yes. Rædwald’s death, overking dreams, marriage to Æthelburg (and the arrival of Paulinus) all happened one-two-three. Paulinus wanted his pallium, Æthelburg was familiar with the notion of written laws. I can see a stone city with a storied past becoming very attractive to all players at that point (i.e. c 625). Until then, though, the old tribal centres (Ad Gefrin, Bamburgh, Goodmanham) would have been more important, and of those my guess is Bamburgh was the most defensible and therefore probably the respository of wealth/treasure. But I’m just, y’know, making stuff up 🙂

  6. I was searching for this kind of a blog for months now. Actually lost the hope of finding one, but here i am 🙂 Thanks for the great articles! Looking forward for a little read after dinner 🙂

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