Œthelwald son of Oswald has always been a figure of controversy. Everything we know of him comes from Bede’s Ecclesiastical History. Beginning with Bede himself memories of Œthelwald have been viewed in slanted hindsight. Bede has his known biases for a united Northumbria (Bernicia + Deira), for which Œthelwald is a spoiler, and against Mercia in general and Penda in particular. We in turn too often share Bede’s biases and look back with a hindsight colored by not only Northumbria’s golden age but norms of later medieval expectations. We can not forget that a united Northumbria was not a real reality until the reign of Ecgfrith (670-685) and really only cemented in the long, peaceful reign of Aldfrith (685-704). I’ve discussed the process of Northumbrian ethnogensis before (here and especially here).
After a lot of thought, I don’t think that Œthelwald was anyone’s puppet. I don’t think he was ‘placed’ there by anyone. I do think that he was a compromise candidate whom both the Deiran nobles and Oswiu of Bernicia could live with. This suggests that the Deiran nobles had likewise accepted Oswald as King of Deira, as the nephew of Edwin. Oswald and his son Œthelwald were the grandson and great grandson of King Aelle, Edwin’s father. Oswiu on the other hand, had no Deiran blood that we know of; I have argued against his being the son of Acha sister of Edwin elsewhere. Oswiu shows every indication of taking direct control when he could, as he did in Mercia after Penda’s death and probably in Lothian early in his reign. The fact that he faced ‘rebellion’ by three successive kings of Deira– Oswine, Œthelwald and his own son Alchfrith– really suggests to me that the nobles/ealdormen of Deira really never accepted Oswiu has their king. After his son’s rebellion, Oswiu appears to have taken direct control over Deira for about only the last five years of his 28 year reign.
There have been some speculations about Œthelwald’s age and mother. If he was the son of Cynegils’ daughter then he would have only been about 17 when he became king in about 651, but I have argued elsewhere that it is quite possible that he was born during Oswald’s exile. Oswald was about 30 years old when he came home to Bernicia and could have easily had several children, as his brother Eanfrith already did and as Edwin had during his exile.
The one thing we do know for sure about Œthelwald is that he had close ties to the church of Lindisfarne, as we would expect for Oswald’s son. We know that the four brothers, Cedd, Cælin, Cynebill, and Chad were all closely tied to the church in Deira. Cælin was the personal priest of Œthelwald and his family and he mediated the donation of Lastingham to his brother Bishop Cedd. It is interesting that Bede claims that Œthelwald mainly came to know Cedd through his brother Caelin, since as a pupil of Aidan’s you would think that Œthelwald would have known him. Yet, Cedd had long been a missionary away from Bernicia and Deira, so it is possible that Oethelwald and Cedd had not known each other well before 651. I do think that is likely that the church of Lindisfarne helped Œthelwald come to the throne of Deira. They certainly could have helped the Deiran nobles contact Œthelwald if he was not in Deira before Oswine’s death (and I think it is unlikely he would have been an ally of Oswine, unless he had a major falling out with his uncle before 651). After Oswine’s murder and Aidan’s death heartbroken over Oswine, Lindisfarne would not have been very high on Oswiu or his sons, and supporting a son of Oswald would have seemed like the best option.
Anyway, Œthelwald is remembered diplomatically as the patron of Lastingham where he intended for himself and his family to be buried. The brothers of Lastingham must have stressed this to Bede for it to be included in the History. Bede doesn’t tell us where Œthelwald was buried but it is possible that some of his family was indeed buried at Lastingham. The stress on Œthelwald’s family does suggest that he was old enough to have a family. Alternatively it could just be Lastingham’s way of stressing that they would have been a major monastery for this king, as York was for Edwin, Whitby was Oswiu & Edwin, Wearmouth-Jarrow was for Ecgfrith, and probably Lindisfarne for Oswald (and Aldfrith?).
The last we hear of Œthelwald is during Penda’s last campaign into Bernicia in the fall of 655. Bede tells us that Œthelwald had acted a guide for Penda’s army into Bernicia and later refused to take part in the battle of Winwæd on November 15th, 655. For this Bede branded him a traitor, a claim surely influenced by Bede’s desire to project a united Northumbria. Accompanying Penda’s army into Bernicia would likely have been enough for a Bernician patriot to consider him a traitor, though it is perhaps hard to see how he could have refused Penda. It would have been suicide for a single king to have stood in the way of Penda’s army. We already knew from Oswine’s encounter with Oswiu that Deira did not have an imposing enough army to stand up to Oswiu’s forces, so it is unlikely that they could have faired better against Penda’s massive Southumbrian-British coalition. His decision to pull his army out of the fray at Winwæd may speak as much to the the shock of Oswiu’s attack as anything else. Was it a moment of indecision or had Penda’s alliance begun to fray enough that he would not side with him? Penda’s army must have still been very formidable for Œthelwald not to try to switch sides and fight for his uncle. It also tells us that Œthelwald may have been unwilling to fight against his own kinsmen (as Æthelhere of East Anglia probably did against his brother Anna). Bede tells us that the river in flood was a major factor in Oswiu’s victory as Mercians and their allies drowned trying to escape and we might also guess that an early death of Penda may have contributed to the loss. If the dominant king of a grand army was killed early, then military discipline probably would have fell as each unit would only then be concerned about its escape.
Œthelwald’s fate is left unknown. We don’t hear that he was executed, as Lastingham might have remembered. I doubt they would have been ashamed of another Deiran king who died for not fighting like Oswine. Indeed, it would have further vilified Oswiu in line with Deiran sympathies. It seems likely to me that Iona would have recorded Œthelwald’s death if it had occurred at Winwæd, as they recorded Penda’s death (Annals of Ulster). I tend to think that not hearing anything about his fate may mean that he was exiled. The mysterious fates of King Oswiu’s nephew Oethelwald and his son Alchfrith, who also disappears after a rebellion, are certainly two on my list of ‘things I would like to know’!