PW: St Owine

St Owine is a somewhat malleable figure in the veneration of St Audrey.

He first appears in Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People where he is a member of St Chad’s household at Lichfield. Owine witnesses an exchange between Chad and an angel shortly before Chad’s death. Bede goes on to explain that Owine had been chief of her officers and the head of Æthelthryth’s household when she married prince Ecgfrith of Northumbria (Bede, HE IV.3). Bede goes on to relate that Owine joined Chad at Lastingham dressed plainly and carrying only an axe and adze to show that he came to work. He was not skilled at the study of Scriptures but more than made up for this in his earnest manual labor. When Chad moved to Lichfield to become bishop he asked Owine to join his household there. He was working outside of Chad’s personal oratory when he overheard Chad conversing with an angels. Chad then sent Owine to collect the others of the household and he gave them all, including Owine, his last instructions. Chad died on March 2, 672; the same year Æthelthryth (Audrey) left her marriage and entered Coldingham. Thus, Owine had left Æthelthryth’s service long before she left her marriage. Owine is also only associated with Lastingham and Litchfield by Bede. To join Lastingham while Chad was there he would have joined between 664 and 670; most of this time Chad was also Bishop of York (c. 665-669).

The Liber Eliensis expands Owine’s role. It casts Owine as Æthelthryth’s protector who only entered the church after she took up monastic life. He is clearly portrayed as following her lead. This is clearly impossible. It does claim that Owine entered Lasthingham when it was ruled by Bishop Chad of Mercia whose great friend he became, so it pushes his entry into Lasthingham as late as possible (LE i.8, 10). In LE i.23, Owine is, ironically, called her tutor. This may be a plea to link the cults of Chad and Audrey, particuarly after Ely largely came under the control of Mercia in the time of Offa. However, the expansions are not too great over what Bede reports.

This caution to keep within the outline laid out by Bede is completely lost in Marie de France’s Life of St Audrey. Marie claims that Audrey founds the church of St Andrew at Augustaldeus (Hexham) which she staffed with ‘her people’ who established the house there. Audrey placed the monk Ovin (Owine) as the “master of that church and its religious life”. Ovin became friends with Chad but is not said to have joined Chad’s household. Later, Marie claims that Ovin, “spiritual leader of Saint Audrey’s people” followed Audrey into Coldingham.

We can see an escalating of Owine’s relationship to Audrey. I haven’t yet found a source that claims that Owine came to Ely with her, but that may be the implication of Marie’s claim that he followed her into Coldingham. Commemoration of St Ovin — notice Marie’s French spelling — is part of remembrances of St Audrey at Ely today. This cross is apparently a medieval relic from a neighboring village. This drawing is from Cambridgeshire History.

Today at Ely Cathedral, a procession to St Ovin’s Cross takes place at second evensong on both St Audrey’s day and the feast of her translation in October using the ‘verses and collect’ of St Ovin.

Sources:

Bede, Ecclesiastical History of the English People, 731

Janet Fairweather, trans. Liber Eliensis: A History of the Isle of Ely from the Seventh Century to the Twelfth. Boydell, 2005.

June Hall McCash and Judith Clark Barban, trans and ed. The Life of Saint Audrey: A Text by Marie De France. McFarland, 2006.

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One thought on “PW: St Owine

  1. This is very useful, thanks. I read in a local history, that Ovin was actually from the neighbouring village you mention (Haddenham – where I used to live next door to the church in which the St Ovin’s cross was discovered), that he brought Christianity to the village in 673 and that he died there on 680. Sadly, there were no references in the booklet. Anyway, a long winded way of saying “thanks”

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