Queen Cynewise is one of the few early Mercian queens that we have any information on at all. The only direct mention of her name is after Penda’s fall when Bede notes that Ecgfrith was not at the battle of Winwaed because he was a hostage in the care of Queen Cynewise (HE III.24). He would have been less than twelve years old. The casual way Bede mentions her name suggests that she may have been well known. With the hostage left her in care, it suggests that she was Penda’s primary wife. Recall that Penda was pagan and therefore was probably polygamous. Even if he was, it seems unlikely that they were all considered his queen. After Penda’s fall, it seems likely that Cynewise used young Ecgfrith as a bargaining chip to secure her safety and that of at least her daughters.
Elsewhere Bede tells us that Penda drove out Cenwealh of Wessex when he turned out Penda’s sister (HE III.7). Alex Woolf has shown that this sister’s sons eventually succeed to the throne of Mercia after the lines of Penda and Eowa fall from power. This suggests that Cenwealh made the unusual move of turning out his sons as well and that Penda’s dynasty must have integrated them. This is particularly ironic given that Cenwealh is not succeeded in Wessex by a son. It seem likely that Penda had also married a daughter of Cyngisl; that they had at some point exchanged brides. The name Cynewise fits very well with West Saxon naming patterns.
Judging by names, it is possible that she was at least the mother of Cyneburgh, wife of King Alchfrith of Deira and later Abbess of Castor and Cyneswith. It is possible that she was known in the Derian court of her daughter and may have been a contact that fostered the relationship between King Alchfrith/Deira and her probable brother King Cenwealh of Wessex. Even if she returned to her brothers court in Wessex after Penda’s death, she still may have served as a link to her daughter’s court in Deira. Marriages of the daughters of Cynegisl may account for the hints at a close relationship between Deira and Wessex during the long reign of Cenwealh. The previous king Œthelwald may have also been Cenwealh’s nephew, if he mother was Oswald’s queen, a daughter of Cynegisl and sister of Cenwealh.
Given that Wulfhere and Æthelred were youths when Penda died, it is likely that they were her sons as well. Bede tells us they were hid by some nobles so it is unlikely that she was able to buy their safety from Oswiu by exchanging Ecgfrith. Once Wulfhere had secured the throne, it is likely that Cynewise would have returned to Mercia and her probably son’s court. Given that Wulfhere is described as a youth, Cynewise may have had considerable influence on him.
We should also remember that if Cynewise was indeed the daughter of Cynegisl, then she was also the sister of King Oswald’s queen named Cyneburgh is the 12th century Life of Oswald. If their marriage happened in c. 628 when Cynegils and Penda fought and came to an agreement (Anglo-Saxon Chronicle), before Oswald came to the throne, the two rivals would have had queens who were sisters or at least kinswomen. Alternatively, Cenwealh and Penda may have exchanged brides around 642 when Penda came to ascendancy and Cenwealh succeeded his father.
Just as Penda was the last great pagan king, it is almost certain that Cynewise was the last great pagan queen. Penda was one of the most dominant kings of his era, capable of making the kin of his victims his dependents like Anna’s brother Æthelhere and Oswald’s son Œthelwald, and Edwin’s cousin Oswine follow his will and join his campaigns. Yet, Penda fell when two kings, Cadfael of Gwyendd and Œthelwald of Deira, abandoned him within 24 hours of his last battle. His hegemony was more fragile than we might think. Regardless for the 13 years of Penda’s dominance (642-655), Cynewise would have presided over the most powerful court of the day and as we can see with young Ecgfrith, guardianship over young hostages may have been one of her primary duties.
Bede, Ecclesiastical History of the English People, Oxford UP, 1994.