King Oswald’s Female Fans

A comment on The Naked Philologist on why women (and girls) like medieval heroes quite a while ago, here, reminded me that women have always been attracted to some early medieval heroes. I left a comment on her blog that King Oswald has always been promoted by women, and I thought I would expand upon it here.

Oswald’s Patronesses

St Aethelthryth gives Hexham to Wilfrid protecting it. Later tradition in the Liber Eliensis and Marie de France’s Life of Saint Audrey give Æteththryth more and more credit for founding Hexham.

St Birinus baptizes King Cynegils with King Oswald as godfather
St Birinus baptizes King Cynegils with King Oswald as godfather

Osthryth establishes Oswald’s largest and most accessible shrine at Bardney perhaps at personal risk in the Mercian court (or perhaps has a weregeld for her brother’s death). Recall that Queen Osthryth was later murdered by the same Mercian nobles who she almost certainly flaunted her Northumbrian origins in front of when she enshrined Oswald’s body at Bardney. It is such a shame that we don’t have a history of Bardney abbey because it must has been a fascinating place, with Queen Osthryth’s burial there and King Æthelred’s later entry into the abbey where he was abbot for several years before his death.

Lady Æthelflaed led a raid to Bardney to recover Oswald’s relics from the Danes and established St Oswald’s Minster in Glouchester as her family sepulcher. This is quite a remarkable degree of interest. We might wonder why the relics were not removed before the Danes arrived, but as Bardney is on waterways connecting to the Humber and was probably known for its wealth, it may have even been part of the initial wave of attacks into Lindsey. In other words, Bardney may have originally been attacked by surprise. It would have been remarkable for a Lord or King to lead a such a raid primarily for relics, but for a Lady to personally lead such a raid is unique in English history (and perhaps all medieval history). It is possible that Lady Æthelflaed’s supulcher has been found in the ruins of St Oswald’s minster.

The minister in Gloucester wasn’t originally named after St Oswald, but took on his name because he was the most popular saint housed there. From the period of Danelaw on the military success of Wessex would have been a worry and necessary for the very survival of England, so patronage to the warrior St. Oswald may have been very popular in Wessex and Mercia.

King Oswald and King Cynegils grant St Birinus Dorchester
King Oswald and King Cynegils grant St Birinus Dorchester

After the establishment of St Oswald’s Minsiter, evidence mounts that St Oswald became very popular among the royal women of Wessex. Its easy to see why Oswald was romanticized by the royal women of Wessex because one of the women of Wessex was Oswald’s bride. It is no coincidence that one of the most popular story of Oswald passed on by the royal women is his marriage to a princess of Wessex. Of course, he may have already been popular among the women of Wessex before the Viking era, prompting Lady Æthelflæd (daughter of Alfred the Great) to lead the raid to Bardney in the first place.

Various royal women carried Oswald to the Continent. Female patronage of St Oswald may have begun as early as the marriage of Lady Æthelflaed’s sister Æthelthryth of Wessex to Baldwin, Count of Flanders. They were the great grandparents of Judith of Flanders, wife of Tostig and great-great grandparents of Matilda, wife of William the Conquorer.  Patronage of St Oswald was established in Flanders very early. This would have been helped by St Willibrord’s patronage of St Oswald from the beginning of the mission to the Low Countries in the 690s.

Other royal women who carried Oswald’s veneration to the continent include Eadgyth (Edith) daughter of Lady Æthelflaed’s brother Edward the Elder and half-sister of the great Æthelstan who married Otto of Saxony in c. 930. The family of Otto was associated with Otto’s neice Abbess Gerberga of Gandersheim. Eadgyth’s sister Ælfgifu married the king of Burgundy. The Hrotsvitha, who wrote the Gesa Ottonis, stressed that Eadgyth was of the lineage of St.-King Oswald. There is no evidence of Northumrbian kinship, so this has been interpreted as Eadgyth’s claim. At best, Oswald’s kinship to Cynegils as his godfather and son-in-law seems to be the closest kinship between Eadgyth and St Oswald. We know that Eadgyth’s half-brother King Æthelstan was also greatly interested in St Oswald and visited his shrine at Durham.

From here the next recorded patroness is Judith of Flanders. It is almost certain that Judith of Flanders was already of fan of St Oswald before her marriage to Harold Godwinsson’s brother in c.1050s. She was a direct descendent of Baldwin I and Æthelthryth of Wessex, and half-sister of Baldwin V who raised her. She was about the same age as her neice Matilda, who married William of Normandy. She was born in c. 1027, a child of Baldwin IV’s old age.  Drogo of St Winnoc had already written his works on St Oswald before Judith would have left for England. Given that Judith’s brother was the Count it is likely that the family supported St Oswald’s cult in Flanders. So Judith’s time as Countess of Northumbria was a turning point in Oswald’s veneration. It was during her time in England that Oswald’s arm relic was apparently moved from Bamburgh to Petersbourgh, where it later disappeared. The reputed grave of King Oswine (Oswald’s cousin) was found during the time of Tostig and Judith. After Tostig’s death in 1066, she returned to Flanders and was remarried to Welf IV of Bavaria and became the mother of the Dukes of Bavaria (and the Guelph political party). Several reputed relics of St Oswald also appear in areas associated with Judith and her sons. Judith and Welf had their primary focal area around Ravensburg and Winegarten Abbey, where they are buried and relics of St Oswald were said to be kept. These are areas where legends, relics, and the romance Oswalt derived (though Oswalt is only known from a Munich manuscript). The romance Oswalt is all about Oswald’s wooing his bride (with the help of a magical raven), and the holy, chaste lives they live thereafter. It is a tale that would appeal to women with kinship links to Oswald’s Wessex wife and her father Cynegils. It is interesting that Judith’s home was at Ravensburg and the role of the raven in the story Oswalt.

Judith’s son Henry the Lion also sought to further the English ties to his family by marrying Matilda, daughter of Henry II of England. Matilda was a descendant of Matilda of Flanders and William of Normandy. This would further the connections between England, Flanders and Wessex in particular. The famous head shrine of St Oswald that also features several other English kings dates to their period and likely provenance. Around their time an Irish Benedictine abbey was also established in Regensburg.

It is fairly easy to conclude that Oswald’s cult owes as much or more to royal women, than to male patrons. Although all of the literary works were written by men, there is a good chance that at least some of them were patronized or made possible by women. It is likely that the female patronage is behind the continental legends and the romance.


Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People

Dagmar O’Riain-Raedel. (1995) “Edith, Judith, and Matilda: The Role of Royal Ladies in the Propagation of the Continental Cult.” in Oswald: Northumbrian King to European Saint. Paul Watkins.


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