Iurminburgh’s Warning

Still working on Bede’s Life of Cuthbert —  I’ve been thinking about  Cuthbert’s prediction on Ecgfrith’s last campaign, and I find myself wondering about his warning to Queen Iurminburgh.

“But he immediately said to the queen, and secretly addressing her, it being Saturday, said: “See that you mount your chariot early on Monday — for it is not lawful to travel by chariot on the Lord’s Day — and go and enter the royal city quickly, lest perchance the king has been slain. But since I have been asked to go to-morrow to a neighboring monastery to dedicate a church there, I will follow you at once, as soon as the dedication is complete.” (Colgrave, p. 245)

First, according to the medieval calendar calculator May 20, 685, was indeed on a Saturday. This law about not traveling by chariot on a Sunday seems odd. Apparently Cuthbert could travel on foot or by horseback to the neighboring monastery, but they couldn’t use a “chariot”? Interesting. Also, where is she going by chariot? Which royal city? Its hard for me to imagine that Bamburgh was very approachable by chariot from Carlisle. I think Bamburgh was most approachable by sea, or by horseback. I suppose there were some trackways for carts or chariots but not like the old Roman roads south of the wall. Could Ecgfrith’s “royal city” be York? On the other hand, Cuthbert was bishop of Lindisfarne, not York. If he is following her then it would be to Bamburgh rather than York. This in turn re-enforces the continuing importance of the Bishop of Lindisfarne in royal politics. Given Ecgfrith’s role in elevating Cuthbert to the epsicopacy, it is also possible that he was personally invested in the welfare of Ecgfrith’s family. He may have had a specific role in protecting the queen and mediating the transfer of power (which may have implications for his retirement to Farne within of year of the transfer).

Perhaps more importantly, Bede isn’t claiming that Cuthbert knew that the king was dead. He is sending the queen, Iurminburgh, to the royal city in case the king has been slain. Is he sending her to safety or into danger? She will later take the veil at Carlisle, so presumably entering her sister’s monastery. Presumably she would have been as safe, if not safer, in the monastery as in the royal city. If they did have minor children or wards of the king, then she may be fleeing back to protect the children. On the other hand, a contemporary queen of Wessex, Saexburgh wife of Cenwealh, ruled from c. 673-674 after Cenwealh’s death until she was succeeded by Æscwine. Interestingly only a few years later in 678,  Æscwine of Wessex’s queen was the sister of Iurminburgh, whose name is unfortunately unknown, who with Iurminburgh made it difficult for Bishop Wilfrid to find refuge during his exile. So we know that Iurminburgh like her mother-in-law Eanflaed and her sister in Wessex was politically active. It is possible that Iurminburgh, perhaps with the counsel of Bishop Cuthbert, ruled during the transition between Ecgfrith and his half-brother Aldfrith who was on Iona when Ecgfrith was slain. That possibility is an interesting glimpse into the authority of a seventh century queen.

Reference: Bertram Colgrave, trans. (1940, rep. 2007) Two Lives of Saint Cuthbert. Oxford University Press.

One thought on “Iurminburgh’s Warning

  1. If I had to guess – and this is pretty much a WAG since I haven’t read it anywhere – I’d say the restriction on travel by carriage would be because the act of harnessing the horses would entail work. Don’t know that for sure but it’s the only thing I can come up with.

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