Oswiu’s Bad Luck

I’ve been reading Marilyn Dunn’s The Christianization of the Anglo-Saxons and just thinking about King Oswiu’s bad luck after the Synod of Whitby. He is celebrated by Bede and the Church of England ever after for choosing to accept the authority of Rome over the independent tradition of Iona, the mother house of the Irish missionaries to the Angles (and it was primarily to Angles, not Saxons south of the Thames).

So let’s look at the grace bestowed on Oswiu after his admittance into the Roman fold: first the plague arrives in his lands for the first time in at least English memory taking his new Archbishop of Lindisfarne Tuda, whose gentile nature and Romano-Irish ways were to heal his torn kingdom; then Bishop Cedd (one of beloved Adain’s disciples and an effective missionary bishop) died of the plague,  and his son sub-king Alhfrith of Deira either dies in a rebellion against his father or dies of the plague (never on the scene again) but not before he send Wilfrid to Bishop Agilberht in Paris for consecration as bishop of York (a new see for Deira). Meanwhile, Oswiu chooses Cedd’s brother, currently resident in Ireland, as the next Bishop of Lindisfarne/York, ie. bishop of his kingdom. His choice of Chad studying in Ireland is likely an indication of his esteem for Chad’s brother Bishop Cedd (and perhaps the counseling of Abbot Eata of Lindisfarne) and probably means that Cedd’s other two priestly brothers were dead of the plague at Lastingham or were too closely associated with his traitorous nephew Oethelwald to be bishop. King Oethelwald (son of Oswald) had given Lastingham to Cedd on the advise of Cedd and Chad’s brother who was his personal priest. So, back to Chad, who is now sent to the Archbishop of Canterbury for consecration, but upon arriving he finds out that the Archbishop of Canterbury and King Eorcenberht of Kent (cousin of Oswiu’s queen) had died on the same day probably of plague and they were waiting on a replacement from Rome. The bishop of Rochester had also died, leaving only Bishop Wine of Wessex who called on the help of two British bishops to finally get Chad consecrated. So far this new thing with Rome is not looking so good…

By the Fall of 664, Oswiu had conferred with the new king of Kent to select Wigheard as the next (and first native English) Archbishop of Canterbury and sent him on to Rome to be consecrated. Yet, up pops the plague again and kills Wigheard in Rome (confirmed by a letter from the Pope to the two kings), and the Pope reluctantly send Theodore of Tarsus, a refugee Eastern monk from the Eastern empire to Britain as Archbishop with his own elderly Abbot Hadrian from North Africa to prevent Theodore from introducing any questionable Eastern practices in Britain (hardly a vote of confidence). So not only does Oswiu get an odd Archbishop from the East finally in 670, but one of his first actions is to take a hard-line on the formerly Irish trained clergy, re-consecrate all the Irish founded churches, and declare Chad’s consecration as invalid. Oswiu is now stuck with Wilfrid as bishop of York.

Ruins of Whitby Abbey

Nothing has gone according to plan…. by now news will have come to Oswiu at Bamburgh that the plague stopped near his northern border. According to Adomnan of Iona, it never made it St Columba’s lands.

Theodore does eventually soften his stance on the Irish trained clergy and will re-consecrate Chad as bishop of Mercia. We don’t hear much more about Oswiu and the church until his final sickness. He vowed if he recovered from that illness to have Bishop Wilfrid escort him to Rome. That didn’t work out either. Oswiu never recovered and was buried at the (no doubt re-consecrated) Church of St Peter at Whitby Abbey where his deal with Rome was struck. Perhaps Oswiu wanted to go to Rome to see if it was all worth it.

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13 comments on “Oswiu’s Bad Luck

  1. A.J. Sefton says:

    Excellent – great to read about Oswiu!

  2. L.A. Smith says:

    Missed this one when you first posted it…..poor old Oswiu. He certainly had a tough time of it. I often wonder whether he regretted his decision on the Roman/Celtic controversy at Whitby. This makes me wonder even more!

  3. Helen McKay says:

    Hi Michelle, I think what you say is really important to future events. The plague coming so close upon Whitby and Oswiu’sdecision to go against the Irish church which gave him safety growing up must have been shocking and raised so many doubts for both him and everyone else involved. But Oswiu was over 50 when this happened, so I suspect he was so embroiled in politics that he couldn’t have then changed his mind even had he thought the plague was a sign of God’s displeasure for what he had done. I’ve also read elsewhere that his personal family was hard hit by the 664 plague too. But there simply must have been widespread and emotional questioning of the correctness of his decision – by all church familias on all sides. Its interesting that alone of all the writers of his time Bede does not declare the plague as God punishing the people for their ways, as someone wrote, how could that be the case when this was the ‘golden age’ of the monasteries and their new faith in the isles.

    But I think where we might see the aftereffects of this trauma played out, isn’t so much with Oswiu, as with his son Ecgfrith, who was about 20 at the time of the Whitby plague, an age when he would have been old enough to suffer from personal loss and yet witness the political and religious machinations. There are two puzzling actions in his later life which I suspect we can explain by his reaction to the threat of plague. The first is when he sends troops to Meath in Ireland, and they destroy churches and take hostages, and no doubt kill a lot of people in the process. Everyone at the time, no matter which side, roundly condemns this action, but no one explains what Ecgfrith thought he was doing, so it remains a mystery as to why a so-called Christian king would do such an unquestionably ‘wicked’ thing. But the year he does this, is the year the plague next hits, and my suspicion is that he is reacting to this new threat. So why would he attack Irish churches because of the threat of plague? He could well have believed since Whitby that the Irish church brought the plague down upon the land as retribution. After all, Irish clerics are very fond of cursing kings to make them behave. But its worse than that, because in Ireland we have the story of how it was believed that the plague of the Whitby time came about: The king decided that the population had grown to the level where it threatened famine with too many mouths to feed – something we know does happen in cycles to Ireland. So he called in all the saints of the day and asked them to bring down the plague to fix the problem by reducing the population. Most of the saints refused, but a handful agreed, and so plague came, and it hit hard. We hear so many stories of saints who ‘stopped’ the plague, but if they can stop it through intercession with God, there’s no reason to think they can’t also start it. Saint Fechin is one of the saints who agreed, and his monasteries were in the mid line of Meath, the focus of Ecgfrith’s troops, for example.
    There may even be some medical truth in the idea, as monasteries could breed plague with their clerics in close quarters, and of course its these same clerics who travel around, possibly spreading it as they go.
    So that’s an idea about why Ecgfrith sent his troops to smash Irish churches. He was trying to stop the plague at where he considered its local source.

    • I have never heard of the story of St Fechin or saints who called for a plague. Interesting…

      • Helen McKay says:

        St Fechin’s life is focused on his healing of the sick, and on the cross slab of St Vigeans (Pictish Fechin) we have two emaciated figures uniquely. It sounds like he used his ‘termon’s as an early sort of hospital, so his association with the plague Is fitting. And its easy to imagine that such a hospital could be viewed as the source of the plague by the terrified population, we see lots of times in documents where a priest or doctor is killed by someone terrified.
        And here’s something I just discovered. The story of Fechin bringing down the plague comes from the life of St Gerald of Mayo who opposed the king’s request to bring down the plague and survived – and this is where it gets really interesting – Gerald was a Saxon monk who came to Ireland with Colman of Lindisfarne after his failure at Whitby (apparently quite a few English monks also rejected the new rules and went off to Ireland). Circles within circles isn’t it … https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Gerald_(DNB00)

  4. Helen McKay says:

    Ok, two events. This is where I came in, backwards so to speak. I came looking for plague in 685, because I suspected it was behind Ecgfrith’s actions in precipitating the Battle of Dunnichen, in which he was killed, and writers of the time claimed he died on account of his sin in smashing the Irish churches the summer before.
    My suspicion is that Ecgfrith decided to race off to Pictland – again with no contemporary explanation as to why he would do so – for much the same reason that he had smashed the Irish churches in Ireland the year before, to prevent them bringing down plague on the land. The area around Dunnichen is famous for its concentration of early churches as witnessed by their CII Pictish stones, most of which would at this period be under Irish religious patronage. This includes saint Fechin’s church at Arbroath. Unfortunately for Ecgfrith, the Pictish king lay in ambush and slaughtered him and his men.
    So why did I suspect plague to be at the centre of this story, even before I knew it was there? Its all about the Pictish long-stemmed crosses on their stones. Adomnan claims the plague never got to Pictland, but even if this were totally true (note how Rhynie is deserted around the time of the first plague), it doesn’t mean that the Picts didn’t know of, and greatly fear, the plague, they didn’t live in an isolated world at this time. But their CII stones have a long-stemmed cross as the main focus, with very little else that is overtly Christian. This form of cross had been used since early centuries of Christianity, but only very rarely. So the Pictish prominent use of this cross is quite unusual and could be the first instance of it being used so consistently in history. And we hear elsewhere that it was this cross that for instance Justinian erected over Constantinople as a palladium against the plague, and that becomes one of the symbols of Christianity against the plague. Of course we have many stories from these early years of saints stopping the plague, with their crozier, with a cross, with a stone. So my suspicious is that the Pictish crosses are performing the same service, a palladium against the dreaded plague. And in doing so, they seem to have started a fad of using the cross as the prime symbol of Christian churches, which is sort of interesting.

  5. Excellent commentary by Helen McKay, on the plague. Also, I was cheered that Oswieu suffered after throwing out Colman.

  6. […] in the early Saints and Kings of the era plus the study of diseases at that time. Here’s an interesting post she put up about King Oswiu (Oswy) recently; and another one about what scientists found while […]

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