All Cadwaladr’s Mothers

[From the archives with a new title: a little bit of folklore for the first Friday in June.]

Cadwaladr the blessed is one of my favorite Old British folklore figures so I can’t leave 2007 behind without one long post on him. A paraphrase translation follows of some matrilinear notes on Cadwaladr in the Bonedd y Arwyr (pedigrees of the heroes) taken from PC Bartun, Early Welsh Genealogical Tracts, Cardiff, U of Wales Press, 1966. I can’t read Old Welsh so this paraphrase is based off the little Welsh I can figure out in the pedigree and translations I’ve seen elsewhere for these names.

These are the mothers of Cadwaladr and most of his paternal ancestors. This list of mothers assumes that you know Cadwaladr’s paternal lineage (given further below).

The Mothers of Cadwaladr o Gogail

  • Mother of Cadwaladr the blessed, daughter of Pybba, sister of Penda son of Pybba.
  • Mother of Cadwallon son of Cadfan, Tandreg the black, daughter of Cynan Garwen [of Powys]
  • Mother of Beli son of Rhun, Perwar daughter of Rhun of Great Wealh son of Einian son of Mar son of Keneu son of Coel [Hen]
  • Mother of Rhun ap Maelgwn, Gwallwenn daughter of Avallach
  • Mother of Maelgwn Gwynedd, Meddyf daughter of Faeldaf son of Dylan Draws of Nan Conway
  • Mother of Meddyf, daughter of Tallwch son of March/Mark son of Meirchiawn, sister of Tristain [Drystann, Drustain]
  • Mother Cadwallon Long Arm, Prawst daughter of Tithlyn Britain [Prydain]
To fill in a few gaps, here is Cadwaladr’s patrilinear pedigree from Bonedd y Sant (pedigrees of the saints):

Catwaladyr vendigeit [ap Kadwallawn ap Catuan] m. Yago m. Beli m. Rhun m. Maelgwn m Catwallawn llawhir m. Einyawn yrth m. Cuneda weldic” (Bartrum, p. 56)

Cadwaladr the blessed [son of Cadwallon son of Cadfan] son of Iago son of Beli son of Rhun son of Maelgwn (Gwynedd) son of Cadwallon Long Arm son of Einian yrth son of Cunedda the Chieftain/ruler.

Cadwaladr became an immensely important ancestor to later kings of Gwynedd because they all traced their descent from him. The remainder of the First Dynasty of Gwynedd were his son and grandsons and the Second Dynasty of Gywnedd legitimated itself through a matrilinear linkage to Cadwaladr’s dynasty. As Cadwallon was universally said to be Cadwaladr’s father, thus the Cadwallon who was slain by King Oswald at Denisesburna close to Heavenfield was the ancestor of all later kings of North Wales.

I should point out that the patrilinear genealogy above probably has at least incorrect link. The ancestry of Iago ap Beli is given differently in different genealogical tracts. There seems to have been claims that Rhun ap Maelgwn was a bastard or died childless. Anyway, Iago ap Beli was related to Maelgwn but probably not his great grandson.

Getting back to this massive matrilinear genealogy… the whole point is to link Cadwaladr to as many Old British heroes and genealogical tales as possible. One of the oddest and most common tales of Cadwaladr is that his mother was the sister of Penda of Mercia. This is also found in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain. Notably, it is not improbable, even if it is too late to rely on. Heroes whom Cadwaladr is said to descend from include Cynan Garwen of Powys (such a marriage, again, is not improbable), a fabulously wealthy descedant of the northern Coel Hen (Ole King Coel was a merry ole soul…), King Mark and Tristain of Arthurian fame, and then some sovereignty type tales. Both Coel Hen and King Mark-Tristain link Cadwaladr to the stories of the Gwyr y Gogledd [Men of the North- British heroes whose land later became Northumbria].

Did you notice a familiar figure here from last week? Cadwaladr via Rhun ap Maelgwn is said to be the descendant of Avallach, whom we met before as the grandfather of Owain ap Urien in the tale of Modron at the Ford. So… this means that Maelgwn Gwynedd had a similar meeting at a ford as Urien Rheged. It is not a coincidence that both fathers have their kingdom (Gwynedd and Rheged) as their epithet; this means that they were the real foundation king for the kingdom. We might say “Penda Mercia”, “Ida Bernicia” or “Aethelfrith Northumbria” as an analogy. Both Maelgwn Gwynedd and Urien Rheged create their kingdoms out of some minor land holding of their family.The last two figures probably represent similar sovereignty tales with local and pan-Brittonic claims respectively. Dylan Draws of Nan Conway is obviously some type of local tale within Gwynedd (which borders or includes the River Conway). The last figure who epithet is “Britain” suggests a similar foundation role but this story has been lost.

These extended genealogies give us a peek into all of the folklore and oral ‘history’ that has been lost and some of the material that Geoffrey of Monmouth and other twelfth century authors drew upon.

Oswine the Anti-Hero

(A post from the archive on the anniversary of King Oswine’s death.)

King Oswine of Deira (Yorkshire) 20 August 651

Modern Eastern Orthodox icon of King Oswine of Deira

Today is the anniversary of the execution of King Oswine of Deira, considered by some to be a saint. All we know of Oswine is included in Bede’s History (Book III:14). Bede writes a curious tale for Oswine.

“King Oswine was tall and handsome, pleasant of speech, courteous in manner, and bountiful to nobles and common alike; so it came about that he was beloved by all because of his royal dignity which showed itself in his character, his appearance, and his actions; and noblemen from almost every kingdom flocked to serve him as retainers. Among all the other graces of virtue and modesty with which, if I may say so, he was blessed in a special manner, his humility said to have been the greatest” (McClure and Collins, ed; 1994:132)

This all seems well and good. Bede proceeds to narrate an example of Oswine’s great humility to St. Aidan, Bishop of Lindisfarne. However, at the end of the episode, Aidan turns to an Irish colleague and says “I know that the king will not live long; for I never before saw a humble king. Therefore I think that he will very soon be snatched from this life; for this nation does not deserve to have such a ruler.” (p. 133). Oswine death follows and Aidan himself dies only 12 days “after the murder of the king he loved”. The implication is that Aidan dies of a broken heart.

Bede actually begins his tale with Oswine’s murder/execution. Oswine has gathered his army to meet King Oswiu (who would later rule at the Synod of Whitby) in battle near Catterick. When Oswine realized how outnumbered he was by Oswiu, he disbanded his army and went into hiding with a retainer he believes is his friend. This retainer betrayed him to Oswiu who had his rival executed. There is no doubt that this murder caused an outrage in the church. Oswiu’s queen, Eanflaed, was the cousin of Oswine and demanded a weregeld (blood price) paid by the founding of the monastery of Gilling where prayer was to be offered daily for the soul of King Oswine and his murderer King Oswiu.

The question is why does Bede include the story in his History. There is no evidence that he sees Oswine as anything other than a sad victim. Bede provides no evidence that Oswine was considered to be a saint by his day. Oswine was much later reported to be buried at Tynemouth, not the new monastery of Gilling.

The usual explanation is that Bede includes the story because his beloved Abbot Coelfrith came from Gilling, Coelfrith’s family monastery (meaning that Coelfrith was also a kinsman of Oswine). This isn’t really a very satisfying answer. Gilling had ceased to exist before Bede was born and Coelfrith is not mentioned in the story. An interesting side note is that Gilling seems to disband as a monastery after the plague of 664 when all the surviving monks joined Abbot Wilfrid at Ripon (victor of the synod of Whitby the same year). Thus within months of deciding for Rome, the monastery Oswiu had to found as weregeld/penance was allowed to disappear.

Another explanation is that it was part of Aidan’s death story. This isn’t very satisfying either because Aidan’s death is not elaborated on, as it is in a later chapter (which doesn’t mention Oswine at all). These look like two reports of Aidan’s death.

The chapter begins with an assessment of Oswiu’s reign and the next chapter records a miracle of Aidan’s in assisting in the arrival of Eanflaed to her marriage to Oswiu. The context of the story places it within Oswiu’s story as Oswald’s successor. Miracles of St. Aidan and Aidan’s death are then inserted. After Aidan comes the life and death of pious King Sigeberht of East Anglia who had entered a monastery, but his people pulled him out of the monastery to lead them into battle against Penda, the evil pagan of Bede’s History. Sigeberht refused to carry a weapon in to battle and rode to his death carrying only his royal scepter.

Bede has set up a story of three example kings

  • Oswald: Bede’s ideal king: brave, victorious in battle, supporter of the church and evangelist, humble enough to translate Aidan’s sermons before his people, but not too humble to loose their respect, protector of his people up to his death.
  • Oswine: too humble to be a king. A perfect picture of a king, but when it came down to it, not brave enough to ride in to battle and die. He is an anti-hero.
  • Sigebert: a pious king, but nevertheless Bede did not favor kings who retired to monasteries. The fact that his people came to him to lead them in battle suggests that he once was victorious in battle and was still young and healthy enough to do so again. He did not protect his people. Penda destroys the army, Sigebert’s co-king, and then ravages the monasteries and people of East Anglia.

Bede believed that people should live up to the position in life they were given: king, bishop, monk, commoner. A king should be a good king: protector of the people, patron of the church, obedient to the bishop. He offers Oswine as an example to his readers of how a king should not behave.

Perhaps he was also eager to ensure that King Oswiu would not be too glorified. He tallied plenty of pious attributes during his 28 year reign. He may have been the greatest patron of the church of his age, judge at the synod of Whitby, and slayer of Northumbria’s worst enemy (Penda of Mercia), but he was also capable of murdering his rivals and having his own kinsmen, his nephew Oethelwald son of Oswald and his own son Alhfrith, rebel against him. His rebellious kinsmen are never heard from again. Bede does make sure to casually mention these rebellions in the beginning of the chapter before he narrates Oswine’s story. The execution of Oswine may be Bede’s way of indicating the fates of Oethelwald and Alhfrith by implication in a way that would not offend the contemporary rulers of Northumbria.

FB: The Mystery of Urbs Iudeu

James Fraser has written an interesting article on a very important seventh century English fortress called Urbs Iudeu. Fraser notes that the Urbs Iudeu is unlikely to be one of the better known named places on the Firth of Forth, this fortress gave its name to the firth itself, or took its name from the firth. In effect a modern translation would be Fortress of the Forth or Forth Fortress. Urbs means fortified place, but that does not mean it was not a fortress like Bamburgh or Dunbar. Bede also used the term urbs for Dumbarton/Clyde Rock.

Stirling is often assumed to be the location of urbs Giudi.

Stirling is often assumed to be the location of Urbs Iudeu (urbs Giudi).

Fraser asks where did Bede get his information on Urbs Iudeu and the Firth of Forth. He goes through a through discussion and I think correctly concludes that it came through Bishop Trumwine and/or Abercorn. All of the information for that region is therefore in relation to Abercorn. I think this makes a lot of sense.

A few things that Fraser didn’t mention: If Bishop Trumwine was a kinsman of Abbot Trumhere of Gelling (and probably later Abbot of Hexham), then he was probably also a kinsman of Bede’s Abbot Ceolfrith (whose brother Cynefrith succeeded Trumhere as abbot of Gelling). If Bishop Trumhere was the kinsman of Abbot Ceolfrith, it is likely that Wearmouth-Jarrow would have been closely connected to Bishop Trumwine and Abercorn. It is likely, for example, that Bishop Trumhere would have sought to place some of his monks in his kinsman monastery at Wearmouth-Jarrow after 685. Consider that Wearmouth-Jarrow had also been closely associated with its founding patron King Ecgfrith (who would have also been a kinsman of Abbot Ceolfrith through Queen Eanflaed) and also the founding patron of Abercorn. As part of a small circle of churchmen close to King Ecgfrith, it seems like that Abbot Ceolfrith would have been well informed of Bishop Trumwine’s activities even if he wasn’t his kinsman. All of this means that Bede would have good contacts with men from Abercorn who could inform him on the geography and events around Abercorn.

Fraser easily dismisses Striling as a possible site for Urbs Iudeu. I admit that I had accepted it as conventional, but there doesn’t seem to be much reason to think it was there (or that any fortress was there in the seventh century).

I think one of the key points in identifying Urbs Iudeu is the realization that the Niurdui Picts are Picts of Iudeu (nIurdu). This does not appear to be just a geographic description but a name they were known by so these people shared their name with the Firth of Forth. I also think at the very edge of the British-Pictihs frontier, terms like Pict and Brit don’t mean much especially from an English point of view.  Fraser notes that Bede uses the term urbs for native fortresses rather than Roman forts. Here it is interesting to note that he also refers to Dumbarton/Alt Clyde as an urbs. Fraser also mentions that truly massive native hillforts have been discovered and dated to the early medieval period without being mentioned at all in period or later documents. He points to Burghhead in Moray as an example of an undocumented major ‘promontory fortification’.

Fraser discusses several possible sites put forward by others including Inveresk, Carriden, Crammond Island (a tidal island), Carlingnose Battery in North Queensferry, and Blackness. He goes through great detail in discussing each of these candidates and three really jump out. Fraser’s own preference if pushed is for Carlingnose Battery, interestingly on the Pictish side of the forth if we truly hold the firth to be the boundary. He also holds open a possibility for Crammond Island and Blackness. All of these except Carlingnose Battery are far closer to known Bernician territory than Stirling. If Caer Eden fell in 638, any of these places could have easily have been taken by Oswiu in successive years, while Stirling would be a major push into British territory.

In favor of the fortress on a tidal island, consider that this is the opposite of what is found at Bamburgh-Lindisfarne, where the bishop and his monastery is on the tidal island and the king on a very close hillfort. I think that a full island like Inchkeith would be too hard to supply and move troops back and forth from, its too isolated. Crammond Island is pretty far from Abercorn, but we do know that Bernicians may have learned the value of a tidal island as defense in Urien’s seige of Theodoric on Lindisfarne in the 57os. I’ve also wondered about Urbs Iudeu being a very large crannog, actually in the firth that gave it its name.

If we just consider that Abercorn was founded close to Urbs Iudeu for its protection, then Blackness would seem to be the most logical choice. On the other hand, if we consider that Urbs Giudi may be in the land of the Niurdu Picts, then Carlingnose Battery that juts out into the firth is possible. However, being across the firth from Abercorn would make its protection of the bishop and his people more difficult.

The one thing we do know is that Oswiu of Bernicia was in control of Urbs Iudeu by 654-655. It is possible that it fell to Oswiu in a series of battles after the death of Oswald in 642-643. First Domnall Brecc of Dalriada is killed by Owen of Strathclyde at Strathcarron in December 642. Y Gododdin tells us that in Owen’s time, survivors of Caer Eden were in Owen’s court. The annals then record that Oswiu ravages the Britons and it may be 643 when the entire southern coast of the firth of Forth transfer into Osiwu’s hands. Ultimately, Urbs Iudeu must be a place where Penda can realistically besiege Oswiu in 655 with his full army. British sources claim that some of them, persumably from Gwynedd, got home with considerable loot handed over by Oswiu to Penda.  As Fraser concludes it is likely that only archaeology can solve this conundrum and so the mystery of Urbs Iudeu remains.


James Fraser. (April 2008) “Bede, the Firth of Forth and the Location of Urbs Iudeu Scottish Historical Review. 87 (1), p. 1-25.

FB: Din-Guaïroï /Bebbanburg/Bamburgh

Bamburgh castle from the beach. Wikipedia Commons.

Bamburgh castle from the beach. Wikipedia Commons.

You knew I couldn’t wait too long to do Bamburgh. 🙂 Thanks to Bernard Cromwell it may be the best known Anglo-Saxon fortress site in England today anyway.


Din Guaïroï is the name given to Bamburgh in the Historia Brittonum, which then later tells us that it was renamed Bebbanburgh for Æthelfrith’s queen. The name is British in the same form as Dunbarton, Dunbar, DunEden (Edenburgh). Dun meaning a fortified place or dwelling while the second half is a British name. The site was originally known to the Irish as Dún Guaire, their version of the same name.

Din Guairoi was occupied by Britons from the Iron Age through the Roman period. Occupation of a hillfort with such a commanding position over the surrounding area during the Roman occupation is significant and may suggest that these Britons had made positive accomodation with the Romans. According to the Bamburgh Archaeology Project, there are finds suggesting occupation in both the Early and Late Roman period. The Bowl Hole cemetery shown in the video below holds graves from Britons dating back to before the Anglian occupation. I have also been told that there are prehistoric barrows near that cemetery which are expected to have graves of Iron Age or earlier rulers. Din Guairoi should have been ruled by some of the wealthiest Britons because the Tweed valley that it overlooks is some of the best agricultural land in northern Britain.

There is no specific information on the Britons of Din Guairoi in the written record. The Historia Brittonum may give us one hint when it says that a leader called Outigern fought against the northern English in the time of Aneirin, Taliesin, and several other bards.

Ida, the son of Eoppa, possessed countries on the left-hand side of Britain, i.e. of the Humbrian sea, and reigned twelve years, and united Dynguayth Guarth-Berneich

62. Then Dutigirn [Outigern] at that time fought bravely against the nation of the Angles. At that time, Talhaiarn Cataguen was famed for poetry, and Neirin [Aneirin], and Taliesin and Bluchbard, and Cian, who is called Guenith Guaut, were all famous at the same time in British poetry.

The great king, Mailcun [Maelgwn], reigned among the Britons, i.e. in the district of Guenedota [Gwynedd], because his great-great-grandfather, Cunedda, with his twelve sons, had come before from the left-hand part, i.e. from the country which is called Manau Gustodin [Gododdin], one hundred and forty-six years before Mailcun reigned, and expelled the Scots with much slaughter from those countries, and they never returned again to inhabit them.

Historia Brittonum section 61-62

Given that Ida’s reign is dated to 547 and Maelgwn’s death to the 540s, it suggests that Outigern was active in fighting against Ida. This suggests that Outigern may have been from the last British group that ruled from Bamburgh. Presumably at least some of the bards listed after his name sung about Outigern in poetry that lasted until at least 825 when the Historia Brittonum was written but has since been lost. This corpus of lost poetry, in addition to the surviving poetry, could help explain how the Men of the North became such a major theme in Welsh literature.

All sources we have for Ida of Bernicia claim that he took the hillfort today called Bamburgh. He would have known it as Dun Duairoi and presumably it was known by that name for some time afterwards. Keeping the British name, or some Anglian translation of it, may have assisted in the process of amalgamation that must have happened in Bernicia between the Anglian rulers and the common people, who in Bede’s day, were still recognized as British. It took some time for English names to slowly replace or exist dually with British names.  Although the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle claims that Ida built the first walls around the castle, these were almost certainly of British origin.

We don’t hear much about the fortress for the next three generations, until the Historia Brittonum claims that King Æthelfrith grandson of Ida gives it to his Queen Bebba.


The naming of the royal fortress for Queen Bebba appears to be confirmed by Bede, although he doesn’t note who her husband was. It is possible that the author of the Historia Brittonum noted Bede’s reference to Queen Bebba and credited her to Æthelfrith, but I don’t think this is what happened. If it were a fictional link then she would more likely be said to be the queen of Ida than Æthelfrith.

Personally, I think renaming the fortress for a queen could only have been solidified during the reign of a long reigning son. In this case, I think it has to be Oswiu. A story that the family fortress had been given to his mother may have helped him succeed over his brothers after Oswald’s death. We know that Oswald was the son of Acha of Deira and this may partially explain why Oswald’s brother wasn’t acceptable to the Deirans, although Oswald’s son Oethelwald apparently was acceptable enough for him to rebel against Oswiu’s hegemony. We can’t assume that because Oswiu supported Oswald’s sainthood that they were allies in life, or at least it doesn’t mean that Oswald would have supported Oswiu as his heir. Indeed marrying Oswiu off to a British woman from Rheged may suggest that Oswiu wasn’t very highly placed in Oswald’s court. Presumably he made more advantagous marriages for some of his other brothers. (Both the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and Historia Brittonum name six brothers of Oswald, two of which were Oswiu and Eanfrith.) Of course, its unlikely that all of the other four were still alive after the violent deaths of Eanfrith and Oswald. It seems likely that one or more could have been among the twelve men executed along with Eanfrith by Cadwallon, and it seems likely that some brothers died beside Oswald in battle.

Of the events that took place at Bamburgh, we know quite a bit (relatively speaking). It was the personal home of the ruler of Bernicia, Northumbria and then the Earldom of Bernicia. We know of two sieges that took place there neither of which succeeded. The first occurred before 651 when Penda attempted to burn down the wooden gates of Oswiu’s fortress. The change in the wind that drove the fire back on Penda’s forces was credited to the prayers of St Aidan who was watching and praying from Farne isle. The second siege or uprising occurred during the succession of Aldfrith’s son Osred. In the Life of Bishop Wilfrid, Duke Berht reports that he vowed to support Bishop Wilfrid while clinging to a small ledge at Bamburgh when Eadwulf’s forces were trying to force them out, if the royal boy, Osred, succeeded his father. This sounds to me like Aldfrith’s sons hadn’t surrendered Bamburgh to his successor Eadwulf, who was trying to take the royal fortress from the children and their supporters. Interesting… it is possible that the descendants of Oswiu (or Æthelfrith) considered Bamburgh their personal property, not necessarily property of the king.

Of all the kings associated with Bamburgh — Ida, Æthelfrith, Oswiu — it is Oswald whose name is most reflected at Bamburgh. His legend would have dominated the castle from the time of his death. Lasting reminders come in St Oswald’s gate and St Oswald’s chapel, where his arm relic was kept for over 500 years. This arm relic would have been considered to be a personal relic for all the rulers of Bamburgh and, with Oswald’s sword arm enshrined in the chapel, perhaps a divine right to rule for those who now sat on Oswald’s throne. Oswald had great symbolic importance as the first Christian king to rule Bernicia from Bamburgh. We have no clue if Edwin or his men used Bamburgh during their rule over Bernicia, but if they did they left no physical or legendary trace. Given that the Deirans and Edwin really don’t show any inclination towards hillforts or fortresses of any kind, its possible that they did not, perhaps preferring lowland halls like Yeavering.

Bamburgh Today

Here is Bamburgh today on Google Maps. You don’t get the feeling of its elevation in the map but you can zoom in or go out. Look at that beautiful white beach that would be ideal for beaching ships.

The Bowl Hole cemetery excavation by the Bamburgh Research project is on the fortress cemetery. It is located on the edge of the beach near some dunes. It contains graves of Late Roman Christians, Saxon pagans, and then Saxon Christians. They note in the video that it phases out of use when the church yard of St Aidan’s church in Bamburgh comes into use in the 650s.

This is a long (8 min) video of Bamburgh and Millfield. This is a black spot in the second video so wait for the second half.  Millfield, mentioned in the second half of the video, is near Yeavering. Millfield is where Bede reports that Yeaverings administrative functions were moved after Yeavering was no longer in use.


I forgot to mention that Bamburgh has been suggested to be the site of Joyous Gard, the castle of Lancelot, in the Arthurian cycle. It is reputed to be the site of Lancelot’s burial.  Its been suggested that Thomas Mallory’s Joyous Gard was suggested by its original name Din Guairoi.


See Bamburgh Research Project

An Anglo-British Cemetery at Bamburgh: An E-Interview with Graeme Young of the Bamburgh Research Project The Heroic Age, Issue 4, 2001.

PW: Queen Cynewise of Mercia

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.

PW: King Œthelwald of Deira

Œthelwald son of Oswald has always been a figure of controversy. Everything we know of him comes from Bede’s Ecclesiastical History. Beginning with Bede himself memories of Œthelwald have been viewed in slanted hindsight. Bede has his known biases for a united Northumbria (Bernicia + Deira), for which Œthelwald is a spoiler, and against Mercia in general and Penda in particular. We in turn too often share Bede’s biases and look back with a hindsight colored by not only Northumbria’s golden age but norms of later medieval expectations. We can not forget that a united Northumbria was not a real reality until the reign of Ecgfrith (670-685) and really only cemented in the long, peaceful reign of Aldfrith (685-704). I’ve discussed the process of Northumbrian ethnogensis before (here and especially here).

After a lot of thought, I don’t think that Œthelwald was anyone’s puppet. I don’t think he was ‘placed’ there by anyone. I do think that he was a compromise candidate whom both the Deiran nobles and Oswiu of Bernicia could live with. This suggests that the Deiran nobles had likewise accepted Oswald as King of Deira, as the nephew of Edwin. Oswald and his son Œthelwald were the grandson and great grandson of King Aelle, Edwin’s father. Oswiu on the other hand, had no Deiran blood that we know of; I have argued against his being the son of Acha sister of Edwin elsewhere. Oswiu shows every indication of taking direct control when he could, as he did in Mercia after Penda’s death and probably in Lothian early in his reign. The fact that he faced ‘rebellion’ by three successive kings of Deira– Oswine, Œthelwald and his own son Alchfrith– really suggests to me that the nobles/ealdormen of Deira really never accepted Oswiu has their king. After his son’s rebellion, Oswiu appears to have taken direct control over Deira for about only the last five years of his 28 year reign.

There have been some speculations about Œthelwald’s age and mother. If he was the son of Cynegils’ daughter then he would have only been about 17 when he became king in about 651, but I have argued elsewhere that it is quite possible that he was born during Oswald’s exile. Oswald was about 30 years old when he came home to Bernicia and could have easily had several children, as his brother Eanfrith already did and as Edwin had during his exile.

The one thing we do know for sure about Œthelwald is that he had close ties to the church of Lindisfarne, as we would expect for Oswald’s son. We know that the four brothers, Cedd, Cælin, Cynebill, and Chad were all closely tied to the church in Deira. Cælin was the personal priest of Œthelwald and his family and he mediated the donation of Lastingham to his brother Bishop Cedd. It is interesting that Bede claims that Œthelwald mainly came to know Cedd through his brother Caelin, since as a pupil of Aidan’s you would think that Œthelwald would have known him. Yet, Cedd had long been a missionary away from Bernicia and Deira, so it is possible that Oethelwald and Cedd had not known each other well before 651. I do think that is likely that the church of Lindisfarne helped Œthelwald come to the throne of Deira. They certainly could have helped the Deiran nobles contact Œthelwald if he was not in Deira before Oswine’s death (and I think it is unlikely he would have been an ally of Oswine, unless he had a major falling out with his uncle before 651). After Oswine’s murder and Aidan’s death heartbroken over Oswine, Lindisfarne would not have been very high on Oswiu or his sons, and supporting a son of Oswald would have seemed like the best option.

Anyway, Œthelwald is remembered diplomatically as the patron of Lastingham where he intended for himself and his family to be buried. The brothers of Lastingham must have stressed this to Bede for it to be included in the History. Bede doesn’t tell us where Œthelwald was buried but it is possible that some of his family was indeed buried at Lastingham. The stress on Œthelwald’s family does suggest that he was old enough to have a family. Alternatively it could just be Lastingham’s way of stressing that they would have been a major monastery for this king, as York was for Edwin, Whitby was Oswiu & Edwin, Wearmouth-Jarrow was for Ecgfrith, and probably Lindisfarne for Oswald (and Aldfrith?).

The last we hear of Œthelwald is during Penda’s last campaign into Bernicia in the fall of 655. Bede tells us that Œthelwald had acted a guide for Penda’s army into Bernicia and later refused to take part in the battle of Winwæd on November 15th, 655. For this Bede branded him a traitor, a claim surely influenced by Bede’s desire to project a united Northumbria. Accompanying Penda’s army into Bernicia would likely have been enough for a Bernician patriot to consider him a traitor, though it is perhaps hard to see how he could have refused Penda. It would have been suicide for a single king to have stood in the way of Penda’s army. We already knew from Oswine’s encounter with Oswiu that Deira did not have an imposing enough army to stand up to Oswiu’s forces, so it is unlikely that they could have faired better against Penda’s massive Southumbrian-British coalition. His decision to pull his army out of the fray at Winwæd may speak as much to the the shock of Oswiu’s attack as anything else. Was it a moment of indecision or had Penda’s alliance begun to fray enough that he would not side with him? Penda’s army must have still been very formidable for Œthelwald not to try to switch sides and fight for his uncle. It also tells us that Œthelwald may have been unwilling to fight against his own kinsmen (as Æthelhere of East Anglia probably did against his brother Anna). Bede tells us that the river in flood was a major factor in Oswiu’s victory as Mercians and their allies drowned trying to escape and we might also guess that an early death of Penda may have contributed to the loss. If the dominant king of a grand army was killed early, then military discipline probably would have fell as each unit would only then be concerned about its escape.

Œthelwald’s fate is left unknown. We don’t hear that he was executed, as Lastingham might have remembered. I doubt they would have been ashamed of another Deiran king who died for not fighting like Oswine. Indeed, it would have further vilified Oswiu in line with Deiran sympathies. It seems likely to me that Iona would have recorded Œthelwald’s death if it had occurred at Winwæd, as they recorded Penda’s death (Annals of Ulster). I tend to think that not hearing anything about his fate may mean that he was exiled. The mysterious fates of King Oswiu’s nephew Oethelwald and his son Alchfrith, who also disappears after a rebellion, are certainly two on my list of ‘things I would like to know’!

Augustine of Canterbury in the Liber Eliensis

The Liber Eliensis makes a rather startling claim for Augustine of Canterbury:


“there had not yet been any church on the island [of Ely] other than the one founded by blessed the Augustine, the apostle of the English, but that was demolished right down to ground level by army of the unbelieving King Penda. This church Æthelthryth, lover of God, labored with all her might to renew and rebuild after its prolonged desolation. And as soon as it was rebuilt, dedicated as of old, in honour of Mary, the holy Mother of God, it became a shining light, through innumerable signs and miracles, as God carried out His work every day.” (LE i.15, p. 43)

It is quite possible that there was indeed a church or chapel on the Isle of Ely before she married Ecgfrith because tradition claims she retired to the Isle of Ely after the death of her first husband Tondbert. Owine and others who came to Northumbria as managers of her household could have been her staff from her retirement at Ely. It would make sense that she would return to what ever dwellings that she had on her estate at Ely when she returned to found the monastery. Perhaps Penda destroyed it, perhaps he didn’t. Penda becomes the fall guy for all mid-seventh century destruction, particularly of churches. The problem though is that Æthelthryth would have been living there until about 661 long after Penda was dead. If she returned to Ely after Penda destroyed it, then she didn’t have a church there during her religious retreat from the world before her second marriage.

What I find highly suspect is that Augustine had founded the original church and that it was dedicated to St. Mary before c. 605 (when Augustine died). There is no evidence whatsoever that Augustine worked outside of the Thames estuary, except the meeting at Augustine’s Oak and that was under the special protection of King Æthelberht. How likely is it that Augustine ventured up into the fenlands northwest of East Anglia? It just seems incredible to me. Also, I believe that this would be the earliest known dedication to St. Mary in England, if true. Now, when Æthelthryth built her church in the 670s, dedications to St Mary were becoming very popular. There is no reason to doubt that Æthelthryth had the church of Ely dedicated to St Mary.

So why credit Augustine of Canterbury with a church of St Mary at Ely? I think that Ely had a problem in that they were founded under the direction of the extra-territorial Bishop Wilfrid of York. Although it was founded on private property of a local royal woman, there is no evidence that the East Anglican church took part in its foundation or supported it in anyway in the early years. We might even imagine that the East Anglican church took offense at Bishop Wilfrid’s trespass in their diocese. This made the royal family more important than usual in the governance of the church of Ely. Thus, there was a hunt to keep finding more female heirs of Æthelthryth to govern the church, and act as intercessors in this life and beyond. Overall, the LE pulls in as many major saints of East Anglia and beyond as it can to support Æthelthryth’s veneration, but I’ll come back to that another day.

Only the need to court Canterbury can explain why they deferred credit to Canterbury, rather than give Æthelthryth the full credit. Why else would they even mention a church that had been completely razed to the ground over a decade before her arrival? Granted it gives the church a claim for antiquity probably greater than an existing East Anglican church. The church is said to be leveled to the ground to give Æthelthryth full credit for the fabric of the original church in the time the LE was written. (Æthelthryth’s new church was probably dedicated by Bishop Wilfrid while he stuck on his first nomadic exile.) In deferring to Canterbury for the foundation of Ely, they also divert credit for the early church away from Bishop Felix (who converts King Anna and his family, says the LE) and the East Anglian establishment. Or, could it be just a statement that says that the contemporary monastery of Ely should be directly accountable to the Archbishop of Canterbury, rather than local bishops? Indeed, was a statement of loyalty to Canterbury required in the wake of Archbishop Thomas Becket’s murder?


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