Osthryth, Queen of the Mercians

Northern and central Britain, c. 700

Northern and central Britain, c. 700

Osthryth was one of the few women mentioned by the Venerable Bede in his “Ecclesiastical History of the English People”. She was born into a time of great strife. There was much tension and bad blood between the ruling houses of the various kingdoms in England before unification, especially between Mercia and Northumbria. It was also the era of the Christianization of the realm and there was conflict between Christians and pagans. She was married to a Mercian king, possibly in the hope of making an alliance.

We don’t know when Osthryth was born but she came from royalty. She was a younger daughter of King Oswiu of Northumbria and his queen Eanflaed. She had two elder brothers Ecgfrith and Aelfwine and a sister Aelflaed. Oswiu was the brother of the revered saint King Oswald of Northumbria, whom Bede much admires in his “History”. Oswald had been converted to Christianity.

King Oswald had come into conflict with the powerful pagan King Penda of Mercia. In 642, they clashed at the Battle of Maserfield where Oswald was killed and his body dismembered. Bede tells us that Oswald ended his life praying for the souls of his soldiers when he realized he was about to die. Upon his death, his brother Oswiu became king of the Bernicians as a vassal of King Penda of Mercia. In 655, Oswiu defeated and killed Penda at the Battle of Winwaed. Oswiu ended up dominating much of Britain until a revolt in Mercia established Penda’s son Wulfhere as their king. When Oswiu died in 670, Osthryth’s brother Ecgfrith succeeded his father as king.

When Wulfhere of Mercia died in 676, he was succeeded by his younger brother Aethelred. Somewhere during this time Osthryth married Aethelred. Aethelred may have been surprised by his succession to the throne of Mercia. He was the third son of Penda and most likely would have devoted himself to the church since he proved to be a pious and devout man. Osthryth and Aethelred were zealous in the promotion of Christianity in Mercia. The monastic house of Bardney in Lindsey was heavily endowed by the couple.

Bede tells us a story about Osthryth and the relics of her uncle King Oswald. Osthryth’s father had retrieved Oswald’s remains about a year after he died in battle. Sometime after 681, Osthryth wanted to translate the revered saint’s relics and place them in her favorite abbey at Bardney. The Mercian monks of Bardney were sensitive and retained an aversion to the prior attempts by the Northumbrian kings to dominate them and refused to accept the bones of the saint even though they knew he was a holy man.

The carriage with the relics was stopped at the abbey gate in the evening and covered with a tent. During the night a shining pillar of light appeared over the carriage that shone up into the sky, bright enough to be seen throughout the kingdom of Lindsey. This proved the sanctity of the slain king. The monks who had refused the bones the day before began to pray that they be deposited among them and accepted them into the abbey. The bones were washed and placed in a sacred place. The water used to wash the bones was poured into the dirt in a corner of the sanctuary. Bede tells us later Queen Osthryth met with a holy abbess named Aethelhild and gave her some of this soil. Aethelhild took the holy soil back to her abbey and used it during an exorcism of a possessed man, curing him of his demons.

Despite the alliance of Osthryth and Aethelred, the two kingdoms of Northumbria and Mercia were in perpetual war against each other. Aethelred continued the feud by warring against Osthryth’s brother Ecgfrith, who was defeated at the battle of the Trent in 679. Osthryth’s brother Aelfwine was killed in this battle. Bede tells us Aelfwine was beloved in both kingdoms and there was so much grief over his death it nearly resulted in a blood feud between the Mercian and Northumbrian royal families. Peace was only reached with the intervention and mediation of Archbishop Theodore and appropriate compensation was paid.

Sometime before 697, it seems Osthryth had retired to her favorite monastery at Bardney and become a nun and Aethelred had married another woman. In a most unfortunate event, Osthryth was murdered by Mercian noblemen that same year. The reason for the murder is not divulged in the chronicles. The most likely explanation is a blood feud related to her involvement in the killing of her sister’s husband King Peada of southern Mercia in 646. Osthryth was buried at Bardney. In 704, Aethelred abdicated this throne to his nephew Coenred and retired to Bardney where he was shorn as a monk, became an abbot and died in 716. It is unclear whether Aethelred’s son named Ceolred was born to Osthryth or his second unnamed wife. Ceolred succeeded his cousin Coenred when he died in 709.

Further reading: “Bede: The Ecclesiastical History of the English People” edited by Judith McClure and Roger Collins, “The Kings & Queens of Anglo-Saxon England” by Timothy Venning, “British Kings and Queens” by Mike Ashley, Entry on Osthryth in the Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, Volume 42 written by Edmund Venables

2 responses

  1. Lovely article, Susan. The Anglo-Saxon period still continues to fascinate me. That’s a charming story about the bones of Oswald, and the light appearing above them (and the water they were subsequently washed in). It strikes me that the monks of that era had to be tough and strong-minded as well as pious and self-sacrificing (I’m thinking also of the ones who rescued the relics of St Cuthbert from Holy Island).

    Like

    • Thanks Jo. The research on this period is really fun. It was a time of great strife with all these kings trying to consolidate. I hadn’t thought about it but you’re absolutely right about the monks. They did have to be very strong!

      Like

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