St. Edwin, King and Martyr (Aeduini)

12 October

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Born c. 585; died October 12, 633. Son of King Aella of Deira (southern Northumbria, Yorkshire area), Saint Edwin was only three when his father died. The saint was deprived of the throne by King Ethelfrith of Bernicia (North Northumbria), who seized Aella's kingdom. Edwin spent the next 30 years in Wales and East Anglia. As a young man he married Cwenburg of Mercia by whom he had two sons. Finally in 616, with the help of King Baedwald (Redwald) of East Anglia who had hosted him during his exile, Edwin was restored to the throne by defeating and killing Ethelfrith at the Battle of Idle River.

Edwin ruled ably and, in 625, after the death of his first wife, married Ethelburga, sister of King Eadbald of Kent, and a Christian. At first his embassy seeking her hand was rebuffed because he was not a Christian. But eventually a contract was reached wherein Ethelburga would be permitted the freedom to practice her religion and Edwin would seriously consider joining her in faith. With the agreement made, Ethelburga brought with her to Northumbria her confessor, Saint Paulinus, a Roman monk who had been sent by Pope Saint Gregory the Great to help Saint Augustine in the conversion of England and who had just been consecrated bishop of York. The bishop also saw this as an opportunity to spread the faith in the northern parts of the island.

The thoughtful and melancholy king was not naturally inclined to impetuous acts and, thus, it took some time before his conversion. The examples of Christian virtue displayed by his wife and her chaplain played an important role in his decision, but three specific events were determinative. First, an unsuccessful assassination attempt by the West Saxons. Second, the abandonment of paganism by Coifi the high priest. And, finally, a reminder by Paulinus of a mysterious experience Edwin had undergone while in exile some years earlier.

Following these incidents, Edwin was converted to Christianity in 627, and baptized by Paulinus at Easter (attested by Bede) after the birth of a daughter. Many in Edwin's court and subjects in Yorkshire and Lincolnshire also came to faith. Thus, began Christianity in Northumbria. The idols and false gods had already been destroyed by the high priest himself.

King Edwin established law and order in the kingdom and soon became the most powerful king in England. He expanded his territory north into the land of the Picts, west into that of the Cumbrians and Welsh, and into Elmet near Leeds. The Venerable Bede relates that during the last year's of King Edwin's reign there was such peace and order in his dominions that a proverb said 'a woman could carry her newborn baby across the island from sea to sea and suffer no harm.'

His intention to build a stone church at York (an unprecedented event in those days) never materialised when his kingdom was invaded by pagan King Penda of Mercia and Cadwallon of North Wales. Edwin was defeated and killed at the Battle of Hatfield Chase in 633. This church was constructed, enshrined his head, and became the centre of his cultus.

After his death, Northumbria reverted to paganism and Paulinus had to conduct Ethelburga and her children by sea to safety in Kent, where for the last 10 years of his life, he embellished his diocese of Rochester. The massacres and chaos that followed Edwin's death ended with the accession of Saint Oswald in 634.

Saint Edwin is viewed as a tribal hero, model Christian king, and martyr. Although his feast was not included in any of the surviving liturgical books of Northumbria, there was at least one ancient church dedication in his honour. Pope Gregory XIII implicitly approved his cultus by including Edwin among the English martyrs in the murals of the English College at Rome.

Edwin's cultus had another locus at Whitby, which had a shrine of his body, supposedly discovered by revelation and brought there from Hatfield Chase. Whitby Abbey was governed in turn by Edwin's daughter, Saint Enfleda, and his granddaughter, Saint Elfleda. It became the burial site for the royal members of the house of Deira and the home of Saint Gregory I's first biographer (Attwater, Benedictines, Delaney, Encyclopaedia, Farmer).

Another Life:

St. Edwin, King of Northumbria (AD 584-AD 633)

Edwin was a prince of the Deiran Royal family from Yorkshire, the eldest son of King Aelle. After his father's death in 588, the kingdom was annexed by the armies of King Aethelfrith from adjoining Bernicia, Edwin was forced to flee and he "wandered secretly as a fugitive through many places and kingdoms". He was still a boy when tradition has him initially seeking sanctuary at the court of King Iago of Gwynedd. Here he must have grown up alongside the King's sons (an impossible legend says grandsons) and became a particular rival of his foster-nephew, Prince Cadwallon. He may also have spent some time at the Mercian Court. These people were the natural allies of the Northern Welsh and it seems to have been around this time that Edwin married Princess Cwenburga, daughter of King Ceorl of Mercia. They soon had two children, Osfrith and Edfrith. With Aethelfirth now secure in the North, in AD 613, he decided to try and root out Edwin from Wales. The two forces clashed at the Battles of Chester and Bangor-on-Dee. King Iago of Gwynedd and a number of other British monarchs were killed in the fighting and Edwin felt it best to move his family to the court of the Saxon Bretwalda, King Redwald of East Anglia, in order to protect Cadfan, the new King of Gwynedd, from further attacks. Aethelfrith sent envoys to Redwald with bribes and threats and the mighty monarch was sorely tempted to give Edwin up to his enemies. However, the Queen persuaded Redwald that this would be shameful in the extreme. So, instead, in AD 616, the two raised an army and marched North to engage the Bernicians on the banks of the River Idle. The Northern army was thoroughly defeated and its King killed.

Edwin immediately pressed forward his advantage and overran Bernicia as well as his own homeland of Deira. Aethelfrith's sons (including Princes Enfrith, Oswald and Oswiu) fled to exile in Gododdin and Scottish Dalriada. The following year, the new monarch of a united Northumbria decided to enlarge his kingdom still further by conquering the British Kingdom of Elmet, and slaying King Ceretic in the process. His armies also moved into Strathclyde and Gododdin looking for Aethlefrith's eldest son, Enfrith, who was obliged to move northwards into Pictland. It was almost certainly also Edwin's armies which overran South Rheged and forced King Llywarch Hen and his family to flee to Powys. It was supposedly during this conquest period that he came into contact with the Royal House of North Rheged and was baptized into the Christian faith by Prince Rhun. However, he must have lapsed back into paganism soon afterward for, in AD 625, Edwin married - traditionally on the site of St. Gregory's Church, Kirknewton - the Princess Ethelburga sister of King Edbald of Kent and, though he welcomed her personal chaplain, St. Paulinus, as Archbishop of York, Edwin himself was a still pagan.

It seems that Edwin's Mercian wife had been put aside for no other reason than political expediency. This, no doubt, led to much bad- feeling in Mercia and the lady's cousin, King Penda, seems to have allied himself with the kingdom of Wessex around this time. In AD 626, Prince Cwichelm of Wessex sent an assassin north to murder Edwin. He was, however, saved from being stabbed by the timely intervention of one of his thanes. By co-incidence, Edwin's daughter, Enflaed, was born that same night and it is said that the King promised to give her to St. Paulinus for baptism, if he was victorious over the assassin's paymaster. Discovering Cwichelm's treachery, Edwin marched on Wessex. Prince Cwichelm and his father, King Cynegils of Wessex, marched north to meet the Northumbrians at the Battle of Win Hill & Lose Hill (Derbys), probably with the aid of King Penda. Despite their army's superior numbers, the Wessex duo were defeated and fled south once more. Edwin, of course, kept his promise to St. Paulinus.

Following his victory over Wessex, Edwin may have even been acknowledged as overlord of all the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms (save for Kent). Bede certainly records that Edwin held imperium south of the Humber. Soon afterward, he decided to extend his overlordship still further into more British kingdoms. With a substantial fleet at his disposal, Edwin conquered the Isle of Man, forcing King Anllech to flee, before moving on to Gwynedd. His old foster-brother, King Cadfan, had recently died and Edwin's seems to have been determined to put his old rivalry with Cadwallon to bed once and for all. The Northumbrian King conquered Anglesey and besieged his foster-nephew on Puffin Island before finally forcing him to flee to Brittany.

Edwin then began to consolidate his position. At the Royal Court in Yeavering, he allowed Paulinus to convert him to Christianity once more. The King then travelled to York for baptism in Paulinus' proto- Cathedral and persuaded all his nobles, as well as sub-Kings (such as King Eorpwald of East Anglia) to follow suit: thus ensuring unity within the country. It was a prestigious move which brought letters and gifts from the Pope in Rome. Edwin also set about re-fortifying York and the famous 'Anglian Tower' may date from this time. Though this city might be considered Edwin's capital, he held a number of important administrative centres and resided in them on a circuit basis similar to that used by later Saxon and Norman Kings. The most important were Yeavering in Bernicia, York and Catterick in Deira and Campoduno (near Doncaster) in Elmet. Bede describes how Edwin would travel around, preceded by a standard bearer "as he rode among his cities, estates and kingdoms with his thegns. Further, when he walked anywhere along the roads, there used to be carried before him the type of standard which the Romans call a tufa and the English call a thuf."

Such peaceful times were not to last however. Trouble was brewing. King Cadwallon of Gwynedd soon returned from the Continent looking for revenge. In AD 633, he marched a great British army into the North and clashed with the Northumbrians at Hatfield Chase. King Edwin was killed in the fighting and the victorious Cadwallon went on to decimate his country. Edwin's supporters managed to take his body for burial in the Royal Abbey of Whitby. He was later revered as a saint, and his head was translated to York Minster. The King's family, however, fled to Kent and the kingdom was nominally divided between Enfrith of Bernicia and Osric of Deira.

Troparion of St Edwin
Tone 4
Having accepted the true Faith, O righteous Edwin,
thou wast found worthy to exchange thy worldly crown
for the crown of martyrdom
at the hands of the godless Mercians.
Inspired by thy example,
we beseech thee to pray that we may have the courage to fight evil in any form
that we too may receive the reward of eternal blessedness.

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Page last updated: 16 November 2008
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