Edwin of Northumbria

Edwin of Northumbria

(Leeds, York, Goodmanham, and other places in Yorkshire; Edinburgh; Puffin Island, off Anglesey; Lyminge in Kent, etc.)

One of the outstanding personalities of the Anglo-Saxon period is that of Edwin, the English King of Northumbria, who reigned from 617 to 633 A.D. He was the son of Aella, the first English king of Deira, the southern province of Northumbria, corresponding roughly to Yorkshire; and during his youth, being in exile from his country, he spent some years as a guest of the British King, Cadvan, in North Wales, a fact which shows, incidentally, that there was no such hatred between the two races as would have been felt if a savage policy of extermination had been pursued by the invaders against the Britons.

When at last he came to the throne in 617 A.D., he had been under the protection of king Raedwald of East Anglia who was the `Bretwalda`/ chief king, although he was going to murder Edwin on the prompting of Athelfrith of Northumbria, he was persuaded by his wife who under divine prompting not to, Raedwald later defeated Athelfrith in the battle of the River Idle in 616 A.D., and then installed Edwin on the throne of Northumbria. Athelfrith`s sons went into exile in Dai Raita and Pictland, who then came into contact with the Celtic church, which later became a very important part of Northumbria and beyond, whilst Edwin began at once to extend his power, and soon he had made Mercia, the Anglo-Saxon kingdom in the Midlands, and East Anglia, the English kingdom of Norfolk and Suffolk, tributary to him; and he had annexed the little British kingdom of Elmet or Loidis (Leeds), which had survived till now as an independent British state.

Leeds, which mention in passing, has nothing to show us now in relation to the Anglo-Saxon epoch, with the exception of part of a fine cross on the south side of the channel of Kirkgate church, and a handful of small objects in the Museum, including a nice little bronze workbox, once belonging to some English lady of about Edwin`s period, which however, was found near Thirsk, some 30miles/46kms to the North. But the fact that this neighbourhood was allowed to remain in British hands so late as 620 A.D., or so, although in the midst of the of the conquered area, makes it a place of exceptional interest as showing the tolerant attitude of the English to the Britons.

In 625 A.D., Edwin, who at this time was still pagan, contracted a marriage with Aethelberga, daughter of the King of Kent, (King Athelbert 7 Queen Bertha) but it was stipulated that she, being a Christian, should be allowed to bring her priests with her into the pagan north; and in this company was the famous Bishop Paulinus, who is described by Bede as being “tall, a little stooping. His hair black, his face gaunt, his nose thin and aquiline, his aspect both venerable and majestic.”

In the following year, on Easter day, while the King was in residence at his palace on the river Derwent, a few miles/Kms east of York, he received a visit from a personage named Eumer who stated that he was an envoy of the hostile Saxon King of Wessex, and desired to deliver a message from his royal master; but as he approached the throne, he suddenly drew his long knife and sprang at the Northumbrian monarch, who would have been killed on the spot had not his beloved friend and Prime Minister, Lilla, flung himself, although unarmed, in front of him, receiving the knife into his heart. So great was the force of the blow, however, that Lilla`s body was transfixed, and the King being him was also wounded.

The assassin was quickly despatched; but the attempt on her husband`s life so up set the Queen, who was expecting her first child, that that night she was confined, and gave birth to a daughter. Paulinus, very naturally, told the king that he owed his escape to Christian prayers; and thereat Edwin not only allowed the baby to be baptised, but declared that he, too, would embrace the new faith if only Christ would first allow him to kill the King of Wessex who had thus attempted his murder.

As soon as he was healed of his wound he marched his army southwards and defeated and captured his enemy; but, perhaps as a first act of Christian piety, he spared his life, and returned in triumph to the north.

Still, however, he hesitated to be baptised; but now Paulinus resorted to an artifice which had the desired result. Edwin in his youth had once been made prisoner by his enemies, and at that time had dreamt that a stranger came to him and inquired whether he would be willing to do as he asked at some future date if now he freed him from his bondage. The young man replied that he would certainly do so, whereupon the stranger placed his hand on Edwin`s head, telling him to remember this as a sign, and to obey the instructions of the man who should come to him one day and should touch him in this manner. This dream had remained vividly in the King`s memory, and it seems that he had related it to the Queen or to some friend, who had passed it on to Paulinus. The latter now made use of this knowledge; he entered the room where Edwin was sitting alone, and walking solemnly up to him, placed his hand on the royal head, saying as he did so “Edwin, do you remember that sign?” Thereupon, the King fell trembling at his feet, and Paulinus told him that the time had come for him to honour his royal promise, and to do what was asked of him, namely, to be baptised.

This artifice settled the matter, but as a preliminary Edwin called his court together, and asked them what they thought of the new religion. To this question Coifi, the some what disgruntled High Priest of the old gods, who, judging by his name, may have been a Briton, made a curiously amusing answer. “Well” he said, “so far as I can see, the religion we now profess has no virtue in it at all; for nobody has more diligently worshipped our gods than I, yet there are many who have had greater favours from you, and are more prosperous, than I. But surely if our gods had been good for anything, they would rather have seen first to my prosperity, since I have served them so carefully.”

Another of the King`s chief men, on being asked the same question, made the famous reply which is so often quoted. “The span of a man`s life,” he said, “in comparison with that eternity which is unknown to us, seems to me to be like the swift flight of a sparrow through the room where you sit at supper on some winter`s night with your officers and ministers, and a good fire in the midst, whilst storms of rain and snow prevail outside. The sparrow, flying in at one door and immediately out at another, is safe from the tempest for the moment whilst he is within, but then he vanishes from your sight into the dark winter from which he had emerged. So, too, the life of a man appears for a short space; but of what went before, or what is to follow, we are utterly ignorant. If, therefore, this new doctrine contains something more certain, it deserves to be followed.”

Others responded in like manner, and at last Coifi suddenly cried out: “For a long time I have known that there was nothing in what we worshipped, because the more I sought the truth in that worship the less I found it.” Then, turning to the King. he said “I proposc that we set fire to those temples and altars which we have consecrated without reaping any benefit from them.”

“But,” said the King, nervously, “who will dare first to profane them?”

“I will!” Coifi answered, and he asked Edwin to furnish him with weapons and a stallion. Now it was not lawful for a High Priest to carry arms, and he was only allowed to ride a mare; but Coifi, greatly daring, buckled on a sword, and, holding a spear in his hand, mounted the stallion, and galloped off to the neighbouring village of Godmundingham, noe Goodmanham, near Weighton, east of the river Derwent, where the nearest temple was situated.

The people who saw him thundering past thought he had gone mad, but he did not draw rein until he had reached the sacred shrine, when, leaping from his horse, he flung his spear at the altar, and then set fire to the wooden structure.

After that the King and his court were baptised at York by Paulinus, who had erected there a small wooden church on the site of the present cathedral, this building being succeeded shortly afterwards by a stone structure; and this second church, enlarged in the following reign, was restored about 669 A.D., when glass was put in the windows, the roof was leaded, and the inner walls were whitewashed. It was burnt to the ground in 1069 A.D., and the present superb minster arose over the ruins; but in the walls of the crypt you may still see a little of the earlier church, while there are traces of Anglo-Saxon work in some of the other churches in York, and fragments of crosses from graves of that age are to be seen in the city`s Museum.

Meanwhile so great was the rush to join the new faith, that Paulinus was occupied all day long for thirty-six days on end in baptising the people who had gathered on the banks of the river Glen, at a place called Adgefrin, now named Yearvering, near Wooler; and there were similar scenes in Catterick, the old Roman Cataractonium, on the river Swale.

The Pope was notified of the success of Paulinus, and at once sent a letter of congratulaton to Edwin, together with a present of an embroidered tunic and a mantle of fine Ancona wool for himself and an ivory comb and a silver mirror for the Queen.

In the years that followed, Edwin extended his influence in all directions. In the extreme north of his Kingdom of Northumbria, which now extended as far as the Firth of Forth, he erected a fortress on the great rock which rises now in the midst of the city of Edinburgh, a name perhaps signifying Edwin`s Burgh or Castle, though patriotic Scots derive it from a Gaelic word Edin, meaning “a cliff,” and deny that the metropolis of Scotland was thus founded by an Englishman. There are no remains of this building now extant, and indeed there are practically no Anglo-Saxon relics of any kind in the lowlands, which shows that though the Kings of Northumbria, and later the Kings of England down to 1018 A.D., held this country, the Anglo-Saxons did not colonize it.

Edwin made a naval raid on the Isle of Man, and, having come to blows with Cadwallon, the British King of North Wales, trapped that monarch on Puffin Island, a small islet off the north coast of Anglesey, between Redwharf Bay and Beaumaris. Here there seems to have been a British monastic settlement, and the ruined tower which is now to be seen there may have some connection with it, though otherwise the little island is but a storm swept waste of grass and rock, where puffins, cormorants, curlews, and gulls share possession with multitudes of rabbits. (rabbits being brought over with the Normans)

Cadwallon escaped in the end to Ireland, but a few years later returned, and joined forces with Penda, King of Anglo-Saxon Mercia, whose borders adjoined those of Wales and whose subjects must have included many men of British race. Penda, who was a pagan, had watched the Christian Edwin`s growing power with an anxious eye, and he seems to have welcomed Cadwallon`s offer of aid against him, although the British King was also a Christian. As a matter of fact Penda had often said that he did not object to Christians, but only to bad Christians, perhaps meaning that Edwin, in the warlike extension of his dominions, was no true follower of the faith.

Edwin`s power at this time was at its height, and Bede states that “he reigned most gloriously over the nations of the English and the Britons.” It was proverbially said that “a woman with her new-born baby might travel throughout the land without receiving any harm.” He is stated to have put the country`s roads in order, and to have made drinking-fountains for travellers, each having a brass bowl hanging by a chain from a post. When he rode forth, a royal banner of purple and gold was carried before him, and the Roman tufa, a tuft of feathers attached to a spear, was held aloft in front of him in the imperial manner.

His end was tragic. Penda and Cadwallon, with their combined forces of Anglo-Saxons and Britons, marched against him, and met him in battle on 12th October, 633 A.D., at Hatfield, near Doncaster, now a small town wherein there are no traces of this period. Edwin, then 47 years of age, fell in the thick of the battle, and his severed head was carried to York, where it was afterwards deposited in the church; and that city became once more a British possession, being handed over to Cadwallon.

Queen Aethelberga and her children fled with Paulinus back to Kent, carrying with them all that they could save of the royal treasure, which, so Bede tells us, included a large gold cross and a golden chalice, these being placed in the church of Canterbury. For years Penda and Cadwallon ravaged Northumbria, and it is said that it was the latter`s intention utterly to exterminate the English. His fate, however, shall be related in the next chapter.

Queen Aethelberga spent the remaining years of her life in Kent, which was then ruled by her brother, King Eadbald; and on her death in 647 A.D., she was buried near the doorway of the church at Lyminge which she had herself founded. Lyminge is some six miles/9.6kms inland from Folkstone; and, set in the outer wall of the church, close to the porch, you may see the tablet on which is inscribed: “The burial place of St. Aethelberga (Ethelburga) the Queen foundress of this church and first Abbess of Lyminge, 633-647 A.D.”

In building this church Roman materials from a neighbouring ruined house of that period were used, and some of these, including Roman tiles, are still to be seen in the walls, especially on the south side and in the chancel. There are no less than thirteen charters of the Anglo-Saxon period relating to this church, still in existence, and in one dated 696 A.D., the building is called “the basilica of St. Mary, the Mother of God,” but now it is named “Saint Mary and St. Eadburga,” the latter being a shortened form of Aethelberga.

In 935 A.D., Archbishop Dunstan, of whom more will said of him later, restored it; and in 1035 A.D., the bones of the Queen were removed to St. Gregory`s Canterbury. The present nave of the church is thought to date from the period between 1020 and 1070 A.D., though, as has been said, some of the original walling still remains. The rest of the building is of Fifteen Century workmanship.