Oswiu, also known as
Oswy or Oswig (Old English: Ōswīg) (c. 612 –
15 February 670), was
King of Bernicia
King of Bernicia from 642 until his death. One
of the sons of
Æthelfrith of Bernicia, he became king following the
death of his brother Oswald in 642. Unlike Oswald,
Oswiu struggled to
exert authority over Deira, the other constituent kingdom of medieval
Northumbria, for much of his reign.
Oswiu and his brothers were raised in exile in the Scottish kingdom of
Dál Riata after their father's death at the hands of Edwin of Deira,
only returning after Edwin's death in 633.
Oswiu rose to the kingship
when his brother Oswald was killed in battle against
Penda of Mercia.
The early part of his reign was defined by struggles to assert control
Deira and his contentious relationship with Penda, his
overlord. In 655, Oswiu's forces killed
Penda in a decisive victory
at the Battle of the Winwæd, establishing
Oswiu as one of the most
powerful rulers in Britain. He secured control of Deira, with his son
Alhfrith serving as a sub-king, and for three years, Oswiu's power
extended over Mercia, earning him recognition as bretwalda over much
of Great Britain.
Oswiu was a devoted Christian, promoting the faith among his subjects
and establishing a number of monasteries, including
Gilling Abbey and
Whitby Abbey. He was raised in the
Celtic Christian tradition of
much of the Irish world, rather than the Roman tradition practiced by
the southern Anglo-Saxon kingdoms as well as some members of the
Deiran nobility, including Oswiu's queen Eanflæd. In 664, Oswiu
presided over the Synod of Whitby, where clerics debated over the two
traditions, and helped resolve tension between the parties by
Northumbria would follow the Roman style.
in 670 and was succeeded by his son, Ecgfrith.
1 Background and early life
Eanflæd and Oswine
4 Overlord of Britain
5 Ecclesiastical politics
6 Eahlfrith and the Synod of Whitby
10 Holy relics
11 See also
14 External links
Background and early life
Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of the early 7th century
Oswiu was born circa 612, as he was 58 at his death in 670, according
to Bede. He was the third child of Æthelfrith, then King of Bernicia;
his siblings included older brothers Eanfrith and Oswald and sister
Æbbe. Oswiu's mother was likely Æthelfrith's only recorded
wife, Acha, a princess of Deira's royal line who is known to have been
Oswald's mother. Regardless, his heritage did nothing to endear him
to the Deiran nobility; while they accepted Oswald as king apparently
on account of his mother, they resisted
Oswiu throughout his
At the time of Oswiu's birth,
Æthelfrith was at the height of his
power. In 604 he had taken control of Deira, evidently by conquest; he
killed the previous king (apparently Æthelric), married Acha, a
member of the kingly line, and exiled Acha's brother Edwin. His
authority ran from the lands of the
Picts and the
Dál Riata in modern
Wales and the Midlands in the south. Æthelfrith's
power rested on his military success, and this success came to an end
in 616, when the exiled Edwin of Deira, with the support of King
Rædwald, defeated and killed him in battle by the River Idle.
On Æthelfrith's death, his sons and their supporters fled
Northumbria, finding sanctuary among the
Picts of northern
Britain and Ireland. Here they would remain until Edwin's death at the
Battle of Hatfield Chase
Battle of Hatfield Chase in 633.
In exile, the sons of
Æthelfrith were converted to Christianity, or
raised as Christians. In Oswiu's case, he became an exile at the
age of four, and cannot have returned to
Northumbria until aged
twenty-one, spending childhood and adolescence in a Gaelic milieu.
Bede writes that
Oswiu was fluent in the
Old Irish language and Irish
in his faith.
As well as learning the Scottish language and being thoroughly
Oswiu may have fought for his Gaelic hosts, perhaps
receiving his arms—a significant event—from a King of Dál Riata,
such as Eochaid Buide, son of that
Áedán mac Gabráin
Áedán mac Gabráin whom his
father had defeated at the Battle of Degsastan. The Irish annals
name one Oisiric mac Albruit, rigdomna Saxan—ætheling Osric—among
the dead, alongside Connad Cerr, King of Dál Riata, and others of the
Cenél nGabráin, at the Battle of Fid Eóin. Whether Oswiu's
marriage with the
Uí Néill princess
Fín of the Cenél nEógain, and
the birth of Aldfrith, should be placed in the context of his exile,
or took place at a later date is uncertain.
Equally uncertain is the date of Oswiu's return to Northumbria. He may
have returned with Eanfrith on Edwin's death in 633, as
to write. Eanfrith apostatised and was killed by Cadwallon, who
was defeated and killed in turn by another brother, Oswald, who became
Bernicia and probably succeeded to his father's old dominance
of northern and central Britain.
Eanflæd and Oswine
Oswald died in battle against
Penda of Mercia
Penda of Mercia at the Battle of
Maserfield, dated by
Bede to 5 August 642. Oswald's son Œthelwald
may have been his preferred successor, but Œthelwald cannot have been
an adult in 642. So, the kingship came to Oswiu. Unlike Eanfrith and
Oswiu held to the Christian faith in spite of his brother's
defeat by the pagan Penda. This may have been due to his more
thoroughly Christian upbringing, but the influence of Bishop Aidan of
Lindisfarne, by then a major figure in Bernicia, could also have been
Bede summarises Oswiu's reign in this way:
Oswald being translated to the heavenly kingdom, his brother Oswy, a
young man of about thirty years of age, succeeded him on the throne of
his earthly kingdom, and held it twenty-eight years with much trouble,
being harassed by the pagan king, Penda, and by the pagan nation of
the Mercians, that had slain his brother, as also by his son Alfred
[i.e. Ealhfrith], and by his cousin-german Ethelwald [i.e. Œthelwald
of Deira], the son of his brother who reigned before him.
Oswiu's first recorded action as king of
Bernicia was to strengthen
his position, and perhaps his claims to Deira, by marrying Edwin's
daughter Eanflæd, then in exile in the Kingdom of Kent. This
marriage took place between 642 and 644.
Oswiu is known to have been married three times. Eanflæd, his Queen,
bore him two sons and two daughters. The sons were Ecgfrith
(644x645–685) and Ælfwine (c. 660–679), the daughters Osthryth
(died 697) and Ælfflæd (c. 654–714). The Irish princess
the mother of
Aldfrith (died 705). Finally, the British princess
Rieinmellt, of Rheged, is named as a wife of
Oswiu in the Historia
Brittonum. It is thought that Eahlfrith was her son, and
Eahlflæd may have been her daughter.
The first half of Oswiu's reign was spent in the shadow of Penda, who
dominated much of Britain from 642 until 655, seemingly making and
breaking kings as it suited him. The future kingdom of Northumbria
was still composed of two distinct kingdoms in Oswiu's lifetime. The
northerly kingdom of Bernicia, which extended from the
River Tees to
the Firth of Forth, was ruled by Oswiu. The kingdom of Deira, lying
North York Moors
North York Moors and the Humber, was ruled by a series of
Oswiu's kinsmen, initially as a separate kingdom, later as a form of
appanage for Oswiu's sons.
For the first decade of Oswiu's reign,
Deira was ruled by an
independent king, Oswine, son of the apostate Osric, who belonged to
the rival Deiran royal family. Oswine and
Oswiu came into conflict
Oswiu for the troubles and writes:
For when they had raised armies against one another, Oswin perceived
that he could not maintain a war against one who had more auxiliaries
than himself, and he thought it better at that time to lay aside all
thoughts of engaging, and to preserve himself for better times. He
therefore dismissed the army which he had assembled, and ordered all
his men to return to their own homes, from the place that is called
Wilfaresdun, that is, Wilfar's Hill, which is almost ten miles distant
from the village called Cataract [i.e. Catterick], towards the
north-west. He himself, with only one trusty soldier, whose name was
Tonhere, withdrew and lay concealed in the house of Earl [comes]
Hunwald, whom he imagined to be his most assured friend. But, alas! it
was otherwise; for the earl betrayed him, and Oswy, in a detestable
manner, by the hands of his commander [praefectus], Ethilwin, slew
In order to expiate the killing of Oswine, who was later reckoned a
Gilling Abbey at Gilling, where prayers were
said for Oswine and for Oswiu. Oswine was followed as king of the
Deirans by Oswald's son Œthelwald.
Oswiu's relations with
Penda were not entirely peaceful between 642
Bede appears to place a major assault on
Bernicia by Penda,
which reached the gates of Bamburgh, at some time before 651 and the
death of Bishop Aidan of Lindisfarne. An entry in the Irish annals
recording "[t]he battle of
Oswy against Penda" circa 650 may refer to
D.P. Kirby suggests that the killing of Oswine may have led to an
improvement in relations between
Oswiu in the early 650s.
Oswiu's son Ealhfrith married Penda's daughter Cyneburh, while his
daughter Ealhflæd married Penda's son Peada.
Peada was baptised at Ad
Murum—in the region of Hadrian's Wall—by Aidan's successor Finan.
Peada and Ealhflæd took a missionary group, including
Cedd and Diuma,
to establish a church in their lands.
Bede reports that
Bernicia at the head of a large
Bede states that
Oswiu offered "an incalculable quantity of
regalia and presents as the price of peace", but that
Oswiu vowed to give his daughter Ælfflæd to the church, and to found
a dozen monasteries if he was granted the victory, and assisted by
Ealhfrith he engaged
Penda with a small army in the Battle of the
Winwæd, which took place in the region of Loidis, which is to say
Leeds. He was successful, and
Penda was killed, along with many of his
allies, including King Æthelhere of the East Angles. Œthelwald had
assisted Penda, but stood aside from the fighting.
Historia Brittonum gives a somewhat different account. Here,
Oswiu's offer of treasure is accepted, and is associated with the
siege of a place named Iudeu. It is assumed that Ecgfrith was given
over as a hostage, into the keeping of Penda's queen Cynewise, at this
time. The Historia suggests that many of Penda's allies were
British kings, and notes that
Cadafael ap Cynfeddw
Cadafael ap Cynfeddw joined Œthelwald
in avoiding the battle, so gaining the epithet Cadomedd (the
Battle-Shirker). The decisive battle is located at "Gaius's
Overlord of Britain
The surprising defeat of the hitherto dominant Penda, and the death of
the East Anglian king Æthelhere left
Oswiu as the dominant figure in
Britain. Œthelwald's ambivalent stance during the campaign which led
to the Winwæd appears to have led to his removal as he disappears
from the record at this time.
Oswiu installed his adult son Eahlfrith
as king of Deirans in Œthelwald's place. Penda's son
installed as king of southern Mercia, while
Oswiu took the north of
the kingdom. Other subject rulers seem to have been established
elsewhere in Mercia.
Further south, Æthelhere's brother Æthelwold may have been
established with Oswiu's assistance, as well as that of his kinsman by
marriage King Eorcenberht of Kent. Cenwalh of Wessex, who had been
driven out of his lands by
Penda for putting aside his marriage to
Penda's sister, may also have returned to power in this period, again
with Oswiu's assistance. King
Sigeberht the Good
Sigeberht the Good of the East Saxons
was Oswiu's ally. Oswiu's nephew, Eanfrith's son Talorcan, may
have also been established as a leading king among the
Picts at this
Oswiu's total domination lasted only a short time, around three years.
The proximate cause was the death of Peada, supposedly poisoned by his
wife, Oswiu's daughter Eahlflæd. This probably occurred at Easter
Oswiu proceeded to install governors or subject kings in
Mercia. Probably in late 659, but perhaps in 657, a revolt led by
three Mercian noblemen—Immin, Eata, and Eadberht—installed Penda's
son Wulfhere as ruler of the Mercians and drove out Oswiu's
Oswiu remained a force to be reckoned with, and
political settlement rather than open warfare appears to have resolved
the crisis. Oswiu's kinsman
Trumhere was named to be Wulfhere's
bishop. While Wulfhere extended Mercian influence and authority in
southern Britain, he apparently continued to recognise Oswiu's
Welsh sources suggest that
Oswiu campaigned in
Wales in the late 650s,
imposing tribute on the Welsh kings who had previously been Penda's
allies such as Cadafael, the battle-dodging King of Gwynedd.
Elsewhere in the south, Oswiu's ally Sigeberht of the East Saxons was
murdered and replaced by his brother Swithhelm, who remained a
Christian, but distanced himself from
Oswiu and the Irish-Northumbrian
church. Switthelm was probably subject to the East Angles.
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Eahlfrith and the Synod of Whitby
Main article: Synod of Whitby
In 664 at the synod of Whitby,
Oswiu accepted the usages of the
Roman Church, which led to the departure of Bishop Colman of
Lindisfarne. The reasons of the gathering, and its significance, have
been closely studied, and the simplistic explanations offered by Bede,
and by Eddius, the biographer of Wilfrid, are no longer
accepted[according to whom?].
Bede writes that the dispute was brought to a head by Oswiu's son
Eahlfrith, who had adopted Roman usages at the urging of Wilfrid.
Eahlfrith had been brought up with Irish-Northumbrian usages, and his
rejection of these, along with the expulsion of the future saints
Cuthbert of Lindisfarne
Cuthbert of Lindisfarne and
Eata of Hexham
Eata of Hexham from Ripon, is considered
to have had a strong political component. Equally, 665 would be a
year when, as
Bede writes, "that
Easter was kept twice in one year, so
that when the King had ended
Lent and was keeping Easter, the Queen
and her attendants were still fasting and keeping Palm Sunday".
Oswiu married his son Ecgfrith to Æthelthryth, daughter of the
former East Anglian king Anna.
Even in his final years,
Oswiu remained a major figure in Britain. The
newly appointed Archbishop of Canterbury, Theodore of Tarsus, came
north to meet him in 669.
Bede writes that
Oswiu had intended to
undertake a pilgrimage to
Rome in the company of Bishop Wilfrid.
However, he fell ill and died, aged fifty eight, on 15 February
670. His elder son by Queen Eanflæd, Ecgfrith, succeeded him as
King of Bernicia, while their younger son, Ælfwine, succeeded
Ecgfrith as King of Deira. He was buried at Whitby Abbey, alongside
Edwin of Deira. His widow and their daughter Ælflæd were later
Abbess of Whitby and were also buried there.
Alcuin, writing about a century after Oswiu's death, describes him as
"very just, with equitable laws, unconquered in battle but trustworthy
in peace, generous in gifts to the wretched, pious, equitable to
Oswy was a collector of Holy Relics, for example
Pope Vitalian sent
filings from Saint Peter's chains to
Oswy in the seventh century.
Kings of Mercia family tree
^ Yorke, Kings and Kingdoms, pp. 78–79, 105.
^ Yorke, Kings and Kingdoms, p. 79.
^ Yorke, Kings and Kingdoms, pp. 82, 105.
^ Yorke, Kings and Kingdoms, pp. 48, 80.
^ Yorke, Kings and Kingdoms, pp. 79, 82.
^ Yorke, Kings and Kingdoms p. 82.
^ Fryde et al., Handbook of British Chronology, p. 5.
^ a b Bede, Ecclesiastical History, Book IV, Chapter 5.
^ Bede, Ecclesiastical History, Book III, Chapter 6, states that
Oswald was Acha's son; Kirby, p. 89, and Stancliffe & Cambridge,
p. 13, figure 1, consider it probable that
Oswiu was also her son.
^ Yorke, Kings and Kingdoms, p. 78, 79.
^ Bede, Ecclesiastical History, Book I, Chapter 34 & Book II,
^ Bede, Ecclesiastical History, Book II, Chapter 12.
^ a b c Bede, Ecclesiastical History, Book III, Chapter 1.
^ Æthelfrith's sons were not the first Anglian exiles to seek refuge
in the kingdoms of the north. Hering, son of King Hussa of Bernicia,
is said by the
Anglo-Saxon Chronicle to have fought with Áedán mac
Gabráin, King of Dál Riata, against Æthelfrith, at the Battle of
Degsastan; Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Ms. E, s.a. 603. The choice of a
northerly exile, rather than flight to one of the southerly
Anglo-Saxon kingdoms is discussed by Grimmer, §3–§6.
Oswy thought that nothing could be better than the Irish teaching,
having been instructed and baptized by the Irish, and having a
complete grasp of their language"; Bede, Ecclesiastical History, Book
III, Chapter 5.
^ Grimmer, §8.
^ Annals of Tigernach, s.a. 631; Grimmer, §9.
^ Grimmer, §25; Kirby, p. 143.; Williams, p. 18.
^ Bede, Ecclesiastical History, Book III, Chapters 1–2; Adomnán,
Life of Saint Columba, Book I, Chapter 1; Stancliffe, pp. 46–61.
^ Bede, Ecclesiastical History, Book III, Chapter 9.
^ Higham, Convert Kings, pp. 220–221.
^ a b c Bede, Ecclesiastical History, Book III, Chapter 14.
^ Bede, Ecclesiastical History, Book III, Chapter 15.
^ Their son Ecgfrith was born no later than May 645.
^ Rieinmellt also appears, as Rægnmæld, in the Liber Vitae Ecclesiae
Dunelmensis, among the Queens, immediately preceding Eanflæd; Grimmer
^ Stancliffe & Cambridge, p. 13, figure 1.
^ Eahlflæd is said to have arranged the murder of Peada, in 657 or
658, suggesting that she was not Eanflæd's daughter; Bede, H. E.,
Book III, chapter 24. See also Higham, Convert Kings, pp. 252–253.
Cenwalh of Wessex was driven from his country when he set aside
Penda's sister. Anna of East Anglia, Cenwalh's host, was also driven
into exile, and later defeated and killed by
Penda at Bulcamp, near
Blythburgh in 653 or 654, when he returned to East Anglia.
Deira was ruled by Oswine from 642 to 651, then by Œthelwald until
655 or later, then by Eahlfrith to after 664, and finally by Ecgfrith.
See Kirby, p. 226, figure 7; Yorke, Kings and Kingdoms, p. 75, table
^ Oswine was Oswiu's maternal second cousin; Yorke, Kings and
Kingdoms, p. 76, table 9.
^ Bede, Ecclesiastical History, Book III, Chapter 16.
^ Fraser, p. 20; Annals of Ulster, s.a. 650.
^ Kirby, pp. 93–94; Bede, Ecclesiastical History, Book III, Chapter
^ a b Bede, Ecclesiastical History, Book III, Chapter 24. The Winwæd
is thought to be the River Went; Keynes, "Penda".
^ Kirby, pp. 90, 94–95 accepts that Iudeu, also Giudi, may have been
the site of modern Stirling, and proposes that Ecgfrith became a
hostage as a result of Oswiu's submission to Penda.
^ Historia Brittonum, Chapters 64–65.
^ Kirby, p. 96–97.
^ Or not, needed.
^ Higham, Convert Kings, pp. 252–253, sees Eahlfrith's hand in his
sister's murder of her husband.
^ Bede, Ecclesiastical History, Book III, Chapter 24.
Trumhere was a relation of Queen
Eanflæd and first abbot of
Gilling, established to expiate the killing of Oswine of Deira; Bede,
Ecclesiastical History, Book III, Chapter 24.
^ Higham, Convert Kings, pp. 245–247. Kirby notes Wulfhere's
marriage to Eormenhild, daughter of the Kentish King Eorcenberht, the
one ruler over whom
Oswiu held no sway; Kirby, p. 114.
^ Kirby, p. 96.
^ Bede, Ecclesiastical History, Book III, Chapter 22; Higham, Convert
Kings, p. 249; Kirby, p. 97.
^ The dating is discussed by Kirby, p. 101, who concludes that the
synod can confidently be placed in 644.
^ a b Bede, Ecclesiastical History, Book III, Chapter 25.
^ Higham, Convert Kings, pp. 250–275. For an overview of the Easter
controversy, see Stevens.
^ Proposography of Anglo-Saxon England, quoting Alcuin's The Bishops,
Kings and Saints of York.
^ Wall, J. Charles. (1912), Porches and Fonts. Pub. London: Wells
Gardner and Darton. P. 295.
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Wikisource has original text related to this article:
Ecclesiastical History of the English People
Oswiu 1 at Prosopography of Anglo-Saxon England
Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Oswio". Encyclopædia Britannica.
20 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. p. 365.
Ælle of Sussex
Ceawlin of Wessex
Æthelberht of Kent
Rædwald of East Anglia
Edwin of Deira
Oswald of Bernicia
Oswy of Northumbria
Wulfhere of Mercia 1
Æthelred of Mercia 1
Æthelbald of Mercia 1
Offa of Mercia 1
Cœnwulf of Mercia 1
Egbert of Wessex
1 Not listed in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, but held equivalent or
Monarchs of Northumbria
Deira and Bernicia
Kings of Northumbria
Kings of Viking Northumbria
Sitric I Caech
Olaf I Guthfrithson
Olaf II Cuaran
Ragnall II Guthfrithson
Monarchs of Mercia
Kingdom of Mercia
Oswiu of Northumbria
Ecgberht of Wessex
1Also King of Kent and East Anglia
2Also King of East Anglia
3Recognising West Saxon overlordship
4King of Mercia during the temporary separation of Mercia and Wessex
Monarchs of Deira
Alchfrith (656–664 - joint king)
Monarchs of Bernicia