King Edwin

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 materialized 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 center 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 view 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 honor. 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, Encyclopedia, Farmer).