697 AD The Mysterious Affair of Osthryth or Why not Mercia!


Sunday September 1st was closing day for the Staffordshire Hoard exhibition at Stoke-on-Trent museum. They plan to re-open in about 2 months in upgraded rooms. And we are still waiting for the re-opening of the Dark Ages rooms at the British Museum of London…

Interestingly, it gives an unexpected angle about the origin of the hoard and the elusive Mercian murder case of 697 AD.

Care to remember: Bede writes that this was the year where Osthryth, (King Oswiu’s daughter and Aethelred’s wife thus a Lady of the Mercians as I have been told the concept of Queenship was not as formalized as in Frankia, Langobardia etc) was murdered by her own household… and that is where ‘the plot thickens’.

Mercia was more or less permamently at war with Northumbria. Why then her half-brother did not avenge her death? Allow me to put a metaphorical deerstalker on and my dear Dr Blog let’s ravel up this crime story…

Northumbria did not avenge her death. Right? Would have Northumbria avenge the death of her half-sister when in somewhere about 656 AD said sister called Alchflaed had murdered Peada her husband : King of Mercia and himself half-brother of Aethelred?

Yes, it is very complicated and kind of creepy when two families whose manfolk are keen at killing each other on a battlefield (Aedwin of Deira, Oswald of Northumbria, Penda of Mercia… if not more) are just as keen at marrying their youths hoping for what: peaceweaving? or giving a chance to their womanfolk to kill their spouses.

Either these people were stupid or they were planning to outdo the Verona Capulet and Montaigu.

Naturally, what did you expect, Aethelred killed Ostryth’s brother. So lots and loads of bad blood between our happy couple. That Osthryth would end up killed like her brother, uncle, father and brother-in-law etc does not come as a surprise. What is surprising is that her native realm did not wage war?

Had she been… well… unworthy, unfaithful? Giving solid ground to be killed by an irate? cuckholded? untrustful husband? Had her household avenge the honour of his king or neutralized a would be traitor? And we are not told that a weregild was paid which could happen when a royal died of un-natural causes and said cause felt slightly guilty…

A cheating wife would be rejected by Northumbria and would not be avenged. Bede’s silence would be understandable. Just like on what exactly happened to Achflaed after she got rid of her Mercian husband… because here also there is a mistery…

The Mercian attitude contradicts this version of events. Far from being disowned, Osthryth is buried at Bardney Abbey: a monastery she had endowed with gifts when she was alive and her husband carries on after her death. The monks who grumbled against having St Oswald (her paternal uncle killed by her father-in-law Penda) ’ s head do not grumble. Years later, Aethelred who will abdicate becomes abbot of said monastery, gets himself buried there and the finally re-united couple become local saints. And Royal Mercian Saints (always useful to have Saints in a family) copying shamelessly the Kentish and Deiran Saintly couples Aethelberht/Bertha, Aedwin/Aethelburg.

Sainthood allows loads of un-orthodoxical lives but certainly not criminal activities. Osthryth of Mercia as a saint is in few words proclaimed by Mercians a virtuous, blameless, innocent queen grieviously murdered and probably while doing her duty to her Lord and King.

If Osthryth was indeed an innocent victim of her household and at worst a bit too fangirling about her sainted uncle Oswald; why then Northumbria did not start a war or to the least showed some anger?

There is only one answer to that: the assassination of any Queen would have raised questions, and wardrumming… just like 150 years earlier in Frankia when Queen Galswinthe mysteriously got strangled. It must have been just as much a scandal than it had been in Gaul. People would have talked about it and where Chilperic, Galswinthe’s very dodgy widower was suspected and a blood feud/faida war started between him and his sister-in-law Galswinthe’s sister which provides interesting reading in Gregory of Tours and Fredegar’s chronicles… here nothing.

Bede had no choice but mentionned the Scandal of 697 AD. Had no choice and must have relish at pointing at the criminals: her Mercian household. But stops short of writing what really happened.

Until we pry between the words, the not-said and get a different picture. Fair enough, poor Osthryth got killed by her Mercians. Do we entertain the notion a ‘Saintly’ wife would not have been avanged by a king soon to become himself a saint? No.

Bede says nothing because he would have been obliged to acknowledge that her husband did the right thing. For Bede, to write that a Mercian would be doing ‘good’ is anathema. For her Northumbrian brother though, Aethelred attitude must have been ringing true.

Hence, we know now poor Osthryth is killed without her husband knowedge/approval; but why a saint. Royal female saints were like Anna’s daughter Ethelreda, twice married, still a virgin – better than Radegunde or like Bertha whose virtues seem to have been a good spouse and helping the conversion of Kent or like her daughter Aethelburg again good wife, Deira’s conversion helper and then abbess! Osthryth must have been a good wife: Aethelred’s decision to end his days in the monastery where she was buried after having lavished gifts and lands on said abbey would suggest two things either he was feeling guilty or he was really missing her. But being a good wife is not enough for sainthood…

And this really got me thinking. We are in 697 AD, we are in the middle of Beowulf’s psychological timeframe. Osthryth was generous with the church but this is not enough. Her mother Eanflaed was a good wife and generous with the church. Still. her mother never made it to Sainthood. I was thinking and considering a three pipes problem when the Oswald background gave me the Eureka moment.

One can and did become a Saint in these days for heroic behaviour , some sort of secular martyrdom. What if the good wife had risen to the occasion, proven her unquestionable credentials as a true Lady of the Mercians. And we have Oswald’s head and in these days , gold was generously pouring about saintly relics…

I was not there but somehow Osthryth must have ….protected her husband’s treasure chest? … defended saintly relics? …. whatever she defended was a treasure and she paid this protection with her life.

But what treasure? Imagine three robbers: the king is gone hunting; the queen is at church praying: these members of the queen household start pilfering the king’s coffers… when the queen turns up much earlier than ancitipated… they have been found out… she calls for help and is killed in the process. The robbers avoid getting caught but leave with only one tenth of what was going to be the greatest robbery of the 7th century.

Aethelred does not take kindly on being robbed, made a widower and getting at risk of another and this time justified war from Northumbria. The robbers hide the treasure, separate and hope that the scandal will quiet down. But it does not, Aethelred is really angry and cannot care less for what has been stolen. He wants the murderers dead or alive and probably alive…

Were they caught? If they had not been, Bede would have jumped on the occasion to blacken Mercia a bit more. Caught and dispatched they were. The treasure was never found; war was avoided and Mercia got its own royal saintly couple.

Now, my dear doctor Blog: tell me if this theory does not sort out a lot of loose ends…

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