The Life of St Kyneburgha
From Northumbrian Queen to Mercian Saint
Researched and written by
Avril M Morris MA
The village of Castor, near Peterborough, is dominated by a church with a magnificent Romanesque tower and the unique dedication to St. Kyneburgha. There, has for some time, been considerable speculation as to the identity of this extraordinary lady who was memorable enough to have this lovely building dedicated in her honour. In order to avoid confusion one must be aware that there may, in fact, have been two seventh-century Kyneburghas or Cyneburhs. They could have been aunt and niece-in-law and it is possible that they were also biologically related.
1: Cyneburh of Wessex
The first Cyneburh was the daughter of Cynegils, King of the Gewisse or the West Saxons (611-643). Venerable Bede, the only trustworthy pre-Conquest, documentary source, describes her father as having received religious instruction from Bishop Birinus of Genoa and was baptized into the Christian Faith in 635. Cynegils was a friend and ally of Oswald of Northumbria (634-642) who stood as his godfather (1). Shortly afterwards, Oswald married Cynegils' daughter, whom Reginald of Durham, (died 1170) names as Cyneburh (2). Oswald's nephew, Alhfrith, later married Cyneburh of Mercia, daughter of King Penda, which would make the princesses related through marriage (3). (See Genealogy Tables)
But did Cynegils have an older daughter, Cynewise, who had married Penda of Mercia (4) prior to her family's conversion to Christianity? If so, she may have named her own daughter Cyneburh in honour of her sister. Therefore, this would have made the two Cyneburhs also biologically related. A second daughter was called Cyneswith, thus perpetuating the 'Cyne' element of her father, Cynegils' name.
Oswald, was killed by Penda in the battle of Maserfelth c. 642 (5). According to Reginald of Durham, his widow, Cyneburh, then took the veil (6). But was Reginald the Monk confusing her with our Cyneburh?
2: Cyneburh of Mercia
The second Cyneburh was the daughter of the heathen King Penda of Mercia and Cynewise, his wife. By 653, she had married Alhfrith of Deira, son of the most-Christian Oswiu of Northumbria, as part of an 'alliance' between the two usually hostile kingdoms. (Hugh Candidus, the twelfth-century Peterborough chronicler, says he 'loved her greatly'.) Obviously the arrangement was an attempt to found a dynasty in a rival territory. The union may have produced a son, Osric, who ruled Northumbria 718-729.
Plate 1. Possible carving of Alhfrith on the Bewcastle Cross, Cumbria
By 654, a second marriage was being negotiated between Peada, son of Penda, and Alhflaed, daughter of Oswiu. However, the Northumbrian king stipulated that first Peada must accept Christianity, which he was prepared to do whether he won the hand of the maiden or not. He was baptized by Finan, the Celtic Bishop of Lindisfarne (7). The royal couple returned to Mercia. Peada had already been appointed by his father as sub-king of the Middle Angles, whose province covered Northamptonshire and Leicestershire (8). Therefore, it is very likely that he and Alhflaed chose to live in this area. They may have taken up residence on the site of the massive but derelict Roman villa on the terrace at Castor. The reasons for this choice were four-fold:
i: It was close to an excellent Roman road system which was still in use - the Fen Causeway which led into the heart of East Anglia and King Street which linked with Ermine Street.
ii: The River Nene was navigable and there was a Roman wharf at Castor.
iii:The site commanded an excellent view of the Nene Valley.
iv:It was close to the border with East Anglia. Thus, Peada would be able to maintain a presence, on a site previously associated with Roman authority.
Peada and Alhflaed brought with them four Celtic-trained priests whose mission it was to evangelize the whole of Mercia which they apparently did with considerable success (9). However, it is unlikely that the formidable Penda allowed the establishment of any churches or monasteries during his life-time. This did not happen until Oswiu and Alhfrith, Cyneburh's husband, had defeated and mortally wounded his arch-rival, Penda, in the battle of Winwaed, in 654. Magnanimous in victory, Oswiu appointed his son-in-law, Peada, who appears to have been absent from the conflict, as 'client-king', of the South Mercians. Together, as gesture of thanksgiving, Oswiu and Peada founded the first Mercian monastery at Medeshamstede [Peterborough] in AD 654 (10).
Cyneburh appears to have remained in Northumbria, probably residing somewhere in her husband's sub-kingdom of Deira [Durham/North Yorkshire]. One may assume that she was introduced to Christianity not only by her father-in-law but also by the ostensibly-devout Alhfrith. His friends included some of the most ambitious and learned young clerics of the age:
i: Wilfrid (634-709), later Bishop of Lindisfarne, but, unfortunately, disliked by Oswiu. He founded the great abbeys of Ripon (665) & Hexham (672-678).
ii: Benedict Biscop (628-690), who built the 'flagship' monasteries of Wearmouth (674) & Jarrow (681).
These two prominent gentlemen espoused themselves to the Roman form of Christianity, as opposed to its more ascetic Celtic or Irish counterpart favoured by Oswiu, and made regular pilgrimages to Rome, returning with exquisite artefacts and relics with which to adorn their churches. Alhfrith had, wanted to accompany them, in 653, but Oswiu thwarted his plans (11). After 664, Alhfrith vanishes from all records and it is generally assumed that his demise was due to an unsuccessful attempt to oust his own father (12). This was not the first time that he had embarked upon such a plot. In 643, he had fought alongside Penda against Oswiu (13). A carved cross at Bewcastle (Cumbria) appears to have been erected in his honour c. 718, possibly near the spot where he died or was buried. It bears the weather-beaten dedication to 'Alcfrith, a king . . . and son of Oswy, husband of Cyniburug' (14). The inclusion of her name in at least two runic inscriptions not only suggests that her influence had extended beyond her own province and was remembered long after her departure, but also that she had remained Alhfrith's consort until his death.
Plate 2. The Bewcastle Cross as it may have appeared circa 718
The Nunnery at Castor
Cyneburh seems to have withdrawn to Mercia following her husband's dis-appearance, c. 664. Perhaps, she was expelled by her father-in-law. Alternatively, she may have felt it prudent to return to her own province. Oswiu would have ensured that her son, Osric, would almost certainly have been left behind. Could he have raised the monument at Bewcastle in his parents' memory some fifty years later?
By 664 Mercia, superficially at least, was now a Christian kingdom, though without doubt vestiges of paganism may still have lingered. Wulfhere, Cyneburh's brother, had acceded to the throne shortly after the murder of Peada, allegedly by his wife, Alhflaed, at Easter 656, and the expulsion of the Northumbrian 'oppressors' (15). Mercia was now a powerful and independent state, but Cyneburh's presence may have been viewed as somewhat of an embarrassment. She may, by 664, have been past child-bearing age and would have proved difficult to re-marry.
At this time, no known convent existed in the province to which to despatch her, a fate which befell many dowager Anglo-Saxon queens; so, perhaps, Wulfhere realized the golden opportunity to establish one in her name as a complementary house for nuns to Medeshamstede, the first and, until now, the only Mercian abbey founded by Cyneburh's brother and father-in-law, Peada and Oswiu.
However, it is more probable that it was at Cyneburh's own instigation that the 'double monastery' was founded. Her husband's friend and mentor, Bishop Wilfrid, later proved to be very efficient at luring Northumbrian queens into convents with the promises of eternal life. He was instrumental in encouraging Aethelthryth [Etheldreda] of East Anglia to abandon her husband, Ecgfrith, another of Oswiu's sons, in order to take the veil. She later founded the Abbey of Ely (16). Could Wilfrid have also influenced Cyneburh into taking her vows, thus ensuring that he had a useful ally in Mercia?
Wulfhere, another friend of Wilfrid, may have placed the hypothetical Middle-Anglian villa regalis at Castor at Cyneburh's disposal. It had probably been redundant since Peada's death and was, no doubt, in an advanced state of decay. Nevertheless, its aristocratic connexions and close proximity to the river and Roman road system could have proved irresistible to both the Mercian king, whose power base was at Tomtun [Tamworth], and for his sister, who may have wished to revive an earlier nucleus of Romano-British Christianity (17).
So Cyneburh became the foundress and first abbess of Dormundescastre (18) a 'double monastery' for both nuns and monks. The latters' duty was to perform manual tasks, according to their status and ability, and to offer pastoral care to the local community, whilst the nuns would have spent their time in intercessory prayer and handicrafts. There could also have been a resident priest to say masses for Cyneburh's dead relatives. One wonders if, her father, Penda's unredeemed soul was included.
As previously discussed, at the Northumbrian Court, Cyneburh would have been exposed to the persuasive tongue of Wilfrid, who, like her husband favoured the form of Christianity, as dictated from Rome, instead of the stricter and largely independent Celtic or Irish version, the main bone of contention being canonical rites and the date of Easter. Wilfrid played a prominent role at the Synod of Whitby of 664, which Cyneburh may have attended with her husband. The Roman cause won the day and, flushed with success, Alhfrith immediately despatched his friend off to Gaul to be consecrated bishop according to his church's tradition (19). Therefore, upon Cyneburh's return to her homeland shortly after the decisive Synod, one may conjecture that her nunnery would have been closely followed the Roman doctrine.
Despite the abundance of dressed stone in the vicinity, it is unlikely that this commodity was pressed into service. The Middle Angles did not yet have the technology to use it. Even Bishop Wilfrid and Benedict Biscop had to import masons from France to create Ripon and Hexham, Wearmouth and Jarrow some years later (20). Therefore, one may conclude that the first church and ancillary buildings on the site were constructed from timber and thatch.
Among Cyneburh's followers was her sister, Cyneswith, who may have been briefly married to King Offa of the East Angles. Upon the death of the foundress c. 680, she succeeded her as abbess (21). One may speculate that their companions were also of noble birth. Anglo-Saxon convents were not refuges for the poor but a place to deposit devout gentlewomen, widowed aristocrats and unmarriageable daughters, all of whom brought with them a substantial dowry. The archaeological finds at the site include a comb and items of jewellery, suggesting that the residents enjoyed a reasonably high standard of living (22).
Nor were Cyneburh and Cyneswith incarcerated in their monastery. If the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle is to be believed, they acted with their brothers, Aethelred and Merewahl, in an advisory capacity to Wulfhere over the completion of the Abbey of Medeshamstede after Peada's untimely death (23). According to the twelfth-century forgery of Wulfhere's Charter of 664, the two nuns were present at its dedication ceremony. Bishop Wilfrid, and even more astonishingly, Cyneburh's father-in-law, Oswiu, the Abbey's co-founder, also attended. However, Alhfrith, Peada's close friend, was conspicuous by his absence, prompting one to speculate that he had already met his demise (24).
The fact that Wulfhere valued his sister's opinion and that she had been astute enough to escape the wrath of Oswiu, after her husband fell from grace, and had possibly even won his respect, suggests that she was either a consummate diplomat or a force to be reckoned with. After all, she was the formidable Penda's daughter! Wulfhere may well have considered it politic to appoint the Abbess of Dormundescastre as a 'client ruler' of the buffer territory of the Middle Angles, just as a decade earlier his father had installed Peada as sub-king of this area (25) and Merewahl as governor of the Westerna or Magonsaete on the Welsh Marches (26). Thus, confident that his marginal territories were under control, he would he free to concentrate upon establ- ishing his administrative and religious complex centred at Tamworth (27).
Cyneburh may well have had some experience of government at the Deiran court while her husband was conducting his campaigns. Her lot cannot have been easy, living with Alhfrith and all his machinations, not to mention the possibly-strained relationship with Oswiu, who was responsible for the death of her own father. She must certainly have had strength of character and faith in her new religion in order to survive. One may draw parallels with other indomitable seventh-century ladies, such as Abbess Hild who hosted the Synod of Whitby (28) and Oswiu's queen, Eanflaed, who was doubtlessly instrumental in persuading her husband to adopt the Roman stance at the Council despite the fact that he had spent his formative years at the Celtic monastery of Iona (29).
After their deaths, the royal sisters were laid to rest within the church they had founded at Castor. Early in the ninth century, a workshop for master sculptors was established at Medeshamstede, which is described by historians as the 'Peterborough School'. A magnificent sarcophagus depicting a series of saints standing on tip-toe beneath a foliated arcade, was constructed to house the princesses, mortal remains. The surviving fragment of a single nimbed figure and part of a second bear a remarkable resemblance to those displayed on the 'Hedda Stone' in Peterborough Cathedral. A Roman altar was carved with winged dragons whose tails interlace. It is believed that it was employed as one of the supports upon which the saints' feretory rested (30). No doubt, upon their elevation, rumours circulated regarding the incorrupt condition of their bodies and of miracles associated with the site. These were two of the acknowledged signs of sainthood and reports of these phenomena would be spread by the convent's inhabitants in order to generate interest and to attract pilgrims to the shrine, thus providing a lucrative source of income.
Plate 3. Fragment of the sarcophagus at Castor
The enshrinement of the saints may have coincided with the reconstruction of the monastery in stone c. 825-850. However, its prosperity was short-lived. Disaster must have befallen the community, possibly at the hands of the Danes, c. 870, for Hugh Candidus records that, by 963, the church at Cyneburch-caster [Castor] was in a 'much ruined' state. Furthermore, the dastardly monks of Ramsey were preparing to steal the princesses' relics and carry them of to their own establishment. Fortunately, a certain monk of Peterborough called Leofwin had, through the medium of prayer, invited the saintly sisters to join the rapidly increasing collection of relics at his monastery. His request was granted and Cyneburh and Cyneswith, together with their kinswoman, St. Tibba of Ryhall, were translated without delay (31). Sadly, the mortal remains of the three saints were either destroyed in the conflagration of 1116 or vanished during the Reformation, although a chapel is consecrated in their honour in the Cathedral.
More remarkably, Cyneburh's name is also perpetuated in her church at Castor, some 1336 years after its foundation. Her saint's day is still celebrated here, each year on 7 March, the anniversary of her translation. She is also remembered in the Roman track known as Lady Conyburrow's Way, which once led from Castor Field to Durobrivae (32). There is a charming legend which relates that a balk miraculously appeared when Cyneburh, while on a mission of mercy, was pursued by three villains intent on compromising her. A chasm opened up behind her and engulfed her assailants while a carpet of flowers sprang from the contents of her spilled basket. Thus, her honour was preserved (33). The capital of one of the pillars beneath the tower depicts two men locked in armed combat, while a tearful maiden turns her back on the scene. Is this folk-lore preserved in stone? Or is it an eleventh-century allegory representing Penda, her father, and either Oswui, her father-in-law, or Alhfrith, her husband, all of whom may be perceived as preventing Cyneburh from following her true vocation? In this case, Penda, Oswiu and Alhfrith may be interpreted as the three ruffians, all of whom were capable of committing the foulest of deeds in order to fulfil their ambitions. The carpet of flowers is, perhaps, intended to symbolize Cyneburh's blossoming church.
Plate 4. Kyneburgha and two of the ruffians
With all this evidence in her favour, St. Kyneburgha's existence cannot be disputed. She is mentioned by Venerable Bede in his Ecclesiastical History, the only reliable Anglo-Saxon source. She also appears in both Manuscript E of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (ASC [E]) and in the Peterborough Chronicles of Hugh Candidus. However, these latter works though written, in Peterborough, were compiled almost five-hundred years after her death and may be a little less trustworthy. Two other medieval historians, William of Malmesbury and John [Florence] of Worcester, also mention her in passing. Nevertheless, it is not until the fourteenth century that John of Tynemouth, a monk of St. Albans (c. 1325-48), began to carefully research her life and that of her sister for his biography of English saints. He appears to have collated all the available information and reached the conclusion that her monastery was situated not far from the River Nene, 'about two miles from Peterborough and is called by the inhabitants simply Castre'. It is upon John of Tynemouth's hagiography that subsequent accounts are based (33). One may deduce from this conglomeration of Anglo-Saxon and medieval references to her life that, apart from being revered as a saint, she must also have truly been a fascinating, courageous and probably formidable character to generate so much interest and speculation over a millennium after her death and even until this present day.
Bibliography & Notes
1) HE, iii. 7; ASC (A), AD 635.
2) HE., iii. 7; 'Vita S. Oswaldi, Regis et Martyris', In: Symeonis Monachi Opera Omnia, Vol. I, ed. T. Arnold (London, 1882), c. xi, p. 349; S. Lee, ed., Dictionary of National Biography, Vol. XLVII (London, 1896), p. 422.
3) HE., iii. 21. Cynegils son, Cenwahl, was married to Penda's sister, but he abandoned her and took another wife, which upset Penda considerably (HE., iii. 7).
4) HE., iii. 24.
5) Ibid., iii. 9.
6) 'Vita S. Oswaldi', c. xi, p. 349.
7) HE., iii. 21; The Peterborough Chronicle of Hugh Candidus, ed. & trans. C. & W. T. Mellows (revised edn., Peterborough, 1997), p. 3.
8) Ibid., iii. 21.
9) Ibid., iii. 21. The priests' freedom of movement could also provide Oswiu with valuable intelligence.
10) Ibid., iii. 24. (South Mercia was the land lying to the south of the River Trent.) ASC (E), AD 654.
11) Bede, Lives of the Abbots of Wearmouth & Jarrow, c. ii; Eddius Stephanus, Life of Wilfrid, c. 55. AD 653 was the year of Alhfrith's marriage to Cyneburh. Did his travel plans interfere with Oswiu's wedding arrangements or did he intend to take Cyneburh with him?
12) E. Shipley Duckett, Anglo-Saxon Saints & Scholars (New York, 1948), p. 139-40.
13) HE., iii. 14.
14) G. Baldwin Brown, The Arts of Anglo-Saxon England, Vol. V (London, 1921), pp. 314, 201, inserts. between pp. 244 & 245; F. Stenton, Anglo-Saxon England (3rd. edn., Oxford, 1971), p. 151.
15) HE., iii. 24; ASC (E) AD 654.
16) HE., iv. 19 (17). Eanflaed, Oswiu's queen, also retired to a monastery, at Whitby, where her daughter, Aelflaed, was abbess (HE., iv. 26).
17) K. Painter, 'The Water Newton Silver Treasure', In: Durobrivae, IV (1976), pp. 7-9. The hoard was discovered beneath the Roman town of Durobrivae. It consisted of several artefacts bearing the chi- rho motif which demonstrated that Christianity was being practised in the Nene Valley in the early 4th century.
18) R. Gough, 'Castor, Caistre or Castre', In: Bibliotheca Britannica, Vol. X (London, 1819 ), p. 99.
19) HE., iii. 28. This was Alhfrith's last recorded act before he disappears without trace.
20) Eddius, Life of Wilfrid, c. 22; Bede, Lives of the Abbots, c. 5.
21) D. Farmer, The Oxford Dictionary of Saints (Oxford, 1987), p. 107.
22) C. Dallas, 'The Nunnery of St. Kyneburgha', In: Durobrivae, I (1973), p. 17.
23) ASC (E) AD 656; Mellows (1997), p. 4. Both these chronicles were compiled in the early- 12th century.
24) W. de Gray Birch, Cartularium Saxonicum, Vol. I (London, 1885), No. 22, 'Grant of Wulfere, King of the Mercians etc. to the Monastery of Medeshamstede of various lands & privileges, AD 664'.
25) HE., iii. 21.
26) B. Yorke, Kings & Kingdoms in Early Anglo-Saxon England (London, 1990), p. 107.
27) This complex may have included Lichfield Cathedral, the 'double monastery' and later royal mausoleum at Repton, the monastery at Breedon-on-the-Hill (Leics.) and, of course, the royal vicus at Tamworth (A. M. Morris, 'The Anglian Abbey of Medeshamstede: its sphere of influence & its Northumbrian connexions' (unpublished MA theses, Leicester University, 1999), pp. 40-44.
28) HE., iv. 23, iii. 25.
29) HE., iii. 25; iii. 1.
30) I. Henderson, 'Anglo-Saxon Sculpture: In Cambridgeshire Churches, ed. C. Hicks (Stamford, 1997), pp. 223-4.
31) J. Sparke, Historia Anglicanae Scriptoria Varii (London, 1723), p. 33; Mellows (1997), p. 23; ASC (E), AD 693. it is interesting to note that, as late as 1545, Castor Church was dedicated to St. Kyneburgha, St. Kyneswitha & St. Tibba (R. M. Sergeantson & H. Isham Longden, 'Religious Houses in Northamptonshire: their dedications, images, altars & lights', In: Report from the Archaeological Journal, Vol. LXX, 2nd Series , p. 295). The sisters' sarcophagus may have had a central division to separate their bones as with the shrine of Abbots Eosterwine & Sigfith at Wearmouth (Bede, Lives, c. 20).
32) J. Morton, Natural History of Northants. (London, 1712), p. 510-1; Gough (1819 ), p. 99.
33) Morton (1712), p. 511; VCH., Northants., Vol. II (1906), p. 473. The path was, undoubtedly, the Roman road linking Durobrivae with King Street.
34) Dallas (1973), p. 17.