Hereswith

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Hereswith or Hereswitha (Old English: Hǣreswīþ), also spelt Hereswithe, Hereswyde or Haeresvid, was a 7th-century Northumbrian saint. She married into the East Anglian royal dynasty and afterwards retired to Gaul to lead a religious life. Details of her life and identity come from Bede's Historia Ecclesiastica, the Anglian collection and the Lives of Edwin of Northumbria and Hilda of Whitby.

Background[edit]

The Northumbrian royal descent of Hereswith is traced from Edwin of Northumbria (who ruled from about 616 to 632), the son of Ælle, King of the Northumbrian kingdom of Deira. Hereswith was the daughter of Edwin's nephew, Hereric. After Ælle's death, his heir Edwin was sent into exile by the rulers of the northern Northumbrian kingdom of Bernicia. He had at least two siblings, including a sister named Acha, and was Hereswith's grandfather on her father's side. Edwin was received in exile at the court of the powerful Welsh ruler Cadfan ap Iago of Gwynedd and in childhood he was the companion of Cadfan's son Cadwallon.

During the 590s, Æthelfrith became the most powerful ruler in Northumbria. Following the battle of Degsastan in 603, he became sufficiently powerful to absorb Deira within his rule. In his second marriage Æthelfrith married Edwin's sister Acha. Hereric married Breguswith and had two daughters, Hereswith and her younger sister Hild (born around 613). Hereric was exiled and forced to seek protection in the British kingdom of Elmet, then ruled by Ceretic. During Hereric's exile, Edwin lived at the court of Cearl of Mercia, where he married Cearl's daughter and had two sons. Here he fell under the broader protection of the southern English kingdoms whose overlord was Aethelberht of Kent (ruled from about 560 to 616). During the latter part of Æthelberht's rule, power gravitated towards Rædwald of East Anglia, who had signalled his intention to succeed to the dominion of Æthelberht by receiving baptism in Kent from the Roman mission of Saint Augustine.

Æthelfrith of Northumbria wished to destroy Edwin and before 616 forced him into exile. Edwin sought refuge at the court of Rædwald. Æthelfrith attempted to bribe and threaten Rædwald to surrender Edwin or have him killed, but in 616 Rædwald destroyed the Northumbrian king at the Battle of the River Idle and set Edwin on the Northumbrian throne. Around this time, Hereric was treacherously murdered in Elmet by his British hosts, perhaps at the prompting either of Æthelfrith or of Cadwallon, both of whom wished to control Deira. Breguswith searched for him, but in vain. One of Edwin's first actions as king was to absorb Elmet and exile Ceretic in atonement for this crime and Hereric's family became attached to Edwin's household. Edwin, a pagan, had encountered Christianity both in Cadfan's and Rædwald's courts. It is probable that Hereric had witnessed Christian practises whilst in Elmet.

Baptism[edit]

At Rædwald's death in around 624, Edwin replaced him as Bretwalda. He married Æthelburh, daughter of Æthelberht of Kent who was baptised by Paulinus at York in 626, along with Breguswith, Hild and Hereswith. Hereswith was a direct witness of, and participant in, one of the most transforming Christian conversions in early Anglo-Saxon history.

Soon after his conversion, Edwin and Paulinus undertook to convert the Lindsey and East Anglia, then ruled by Rædwald's son Eorpwald. Eorpwald was assassinated soon his conversion and the East Angles turned away from the Christian alliance which Edwin was attempting to forge. The family of Rædwald's brother Eni began to assume power in East Anglia during this time.

Hereswith's marriage[edit]

It was almost certainly in this period, and probably at Edwin's behest, that Hereswith was married to a son of Eni named Æthilric. It is suggested (but not certain) that Æthilric was the same person as Ecgric of East Anglia, who ruled with Sigeberht of East Anglia during the early 630s, when Christianity was restored to East Anglia. This royal alliance suggests that Æthilric was expected to rule and was either already Christian, or had accepted the faith in consequence of the marriage. Edwin was slain by Cadwallon in about 632: Ecgric and Sigeberht died together fighting the pagan Mercian ruler Penda, probably in 636, and Ecgric succeeded by a Christian son of Eni named Anna, who ruled until about 654.

Hereswith's son[edit]

Hereswith and Æthilric's a son Ealdwulf was possibly born during the late 620s. Ealdwulf ruled East Anglia from 664 to 713, after two other sons of Eni, Æthelhere (reigned 654) and Æthelwold had ruled after Anna. Ealdwulf was therefore then seen as the legitimate heir of the Wuffingas household.

Hereswith's departure for Chelles[edit]

During the 640s, Hereswith's sister Hild received teaching from Saint Aidan of Lindisfarne. About 647, she travelled to the court of Anna to join her sister Hereswith in East Anglia. However, Hereswith had already left to live a religious life and as there was then no nunnery in her kingdom she travelled to Gaul and (according to Bede) lived at Chelles Abbey, where there was a royal oratory. Hereswith remained in Gaul for the rest of her life.

Confusions of identity[edit]

The identity of Hereswith's husband Æthilric is shown in the East Anglian dynastic tally known as the Anglian collection and in the list given in the Historia Brittonum, since Æthilric is in both cases shown as the father of Ealdwulf and Bede states that Hild was Ealdwulf's aunt. It is unlikely that other versions which make her the wife of Æthelhere or of Anna can be correct, since her departure for the religious life in Gaul preceded their deaths. Æthilric was probably dead by 647, prompting Hereswith's retirement, and Ecgric is the only other ruler with whom this son of Eni might be identified. The Anglian collection also lists Ælfwald of East Anglia as the son of Ealdwulf, and not of Athilric and Hereswith, as is sometimes stated.

After staying for one year in East Anglia in 647, Hild returned to Northumbria to rule the monastery of Hartlepool and later founded the royal Northumbrian abbey and mausoleum of Whitby, where Edwin was enshrined.

Sources[edit]

  • Bede, Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum, Ed B. Colgrave and R. A. B. Mynors (Oxford 1969).
  • S. J. Plunkett, Suffolk in Anglo-Saxon Times (Tempus, Stroud 2005).
  • F. M. Stenton, "The East Anglian Kings of the Seventh Century", in P. Clemoes (ed.), The Anglo-Saxons (London, 1959), 43-52.
  • PD-icon.svg "St. Hereswitha". Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. 1913.