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Saint Osgyth
An illuminated capital commencing the anonymous "La Vie seinte Osith, virge e martire" (Campsey Manuscript, British Library Additional Ms 70513, fol. 134v)
BornQuarrendon, Buckinghamshire
Died700 AD
Venerated inEastern Orthodox Church
Catholic Church
Anglican Communion
Feast7 October
AttributesDepicted carrying her own head[citation needed], represented in art with a stag behind her and a long key hanging from her girdle, or otherwise carrying a key and a sword crossed, a device which commemorates St. Peter, St. Paul and St. Andrew[1]
Queen consort of Essex
BornQuarrendon, Buckinghamshire, Mercia
SpouseSighere of Essex
FatherFrithuwold of Surrey

Osgyth (or Osyth; died c. 700 AD) was an English saint. She is primarily commemorated in the village of Saint Osyth, Essex, near Colchester. Alternative spellings of her name include Sythe, Othith and Ositha. Born of a noble family, she founded a priory near Chich which was later named after her.


Born in Quarrendon, Buckinghamshire (at that time part of Mercia), she was the daughter of Frithwald, a sub-king of Mercia in Surrey. Her mother was Wilburga, the daughter of the pagan King Penda of Mercia.[2] Her parents, with St. Erconwald, founded Chertsey Abbey in AD 675.

Raised in the care of her maternal aunts, St Edith of Aylesbury and Edburga of Bicester, her ambition was to become an abbess, but she was too important as a political pawn to be set aside.[3] She was forced by her father into a dynastic marriage with Sighere, King of Essex. While her husband ran off to hunt down a beautiful white stag, Osgyth persuaded two local bishops to accept her vows as a nun. Upon his return some days later, he reluctantly agreed to her decision and granted her some land at Chich near Colchester where she established a convent,[2] and ruled as first abbess. She was beheaded by some raiding pirates, perhaps because she may have resisted being carried off.[2]


One day, St. Edith sent Osgyth, to deliver a book to St. Modwenna of Northumbria at her nunnery. To get there, reach Osgyth had to cross a stream by a bridge. The stream swollen, the wind high, she fell into the water and drowned. Her absence was not noted for two days. Edith thought she was safe with Modwenna who was not expecting her visit. On the third day, Edith, wondering that her pupil had not returned, went to Modwenna. The abbesses were greatly concerned when they discovered Osgyth was apparently lost. They searched for her and found the child lying near the banks of the stream. The abbesses prayed for her restoration, and commanded her to arise from the water and come to them. This she did.[4] A similar tale is found in Irish hagiography.

Her later death was accounted a martyrdom by some, but Bede makes no mention of Saint Osgyth. The 13th-century chronicler Matthew Paris repeats some of the legend that had accrued around her name. The site of her martyrdom became transferred to the holy spring at Quarrendon. The holy spring at Quarrendon, mentioned in the time of Osgyth's aunts, now became associated with her legend, in which Osgyth stood up after her execution, picking up her head like Saint Denis in Paris, and other cephalophoric martyrs and walking with it in her hands, to the door of a local convent, before collapsing there. Some modern authors link the legends of cephalophores miraculously walking with their heads in their hands[5] to the Celtic cult of heads.

Gatehouse of the former St Osyth's Priory (later abbey), St Osyth, Essex


On the site of a former nunnery at Chich, Richard de Belmeis of London, in the reign of Henry I founded a priory for canons of Saint Augustine, and dedicated it to Saint Osgyth;[3] his remains were buried in the chancel of the church in 1127: he bequeathed the church and tithes to the canons, who elected as their first abbot or prior William de Corbeil, afterwards Archbishop of Canterbury (died in 1136).

His benefactions, and charters and privileges granted by Henry II, made the Canons wealthy: at the Dissolution of the monasteries in 1536, its revenues were valued at £758 5s. 8d. yearly. In 1397 the abbot of St Osgyth was granted the right to wear a mitre and give the solemn benediction, and, more singularly, the right to ordain priests, conferred by Pope Boniface IX.[6] The gatehouse (illustrated), the so-called 'Abbot's Tower' and some ranges of buildings remain.

Osgyth's burial site at St. Mary the Virgin, Aylesbury became a site of great, though unauthorized pilgrimage; following a papal decree in 1500, the bones were removed from the church and buried in secret. The Catholic Encyclopedia (1913) gives Saint Osgyth no mention. Undeterred, according to the curious 17th-century antiquary John Aubrey (author of the Brief Lives), "in those days, when they went to bed they did rake up the fire, and make a X on the ashes, and pray to God and Saint Sythe (Saint Osgyth) to deliver them from fire, and from water, and from all misadventure." A house in Aylesbury is still called St Osyth's in her honour.

Her feast day is 7 October. She is normally depicted carrying her own head.[citation needed]


  1. ^ "St. Osith". Britannia.com.
  2. ^ a b c Butler, Alban. "St Osyth, Martyr", Butler's Lives of the Saints, Vol. 10, Liturgical Press, 1995, p. 46ISBN 9780814623862
  3. ^ a b "History", St. Osyth Priory
  4. ^ Dunbar, Agnes. "A Dictionary of Saintly Women" (1904) This article incorporates text from this source, which is in the public domain.
  5. ^ White, Beatrice, "A Persistent Paradox" Folklore 83.2 (Summer 1972), pp. 122-131, at p. 123: "The stories of St. Edmund, St. Kenelm, St. Osgyth, and St. Sidwell in England, St. Denis in France, St. Melor and St. Winifred in Celtic territory, preserve the pattern and strengthen the link between legend and folklore," (White 1972:123)
  6. ^ Egerton Beck, "Two Bulls of Boniface IX for the Abbot of St. Osyth" The English Historical Review 26.101 (January 1911:124-127).

Further reading[edit]

  • Oxford Dictionary of National Biography
  • Biographical Dictionary of Dark Age Britain.
  • Geoffrey of Burton's life of Modwenna includes material on Osgyth.
  • Bethell, Denis (1970). "The Lives of St. Osyth of Essex and St. Osyth of Aylesbury". Analecta Bollandiana. 88 (1–2): 75–127. doi:10.1484/J.ABOL.4.01184. ISSN 0003-2468.
  • Bailey, "Osyth, Frithuwold and Aylesbury" in Records of Buckinghamshire 31 (1989)
  • Hohler, "St Osyth and Aylesbury", Records of Buckinghamshire 18.1 (1966).

External links[edit]