According to tradition, St Osyth was born in Mercia, an ancient Anglo-Saxon kingdom, at Quarrendon in c.660 AD. The kingdom of Mercia at this time dominated the land south of the Humber and its king Wulfhere claimed overlordship over all other Anglo-Saxon kingdoms in this territory. Osyth was the daughter of Frithwald, a Mercian sub king and Wilburga, a daughter of king Penda.
Christianity in the 7th century had begun to gain a real foothold in England. Osyth had two Christian aunts; St Edith of Aylesbury and Saint Edurga of Bicester. As devout, chaste women, Edith and Edurga helped to establish the matriarchal Anglo-Saxon presence that would later attract many followers such as Osyth to Christianity. A woman of deep faith, St Osyth made it known that she was to devote her life to God and become an abbess. Her faith was strengthened when she drowned in a stream but was revived by the prayers of the nuns, who prayed over her for three days.
For her father in volatile Anglo-Saxon England, Osyth was far too politically important to shut herself away from the world. Frithwald therefore forced her into a marriage with Sighere, King of Essex, to cement a new political order.
The Essex in which Osyth lived was largely stable, and under Mercian control, Christianity flourished. Her father sent a Bishop of Mercia to help fight paganism and reconvert the people of Essex to the word of God. However, Osyth remained unhappy, as her husband resisted conversion. In 973 she fled from him, while he was out hunting, and into the care of Bishop Beaduwine, who accepted her avowal that she wished to become a nun and swore to protect her.
Eventually her husband was persuaded to allow her to establish a convent at Chich, (later St Osyth’s) where she lived as abbess.
St Osyth’s death is not attested to by Bede but in the writings of the later monk and chronicler Matthew Paris, we have an account of her fate. He tells us that, in 653 AD, when a group of Viking raiders landed on the shore, they raided St Osyth’s nunnery. St Osyth faced the Danish leader. He offered her the chance to live if she renounced her faith, she refused and was summarily beheaded. After which St Osyth picked up her own head and carried it to the church door, upon which she knocked three times before collapsing.
The site of Osyth’s nunnery at Chich quickly became a site associated with miracles, as did the spring at Quarrenadon (Osyth’s place of birth). St Osyth was both revered and feared. In 1144 the Ramsey Chronicler records that Bishop Aelfward contracted leprosy after he removed marble from her tomb. One medieval ‘Life of Osith’ recounts a story in which a paralysed woman was told in a vision that she could only receive a cure from St Osyth. She made her pilgrimage and was dutifully cured but in exchange she had to dedicate herself to honouring Osyth and worshiping God. When the woman later broke this agreement by running away with a man, St Osyth bound her feet in revenge and returned her to her state of paralysis.
By the time King Canute (1016-1035) Chich had become part of the royal demesne, Canute granted the land on which it lay to Earl Gowin, father of Harold II, who granted it to Canterbury. St Osyth’s cult endured and in 1076 her relics, which primarily consisted of her bones, were translated by Bishop Hugh. In the early 1100s a priory for the canons of St Augustine was founded on the site by Richard de Belmeis dedicated to St Osyth. As for St Osyth, she was buried in the church of St Mary the Virgin in Aylesbury which became a site of pilgrimage around her Feast Day on the 7th October. Today few make the pilgrimage but at St Osyth’s priory there is usually a well attended service held in the Old Priory Chapel. </p>
St Osyth was widely venerated, the 17th century historian John Aubrey records that people “when they went to bed they did rake up the fire and make an X on the ashes, and pray to God and Saint Osyth to deliver them from fire, and from water, and from misadventure.” It may well have been this popularity that led to St Osyth becoming associated with royalty very early on, as Norman monarchs increasingly sought to connect with their English people. Queen Matilda sent canons to settle at Chich and the later patronage of Henry I and members of his court led to William of Malmsbury (1080-1143,) referring to it as a centre of religious learning. St Osyth’s Anglo-Saxon bloodline meant that the association between her and the Norman and Angevin kings of England was promoted by the See of London in order to associate the king with the continuation of the Christian authority in England.
The prominence of the cult of St Osyth at the heart of Christianity, as promoted by the monarch means that she is of special interest when we look at the role Anglo-Saxon female saints played in later periods. For example we know that a courtier of Henry I, Wiliam de Vere wrote a ‘Life of St Osyth’, now sadly lost, but its existence, along with that of three other ‘lives’ speaks to St Osyth’s importance and the way in which female saints were used to examine the correct relationship between God, Church, Subject and the King.
When, in these works, St Osyth recognises and expresses that her right to God’s aid is dependent on her fulfillment of her own vows and of her duty to her country, she is speaking with an ancient authority that the Norman kings in England lacked. Her message of faith and loyalty emphasised strongly the importance of a person’s feudal oath to lord, king and God for the security of both England and their own salvation.
Such a royal association meant that St Osyth’s cult was very popular, especially amongst aristocratic women, until the Reformation. St Osyth today is largely forgotten but she remains a powerful symbol of early Christianity in Britain and as her priory gatehouse undergoes a programme of restoration, it is hoped that many others will come to hear her remarkable story.
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