Edwin

(c. 585-633)
   Formidable Northumbrian king from 616 to 633; the first ruler of that kingdom to convert to Christianity. A successful warrior, who may have also possessed a substantial fleet, Edwin extended his authority over Britons and Saxons, according to Bede, and was recognized with the title bretwalda, or ruler over several kingdoms. His stature as a king in England made his conversion important and raised the concerns of other kings, including the pagan Penda and his Christian ally Cadwallon.
   Edwin came to the throne in Northumbria after a long exile. The heir to the throne of Deira, Edwin took refuge at the court of a powerful king south of the Humber River. The reigning king in Northumbria, Æthelfrith, demanded his return, but the southern king, Raedwald, refused. The two came to war; Æthelfrith was defeated and killed, and his sons fled into exile. Edwin was welcomed as king of Deira and Bernicia, and eventually succeeded Raedwald as overlord south of the Humber. Indeed, by 626 he was the most powerful figure in England. He married a daughter of Aethelberht of Kent and had contacts with the Merovingian dynasty on the continent. He took possession of the Isle of Man, conquered sections of north Wales, and established a loose confederation, one that foreshadowed more stable and lasting unions. But his invasion of territory ruled by the Britons had dire consequences for his kingdom and his line. He threatened the kingdom of the Briton Cadwallon, the last great native British king. With his pagan ally, Penda of Mercia, Cadwallon launched a counterinvasion of Northumbria in 633. In October of 633, Edwin fought a great battle in Hatfield Chase against Cadwallon and Penda in which he was defeated and killed. Edwin's son Osfrid was killed during the battle while protecting his father. And another son, Eadrid, was forced to submit to Cadwallon and then was killed by him. Edwin's line was thus destroyed, as was his kingdom and political confederation.
   Although he was a powerful king whose authority over much of England foreshadowed later English political organization, Edwin's real importance lies in his conversion to Christianity.
   Even though the faith did not survive in Northumbria in the generation after his death, Edwin established a significant precedent by his conversion. Edwin's conversion, according to Bede, was accompanied by the miraculous. His wife, Æthelberg, daughter of King Æthelberht of Kent, was a Christian, and when he proposed a marriage alliance, Edwin was told that she could not marry a non-Christian. He said that he would not interfere with her religion and would consider adopting it once he had had the opportunity to examine it. He delayed this conversion until several further events passed. He survived an assassination attempt sent by the king of the West Saxons, and witnessed the birth of a daughter, for which he thanked his pagan gods. Bishop Paulinus assured him that it was prayers to Christ that brought Edwin life and happiness. Edwin declared that only when he was victorious over his attempted murderer would he convert, and shortly thereafter he defeated the West Saxon king. He delayed baptism still, however.
   Bede notes that it was a sign offered by Paulinus that finally persuaded the king to convert. While at the court of Raedwald, Edwin, knowing that he was about to be betrayed, had a vision in which he promised a stranger that he would submit to the stranger's teachings if his kingdom were restored to him. The stranger placed his hand on Edwin's head as a sign and shortly thereafter Raedwald was persuaded by his wife to protect Edwin. Later, Paulinus placed his right hand on Edwin's head and asked if he remembered his promise. The final sign convinced Edwin to convert, and on Easter, April 12, 627, he accepted baptism at the hands of Bishop Paulinus. At that moment, Edwin became the first of many later Northumbrian kings to accept Christianity.
   See also
   Bibliography
 ♦ Bede. Ecclesiastical History of the English People with Bede's Letter to Egbert and Cuthbert's Letter on the Death of Bede. Trans. Leo Sherley-Price. Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin, 1991.
 ♦ Blair, Peter Hunter. The World of Bede. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990.
 ♦ Geoffrey of Monmouth. The History of the Kings of Britain. Trans. Lewis Thorpe. Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin, 1982.
 ♦ Randers-Pehrson, Justine Davis. Barbarians and Romans: The Birth Struggle of Europe, a.d. 400-700. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 198s.
 ♦ Stenton, Frank M. Anglo-Saxon England. 3d ed. Oxford: Clarendon, 1971.
 ♦ Whitelock, Dorothy, ed. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1986.

Encyclopedia of Barbarian Europe. 2014.

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