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Osgyth [St Osgyth, Osyth, Osith]locked

(fl. late 7th cent.)
  • John Blair

Osgyth [St Osgyth, Osyth, Osith] (fl. late 7th cent.), abbess of Chich, is an extreme illustration of the problems of elucidating the lives of the first generation of princess-saints from late hagiographies. In two twelfth-century lives, themselves known only from later and fragmentary versions, two distinct bodies of tradition, one apparently derived from Aylesbury, and the other from Chich, Essex, were conflated and confused with legends of St Modwenna of Burton and St Eadgyth of Polesworth. Furthermore, it remains uncertain whether the Aylesbury and Chich legends genuinely referred to one woman, or to different though near-contemporary women of the same name.

The essentials of the twelfth-century narrative are as follows. Osgyth was the daughter of a King ‘Fredeswald’ and his wife, Wilburh, daughter of Penda and sister of Wulfhere, king of the Mercians. She was born in her father's palace at Quarrendon, Buckinghamshire, and was brought up at Aylesbury in the nunnery of her aunt St Eadgyth. On a journey to visit another aunt, St Eadburh, at Adderbury, she drowned in the Cherwell, but was revived by the prayers of Eadburh and Eadgyth. Despite her wish to remain a virgin, her parents married her to King Sigehere of the East Saxons [see under East Saxons, kings of the], but she was miraculously saved from consummating the marriage. Sigehere accepted the inevitable and gave Osgyth the vill of Chich, where she took the veil, gathered a community of nuns, and built a church and monastic buildings. She was kidnapped by pirates, who beheaded her after she refused to worship idols. In one version her parents collected the body for burial at Aylesbury; in the other it was buried at Chich, taken to Aylesbury for safe keeping for forty-six years, but then returned.

Both the Buckinghamshire and the Essex stories are consistent with known late seventh-century conditions. 'Fredeswald' can probably be identified with Frithuwald, the Mercian sub-king who endowed Chertsey Minster in 672–4 and whose kingdom may have extended from the lower Thames northwards across the Chilterns. Other daughters of Penda were abbesses, and Eadgyth may be the saint of that name later venerated at Bicester: the Buckinghamshire tradition embodied genuine memories of early local saints. Aylesbury can be identified archaeologically as an eighth-century religious site. There are also indications, both written and archaeological, that Chich was an Anglo-Saxon minster.

But were there two Osgyths, or merely one? Essex was within the Mercian ambit, and a marriage alliance between an East Saxon king and a niece of the Mercian overlord Wulfhere is wholly plausible; the chronology also fits well. The main difficulty is that there were two feast days (3 June at Aylesbury, 7 October at Chich) and two corpses. The saint's relics are located at Chich in the earlier part of the Old English list of resting places, but the later version in the Domesday Breviate has Osgyth entries for both Chich and Aylesbury. Furthermore, in 1501–2 the vicar of Aylesbury tried unsuccessfully to elevate a corpse of St Osgyth buried in his church. The story of the temporary removal of the relics from Chich to Aylesbury reads as an uneasy attempt to reconcile two distinct cults. The available evidence does not admit a confident solution.

Sources

  • D. Bethell, ‘The lives of St Osyth of Essex and St Osyth of Aylesbury’, Analecta Bollandiana, 88 (1970), 75–127
  • C. Hohler, ‘St Osyth and Aylesbury’, Records of Buckinghamshire, 18 (1966–70), 61–72
  • R. P. Hagerty, ‘The Buckinghamshire saints reconsidered … St Osyth and St Edith of Aylesbury’, Records of Buckinghamshire, 29 (1987), 125–32
  • K. Bailey, ‘Osyth, Frithuwold and Aylesbury’, Records of Buckinghamshire, 31 (1989), 37–48
  • A. Campana, ‘Santa Ositha’, Archivio Italiano per la storia della pietà, 9 (1996), 95–121