The Rise and Fall of King Edwin

Although Bede presents the council as approving the change to the new religion, Edwin himself did not convert . After all, the old gods had been kind to him. He had overcome his persecutor, Æthelfrith. His mentor, Rædwald, had died, probably of natural causes, leaving him the most powerful king in Britain. He had cemented an alliance with the Christian kingdom of Kent through his new wife. Why rock the altar?

It was a close encounter with death that decided Edwin to change religion. A rival king sent a suicide assassin but one of Edwin’s men took the blow intended for the king. In the struggle, Edwin was still wounded by the poisoned dagger. At the time of the attack, Queen Æthelburh was in labour and gave birth to a daughter that night. Edwin swore that if the new god gave him victory over the rival king, then he would pay him back, by his own conversion and by allowing the baptism of his new daughter.

Edwin duly recovered and waged punitive war against his rival, returning with enough heads to conclude that the deal had been sealed. He would tie his future fortunes to the new god.

The question was what would happen should the new god’s favour not always lead to victory and glory. After all, if it was simply a matter of signing up to a new religion and all your wishes coming true there would only be one religion in the world.

The fragility of the new faith was exposed when, in one of the catastrophic reverses that was a fatal feature of kingship during this era, Edwin, at the height of his power, lost the Battle of Hatfield Chase and his life too.

His queen fled to Kent with their children. Her priest, Paulinus, who had baptised hundreds of converts, fled too, later becoming Bishop of Rochester.

The church that Edwin had converted to and fostered essentially collapsed.

After all, in the currency of power, death in battle was the great bankruptcy.


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