Rev. Alban Butler (171173). Volume X: October. The Lives of the Saints. 1866.
St. Edwin, King and Martyr
THE SCHOOL of adversity prepared this prince for the greatest achievements, as necessity often makes men industrious, whilst affluence and prosperity ruin others by sloth and carelessness. Edwin was son of Alla, king of Deira; but at his fathers death was deprived of his kingdom by Ethelfred, king of the Bernicians, who united all the Northumbrians in one monarchy. Edwin fled to Redwald, king of the East-Angles, who, by threats and promises, was secretly brought to a resolution to deliver him into the hands of his enemy. The young prince was privately informed of his danger by a friend in the council, and as he sat very melancholy one night before the palace gate, a stranger promised him the restoration of his kingdom, and the chief sovereignty over the English, if he promised to do what should be taught him for his own life and salvation. Edwin readily made this promise, and the stranger, laying his hand upon his head, bade him remember that sign. In the meantime Redwald was diverted from his treacherous intention by the persuasion of his wife, and discomfited and slew Ethelfred, who was marching against him, on the east side of the little river Idle, in Nottinghamshire. By this victory Edwin was put in possession of the whole kingdom of the Northumbrians, which comprised all the north of England; and, in a short time, he became so formidable by the success of his arms, that he obliged all the other English kings, and also the Britons or Welch, to acknowledge his superior power. He took to wife Edilburge, daughter to the late St. Ethelbert, the first Christian king of the English, and sister to Ealbald, then king of Kent. St. Paulinus received the episcopal consecration, and was sent to attend her. On Easter-eve, in 626, the queen was delivered of a daughter; and, on Easter-day, an assassin named Eumer, sent by Quichelm, king of the West-Saxons, being admitted into the presence of King Edwin, attempted to stab him with a poisoned dagger, which he took from under his cloak. He made a violent stab at the king, and would have certainly killed him, if Lilla, his favourite and faithful minister, had not, for want of a buckler, interposed his own body, and so saved the kings life with the loss of his own. The dagger wounded the king through the body of this officer. The ruffian was cut to pieces upon the spot, but first killed another of the courtiers. The king returned thanks to his gods for his preservation; but Paulinus told the king it was the effect of the prayers of his queen, and exhorted him to thank the true God for His merciful protection of his person, and for her safe delivery. The king seemed pleased with his discourse, and was prevailed upon to consent that his daughter that was just born should be consecrated to God. She was baptized with twelve others on Whitsunday, and called Ean-fleda, being the first fruits of the kingdom of the Northumbrians. These things happened in the royal city upon the Derwent, says Bede; that is, near the city Derventius, mentioned by Antoninus, in his Itinerary of Britain; it is at present a village called Aldby, that is, Old Dwelling, near which are the ruins of an old castle, as Camden takes notice.
The king, moreover, promised Paulinus, that if God restored him his health, and made him victorious over those who had conspired so basely to take away his life, he would become himself a Christian. When his wound was healed, he assembled his army, marched against the King of the West-Saxons, vanquished him in the field, and either slew or took prisoners all the authors of the wicked plot of his assassination. From this time he no more worshipped any idols; yet he deferred to accomplish his promise of receiving baptism. Pope Boniface sent him an exhortatory letter, with presents; and a silver looking-glass and an ivory comb to the Queen Edilburge, admonishing her to press him upon that subject. Edwin was willingly instructed in the faith, often meditated on it by himself, and consulted with the wisest among his great officers. Paulinus continued to exhort him, and to pray zealously for his conversion; at length, being informed, it is believed, by revelation, of the wonderful prediction made formerly to the king, and of his promise, he came to him, whilst he was thinking one day seriously upon his choice of religion, and, laying his hand upon his head, asked him if he remembered that sign? The king, trembling, would have thrown himself at his feet; but the bishop, raising him up, said, with an affectionate sweetness: You see that God hath delivered you from your enemies; he moreover offers you his everlasting kingdom. Take care on your side to perform your promise, by receiving his faith, and keeping his commandments. The king answered, he would confer with his chief counsellors to engage them to do the same with him; to which the bishop consented. The king having assembled his nobles, asked their advice. Coifi, the high priest of the idols, spoke first, declaring that by experience it was manifest their gods had no power. Another person said, the short moment of this life is of no weight, if put in the balance with eternity. Then St. Paulinus harangued the assembly. Coifi applauded his discourse, and advised the king to command fire to be set to the temples and altars of their false gods. The king asked him who should first profane them. Coifi answered that he himself, who had been the foremost in their worship, ought to do it for an example to others. Then he desired to be furnished with arms and a horse; for, according to their superstition, it was not lawful for the high priest to bear any arms, or to ride on a horse, but only on a mare. Being therefore mounted on the kings own horse, with a sword by his side, and a spear in his hand, he rode to the temple, which he profaned by casting his spear into it. He then commanded those who accompanied him to pull it down, and burn it with the whole inclosure. This place, says Bede, is shown not far from York, to the east, beyond the Derwent, and is called Godmundingham, that is, Receptacle of Gods. It retains to this day the name of Godmanham; and near it is Wigton, that is, Town of Idols, as Camden mentions, in Yorkshire.
King Edwin was baptized at York on Easter-day, in the year of Christ 627, the eleventh of his reign. The ceremony was performed in the church of St. Peter, which he had caused to be built of timber, through haste; but he afterwards began a large church of stone, in which this was inclosed, and which was finished by his successor, St. Oswald. St. Paulinus fixed his episcopal see at York, with the approbation of King Edwin, and continued to preach freely during the remaining six years of this princes reign. He baptized, among others, four sons, one daughter, and one grandson of the kings; and both nobles and people flocked in crowds to be instructed, and to receive the holy sacrament of baptism. When the king and queen were at their country palace of Yeverin, in Glendale, among the Bernicians in Northumberland, the bishop was taken up thirty-six days together, from morning till night, in catechizing persons, and in baptizing them in the little river Glen. Oratories and baptisteries not being yet built, the people were baptized in rivers; which shows that baptism was then administered by immersion. When St. Paulinus was with the king in the country of the Deiri, he was wont to baptize in the river Swale, near Cataract, now the village of Cattaric, which the tradition of that country confirms to this day, say Mr. Drake, Mr. Smith, and Mr. Steevens. St. Edwin built a church in honour of St. Alban, from which a new town arose which was called Albansbury, and since Almondbury. The royal palace in that place was burnt by the pagans after the death of St. Edwin. His successors had their country palace in the territory of Loidis or Leeds, where a town of that name was afterwards built.
King Edwin was equally zealous to practise himself, and to propagate on all sides the holy religion which he professed. The English nation generally received the faith with a fervour equal to that of the primitive Christians, and many among them became by their conversion quite another people, having no other views but those of another world, and no other thoughts but of the inestimable happiness which, by the divine mercy, they were possessed of, to improve which was their only study. Even kings, who find the greatest obstacles to virtue, and, whilst they command others at will, are often, of all men, the least masters of themselves, and the greatest slaves to their own passionsthese, I say, among the newly converted English, often set their subjects the strongest examples of the powerful influence of grace, which is omnipotent in those who open their breasts to it. No sooner had they got sight of heaven and immortality, but earth appeared contemptible to them, and they trampled under their feet those crowns for which, a little before, they were ready to suffer everything. Several exchanged their purple and sceptres for hair-cloth, their palaces for mean cells, their power and command for the humility of obedience. Others wore still their crowns, but looked on them with holy contempt; and regarded it as their chiefest glory to make Christ reign in the hearts of their subjects, and to impart to other nations the blessing they had received. In these zealous endeavours St. Edwin deserved for his recompence the glorious crown of martyrdom. Redwald, king of the East-Angles, had received baptism in the kingdom of Kent; but, being returned home, was seduced by his wife and other evil teachers, and joined together the worship of his ancient gods and that of Jesus Christ; erecting, Samaritan-like, two altars in the same temple, the one to Christ, and another, smaller, for the victims of devils. His son and successor, Earpwald, was prevailed upon by St. Edwin to embrace with his whole heart the faith of Christ; though, he being killed soon after, that nation relapsed into idolatry for three years, till Sigebert, returning from his exile in Gaul, restored the Christian religion. The English enjoyed such perfect tranquillity and security throughout the dominions of King Edwin, that this peace became proverbial among them; and it was affirmed that a woman with her newborn infant might safely travel from sea to sea. To the fountains on the highways the king had caused copper cups to be chained, which none durst remove or take away, so strictly were the laws observed.
This good king had reigned seventeen years over the English and the Britons, of which he had spent the last six in the service of Christ, when God was pleased to visit him with afflictions, in order to raise him to the glory of martyrdom. Penda, a prince of royal blood among the Mercians, a violent abetter of idolatry, revolted from his obedience, and got together an army of furious veteran soldiers, such as had first invaded Britain, and all that still adhered to their ancient superstitions. Penda fought to extirpate Christianity, and from this time reigned over the Mercians twenty-two years. In this first revolt he entered into a confederacy with Cadwallo, king of the Britons or Welch, who was indeed a Christian, but ignorant of the principles of this holy religion, savage and barbarous in his manners, and so implacable an enemy to the English, as to seem rather a wild beast than a man; for, in his violent rage utterly to destroy that people, with all that belonged to them, he paid no regard to churches or religion, and spared neither age nor sex. King Edwin being the most powerful prince in the English Heptarchy, to whom all the rest paid a kind of obedience, the fury of this war was entirely bent against him, and he was killed in a great battle against these two princes, fought in Yorkshire, at a place now called Hatfield, originally Heavenfield, which name was given it on account of the great number of Christians there slain in this engagement. The body of St. Edwin was buried at Whitby, but his head in the porch of the church he had built at York. He is honoured with the title of martyr in the Martyrology of Florus, and in all our English calendars. Speed, in his catalogue, mentions an old church in London, and another at Breve, in Somersetshire, of both which St. Edwin was the titular patron. His death happened in the year of Christ 633, of his age the forty-eighth. In what manner the Christian religion was restored in Northumberland is related in the life of St. Oswald, 5th Aug. On St. Edwin, see Bede, Hist. l. 2, c. 9, 10, 12, 15, 20; William of Malmesbury and Alford, who has inserted, ad ann. 632, the letter of Pope Honorius to this holy king, which is also extant, together with his letter to Honorius, archbishop of Canterbury, in Bede, and Conc. t. 6. See the life of St. Paulinus, Oct. 10.