Penda’s Sisters; Cynegils’ Daughters


I am currently writing about what must surely have been a very interesting meeting in the year 635.

This was the year when Bishop Birinus baptised King Cynegils of Wessex/ the Gewisse in the River Thames near what is now the little village of Dorchester. His sponsor/godfather at the baptism was none other than King Oswald of Bernicia, probably Bede’s favourite king, and at this point Oswald also married one of Cynegils’ daughters.

The standard explanation for this north/south alliance was that Cynegils and Oswald were both worried about the rising power of King Penda of Mercia. But as an historical novelist, I am left with rather a lot of questions for which I have little option but to make up the answers.

A venerable-looking King Penda, his death imagined in stained glass and brought to us via his wikipedia page

A venerable-looking King Penda, his death imagined in stained glass and brought to us via his wikipedia page

For instance: how did Oswald get from Bernicia in the north all the way south to Wessex when Mercia was in the way? The obvious answer is by sea and given that the Thames was almost certainly navigable for long boats until well upstream of Dorchester, that is a sensible answer. But via East Anglia is also an option: another Christian kingdom and one that Oswald (who had only very recently become king) would wish to have in his orbit.

But also, what about Penda’s sister and, for that matter, Cynegils’ daughters? At some point before 635 (probably 628), there had been a sister swap between Penda and one of Cynegils’ sons, Cenwealh. So all of this left one of Cynegils’ daughters married to Penda and another married to (arguably his greatest enemy) Oswald. I know royal women often, if not always, ended up married to, and living among, their father’s enemies, but really! And it did matter, because we are told that when Cenwealh repudiated the wife who was Penda’s sister, Penda chased him out of his kingdom and into exile in East Anglia.

BUT WHAT WAS SHE CALLED? Generally speaking, we do not know the names of these women, although subsequent detective work/ speculation offers us suggestions for both Penda’s and Oswald’s wives. (Cynewise may well have been the name of Penda’s wife and Cyneburga was almost certainly the name of Oswald’s wife.)

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