Eanfled

Eanfled was the wife of Oswig, king of Northumbria. When the 14 year old Wilfrid was sent by his aristocratic family to serve in the royal household at Bamburgh, Queen Eanfled quickly noticed his abilities and sent him to nearby Lindisfarne to be educated. It tells us something about her hopes for Wilfrid that she arranged for him to be tutored by Cudda, who had been one of the king’s companions before entering the monastery later in life. While she clearly wished him to have a good religious education as preparation for entering the church, she was sensitive to the background from which he had come and did not wish him to lose touch with it.

Eanfled evidently maintained a close interest in Wilfrid’s progress because it was to her that he turned when, a few years later, he decided to travel to Rome to find out about Christian traditions there. She immediately offered her support and sent him south to her cousin, the king of Kent, in order to find a suitable companion for the journey. It was this first visit to Rome that led to Wilfrid’s foundation of a Roman-tradition monastery in Ripon. We still have his crypt at the heart of our cathedral. It was also this visit which equipped Wilfrid with the learning that enabled him to be the chief spokesperson of the Roman party at the Synod of Whitby in 664, when the Northumbrian church decided to follow the Roman way of calculating the date of Easter.

Eanfled was the grand-daughter of Ethelbert, king of Kent, who had accepted the Christian mission of St Augustine in 597. His daughter Ethelburg married Edwin, king of Northumbria. But this was on condition that Edwin would consider accepting Christianity. He duly did, being baptised by Bishop Paulinus, who had travelled from Kent with Ethelburg. Eanfled was their daughter, baptised by Paulinus in 626. Edwin was killed in battle in 633 and mother and daughter fled to Kent. A rival branch of the family came to the throne: first King Oswald and then his brother, King Oswig. They had converted to the Celtic form of Christianity when in exile during Edwin’s reign. It was Oswald’s sponsoring of a Celtic mission under St Aidan and then Oswig’s continuing support of it which led to the tension between Celtic and Roman in the kingdom of Northumbria, finally resolved at the Synod of Whitby.

Eanfled returned north in 643 to marry Oswig —a dynastic marriage to unite the two royal families of Northumbria, though apparently a happy one, despite the fact that she followed the Roman liturgical calendar, while Oswig continued to follow the Celtic. This meant that, at least until the Synod of Whitby, they celebrated Easter at different times. After Oswig’s death in 670, Eanfled withdrew to the monastery of Whitby. Abbess Hild, who had founded Whitby, and who was abbess at the time of the Synod, died in 680, and Eanfled then ruled as abbess jointly with her daughter. She died in 704, six years before her great protégé Wilfrid.

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