Saint Osyth (Osgyth) was of royal blood. Her father, Frithwald, was the King of Mercia, while, Wilburge, her mother, was herself a daughter of the King of the Mercians. As a small child, Osyth was sent to be educated by her Aunt, Saint Edith, an abbess in charge of a nunnery at Aylesbury.
One day her aunt sent her on an errand to deliver a book to St. Modwenna. To reach Modwenna’s house, she had to cross a stream by a bridge. It was a windy day and the stream was swollen with recent floodwater. Just as she was about to cross a great gust of wind blew Osyth into the cold water. When she did not return Edith was very distressed and went to find Modwenna.
The two women searched the countryside. Three days later they found the child lying in the stream, tragically drowned.
Undeterred, St. Modwenna prayed for Osyth and commanded her to arise from the water and come to them, Osyth obeyed. A truly miraculous event!
This miraculous experience changed Osyth’s life forever, for she decided she wanted to dedicate her life to prayer and become a nun. Her parents did not agree with this choice, and betrothed her to Sibere, the East Saxon Christian King, in order to form an alliance.
However, while her husband was away hunting, Osyth made her mind up to keep her vow and become a nun, no matter what. She knew she would rather be an abbess than a queen.
At first her disappointed husband protested that, without her, life held no happiness or interest for him but seeing her determination, he soon recovered. He generously gave her land ten miles southeast from Colchester, upon which to build a nunnery and a church.
Here, Osyth reigned in peace as Abbess for a number of years. Then one sunny autumn day when she was walking in the woods enjoying the beauty of nature, her peace was forever shattered.
A gang of Viking pirates had landed on the Essex coast. In these early times – well before they came to settle in England – Vikings would make raids, up and down the English coastline, attacking and terrifying the local people, burning villages and pillaging monasteries for their treasure like they did in the raid at Lindisfarne.
St. Osyth came face to face with the Viking leader in a clearing in the woods, but bravely stood her ground. The pagan pirates had little respect for Christian beliefs or for the pleas of an abbess. Their leader beheaded Osyth on the spot, with one single mighty swing of his sharp, glinting weapon and then the pirates moved on to destroy the nunnery.
This time there was no St. Modwenna close by to save the day and bring Osyth back to life. However, this courageous and Godly woman was not yet defeated. Legend tells how she bent down and picked up her own head and guided by angels she carried it in her hands to the nunnery church. She loudly struck the door once with her bloodstained hand to warn the nuns within of the approaching peril, then fell on the ground and died.
At the place of her martyrdom, in the woods, a spring gushed forth. The spring became a stream and a well was built in her honour. This became known as St. Osyth’s sacred well. It became very famous, since the spring waters had very special, miraculous properties. The waters were used to bless ill people who often, then, found themselves cured.
Considering her horrible and untimely death, it is not surprising that Osyth’s restless spirit should wander. At certain times of the year, it is said that the murdered abbess can be seen, head in hands, once again visiting the well, the wood and the church where the brutal events took place.
It must be a scary sight for travellers who are unfortunate enough to be in Nun’s Wood after dark.
Is there any truth to the legend?
A Viking raid
The legend is set in a time known as ‘The Middle Ages‘. It was a time of war and change, when life was short and often brutal. Back in the 7th century, the Vikings, under their leaders Inguar and Hubba, made lightning attacks on the English coast and it is likely to be true that a band of Viking pirates sailed into the muddy Essex creek at Chich and destroyed the countryside.
Saint Osyth is not talked about in the most famous Saxon history, the Anglo Saxon Chronicles, written by a scholar known as Bede. However, Osyth probably did exist and was murdered by the Vikings. It is also likely that she died in the Nun’s Wood. She was probably murdered close to the spring, which still flows to this day.
How was Saint Osyth remembered?
Example of a 7th Century Saxon church
The Vikings destroyed the nunnery, which had been built for St Osyth by her husband King Sibere of Essex, at the time Osyth was murdered. The church of St. Peter and St. Paul, founded by Osyth, was left standing and the martyred princess was, at first, laid to rest in this church. However, her father, and mother, Wilburga, soon took her to Aylesbury. Six years later, her body was taken back to Chich (now St Osyth), and solemnly placed in Christ Church.
The place where she died became a shrine and many miracles were said to have taken place there. Nearby, a busy village grew up named after the saint. About 1121, Richard de Belmais, bishop of London, built a large Augustinian priory in the middle of the village to honour the great apostles, St. Peter and St. Paul, and St. Osyth, the martyr.
The priory became very powerful and, by the time of the dissolution of the monasteries in 1539, was one of the richest Augustinian monasteries in Europe. Some of the remains can still be seen at St Osyth.
What about the miracle – could it really have happened?
Many stories involved Saints and Miracles
Although people agree that Osyth probably lived, they do not agree how the story of the miracle started, in which she picks up her head and walks to the church. Early writers believed that the miracle really took place. Others have suggested that it is possible her head was not taken off, but her throat was cut and that she had just enough strength to reach the church. In St. Osyth’s day, this would have seemed a miracle and, as the story was told again and again, it could have been ‘dressed up’ by the storytellers.
Most people could not read and write at this time and the church often used stories, based on the lives of the saints, to show the truth of the gospels and to remind people how they should behave. Gradually these stories changed, to make the saints seem perfect in the way they lived and died and show the power of belief. These stories were very important in the early years of the church, providing history as well as many legends.
The tales first started during the Roman Empire and told of the early Christian martyrs that were put to death. From the 7th century, the tales grew more and more popular, as they often told of heroes, and of battles with dragons and monsters. They took in ideas and plots that were around before Christianity. The tales often included miracles and this is one such tale.
Are there other legends about Saint Osyth?
The water was collected from pipes by the Monks
The waters from the spring that ‘gushed forth’ where Osyth was murdered were collected for many years in a long pipe, by the monks at the Priory, and used to cure all kinds of illnesses. Many legends grew up around St Osyth.
Matthew Paris tells of an old story about a husbandman named Thurcillus, who lived at Tidstude, a village in Essex, when John I was the king. One night he was shown paradise by St. James and other saints and, when he had come to the most holy and pleasant place in paradise, he saw St Catherine, St. Margaret and St. Osyth. In those days, when the people went to bed, they prayed to God and St. Osyth to deliver them “from fire, and from water, and from all misadventure”.
The present church of St Peter and St Paul stands on the site of the original church that St Osyth founded. Local tradition says that, on October the 7th every year, St Osyth revisits the scene of her martyrdom, walking with her head in her hand.
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Link will appear as Hanson, Marilee. "Saint Osyth" https://englishhistory.net/folklore/saint-osyth/, March 15, 2022