Hereswitha (also Hereswith, Haeresvid, Hereswyde) is a Northumbrian English saint of the 7th century who married into the royal house of East Anglia and afterwards retired to Gaul to lead a religious life there. Details of her life and identity are taken from a correlation of Bede's "Historia Ecclesiastica," iv.23 (21) (Colgrave and Mynors edition pp 405-415) with the "Anglian Collection" East Anglian tally, and with known details of the lives of Edwin of Northumbria and Hilda of Whitby.

Hereswith's Family

The Northumbrian royal descent of Hereswith is traced from Edwin of Northumbria (ruled c. 616-632). Edwin was the son of Ælle, King of the southern Northumbrian kingdom of Deira (centred at York). After Ælle's death Edwin, the heir of Deira, was taken into exile when the rulers of the northern Northumbrian kingdom of Bernicia gained the ascendant. Edwin had at least two siblings, a sister named Acha and another who is otherwise unknown, but was the parent of Hereric, Hereswith's father. Edwin was received in exile at the court of the powerful Welsh ruler Cadfan ap Iago of Gwynedd, and in childhood was the companion of Cadfan's son Cadwallon.

During the 590s Æthelfrith became the most powerful ruler in Northumbria, and following the battle of "Degsastan" in 603 became sufficiently powerful to absorb Deira within his rule. In his second marriage Æthelfrith married Edwin's sister Acha. Hereric married Breguswith and had two daughters, the elder of whom was Hereswith and the younger Hild, born c 613. However Hereric was also exiled and found protection in the British Kingdom of Elmet, then ruled by Ceretic.

Youthful Exile

During Hereric's exile, Edwin was living at the court of Cearl of Mercia, where he married Cearl's daughter and had two sons. Here he fell under the broader protection of the southern English kingdoms wielded by Aethelberht of Kent (r. c. 560-616), then the senior ruler. However Æthelberht was becoming very old, and the southern power was gravitating towards Raedwald of East Anglia, who had signalled his intention to succeed to the dominion of Æthelberht by receiving baptism in Kent from the Roman mission of Saint Augustine which arrived at Canterbury in 597.

Murder of Hereswith's father

Æthelfrith of Northumbria wished to destroy Edwin, so before 616 he took refuge at the court of Raedwald. Æthelfrith sought to bribe and threaten Raedwald to surrender or slay Edwin, but instead Raedwald destroyed the Northumbrian king at the Battle of the River Idle in 616, and set Edwin as Northumbrian ruler in his place. However, not long before this Hereric had been treacherously murdered in Elmet by his British hosts, presumably at the prompting either of Æthelfrith or of Cadwallon, both of whom wished to control Deira. Breguswith appears not to have been in exile with him, as she conducted a search for him, but in vain.

Restoration of Deiran power

Among Edwin's first actions as ruler was the subjection of Elmet and slaying of Ceretic in atonement for this crime, and Hereric's family became attached to Edwin's household. Edwin himself was not yet Christian, although he had encountered Christianity both in Cadfan's and Raedwald's courts. It is probable that Hereric had witnessed Christian practise while in Elmet before he was poisoned.

Hereswith's baptism

At Raedwald's death, c. 624, Edwin rapidly acquired supreme power among the English and also won dominion over the British parts of the island. He married Æthelburh, daughter of Æthelberht of Kent (and sister of Æthelberht's son King Eadbald, and in 626 was baptised by Paulinus at York. Breguswith, Hild and Hereswith were baptized with him on the same occasion. Hereswith was therefore a direct witness of, and participant in, one of the most transforming Christian conversions in early Anglo-Saxon history.

Soon after his conversion, Edwin (with Paulinus) also undertook the conversion of Lindsey and the Kingdom of East Anglia, which was ruled by Raedwald's son Eorpwald. However Eorpwald was assassinated soon afterwards and the rulership of East Anglia turned away from the Christian alliance which Edwin was attempting to forge. During this period (c. 627-629) the family of Raedwald's brother Eni began to assume power in East Anglia as the line of Raedwald was being extinguished.

Hereswith's Marriage

It was almost certainly in this period, and probably at Edwin's behest, that Hereswith was married to a son of Eni named Athilric. It is suggested (but not certain) that Athilric was the same person as Ecgric of East Anglia, who ruled with Raedwald's son or stepson Sigeberht of East Anglia during the early 630s, when Christianity was restored to East Anglia. This royal alliance suggests that Athilric was expected to rule and was either already Christian, or accepted the faith in consequence of the marriage. Edwin was slain by Cadwallon in 632-633: Ecgric and Sigeberht died fighting the pagan Mercian ruler Penda, probably in 636, and were succeeded by a Christian son of Eni named Anna, who ruled until c. 653-654.

Hereswith's son

Hereswith and Athilric had a son named Ealdwulf, born possibly during the late 620s or 630s. Ealdwulf ruled East Anglia from c. 664-713, after two other sons of Eni, Æthelhere (r. 654) and Æthelwold had ruled after Anna. Ealdwulf was therefore then seen as the legitimate heir of the Wuffinga household.

Hereswith's Departure for Chelles

During the 640s Hereswith's sister Hild received teaching from Saint Aidan of Lindisfarne. About 647 she travelled to East Anglia (to the court of Anna) to join her sister Hereswith. However, Hereswith had already left East Anglia because she wished to live the religious life, and there was then no nunnery in her kingdom. She travelled to Gaul and according to Bede lived as a nun at Chelles, then in the Diocese of Paris, where there was a royal oratory. Hereswith remained in Gaul for the rest of her life.

Confusions of Identity

The identity of Æthilric, Hereswith's husband, is shown in the East Anglian dynastic tally in the "Anglian Collection", and in the version given in the Historia Brittonum, since AEthilric is in both cases shown as the father of Ealdwulf, and Bede states that Hild was Ealdwulf's aunt. It is unlikely that two other versions which make her the wife of Æthelhere ("Catholic Encyclopedia 1913") or of Anna ("Liber Eliensis") can be correct, since her departure for the religious life in Gaul preceded their deaths. Æthilric was probably dead by 647, prompting her retirement, and Ecgric is the only other ruler with whom this son of Eni might be identified. The "Anglian Collection" also shows that Ælfwald of East Anglia was the son of Ealdwulf, not of Athilric and Hereswith, as is sometimes stated.

After staying for one year in East Anglia in 647, Hild returned to Northumbria to rule the monastery of Hartlepool and later founded the royal Northumbrian abbey and mausoleum of Whitby, at which Edwin was enshrined.


* Bede, "Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum", Ed B. Colgrave and R.A.B. Mynors (Oxford 1969).
* S.J. Plunkett, Suffolk in Anglo-Saxon Times (Tempus, Stroud 1005).
* F.M. Stenton 1959, The East Anglian Kings of the Seventh Century, in P. Clemoes (Ed), The Anglo-Saxons (London), 43-52.

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