Born in around 585, Edwin was the son of King Ælle of Deira (southern Northumbria), whom he succeeded at an early age, but in around 604 was deprived of his throne by King Æthelfrith of Bernicia (northern Northumbria) who thereby became King of all Northumbria, and went into exile – first in Gwynned, then in Mercia (where he married Cwenburg, the daughter of King Cearl), and finally in East Anglia where King Raedwald was fast becoming the most powerful king in England (in later Anglo-Saxon terminology, he was “Bretwalda”). Raedwald defeated Æthelfrith by the river Idle in 616, and installed Edwin as King of Northumbria.
Æthelburga (born in the late sixth century) was the daughter of St Æthelberht King of Kent and his wife St Bertha – a Christian Frankish princess through whose good offices (assisted by the missionary efforts of St Augustine of Canterbury) Æthelberht had embraced Christianity (his conversion being the crucial first “brick” in the building of a Christian England).
Æthelburga’s brother Eadbald succeeded Æthelberht as King of Kent, and Eadbald agreed to marry Æthelburga to the pagan Edwin on the understanding that she and her Christian entourage (led by St Paulinus of York, Augustine’s successor in the see of Canterbury) would be accorded complete religious freedom.
Like his father-in-law St Æthelberht, Edwin was initially tentative about embracing Christianity himself, but eventually converted in 627 – partly because of a vision involving himself and Paulinus, partly because of his promise to adopt Christianity if he military campaign against Cwichelm of Wessex proved successful, and partly because of the efforts of Æthelburga, who had before her the model of her own mother’s conversion of her father.
From about 627 Edwin was effectively “Bretwalda”, but in 632-2 King Penda of Mercia and Cadwallon ap Cadfan of Gwynedd rose up against him and killed him at the Battle of Hatfield Chase. His death was subsequently interpreted as a martyrdom, but the immediate effect was the collapse of his Kingdom and the collapse of Christianity in Northumbria – which, in spite of the conversion of Edwin and his senior nobles, had never taken root.
Æthelburga and Paulinus returned to Kent, and Æthelburga retired to a ruined Roman villa (donated by Eadbald) in which she founded a monastery for both men and women. Here she died in around 647, and her relics were kept at the Collegiate Church at Canterbury until they were lost at the dissolution of the monasteries.
The reasons for Æthelburga’s status as a saint are clear – she was the foundress of a monastery, and it might be said that in her own person (with some help from St Paulinus) she bore the Christian gospel which had been preached and accepted in Kent into distant Northumbria and, indeed, into all those parts of England where Edwin held sway.
The reasons for Edwin’s status are less clear – an initially reluctant convert, he died in battle at the hands of the pagan King Penda not because of his faith but because he Penda were both competing for the same imperium. Bede portrays St Oswald, King of Northumbria, as a saint in every sense of the word, but depicts Edwin in much less exalted terms. (Moreover, unlike Oswald, Edwin had no lasting impact on the Christianization of Northumbria.) Even so, together with Æthelburga he became a Christian pioneer beyond a hitherto unevangelized frontier, and it is perhaps for this rather than for anything else that he deserves the title of saint.