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At the Edge / Bob Trubshaw /

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Penda the Pagan
Royal sacrifice and a Mercian king

Alby Stone

Penda, a seventh-century king of Mercia, was a noted regicide. Indeed, his other achievements - his military campaigns and a crafty and unlikely alliance with the British king Cadwallon were instrumental in carving out Mercia as an independent kingdom and establishing it as a power to be reckoned with - were almost completely overshadowed by his reputation as a slayer of kings. As Penda was a pagan, and his alleged victims all Christian, it comes as no surprise to find that medieval chroniclers, mostly monks or Christian nobles, viewed his reign and deeds with horror and denigrated him at every opportunity. The reputation of his ally Cadwallon, himself a Christian, suffered by association: in his Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum, written in the early eighth century, Bede of Jarrow describes him as 'a barbarian more savage than any pagan' with 'no respect for the newly established religion of Christ' [1]. Bede's invective was not tempered by the fact that Cadwallon was a Celt.

Regicide was a common occurrence in the early Middle Ages. It was a fairly routine way for a victorious usurper or conqueror to rid himself of a potential source of trouble. Penda's reputation in this field would almost certainly have been viewed with some approval had he been a Christian, and his foes pagan; instead of being hated and despised as a murderer of good, Christian kings, he would have been held up as a paragon of regal virtue, and his reign recorded as a glorious and pivotal period in English history. As it is, even his obvious valour and military prowess have been denied. In the ninth-century Historia Brittonum, Nennius describes Penda as 'victorious through the arts of the Devil, for he was not baptised, and never believed in God' [2].

But was Penda's reputation justified? According to Henry of Huntingdon's twelfth-century Historia Anglorum, a rhyme was composed on Penda's death at the battle of the river Winw d, near Leeds, in 655:

At the Winweg [sic] was avenged the slaughter of Anna, The slaughter of the kings Sigbert and Egric, The slaughter of the kings Oswald and Edwin. [3]

Bede tells how, at the battle of Maserfeld in 642, Oswald of Northumbria was slain by Penda, who 'ordered that his head and hands with the forearms be hacked off and fixed on stakes'. Oswald's successor Oswy removed them, 'placing the head in the church at Lindisfarne, and the hands and arms in his own royal city of Bamburgh' [4]. According to Henry of Huntingdon [5], Sigbert of East Anglia went into battle unarmed - Bede says he carried only a stick, 'mindful of his monastic vows' - and was killed, along with his kinsman Egric, when the heathen Mercians charged. Nennius asserts that Penda 'treacherously killed' Anna of East Anglia [6]. The Northumbrian king Edwin, meanwhile, was beheaded after falling in battle against Penda at Haethfeld in 633.

In addition to these five kings, Penda was also held to be responsible for the death of Edwin's son Edfrith, who was 'compelled to submit to Penda, who subsequently in breach of a solemn promise put him to death during the reign of Oswald' [7]; and Sigbert's brother Eorpwald, according to Henry of Huntingdon [8], though Bede claims Eorpwald was killed by a pagan named Ricbert [9].

It seems plain enough that Oswald, Edwin, and Egric fell in battle. The bias of the churchmen against the pagan Penda has clearly deprived the Mercian of any lasting glory he might have gained from their deaths. Sigbert, on the other hand, virtually committed suicide by going into the fray unarmed except for a stick. The death of Eorpwald may or may not have been at Penda's hands - though Bede believes another to have been responsible - and the deaths of Anna and Edfrith rate little more than a cursory mention in any source, other than to point the finger of blame in Penda's direction. As evidence, the medieval sources are unreliable: dates are confused and contradictory, and their bias is obvious; but there is enough here to cast serious doubt, at least, upon Penda's complicity or personal involvement in about half of the royal deaths mentioned above. The rest of them can be considered to be relatively straightforward instances of death in battle. Penda may have been responsible, as a warlord, for leading warriors against them, but to have cast him as a murderer seems both harsh and inappropriate.

Doubt and lack of evidence did not stop Margaret Murray viewing the deaths of Penda's 'victims' as supporting evidence for her theory of pagan royal sacrifice in England [10]. The essence of Murray's theory is that the pagan English ritually killed their kings, or appropriate surrogates, at regular intervals; and that these ritual murders, supervised by covens made up of a king's close associates, continued well into the late Middle Ages and even later, with the connivance of the monarchs themselves, and in spite of their professed Christianity. The kings were seen as living gods, according to Murray's thesis, and the spilling of their blood on the ground - or a token sprinkling - was a central feature of the sacrifice, which was designed to ensure the fertility of the land and the prosperity of the people.

Unfortunately for Murray, her theory was rejected by the academic world. A close look at her use of data reveals a number of serious flaws: the periodicity of sacrifices, a crucial part of her argument, she supposed to be seven or nine years, depending on how she well could shape the time; it depended either on a king's year of birth, or that in which his reign began, depending on how well it fitted with the sacrificial periods. Murray saw no contradiction in these variations, nor did she see any real problem with the simple fact that various chronicles contradict one another where crucial dates are concerned. She simply juggled her sources until a required period of time was arrived at. Again, the so-called covens were determined by adding or leaving out names as she saw fit - most have no objective existence. Finally, she adopts a wholly unsatisfactory logic: English kings were sacrificed, therefore those kings who met with violent death were ritually sacrificed. The wholesale rejection of this theory seems justified; even Murray's most ardent supporters generally prefer to emphasise her idea of the 'witch-cult in Western Europe' while ignoring or playing down her theory of divine kingship.

However, there are persuasive reasons for thinking that Murray was not as wide of the mark as her more extreme critics have claimed. Indeed, a searching examination of her theory of divine kingship reveals that there were two key factors in her downfall. The first is, obviously enough, her bungled handling of the evidence. The second, as a close reading of her works will show, is that Margaret Murray was woefully ignorant of Germanic and Celtic paganism. In her three major books [11], which do, after all, purport to deal with survivals of pre-Christian belief and ritual in north-western Europe, there is barely a mention of even the most well-known Celtic or Germanic gods or goddesses, and hardly a word on authentic pagan ritual or religion. Had she researched more diligently and been prepared to venture into the world of Germanic and Celtic pagan literature - easily available at the time she was writing and certainly well within the province of many of her friends in the Folklore Society, of which she was president for some time - Murray would have discovered plenty of evidence to support the essentials of her theories, although she would very probably have been drawn along a slightly different path.

In the context of the evidence that Murray left unplumbed, the tradition of Penda as regicide takes on an entirely new significance. Firstly, accounts of royal sacrifice in medieval Scandinavian literature - in Gautrek's Saga, for instance - indicate that the ritual slaughter of kings was indeed a part of Norse tradition, although there is no suggestion of periodicity. Secondly, the Old English kings invariably traced their ancestry back to Woden, which implies a belief that divine blood coursed through their veins; the royal family of the Ostrogoths, the Amali, included Ansis - glossed as semideos, demigods, in the sixth-century Getica of Jordanes - in their genealogy; and the Merovingian kings (many of whom died violently, sometimes in patently ritualistic circumstances) were supposedly descended from a supernatural creature that came from the sea. Divine ancestry was seemingly a prerequisite for Germanic kings. Next, it is known that in Indo-European heroic tradition kings or warrior-chiefs are often associated with bands of twelve followers - Charlemagne and his paladins, Arthur and his knights, Robin Hood and his merry men, Jason and the Argonauts, and so on - which may have prompted Murray to see covens at work in every royal murder. Finally, Indo-European creation myth is inextricably bound up with traditions of human sacrifice and the origins of kingship.

The last point is of particular significance to Penda's treatment of Oswald's corpse. The basic Indo-European creation myth involves a set of twins, one of whom kills and dismembers the other, and makes various parts of the cosmos from appropriate parts of the corpse. The killer becomes the first priest, and the killing is the original sacrifice; the deceased becomes the first king, lord of the dead and ancestor of mortals. As the pair are twins, each incorporates the essence of the other. In the Indo-European context, this is reflected in the extraction of both kings and priests from the warrior aristocracy - the two roles appear to have been combined in early Germanic society - and the use of sacrificial dismemberment, in tradition and in actuality, to formalise the foundation of settlements and to seal social reorganisation, by acting out the primordial act of creation [12].

The Norse creation myth - as preserved in the thirteenth-century Prose Edda and several verses of the Poetic Edda - tells how the giant Ymir was killed by Odin and his brothers, and dismembered so that the cosmos could be created from his body. Odin - the Scandinavian form of Woden - has taken the place of the other primordial twin. As it happens, Odin himself is portrayed as a sacrificial victim in the poem Hvaml, where he hangs for nine nights upon the World Tree, pierced by a spear, as an offering to himself.

Oswald, like Penda, was said to have been descended from Woden, so both were, to the pagan mind, of divine ancestry. While there is no extant English creation myth to compare with the Norse account, one must have existed in pagan times, if only in an oral form; if there was one, then Penda would surely have known of it - and if he did, then he would surely have realised that by dismembering his rival he was recreating the primordial sacrifice that resulted in the creation of the world. In effect, Penda was sanctifying a new order of things in an appropriate manner. It is interesting that Bede tells us that Oswald's head and forearms were 'fixed on stakes': this is reminiscent of the Scandinavian practice of placing animal heads on posts to serve a variety of purposes - to mark boundaries, to serve as a warning or a challenge, or as a taunt. But it also recalls the Celtic and Germanic use of pillars and posts as representations of the axis mundi, symbolising the centre of the world, and the support of the sky. These posts are equivalent to the World Tree, on which Odin was sacrificed; but, more importantly, as supports of the sky, they have a direct connection with Ymir's head.

According to Norse myth, the sky was made from Ymir's skull, and the clouds from his brain. Other Indo-European creation myths claim that the sun and moon were made from the victim's eyes. In other words, the sky and its features were considered to be made from the head of the sacrificed twin, so placing Oswald's head on a post would tie in with the cosmological distribution of the giant's body. Indo-European tradition associated the head with sovereignty, the joint function of priests and kings; and the arms (and chest) to military force, the domain of warriors. The fixing of Oswald's head and arms on stakes could thus also have constituted a display of Penda's newly-acquired power, as well as a symbolic realignment of the cosmic order in his favour. We are not told if Penda did anything with the rest of Oswald's corpse: although we do know it was buried, we are not told what happened to it in between.

Edwin was beheaded after his defeat by Penda, but the chroniclers give no details. The deaths of the other kings are even more frustrating: there are no descriptions or speculation as to the cause of death - other than to blame Penda, of course. The stick carried by Sigbert is interesting, in that it could be interpreted as a rod of office or a wand, rather than a token of his renunciation of worldly affairs or of a refusal to commit acts of violence. All that Penda's alleged victims have in common are their kingly status, descent from the continental Angles - and their Christianity.

Edwin became a Christian about six years before his death, and it is probable that his son Edfrith adopted the new religion at the same time. Sigbert became a Christian while in exile in Gaul. His brother Eorpwald converted shortly before he was killed; and Egric, as a kinsman of Sigbert and Eorpwald, would have been influenced by his royal kinsmen. After his death Oswald, like a number of other Anglian royals who met violent ends, was popularly seen as a saint. The place where he died was the focus of numerous miracles: soil from the site, mixed with water, healed the sick, whether man or beast; a dying horse was healed when it rolled onto the spot where the king had fallen, as was a girl suffering from paralysis. Vegetation at the site was greener and more lush than in the surrounding area [13].

Miracles also occurred when Oswald's remains were taken by wagon to Bardney Abbey in Lincolnshire. The year after, the relics were removed by Oswy, who took the head to the church at Lindisfarne, and the forearms to Bamburgh. The site of the battle of Maserfeld has been identified as Oswestry, which means that Oswald's bones were actually carried from one side of England to the other, echoing the posthumous wagon-rides of the legendary Danish king Frodi, as recounted by Saxo Grammaticus in the Gesta Danorum; and the funeral tours, also in wagons, of dead Scythian kings, as reported by Herodotus in the fifth century BCE. The distribution of Oswald's bones accords with other Indo-European traditions involving social or political initiative or reorganisation. One of the most significant is the death and dismemberment of Romulus, whose body was supposedly carried away piecemeal by the Roman senate and buried all over the city. In these traditions, the king represents the cosmos in miniature, and the dispersal of his body symbolises the end of one cycle of existence and the institution of a new order manufactured by rearranging the constituent parts of the old.

The circumstances of Oswald's death accord with pagan sacrificial tradition on enough points make coincidence seem unlikely. Penda's other alleged victims did not die in such remarkable circumstances - indeed, there is little to suggest anything other than honourable but uncomplicated death in battle, or by simple assassination - though here it must be said that the continental Germans of Roman times are known to have sacrificed prisoners, and to have dedicated to their gods those who died in battle. The Christian chroniclers would not have needed to invent such grisly treatment of his body to justify Oswald's sanctity - Bede makes it clear that he was already regarded as a pious and holy man, and his death at the hands of a pagan enemy would have been enough to secure his status as a martyr. Penda must have had reasons for doing what he did to Oswald's corpse, and the sacrificial explanation certainly fits the bill; but it is unlikely that we will ever know exactly what happened, or that we will be privy to any motive Penda may have had.

As for Penda himself: the Mercian fell at the Winwd, still fighting at eighty years of age. Henry of Huntingdon asserts that 'the earth was watered with his blood, and the ground sprinkled with his brains' [14]. For a pagan warrior, it was an appropriate and honourable end, with sacrificial overtones detectable in Henry's account. Bede tells us that Oswy, Oswald's brother, had tried to buy peace with Penda, offering him 'an incalculable quantity of regalia and presents', but the pagan refused. Snubbed by Penda, Oswy made a deal with the deity, vowing to 'offer his daughter to God as a consecrated virgin and give twelve estates to build monasteries' [15] if he achieved victory. Bede claims at this stage that Oswy converted the Mercians to Christianity, but contradicts himself later by saying that the Mercians chose the new faith by choice three years later, after a rebellion had rid them of Oswy and installed Penda's son Wulfhere as their new king.

In the final analysis, Penda's notoriety seems to be due to his paganism - a characteristic that did not endear him to Christian historians at a time when England was still a long way from being a unified Christian nation - magnified by his unusual treatment of Oswald's corpse. In this respect it is probably significant that Oswald's death is the only one described in any detail. We could do worse than to see it as Penda's way of ritually consecrating a new state of things, a method dictated by ancient traditions of cosmology and sacrificial rite. This does not entirely vindicate Murray, but it may at least go some way towards justifying a serious and non-partisan re-evaluation of her idea of royal sacrifice.


1: Bede, trans. L. Sherley-Price and R.E. Latham (1990), Ecclesiastical History of the English People, p. 140.
2: Nennius, trans. J. Morris (1980), British History and the Welsh Annals, p. 39.
3: Henry of Huntingdon, trans. T. Forester (1853), The Chronicle of Henry of Huntingdon, p. 59.
4: Bede, p. 163.
5: Henry of Huntingdon, p. 102.
6: Nennius, p. 39.
7: Bede, p. 140.
8: Bede, p. 133.
9: Henry of Huntingdon, p. 58.
10: The Divine King in England (1954), especially ch. 2.
11: See also: The Witch-Cult in Western Europe (1921); The God of the Witches (1934).
12: See: Bruce Lincoln (1986), Myth, Cosmos, and Society: Indo-European Themes of Creation and Destruction.
13: Bede, pp. 158-9.
14: Henry of Huntingdon, p. 58.
15: Bede, p. 183-5.

Originally published in Mercian Mysteries No.16 August 1993.

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Created April 1996; updated November 2008