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Osith

(d. c. 700)


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Offa (d. 796) king of the Mercians

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(d. c.700),

of Chich (Essex), was an obscure Anglo-Saxon princess. Her tribe was that of the Hwiccas; she was married to Sighere, king of the East Saxons (c.664–83), at the instigation of his overlord Wulfhere, king of Mercia (656–75). One purpose of the marriage may have been to consolidate Christianity in Essex, whose state was precarious owing to Sighere's apostasy; Bede has nothing to say of Osith, but does recount the reconversion of Sighere by bishop Jaruman. The son of Sighere and Osith, called Offa, became king of the East Saxons but abdicated in 709. Osith meanwhile had founded a convent at Chich, died there, and was venerated as a saint.

The lack of corroborative evidence to support these details from her late Legend make the story suspect. Its more picturesque details include the appearance of a large and aggressive white stag whenever Sighere tried to consummate the marriage (ignoring the fact that they had a son), Osith's flight to some East Anglian bishops who accepted her vow of chastity and persuaded her husband to give her land for her nunnery, her violent death at Chich at the hands of pirates because she refused to commit idolatry, and her carrying her severed head after death to a church three miles away, where she was buried.

Her body, we are told, was translated to Aylesbury (Bucks.) during the Danish invasions, but if this ever happened, it was returned to Chich by c.1000, when the treatise ‘On the Resting-Places of the Saints’ (R.P.S.) mentions her shrine. The bishops of London favoured the cult: Maurice (1085–1107) translated her body to a new shrine behind the high altar of the church at Chich, while his successor, Richard de Belmeis (1108–27), founded the monastery of Austin canons there, both to restore the shrine and to give thanks for his recovery from a stroke, supposedly caused by Osith's vengeful anger for his alienating her lands to provide a pleasure park.

Osith was sometimes erroneously identified with Zita; she was also invoked, like Agatha, against fire; arm relics were claimed by St Paul's, London, and by Canterbury Cathedral. Her principal feast was on 7 October, with translation feasts(?) on 27 April, 3 June, and 2 October. Her cult flourished at Hereford, Worcester, and Evesham because of her supposed origin among the Hwiccas.

Beside her principal shrine at Chich, there was one at Aylesbury (Bucks.), which attracted devotees until 1502, when concerted action by the bishops of Lincoln and London put an end to this cult. It seems likely if not certain that in reality there were two Osiths, of Chich and of Aylesbury, represented by the feasts of 7 October and 3 June, in the liturgical traditions of London and Hereford. These were conflated by mistaken hagiographers into a single person. C.S.P. also is a witness of medieval confusion about this saint: it calls her a native of Aylesbury who was ‘beheaded in the Danish persecution and so was called the daughter of Paul’. Four ancient churches were dedicated to Osith.

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Subjects: Christianity.


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