As Easter Day of year 626 approached, the powerful King Edwin of Northumbria had a lot on his mind. He had recently married Æthelburh of Kent, and their first child was fast approaching. Along with thoughts of childbirth, Edwin was musing over the teachings of a certain Paulinus, a Roman missionary and newly-consecrated bishop who had accompanied Æthelburh to Northumbria as her personal chaplain and spiritual advisor. Despite pressure from his wife and his wife’s priestly companion, King Edwin was still indecisive on whether to become a Christian convert, himself, and he was also unsure on whether to grant his wife’s wish for her unborn child to be baptized and raised in her faith. In matters such as these, the king preferred to make his decisions only after long periods of deliberation. An unexpected guest, however, would shock King Edwin from his pensive reverie.
On Easter Day, a man known as Eomer arrived at the court of King Edwin and announced that he had an important message to deliver. With charisma and confidence, Eomer talked his way into receiving an audience with the king and eventually was introduced into the throne room. The messenger was reportedly slow to reveal his purpose—he began delivering a rehearsed story to the Northumbrian monarch, all the while mentally preparing himself for his real mission. At a random moment during his speech, the messenger abruptly pulled out a concealed blade that was long enough to pass through a man’s chest. With this weapon drawn, Eomer charged for the vulnerable King Edwin, who was only a short distance away.
Just as the assassin was about to reach his target, one of the king’s thanes made a quick decision. Lilla, a trusted courtier and a good friend of the king, threw himself in front Edwin at the last moment. Unfortunately for the thane, the assassin had committed himself to the attack and his extended blade plunged with incredible force into and through Lilla’s chest. The momentum of the blow pushed the selfless thane backward against the king, and the assassin’s blade protruded far enough out of Lilla’s back to give Edwin a flesh wound. Before Eomer could push the dying Lilla aside and finish off the king, the other courtiers in the room finally recovered from their shock and joined the fray. The assassin managed to strike down one more member of the court, a certain Fordhere, before he was dealt with by the king’s men. Specifics on Eomer’s fate are unfortunately vague—sources such as Bede, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, and Florence of Worcester did not mention if the assassin was killed outright or captured alive.
In the aftermath of Eomer’s attack, both Lilla and Fordhere died. King Edwin’s own wound was serious enough for him to need some time to rest, but he regained his health quickly. Yet, fate would not let Edwin’s adrenaline level wane that Easter. It was said that the king’s wife, Æthelburh, went into labor that very day and gave birth during the night to a daughter named Eanfled. Her birth, and the assassination attempt, were reportedly a significant event in convincing Edwin to convert to Christianity. As the story goes, the pagan king vowed that he would allow his new daughter to be baptized and raised as a Christian if God helped him track down and punish those who were responsible for the assassination attempt.
King Edwin’s investigators made quick progress in their search. They were ultimately able to determine not only the kingdom but also the specific nobleman who was responsible for the assassin—Cwichelm, the son of King Cynegils of Wessex (r. 611-643), was charged as the mastermind in sources favoring both Northumbria and Wessex. King Edwin of Northumbria reportedly waited only as long as he needed to recover from his wound before launching a reprisal invasion of Wessex. According to Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People, King Edwin “either slew or forced to surrender all those who had plotted his murder” (Book II, chapter 9). Interestingly, King Cynegils of Wessex and his son Cwichelm were both in the latter category of submission, not execution. Keeping his word, Edwin allowed his daughter to be raised as a Christian and he, along with many of his courtiers, were baptized a year later in 627.
Unfortunately for King Edwin, escaping the assassin Eomer was only a momentary delay in his grisly fate. In 633, Penda of Mercia and Cadwallon of Gwynned defeated the forces of Northumbria at the Battle of Hatfield Chase, in which King Edwin fell in battle. After the death of the king, Æthelburh and Bishop Paulinus fled back to Kent.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
Picture Attribution: (The arrest of William Hastings illustrated by James William Edmund Doyle (1822–92), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle translated by Benjamin Thorpe in 1861 and republished by Cambridge University Press, 2012.
- Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People (and relevant letters), translated by Leo Sherley-Pride, R. E. Latham and D. H. Farmer. New York: Penguin Classics, 2003.
- The Chronicle of Florence of Worcester translated by Thomas Forester. London: Petter and Galpin, originally published 1854.