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(Died c.AD 700)
Abbess of St. Osiths
Died: circa AD 700 at Chich, Essex
According to tradition, Osith was daughter of Frithuwold, the Mercian
sub-King of Surrey. Her mother was Wilburga, daughter of King Penda of Mercia.
The parents of Osith, with St. Erconwald, founded the monastery of Chertsey
(Surrey) in AD 675. She was born at Quarendon, near Aylesbury (Buckinghamshire),
and her childhood was spent the care of her maternal aunts, the two holy
Edith of Aylesbury and St.
Edburga of Bicester.
There is an old story that St. Edith sent Osith, one day, to take a book to
St. Modwenna at her nunnery, in order to point out to her a particularly
interesting passage she had discovered. To reach Modwenna's house, Osith had to
cross a stream by a bridge. The stream swollen, the wind was high, she was blown
into the water and remained there for two days before she was discovered. Edith
thought she was safe with Modwenna who, not expecting her visit, was not
surprised at her non-appearance. On the third day, Edith, wondering that her
pupil had not returned with an answer to her message, came to Modwenna. Great
was the consternation of the abbesses when they found they had lost their
charge. They went to search for her. Following the banks of the stream, they saw
the child lying at the bottom, holding the book open at the passage she had been
told to show to Modwenna. The abbesses prayed for her restoration, and commanded
her to arise from the water and come to them. This she did: she, her dress and
the book being quite uninjured. There is some confusion over which Modwenna is
meant here. The story seems to indicate St.
Modwenna of Burton-on-Trent, but this is impossible. The lady in
question is probably the little known St.
Modwenna of Northumbria.
After the death of St. Edith, Osith returned to her parents, who soon
accepted, on her behalf, an offer of marriage from Sighere, King of Essex, who
reigned jointly with Sebba. Sighere had relapsed into heathenism, but promised
to become a Christian on marrying Osith. Osith's inclinations, however, had
turned towards a religious life and she would rather have been an abbess than a
queen, having secretly made a vow of celibacy. Her fate was decided for her
though and she was given to Sighere, whilst still praying that she might have no
husband but the Lord. On her marriage, she went with her husband, probably to
London, which was then the capital of Essex. On some pretext or other, she
declined, for several days, to receive the King in her bower - a separate house
for herself and her attendant ladies within the enclosure of the Royal
residence. At last, however, her contrivances were exhausted and so was the
King's patience. Her seclusion came to a sudden end and her husband stood before
her. Still she prayed that she might keep her vow, but Sighere began to protest
that, without her, life held no happiness and no interest for him. But even
while he spoke, there was a sound of eager voices and hurrying feet. Some of his
lords cried, "The stag, the stag" and close to the gate was the
largest stag that ever was seen. Up sprang Sighere and, with all his Court,
started in pursuit. Osith regarded this interruption as an answer to her prayers
and took his departure as a release from her engagement. She sent in all haste
for Bishops Acca and Bedwin and, when the King returned, after a chase of four
or five days, he found her a veiled nun. He generously gave her an estate at
Chich (St. Osiths) in Essex, and built her a church and a monastery, where she
soon gathered many holy nuns about to wonderful sanctity.
After many years, on 7th October around AD 700, the Danes made a raid on the
Essex coast. Their leader tried by threats and entreaties to make Osith renounce
her religion, but in vain and, incensed at his failure, he cut off her head. As
it fell to the earth, a fountain bubbled up which, for many years afterwards,
had a wonderful power of curing diseases. Osith rose to her feet and carried her
head in her hands to the church, staining the door with blood as she opened it.
Her family claimed her body and it was buried for a while at Aylesbury Abbey;
but the saint intimated, by visions and other signs, that she chose to rest in
her own monastery. There, accordingly, she was eventually placed in a rich
shrine by Maurice, Bishop of London.
She is represented in art with a stag behind her and a long key hanging from
her girdle, or otherwise carrying a key and a sword crossed, a device which
commemorates St. Peter, St. Paul and St. Andrew.
Edited from Agnes Dunbar's "A Dictionary of Saintly Women" (1904).