The Exogamous Marriages of Oswiu of Northumbria
The Heroic Age, Issue 9 (Oct 2006)
This paper explores the exogamous Celtic marriages of the Northumbrian ætheling and later king, Oswiu (642-670). The background of Oswiu’s exile, early in life, to Dalriada is investigated. Implications for Anglo-Celtic relations in the north of Britain in the first half of the seventh century are drawn.
Alcock (1993, 12) has opined that the written sources for the early medieval period provide the impression that warfare was the major social activity of the various peoples of northern Britain, both between themselves and with their Anglo-Saxon or Celtic neighbours. Dumville (1989, 219) and Richter (1999, 90-1) have similarly noted that Anglo-Celtic hostility remains a continuing theme in the sources for the early Anglo-Saxon north. Such a bellicose state of affairs might be anticipated for a period during which the political and ethnic landscape was being regularly redefined (Evans 1997, 27). However, there does exist evidence of more amicable interaction and political contact: of Northumbrians finding refuge within Celtic kingdoms, of intermarriage, and of alliance. This should not be unexpected. Anglo-Saxon and Celtic societies, as exemplars of early medieval ‘Barbarian’ cultures, shared similar features of social organisation (Cessford 1999, 160; Charles-Edwards 1997, 171-210; Cramp 1995, 2; Wormald 1986, 151-83), and hostile relations between peoples does not necessarily mean cultural or linguistic ignorance (Dumville 1981, 114; Miller 1978, 61). Overlordship and the collection of tribute would have required some level of mutual intelligibility, and the taking of hostages between Anglo-Saxon and Celtic kingdoms would have necessitated bi- or even multi-lingualism, albeit largely restricted to members of the aristocracy. Intermarriage, one of the most common mechanisms proposed for integration between peoples (Banham 1994, 152; Wallace-Hadrill 1985, 26; Yorke 1990, 138-9), may also have occurred. Cramp (1995, 2) argues that intermarriage between Celtic and Northumbrian nobility might have acted as a means of cementing alliances and peace. Strategic marriages might have been used to back up military conquest and to facilitate the imposition of overlordship by the Northumbrian kings (Yorke 1990, 85).