The legend is set in a time known as 'The Dark Ages'. It was a time of war and change, when life was short and often brutal. Back in the 7th century, the Vikings, under their leaders Inguar and Hubba, made lightning attacks on the English coast and it is likely to be true that a band of Viking pirates sailed into the muddy Essex creek at Chich and destroyed the countryside.
Saint Osyth is not talked about in the most famous Saxon history, written by a scholar known as Bede. However, Osyth probably did exist and was murdered by the Vikings. It is also likely that she died in the Nun's Wood. She was probably murdered close to the spring, which still flows to this day.
How was Saint Osyth remembered?
Example of a 7th Century Saxon church
The Vikings destroyed the nunnery, which had been built for St Osyth by her husband King Sibere of Essex, at the time Osyth was murdered. The church of St. Peter and St. Paul, founded by Osyth, was left standing and the martyred princess was, at first, laid to rest in this church. However, her father, King Redwald (in some accounts Penda), and mother, Wilburga, soon took her to Aylesbury. Six years later, her body was taken back to Chich (now St Osyth), and solemnly placed in Christ Church.
The place where she died became a shrine and many miracles were said to have taken place there. Nearby, a busy village grew up named after the saint. About 1121, Richard de Belmais, bishop of London, built a large Augustinian priory in the middle of the village to honour the great apostles, St. Peter and St. Paul, and St. Osyth, the martyr.
The priory became very powerful and, by the time of the dissolution of the monasteries in 1539, was one of the richest Augustinian monasteries in Europe. Some of the remains can still be seen at St Osyth.
What about the miracle - could it really have happened?
Many stories involved Saints and Miracles
Although people agree that Osyth probably lived, they do not agree how the story of the miracle started, in which she picks up her head and walks to the church. Early writers believed that the miracle really took place. Others have suggested that it is possible her head was not taken off, but her throat was cut and that she had just enough strength to reach the church. In St. Osyth's day, this would have seemed a miracle and, as the story was told again and again, it could have been 'dressed up' by the storytellers.
Most people could not read and write at this time and the church often used stories, based on the lives of the saints, to show the truth of the gospels and to remind people how they should behave. Gradually these stories changed, to make the saints seem perfect in the way they lived and died and show the power of belief. These stories were very important in the early years of the church, providing history as well as many legends.
The tales first started during the Roman Empire and told of the early Christian martyrs that were put to death. From the 7th century, the tales grew more and more popular, as they often told of heroes, and of battles with dragons and monsters. They took in ideas and plots that were around before Christianity. The tales often included miracles and this is one such tale.
Are there other legends about Saint Osyth?
The water was collected from pipes by the Monks
The waters from the spring that 'gushed forth' where Osyth was murdered were collected for many years in a long pipe, by the monks at the Priory, and used to cure all kinds of illnesses. Many legends grew up around St Osyth.
Matthew Paris tells of an old story about a husbandman named Thurcillus, who lived at Tidstude, a village in Essex, when King John was the king. One night he was shown paradise by St. James and other saints and, when he had come to the most holy and pleasant place in paradise, he saw St Catherine, St. Margaret and St. Osyth. In those days, when the people went to bed, they prayed to God and St. Osyth to deliver them "from fire, and from water, and from all misadventure".
The present church of St Peter and St Paul stands on the site of the original church that St Osyth founded. Local tradition says that, on October the 7th every year, St Osyth revisits the scene of her martyrdom, walking with her head in her hand.