Arwald is a character that has fascinated me for a while now. One of the main reasons for this fascination is because so little is known about him. Many modern heathens wrongly believe Penda of Mercia to be the final pagan Anglo-Saxon king, but that distinction lies with King Arwald the Jute.
Nearly all of the information we have regarding Arwald comes from Bede’s ‘Ecclesiastical History of the English People.’ In his telling of events, Bede relays the triumph of Christianity over the inhabitants of the Isle of Wight in the year 686. Bede revels in the island’s inhabitants defeat and the subsequent forced conversion of Arwald’s brothers, calling them the “first fruits of those of that island who believed and were saved.”
As a heathen, I read a sombre tale that related the struggles of an ancient religion on the verge of collapse. The last stand of the elder heathen in England. The story of Arwald speaks to the brutality of both the church and Cædwalla of Wessex. It was Cædwalla after all, who led the charge into the Isle of Wight, with the intention of subjugating its people and giving a quarter of the island over to Bishop Wilfrid of Northumbria and the church.
“After Caedwalla had obtained possession of the kingdom of the Gewissae, he took also the Isle of Wight, which till then was entirely given over to idolatry, and by merciless slaughter endeavoured to destroy all the inhabitants thereof, and to place in their stead people from his own province; binding himself by a vow, though it is said that he was not yet regenerated in Christ, to give the fourth part of the land and of the spoil to the Lord, if he took the island. He fulfilled this vow by giving the same for the service of the Lord to Bishop Wilfrid, who happened at the time to have come thither from his own people.”
It’s strange that Bede never mentions the actual death of Arwald, although it is implied by his absence throughout the remaining narrative. In his book ‘The British Chronicles’, David Hughes claims Arwald was executed along with his brothers by Cædwalla, although Bede makes no mention of Arwald being present at their baptism or execution. It IS stated that Arwald’s brothers escaped the initial onslaught and went into hiding at a place called “At The Stone” (Stoneham) although The Great Ytene Forest has also been cited as a possible refuge. Eventually Arwald’s brothers were betrayed, and thereafter delivered to Cædwalla for execution. Before the brothers were killed, a priest named Cynibert intervened in order to “instruct them in the mysteries of the Christian faith.”
“The king consented, and the bishop having taught them the Word of truth, and cleansed them in the font of salvation, assured to them their entrance into the kingdom of Heaven. Then the executioner came, and they joyfully underwent the temporal death, through which they did not doubt they were to pass to the life of the soul, which is everlasting.”
Bede’s account is designed to justify Cædwalla’s invasion and the Church’s involvement, painting a particularly pleasant picture of the entire affair. One can assume the reality was far less good-natured than Bede would have us believe.
To add insult to forced conversion and eventual execution, the brothers were martyred by the Catholic Church under the shared moniker of St.Arwald. Their feast day is still celebrated by the Church on the 22nd of April each year. Their version of events portrays Cædwalla as a merciless pagan (he was technically baptised two years after the death of Arwald ) who executed two young brothers, who had recently discovered Christ.
‘686. Two brothers, sons of Arwald, a prince in the Isle of Wight, whose proper names are lost. They were put to death by soldiers of King Ceadwalla, then a pagan, on the day after their baptism.’
I find it humorous that the man behind martyring two staunch pagans was subsequently painted a pagan by the Church in order to justify St.Arwald’s martyrdom.
Oh the irony!