The conversion of King Ethelbert of Kent by Augustine in 597 on the initiative of Pope Gregory had little or no effect on the North of England. The father of Christianity in the vast region now included in the counties of Yorkshire, Durham and Northumberland was not Saint Gregory but Saint Columba: Christianity spread not from Canterbury but Iona. Forty-eight years after Augustine and his Roman monks had landed on the shores of pagan England, Oswald, the Christian king of Northumbria, sought the aid of the monks of Iona, the disciples of Columba, for the conversion of the Saxons of the North. Augustine had severely criticised the Celtic Church of Britain for its lack of enthusiasm. Still, its subsequent achievement in the North turned out to be equal to, if not greater, than that of the missionaries of Rome.
Saint Oswald was the son of Aethelfrid the Ravager, the King of Northumbria who, according to the Venerable Bede’s partisan account, had massacred over 1000 monks from the monastery at Bangor Isycoed at the Battle of Chester in 613. His mother was Acca, sister of the martyred Northumbrian King Edwin. After the defeat and death of his father by Raedwald in 617, he and his brother took refuge among the Scots. Since the days of Saint Columba, the Scots and Picts had become entirely Christian and Oswald and his brother spent the seventeen years of their exile at the monastery of Iona. Here they were schooled in Christian teaching and were baptised according to the rite of the Celtic Church. On their return to Northumbria, the powerful British prince, Cadwallon, treacherously murdered Eanfrid, Oswald’s elder brother, in 634. However, Oswald resolutely undertook to re-conquer his country in the face of the overwhelming forces of Cadwallon. Their armies met near Hadrian’s Wall, and a decisive battle took place on a site still preserved today, called “Heaven’s Field”. On the eve of the battle Oswald had a large wooden cross erected; then, prostrating himself before it, he prayed, “Let us together implore the living and true and Almighty God in His mercy to defend us against the pride and fierceness of our enemy; for that God knows our cause is just, and that we fight for the salvation of our nation.” This, according to Bede, was the first symbol of Christianity, be it a cross, church or altar, to be erected in the land of Bernicia. That night Saint Columba appeared to Oswald in a dream and, stretching his cloak over the small army of exiles as if to protect it, said, as God had said to Joshua before the Israelites passed over the Jordan, “Be of good courage, and play the man. You shall conquer and reign.” In the morning Oswald told his army of his vision, and they all promised to be baptised. Oswald’s victory in the ensuing battle was as complete as it was unlikely. Cadwallon, the great British victor of some forty battles and sixty single combats, perished, and the Britons fled from Northumbria, never to return, and withdrew beyond the Severn.
Nothing is known of the course of events that, after the defeat and death of Cadwallon, confirmed Oswald as the undisputed sovereign of the whole of Northumbria, i.e. the ancient kingdom north of the Humber that today includes much of northern England and south-east Scotland.
He was, according to Bede, known as the Emperor of all Britain because of his success in uniting the various tribes under his rule. At first, his power was exclusively military, but later it became the means of defending and propagating the faith he had received from the monks of Iona. Naturally, it was to that Celtic monastic centre which already existed on British soil that he turned to seek assistance rather than to the Roman mission of Canterbury. After all, it was their founder, Saint Columba, who had appeared to him in the vision on the eve of his victory over the Britons. After sending Corman, a monk who had no success, another monk called Aidan was consecrated a Bishop and sent by Abbot Seghen and the whole community of Iona to assist Oswald in the summer of 635. On his arrival, no trace could be found of Paulinus’s previous Christian mission that had taken place some 40 years before, except for a Deacon called James, the sole survivor. Oswald gave Aidan the island of Lindisfarne adjoining his royal fortress of Bamborough for his monastery. From there, he taught the northern Angles, travelling on foot over the dales and baptising them in the streams. He lived like Columba and the ascetic Irish monks who had set up the monastery at Iona, who had received their tradition from Saint Patrick of Ireland. Like Saint Columba, he settled his community on Lindisfarne, almost as small, insignificant, and barren as Iona. It was, as it still is, a place of seclusion, and at low tide, the strait separating the island from the mainland is readily passable. Sadly no traces of the church and monastery built by Aidan remain, but the island retains its character and is little changed. The modern pilgrim can still feel, as Alcuin felt in the ninth century, that there is no more venerable spot in Britain. It is the epitome of the spirit of Celtic Christianity, the sanctity of which is not derived from legends, as at Glastonbury, but from indisputable historical facts. On what must surely be the holiest of English soil, Aidan established a see and monastery, which endured for over 240 years until it was transferred to Durham in 995. He lived the ordinary life of a monk, bringing fellow Celts over from Iona to help launch the community and start a school for twelve English boys, two of whom, Cedd and his brother Chad, subsequently came to play an influential part in the conversion of the Anglo-Saxons. The partnership of Aidan and Oswald became a symbol of what the alliance between Church and State should be. Oswald gave Aidan the obedience of a son and the support of a king, and they rejoiced in each other’s righteousness. Often the king would spend the whole night in prayer, and the king generously gave needy strangers who came to beg from the bishop alms and food. On one Easter Day, Aidan heard Oswald order his thegn who brought him the cooked meat on a great silver dish to take the food to the poor and have the dish broken up and given to them. So far as we know, no minted money was circulating in Northumbria at the time, and Oswald’s action was no theatrical gesture but the bestowal of a royal gift in the customary manner. As the king stretched out his hand to give the order, Aidan seized it and cried, “May this hand never perish!” The uncorrupted hand of Oswald was later preserved in a silver casket in Bamborough church until the Reformation. In addition to this, Oswald often accompanied Aidan and acted as his interpreter. It was, says Bede, “a touching spectacle” to see the king, who had, during his exile, learned the Celtic tongue, translating the bishop’s sermons to his nobles and thegns, who could only imperfectly speak the Celtic language in which Saint Aidan delivered his sermons. Christianity spread rapidly, numerous churches were built, and monasteries were founded, peopled by Scottish monks.
Reginald of Durham, writing in 1165, but using an earlier unspecified source, describes the prosperity of England under Oswald’s rule and how an outbreak of plague threatened this. The king himself fell ill but, when close to death, experienced a vision. He was told that his prayers had released all English people from the scourge of plague and that martyrdom awaited him. As a result of the vision, Oswald reformed his manner of living. He describes his appearance as tall with fair hair and shining blue-grey eyes. Oswald’s face was, he says, long, his mouth and beard small. He possessed long limbs and broad shoulders, and was bold and warlike but also compassionate. In the Lubeck “Passionale” Oswald is depicted with a raven in each hand; one raven holds a
ring in its beak whilst the other has a letter. The ring represents the betrothal ring sent to the King of Wessex for his daughter’s hand; the letter is Cynegil’s reply, agreeing not only to the match but also to acceptance of the condition that they should first become Christian. This amounted to the acknowledgement of Oswald’s supremacy by Cynegil, and appropriately it was Oswald who stood as a sponsor at the Baptism of King Cynegil in 635.
In 642, there was a war between Oswald and Penda, King of Mercia. According to Bede, on August 5, Oswald was defeated, killed and dismembered by Penda in a fierce battle at a place called Maserfelth where an ash tree is said to have grown giving the name Oswald’s tree or, as it is known today, Oswestry or Croesoswallt (Oswald’s Cross) in Welsh. Just as the ‘signum’ had been the Roman military standard, the standard of the legion, the setting up of a cross was the planting of a standard in the Christian battle. It is recorded that Oswald planted a cross before the earlier battle against Cadwallon at Heavenfield, and so we may reasonably assume that he would also have done so at the battle of Maserfelth. In her exhaustive study of Saint Oswald, Dr. Clare Stancliffe has suggested that this became a preaching cross on the site on which St Oswald’s Church was later built at Oswestry. The present Church of Saint Oswald quite possibly then stands on the very ground made holy by the blood of a martyr. One ancient Welsh englyn, possibly dating from before the ninth century, called Canu Heledd (Helen’s song or lament) names the site as maes Cogwy (field of Cogwy) and mentions the participation of Cynddylan, king of Powys. If we can assume that Cynddylan was Christian from the fact that he was later buried at Bassas Churches (Baschurch), then, as it has been suggested, it seems likely that he joined forces with Oswald against the pagan Penda. However, the majority of scholars think that Cynddylan fought with Penda against Oswald. Whichever is the case, the facts are lost in the mists of time: all that is recorded in the source is that Cynddylan “was an ally”.
Reginald of Durham describes in some detail the location of Oswestry and mentions the ‘white church’, built on the site of Oswald’s martyrdom dedicated to Oswald, which stood there. This is independently confirmed in other historical records. Nearby “at a distance of one-and-a-half bowshots”, were to be found Oswald’s well and a sacred ash tree, also named after the saint because its leaves and branches were credited with miraculous healing properties. For instance Gerald of Wales writes: ‘Oswaldestroe, id est, Oswaldi arborem’. These were located close to the place where the king’s head and arms remained fixed to stakes for a year after his death, and that wood from these stakes was still preserved there. Oswald’s brother, Oswiu, was, in a vision, commanded to retrieve these relics. A great bird, however, had carried off the right arm to an ancient ash tree, which was renewed with vigour because of the blessing of incorruption that had been bestowed on it by St. Aidan. The well marks the place where the great bird let the arm fall and where a healing spring appeared that was still demonstrating the saint’s miraculous power even in Reginald’s time (1165). It is also interesting to note that in ‘Canu Heledd’ ‘the eagles of Eli’ swoop down on the corpse of Cynddylan.
The ancient church dedicated to Saint Oswald, King and Martyr is still the parish church of the town of Oswestry and Saint Oswald’s well, although much neglected it is still recognisable as a holy well unlike many others. There is a tradition that the battle was fought in a nearby field called cae nef (hefen-felth or heaven field). It is also worth noting that Woolstan, a couple of miles to the south, is named Osuvelstone (Oswald’s Stone) in the Domesday Book. Beyond Oswestry itself the nearest ancient foundation dedicated to Saint Oswald is the church at Malpas, which certainly predates the Norman Conquest and the shaft of a Saxon preaching cross bearing a Northumbrian design was unearthed at Ellesmere in the mid nineteenth century. In keeping with this tradition Nathaniel Woodard named the school he built on the outskirts of Ellesmere, St. Oswald’s College. Sometime after it was opened in 1882, the raven bearing the ring from the Lubeck Passionale was incorporated into the college coat of arms and the motto Pro Patria Dimicans (striving for one’s country) is a quotation from the venerable Bede’s account.
The relics of Saint Oswald were recovered by his niece, Osthryth, and enshrined at Bardney Abbey but they were later removed by Aethelflaed ‘the Lady of the Mercians’ and brought to Gloucester for safety during the Danish incursions. Here she built a priory to house them and, evidently at her request, both she and her husband Aethelred, Earl of Mercia, were buried. Saint Oswald’s Priory, Gloucester, like other religious houses, perished at the Dissolution; even the appeal of the Archbishop of York was unable to save it and only some fragmentary ruins mark its site today. Saint Oswald’s head was buried with Saint Cuthbert whose shrine is now in Durham Cathedral. When St Cuthbert’s shrine was opened in the 19th century the head of St Oswald was found to be present.
The cult of Saint Oswald spread to the continent to the extent that during the Middle Ages he was one of the best known of English saints, for instance he is the patron saint of Zug in Switzerland. Veneration was especially strong in Germany where the legend of the ravens was recorded at Lubeck on the shores of the Baltic. His feast day is observed on August 5 in the East and on August 7 in the West.
The Feast of Saint Oswald, 2012
Stichera of the martyr, in Plagal of Mode IV (from Vespers of the Feast)
Come, all you of godly mind, * and let us honour the memory * of King Oswald with sacred hymns; * who shared in the Apostles’ deeds * heralding the Gospel *, founded many churches * wherein the Mysteries were served, * and to the needy did freely alms bestow, * who reigned indeed in righteousness * and ruled in justice, and let us cry: Grant forgiveness to us through him, * O Omnipotent Lord of all!
Having raised with your own hands * a wooden Cross you confessed your faith * and exhorted your men to pray * and promise to be baptised * renouncing the idols * and the works of Satan; * wherefore your foes you overcame, * Oswald, and reigned as a righteous king * having as guide the hierarch * Aidan the pastor of Lindisfarne; * and remaining humble and just * shunning conceit and lawlessness.
Penda the bloodthirsty brute, * cut off your head and your right arm * and as trophies hung on a pole; * yet God glorified them * and through them worked wonders, * Oswald Passion-bearer * to men and animals alike * and from the soil where your blood was cruelly shed * the dust prevailed over the fire * and from his fever the boy was redeemed * who did pray at your sacred tomb, * noble king, reigning now with Christ.
Glory, in the plagal second mode:
Today, on the Forefeast of the Lord’s Transfiguration, * Oswald His triumphant warrior, * having being made perfect in a short time, * finished the contest of his divine longing * through manifold torments. * Come, you assemblies of the faithful, * and with fitting praises let us crown him * crying out with love and chanting: * Rejoice, valiant champion of
true piety * and uprooter of the tares of falsehood. * Rejoice, adornment of godly kings * and model of God-fearing rulers. * Rejoice, protector and guardian of Oswestry, * healer of the sick, and glory of all England. * Pray to Christ the Lover of mankind, for the salvation of our souls.
Hymns from the Akolouthia to Saint Oswald composed by Father David Somalis