King Oswald died on 5th August 642 at the battle of Masefield, after ruling a united Northumbria for just 8 years. He was the middle son of king Aethelfrith, the first king to rule over the whole of Northumbria.
Oswald was a type of leader that I very much admire - ‘hands on’ and ‘up front’ when needed, but having the wisdom to know when to draw in talent and expertise when necessary such as sourcing a bishop (Aidan) to help convert his pagan subjects.
I have two images of him embedded in my memory that sum up his qualities:
Oswald lived at a time when there were two independent strands of Christian mission at work - that founded by St. Columba who in 563 with his 12 disciples had set up a Celtic monastery at Iona in Scotland and the Roman mission instituted by Pope St. Gregory I lead by St. Augustine under the protection of Brunhild in 596 based in Kent.
Christianity had been introduced to our shores in Roman times as early as the 2nd Century. However, much of the early Christian church evaporated when the Roman Legions left in the 5th Century and the two centuries of the Dark Ages saw heathen Anglo Saxons invade our shores and establish settlements.
In 547 the Angle King Ida built a fortress at Bamburgh and founded the Kingdom of Bernicia stretching north from the Tyne to the Forth. On Ida’s death, Deira, the Kingdom south of the Tyne, threw off the Bernician over lordship and Aelle became King of Deira in 559 whilst Ida's descendants continued to reign in the northern Kingdom of Bernicia.
It was king Aethelfrith of Bernicia (whose second marriage was to Acha, daughter of king Aelle of Deira) that also reigned over Deira from 604 for the last twelve years of his reign and thus united the two kingdoms into Northumbria, the first king to do so. This resulted in Aethelfrith’s Deiran brother in law Edwin being forced into exile wandering secretly as a fugitive in heathen territory, finally receiving the protection of Raedwold, King of the Angles.
Aethelfrith had two children by Acha - Oswald (the subject of this article) and Oswiu and an elder son Einfrith from his first marriage.
When Raedwold fought and defeated king Aethelfrith and restored Edwin to power in 616, it was the turn of Aethelfrith’s sons Oswald and Oswiu and queen Acha to be exiled from Northumbria for the 17 year reign of Edwin. They sought refuge at the Court of Dalriadan King, Eochaid Buide, at Dunadd in modern Scotland. Here, the family was converted to Christianity by monks from Iona Abbey and Oswald and his brother Oswiu were baptised according to the rite of the Celtic Church. Little is known of these formative years in the far North, but it does appear that Oswald became a brave warrior at an early age, accompanying King Connad Cerr of Dalriada to Ireland to fight against Maelcaich and the Irish Cruithne at the Battle of Fid Eoin in AD 628.
Meanwhile in Northumbria, King Edwin, still a pagan, married the King of Kent’s daughter, Aethelburh, who was a Christian princess brought up in the Roman tradition following the Augustine mission and Edwin, together with his nobles were also converted in the 11th year of Edwin’s reign in 627. This extension of the Augustine mission as far as Northumbria was short lived as in 632 Penda, King of Mercia, and King Cadwallon of Gwynedd formed a combined army and defeated and killed King Edwin at the battle of Hatfield Chase.
For just one year Edwin’s cousin Osric then ruled Deira and Oswald’s elder brother Einfrith ruled Bernicia until he fell a year later by the sword of Cadwallon. In 633 Oswald returned from exile in Scotland and prepared to battle with Cadwallon’s vastly superior forces at Heavenfield in sight of Hadrian’s Wall near Hexham. On the eve of the day of decisive battle, the young and ardent warrior held erect with his own hands a large wooden cross while his companions piled earth around it. Then prostrating himself before it he said ‘Let us fall on our knees and together implore the living and true and Almighty God in His mercy to defend us against the pride and fierceness of our enemy; for God knows our cause is just, and that we fight for the salvation of our nation.’
This use of the Cross, for the just war, replicated the action of Constantine over 300 years earlier at Milvian Bridge when two Emperors of the Tetrarchy, Constantine and Maxentius, waged war against each other. Constantine had a dream that God could give him victory and ordered his soldiers to daub a cross on their shields. Maxentius was defeated and drowned in the Tiber and this victory started Constantine’s path to conversion.
Oswald’s dream the night of his battle with Cadwallon was a vision of St. Columba, who had been dead for 36 years, who said ‘Be of good courage and play the man. I have obtained for thee from God the victory over thine enemies’. Oswald recounted his dream to his soldiers and all agreed to be baptised if they were victorious. Cadwallon, victor in 40 battles and 60 single combats, perished in defeat and the victorious Oswald united again the kingdoms of Deira and Bernicia as his father Aethelfrith had done before him.
Oswald was a most devout Christian who lost no time in introducing to his Anglo Saxon subjects the Celtic Christian faith he had forged at Iona during those seventeen years of exile. In 635 he turned not to the Augustine mission at Canterbury or Rome but to his friends in exile, the monks at Iona, to form a monastery in Northumberland. The first monk sent, Corman, a very austere man recalled Bede, very quickly returned to Iona completely disillusioned with what he found in Northumbria, but the second monk Aidan was extremely well received and effective. He chose a site for his monastery on the barren and windswept island at Lindisfarne. The site was very similar to the island site at Iona and also within a visible distance and therefore safe protection of the fortress at Bamburgh where Oswald held court.
Aidan was Irish and not fluent in the Anglo Saxon tongue so king Oswald, who was fluent in Irish following his years with the Irish monks at Iona, acted as interpreter. Both king and abbot formed a wonderful unique partnership in the quest to preach the word and spread the conversion to Christianity in Northumbria. During Oswald’s short reign he accomplished far more than the stalled Augustine mission from Kent ever did.
However, Oswald’s reign was all too brief as Penda, the dreaded pagan King of Mercia who had killed his uncle king Edwin in 632 also defeated and killed Oswald at Maserfelth (near Oswestry) in 642.
One of my favourite books on the subject and one of the first I purchased to study northern saints after our ‘In Search of Wilfrid’ Pilgrimage in 1999, is the ‘Lives of the Northumbrian Saints’ by the Rev. Sabine Baring-Gould (1834 - 1924) who is best known as the writer of hymns such as ‘Onward Christian Soldiers’; his wonderful account of St. Oswald, a condensed version of Montalembert’s ‘Monks of the West’, has the following concluding words which seem a fitting epitaph for our Saint:
‘Thus perished, at the age of thirty-eight, Oswald, ranked by the Church among her martyrs, and by the Anglo Saxon people among its saints and heroes of most enduring fame. Through the obscurity of that thankless and confused age, the eye rests gratefully on this young prince, reared in exile among the hereditary enemies of his race, who was consoled for the loss of a throne by his conversion to Christianity, who regained the kingdom of his fathers at the point of the sword, and planted the first cross on his native soil at the moment when he freed it from the usurper, crowned by the love and devotion of the people on whom he bestowed the blessings of peace and of supreme truth, spending his very life for its sake; united for a few short years to a wife whom, in marrying, he had made a Christian; gentle and strong, serious and sincere, pious and intelligent, humble and bold, active and gracious, a soldier and a missionary, a king and a martyr, slain in the flower of his age on the field of battle, fighting for his country, and praying for his subjects. Where shall we find in all history a hero more nearly approaching the ideal, more richly gifted, more worthy of eternal remembrance, and, it must be added, more, completely forgotten?’