Oswald of Northumbria

Oswald (c. 604August 5, 642[1]) was King of Northumbria from 634 until his death, and was subsequently venerated as a Christian saint. He was the son of Æthelfrith of Bernicia and came to rule after spending a period in exile, defeating Gwynedd's king Cadwallon ap Cadfan, bringing the two Northumbrian kingdoms of Bernicia and Deira once again under a single ruler, and promoting the spread of Christianity in Northumbria. He was given a strongly positive assessment by the historian Bede, writing a little less than a century after Oswald's death, who regarded Oswald as a saintly king; it is also Bede who is the main source for present-day historical knowledge of Oswald. After eight years of rule, in which he was the most powerful ruler in Britain, Oswald was killed in the battle of Maserfield.

Background, youth, and exile

Oswald's father Æthelfrith was a successful Bernician ruler who, after some years in power in Bernicia, also became king of Deira, and thus was the first to rule both of the kingdoms which would come to be considered the constituent kingdoms of Northumbria (Bernicia in the northern part and Deira in the southern part); it would, however, be anachronistic to refer to a "Northumbrian" people or identity at this early stage, when the Bernicians and the Deirans were still clearly distinct peoples.[2] Oswald's mother, Acha, was a member of the Deiran royal line who Æthelfrith apparently married as part of his acquisition of Deira or consolidation of power there.[3] Oswald was apparently born in or around the year 604, since Bede says that he was killed at the age of 38 in 642;[4] Æthelfrith's acquisition of Deira is also believed to have occurred around 604.

Æthelfrith, who was for years a successful war-leader, especially over the native British, was eventually killed in battle around 616 by Raedwald of East Anglia at the River Idle. This defeat meant that an exiled member of the Deiran royal line, Edwin (Acha's brother), became king of Northumbria; Oswald and his brothers fled to the north. Oswald thus spent the remainder of his youth in the kingdom of Dál Riata, where he was converted to Christianity by the monks of Iona. He may also have fought in Ireland during this period of exile.

Victory over Cadwallon

After Cadwallon ap Cadfan, the king of Gwynedd, in alliance with the pagan Penda of Mercia, killed Edwin of Deira in battle at Hatfield Chase in 633 (or 632, depending on when the years used by Bede are considered to have began), Northumbria was split between its constituent kingdoms of Bernicia and Deira. Oswald's brother Eanfrith became king of Bernicia, but he was killed by Cadwallon in 634 (or 633) after attempting to negotiate peace. Subsequently, Oswald, at the head of a small army[5] (possibly with the aid of allies from the north, the Scots and/or the Picts[6]), met Cadwallon in battle at Heavenfield, near Hexham. Before the battle, Oswald had a wooden cross erected; he knelt down, holding the cross in position until enough earth had been thrown in the hole to make it stand firm. He then prayed and asked his army to join in.[7] In the battle that followed, the British were routed despite their superior numbers; Cadwallon himself was killed.[5]


Following the victory at Heavenfield, Oswald reunited Northumbria and reestablished the Bernician supremacy which had been interrupted by Edwin. Bede says that Oswald held imperium for the eight years of his rule (both Bede and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle say that Oswald's reign was actually considered to be nine years, the ninth year being accounted for by assigning to Oswald the year preceding his rule, "on account of the heathenism practised by those who had ruled that one year between him and Edwin"[8]), and was the most powerful king in Britain. In the 9th-century Anglo-Saxon Chronicle he is referred to as a Bretwalda.

He seems to have been widely recognized as overlord, although the extent of his authority is uncertain. Bede makes the claim that Oswald "brought under his dominion all the nations and provinces of Britain", which, as Bede notes, was divided by language between the English, British, Scots, and Picts; however, he seems to undermine his own claim when he mentions at another point in his history that it was Oswald's brother Oswiu who made tributary the Picts and Scots.[9] An Irish source, the Annals of Tigernach, records that the Anglo-Saxons banded together against Oswald early in his reign; this may indicate an attempt to put an end to Oswald's overlordship south of the Humber, which presumably failed.[10]

The Mercians, who participated in Edwin's defeat in 633, seem to have presented an obstacle to Oswald's authority south of the Humber, although it has been generally thought that Oswald dominated Mercia to some degree after Heavenfield. It may have been to appease Oswald that Penda had Eadfrith, a captured son of Edwin (and thus a dynastic rival of Oswald), killed, although it is also possible that Penda had his own motives for the killing.[11]

Oswald apparently controlled Lindsey, given the evidence of a story told by Bede regarding the moving of Oswald's bones to a monastery there; Bede says that the monks rejected the bones initially because Oswald had ruled over them as a foreign king (see below). To the north, it may have been Oswald who conquered the Gododdin. Irish annals record the siege of Edinburgh, thought to have been the royal stronghold of the Gododdin, in 638, and this seems to mark the end of the kingdom; that this siege was undertaken by Oswald is suggested by the apparent control of the area by his brother Oswiu in the 650s.[12]

Oswald seems to have been on good terms with the West Saxons: he stood as sponsor to the baptism of their king, Cynegils, and married Cynegils' daughter.[13] Her name is reported by only one source, Reginald of Durham's 12th century Vita S. Oswaldi, which says that it was Kyneburga.[14] Although Oswald had one known son, Æthelwald, it is uncertain whether this was a son from his marriage to Cynegils' daughter or from an earlier relationship—since Æthelwald began ruling in Deira in 651, it has been argued that a son from this marriage would have been too young at the time to be trusted with this position, and therefore may have been older, the product of a relationship Oswald had during his exile.[6]

Although Edwin had previously converted to Christianity in 627, it was Oswald who did the most to spread the religion in Northumbria. It was he who gave the island of Lindisfarne to the Irish bishop Aidan, who established a monastery there. Bede mentions that Oswald acted as Aidan's interpreter when the latter was preaching, since Aidan did not know English well and Oswald had learned Irish during his exile.[15]

Bede puts a clear emphasis on Oswald being saintly as a king; although he could be interpreted as a martyr for his subsequent death in battle, Bede portrays Oswald as being saintly for his deeds in life and does not focus on his martyrdom as being primary to his sainthood—indeed, it has been noted that Bede never uses the word "martyr" in reference to Oswald. In this respect, as a king regarded as saintly for his life while ruling—in contrast to a king who gives up the kingship in favor of religious life, or who is venerated because of the manner of his death—Bede's portrayal of Oswald stands out as unusual.[16] Bede recounts Oswald's generosity to the poor and to strangers, and tells a story highlighting this characteristic: on one occasion, at Easter, Oswald was sitting at dinner with Aidan, and had "a silver dish full of dainties before him", when a servant, whom Oswald "had appointed to relieve the poor", came in and told Oswald that a crowd of the poor were in the streets begging alms from the king. Oswald, according to Bede, then immediately had his food given to the poor and even had the dish broken up and distributed. Aidan was greatly impressed and seized Oswald's right hand, stating: "May this hand never perish." Accordingly, Bede reports that the hand and arm remained uncorrupted after Oswald's death.[17]


It was a conflict with the pagan Mercians under Penda that proved to be Oswald's undoing. He was killed by the Mercians at the Battle of Maserfield, at a place generally identified with Oswestry, although without certainty, in 642,[1] and his body was dismembered. Bede mentions the story that Oswald "ended his life in prayer": he prayed for the souls of his soldiers when he saw that he was about to die. Oswald's head and limbs were placed on stakes;[18] according to legend, one of his arms was taken by his pet raven and dropped on a tree. Aspects of the legend are considered by some to have pagan overtones or influences—this may represent a fusion of his status as a traditional Germanic warrior-king with Christianity.

The traditional identification of the battle site with Oswestry, probably in the territory of Powys at the time, suggests that Penda may have had British allies in this battle, and this is also suggested by surviving Welsh poetry which has been thought to indicate the participation of the men of Powys in the battle. It has also been considered that, if the traditional identification of the site as Oswestry is correct, Oswald was on the offensive, in the territory of his enemies. This could conflict with Bede's saintly portrayal of Oswald, since an aggressive war could hardly qualify as a just war, perhaps explaining why Bede is silent on the cause of the war—he says only that Oswald died "fighting for his fatherland"—as well as his failure to mention other offensive warfare Oswald is presumed to have engaged in between Heavenfield and Maserfield.[19] Oswald may have had an ally in Penda's brother Eowa, who was also killed in the battle; while the sources only mention that Eowa was killed, not the side on which he fought, it has been speculated that Eowa was subject to Oswald and fighting alongside him in the battle, in opposition to Penda.[20]

After death

Oswald soon came to be regarded as a saint. Bede says that the spot where he died came to be associated with miracles, and people took dirt from the site, which led to a hole being dug as deep as a man's height. A holy well of healing was said to have sprung up at the spot where Oswald's arm had landed, and the name of the site, Oswestry, or "Oswald's Tree", is generally thought to be derived from Oswald's death there and the legends surrounding it. His feast day is August 5. The cult surrounding him even gained prominence in parts of continental Europe.

Bede mentions that Oswald's brother Oswiu, who succeeded Oswald in Bernicia, retrieved Oswald's remains in the year after his death.[18] In writing of one miracle associated with Oswald, Bede gives some indication of how Oswald was regarded in conquered lands: years later, when his niece Osthryth tried to move his bones to a monastery in Lindsey, its inmates initially refused to accept them, "though they knew him to be a holy man", because "he was originally of another province, and had reigned over them as a foreign king", and thus "they retained their ancient aversion to him, even after death". It was only after Oswald's bones were the focus of an awe-inspiring miracle—in which, during the night, a pillar of light appeared over the wagon in which the bones were being carried and shined up into the sky—that they were accepted into the monastery: "in the morning, the brethren who had refused it the day before, began themselves earnestly to pray that those holy relics, so beloved by God, might be deposited among them."[21]

His bones resided at Lindsey in what became Viking Northumbria. But in an exploratory five-week attack on Lindsey in 909 by the Mercian king, Oswald's remains were captured and taken away for reburial at Gloucester.

Oswald's head was interred with the remains of Cuthbert of Lindisfarne (a saint with whom Oswald became posthumously associated, although the two were not associated in life; Cuthbert became bishop of Lindisfarne more than forty years after Oswald's death), where it is generally believed to remain, although there are at least four other claimed heads of Oswald in continental Europe.[22]

Some English place names record his reign, for example Oswaldtwistle in Lanchashire, meaning the twistle (border stream) of Oswald.

Notes and references

  1. ^ a b Bede gives the year of Oswald's death as 642; however, there is some question as to whether what Bede considered 642 is the same as what would now be considered 642. R. L. Poole (Studies in Chronology and History, 1934) put forward the theory that Bede's years began in September, and if this theory is followed (as it was, for instance, by Frank Stenton in his notable history Anglo-Saxon England, first published in 1943), then the date of the battle of Heavenfield (and the beginning of Oswald's reign) is pushed back from 634 to 633. Thus, if Oswald subsequently reigned for eight years, he would have actually been killed in 641. Poole's theory has been contested, however, and arguments have been made that Bede began his year on December 25 or January 1, in which case Bede's years would be accurate as he gives them.
  2. ^ Clare Stancliffe, "Oswald, 'Most Holy and Most Victorious King of the Northumbrians'", in C. Stancliffe and E. Cambridge (ed.), Oswald: Northumbrian King to European Saint (1995, 1996), page 36.
  3. ^ D. P. Kirby, The Earliest English Kings, page 60.
  4. ^ Bede, Historia Ecclesiastica, Book III, chapter 9.
  5. ^ a b Bede, Book III, chapter 1.
  6. ^ a b Michelle Ziegler, "The Politics of Exile in Early Northumbria", The Heroic Age, Issue 2, Autumn/Winter 1999.
  7. ^ Bede, Book III, chapter 2.
  8. ^ Bede, Book III, chapter 1; ASC, manuscript E, year 634. The quote is from the ASC.
  9. ^ For the mention of Oswald's power over Britain, see H. E., Book III, chapter 6; for the mention of Oswiu making the Scots and Picts tributary, see Book II, chapter 5. See D. P. Kirby, in The Earliest English Kings, page 70, for how this indicates Bede was defining Oswald's supremacy in excessive terms.
  10. ^ Stancliffe, "Oswald", page 60. According to Stancliffe, "Oswald would scarely have been remembered as an effective overlord in so many Southhumbrian kingdoms if his power had been checked this early in his career."
  11. ^ Stancliffe, "Oswald", pages 54 and 71–75. Stancliffe mentions Penda's possible reasons for independently having Eadfrith killed, and expresses doubt that Bede would have regarded Oswald as such a saintly figure if he had known Oswald was responsible for Eadfrith's death.
  12. ^ Stancliffe, "Oswald", page 58.
  13. ^ Bede, Book III, chapter 7.
  14. ^ Victoria Tudor, "Reginald's Life of St Oswald", in Oswald: Northumbrian King to European Saint, page 187, note 57.
  15. ^ Bede, Book III, chapter 3.
  16. ^ Stancliffe, "Oswald", pages 41–42.
  17. ^ Bede, Book III, chapter 6.
  18. ^ a b For Bede's mention of Oswald's dying prayer (which he cautiously reports as hearsay) and Oswald's dismemberment, the placing of his body parts on stakes, and their later recovery by Oswiu, see H. E., Book III, chapter 12.
  19. ^ Clare Stancliffe, "Where Was Oswald Killed?", in C. Stancliffe and E. Cambridge, Oswald: Northumbrian King to European Saint (1995). Stancliffe argues in favor of the traditional identification of the site with Oswestry. For Stancliffe's argument regarding Bede's portrayal of Oswald as fighting only just wars, Bede's attempt to portray Maserfield as being part of a just war (being fought pro patria), and his omission of previous aggressive warfare Oswald is thought to have engaged in, see page 93.
  20. ^ Nicholas Brooks, "The formation of the Mercian kingdom", in S. Bassett (ed.), The Origins of Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms (1989).
  21. ^ Bede, Book III, chapter 11.
  22. ^ Richard N. Bailey, "St Oswald's Heads", in Oswald: Northumbrian King to European Saint (1995).

Preceded by:
King of Bernicia Succeeded by:
Preceded by:
King of Deira
Preceded by:
Edwin of Northumbria

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