Oswald of Northumbria
Oswald (c 604 – 5 August 642) was King of Northumbria from 634 until his death, and is now venerated as a Christian saint.
Oswald was the son of Æthelfrith of Bernicia and came to rule after spending a period in exile; after defeating the British ruler Cadwallon ap Cadfan, Oswald brought the two Northumbrian kingdoms of Bernicia and Deira once again under a single ruler, and promoted 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.
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. Reginald of Durham recounts another miracle, saying that his right arm was taken by a bird (perhaps a raven) to an ash tree, which gave the tree ageless vigor; when the bird dropped the arm onto the ground, a spring emerged from the ground. Both the tree and the spring were, according to Reginald, subsequently associated with healing miracles. Aspects of the legend have been considered to have pagan overtones or influences—this may represent a fusion of his status as a traditional Germanic warrior-king with Christianity. 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.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 moved his bones to Bardney Abbey 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 shone 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.”
In the early 10th century, Bardney was in Viking territory, and in 909, following a combined West Saxon and Mercian raid, St Oswald’s relics were translated to a new minster in Gloucester, which was re-named St Oswald’s Priory in his honour.
Oswald’s head was interred in Durham Cathedral together 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) and other valuables in a quickly made coffin, where it is generally believed to remain, although there are at least four other claimed heads of Oswald in continental Europe. One of his arms is said to have ended up in Peterborough Abbey later in the Middle Ages. The story is that a small group of monks from Peterborough made their way to Bamburgh where Oswald’s uncorrupted arm was kept and stole it under the cover of darkness. They returned with it to Peterborough and in due time a chapel was created for the arm – Oswald’s Chapel. This – minus the arm – can be seen to this day in the south transept of the cathedral. When creating this chapel the monks of Peterborough had thought of how they had acquired it and built into the chapel a narrow tower – just big enough for a monk to climb to the top by an internal stair and stand guard over Oswald’s Arm 24 hours a day, every day of the year. The monk had to stand because the tower is not large enough for him to sit – sitting could lull him to sleep – and they knew what could happen when no-one was watching.
St Oswald’s Catholic Church lies to the north of Peterborough City Centre.
Some English place names record his reign, for example Oswaldtwistle in Lancashire, meaning the twistle of Oswald.
The Church of Saint Oswald stands on the location of the wooden cross left by Oswald at Heavenfield, the night before the battle. This was rebuilt in 1717. The site is visible from the B6318 Military Road.