Oswald is one of the many saints we remember from the Northumbrian region of England, influenced by missionaries from Ireland and Iona. He lived at a time when kings regularly had to fight to defend their territory and often died in the attempt. Life could be short with a brutal end. Certainly, when Oswald died, his remains were not treated with respect but with contempt as trophies of war. Nevertheless it seems that Oswald left a legacy of miracles behind him which continued to bless people (and animals) for many years after his death.
In the 2pm service on Thursday we commemorated Oswald. The readings were Psalm 3, 1 Peter4:12-end and John 16:29-end. My reflection on his life is given below.
Oswald, born around 604 AD, was the eldest son of the pagan King Aethelfrith of Bernicia and Acha of Deira. Bernicia was in the far north east of England and Deira was further south around York. Aethelfrith seems to have married Acha, sister of Edwin, as a way of cementing the relationship between the two kingdoms which together became Northumbria under his rule once he had deposed Edwin in Deira. Aethelfrith was a successful warrior but finally was killed in battle in 616 by Raedwald of East Anglia, when Oswald was just 11 years old. Edwin, who had been living in exile, seized his chance and reconquered Northumbria.
Queen Acha took her three sons and a daughter into exile for their safety to the court of the Dalriadan king in Scotland. While there, monks from Iona Abbey converted the family to Christianity. Oswald and his brother Oswiu went to the Abbey for their education. Oswald seems to have taken after his father, becoming a great warrior early in life and fighting in Ireland for the king of Dalriada.
King Edwin became a Christian under the influence of his wife Ethelburgha of Kent. He was baptised in 627 along with many of his court. He brought some Christian influence to his kingdom for a few years. In 632 King Penda of Mercia and King Cadwallon of Wales, kingdoms south and west of Northumbria, invaded Northumbria and killed Edwin. Oswald’s half-brother Eanfrith took over but was captured and executed by the Mercians a year later.
Oswald brought together a small army and set out to regain his father’s kingdom. Just before the battle began, Oswald arranged for a large cross to be erected. He himself held the cross steady in the hole dug for it until his soldiers could pile up enough earth to hold it in place. Then he called on his army saying, ‘Let us all kneel together, and pray the true, the ever-living and almighty God to protect us in his mercy from the arrogant savagery of our enemies, for he knows that we fight in a just cause for the preservation of our nation.’ Although only about a dozen of his army were Christian, the soldiers did as asked and promised to be baptised if they won. Oswald’s army defeated that of Cadwallon at Heavenfield near Hexham, despite being heavily outnumbered. As a result Oswald became overking, or bretwalda, of all England.
Oswald’s reputation as a saint comes partly as a result of his work to reintroduce Christianity to Northumbria after it had been lost during the time after Edwin’s rule. He sent to Iona for help and at first a rather austere monk was sent but he had little success. Later, Aidan came to help with the task and was extremely successful with a more gentle approach. Aidan was established on Lindisfarne as his Episcopal see. As he went about preaching, Oswald acted as his interpreter as Aidan spoke only Gaelic at first.
The Venerable Bede portrays Oswald as a saintly king rather than as a martyr. He was known as a man of prayer, getting up early each morning to pray for an hour before dawn. He prayed so much that whenever he sat down his hands rested upturned on his knees in an attitude of prayer.
The story is told of a message coming to the king while he was dining with Aidan one Easter. The message was from a servant whose responsibility was to distribute alms to the poor. There were poor people outside the palace begging. Oswald commanded that the dish of food in front of him be given to the poor and that the silver dish on which the food had been served be broken up and shared out also. Seeing this, Aidan seized Oswald’s right hand and said, ‘May this hand never perish’. It was said that the right hand and arm were uncorrupted after Oswald’s death.
As a warrior Oswald expected to die in battle and after just 8 years as king that is what happened. King Penda of Mercia fought him at the Battle of Maserfield, now Oswestry (Oswald’s tree) and Oswald died on this day 642. Aware that he was about to die, Oswald prayed for the souls of the guards who were around him and would die with him, for the people of Northumbria and for his enemies who were pagans at that time.
Oswald’s corpse was dismembered on Penda’s orders and his head and limbs put on stakes as a sacrifice to the pagan god Odin. Christians collected his head and sent it to Lindisfarne and from there on to Durham Cathedral where it is thought to still be in a tomb.
It didn’t take long for Oswald to be regarded as a saint. The place where he died became the source of miracles. It is said that a man rode by one day and as he passed this place his horse began to be in pain. Writhing in agony it rolled over the place where Oswald fell and was cured. The rider shared this story at the local inn which prompted the people to take a paralysed girl there. She too was cured. As a result, people began to take the earth from the place and put it in water for those who were sick to drink. Eventually a huge hole, the height of a man, was dug at the spot.
Legend has it that Oswald’s uncorrupted right arm was carried into an ash tree at the site of his death by his pet raven. The tree lived for a very long time as a result and was associated with healing. The place where the arm fell to the ground had a spring of water gush out of it which had healing properties also. Later, in medieval times, this right arm was taken to Bamburgh but monks from Peterborough stole it and took it to Peterborough Abbey where they guarded it day and night in case anyone tried to retrieve it.
Oswald’s niece arranged for his body to be taken to Bardney Abbey. A light shone out from the coffin at night, showing as a column rising from the wagon on which the coffin had been carried. The monks had been reluctant to take the body but this miraculous sign convinced them to do so. The monks washed Oswald’s bones and found that the ground on which the water was poured had acquired the power of healing. The body was taken in 909 to the new minster in Gloucester which was renamed St Oswald’s Priory.
There are many other stories of miracles associated with Oswald. One involved the stake on which Oswald’s head had been impaled. A small sliver of this placed in water cured a man, who then reformed his life. At Bardney a little boy was cured of a fever by sitting near Oswald’s tomb. The cross set up before the battle of Heavenfield was said to heal as was the moss which grew on it. Oswald is also credited with halting a plague in Sussex.
In a time when kings ruled ruthlessly it seems that Oswald demonstrated the possibility of being both a ruler and a saintly Christian. We too may have challenges in life, perhaps working in places where being a Christian is difficult, but we can take heart from those who have gone before us, like Oswald, and have shown that it’s possible to live out faith in challenging circumstances.
Helene Milena – Lay Pastor