ST. OSWALD, MARTYR-KING OF NORTHUMBRIA
By Vladimir Moss
The holy Martyr-King Oswald was born in the year 604, being the son of the pagan King Aethelfrith of Bernicia . In 616, following on the death of his father, he was forced to flee with his six brothers and sister St. Ebba to exile in Scotland , where they were received with honour by King Donald Brecc. There he received the faith of Christ and was baptized on the holy island of Iona .
In 633, shortly after the death of King Edwin at the hands of Kings Cadwallon of Gwyneth and Penda of Mercia, and the apostasy of almost all the Northumbrians from the Christian Faith, Oswald advanced south with a small force into English territory. He was met by a vastly larger army under King Cadwallon at Heavenfield near Chollerford on Hadrian's Wall.
On the eve of the battle, as St. Columba's biographer, St. Adomnan, writes: "while King Oswald, after pitching his camp in readiness for the battle, was sleeping on a pillow in his tent, he saw St. Columba in a vision, beaming with angelic brightness, and of a figure so majestic that his head seemed to touch the clouds. The blessed man, having announced his name to the king, stood in the midst of the camp, and covered it all with his brilliant garment, except at one small distant point; and at the same time he uttered those words which the Lord spake to Joshua the son of Nun before the passage of the Jordan, after Moses' death, saying: 'Be strong and of good courage; behold, I shall be with thee.' Then St. Columba, having said these words to the king in the vision, added. 'March out this following night from your camp to battle, for on this occasion the Lord has granted to me that your foes shall be put to flight, hat your enemy Catwallon shall be delivered into your hands, and that after the battle you shall return in triumph.' The king, awaking at these words, assembled his council and related the vision, at which they were all encouraged; and so the whole people promised that, after their return from the war, they would believe and be baptized, for up to that time all that Saxon land had been wrapped in the darkness of paganism and ignorance, with the exception of King Oswald and the twelve men who had been baptized with him during his exile among the Scots.
"I, Adamnan, had this narrative from the lips of my predecessor, the Abbot Failbe, who solemnly declared that he himself had heard King Oswald relating this same vision to Segine the abbot."
The Venerable Bede continues the story: "On approaching the battle Oswald set up the sign of the holy cross and on bended knees besought God to send heavenly aid to His worshippers in the hour of their need; and the place is pointed out to this day and held in great reverence. Indeed it is said that when the cross had been quickly made and a hole made ready for it to stand in, Oswald himself, fired by his faith, seized it and placed it in its hole and held it upright with both hands, until the soldiers heaped up the soil and made it fast in the ground. Thereupon he raised his voice and cried aloud to the whole army: 'Let us all kneel, and together pray the almighty, true and ever-living God to defend us by His mercy from a proud and cruel enemy; for He knows that the war we have engaged in for the deliverance of our people is a just war.' They all did as he had ordered and, advancing thus against the enemy as dawn appeared, won the victory as the reward for their faith. At the place where they prayed countless miracles of healing are known to have been wrought, a sure proof and memorial of the king's faith."
Although the remnants of the St. Paulinus' mission to Northumbria still existed under the leadership of Deacon James, St. Oswald preferred to send to Iona for missionaries to reconvert his newly-won kingdom. When the Irish bishop St. Aidan arrived, continues Bede, "the king granted him the island of Lindisfarne, as he requested, to be his episcopal see. With the ebb and flow of the tide, this is a place that is twice a day encircled by the waves of the sea, like and island, and twice rejoined to the mainland when its shore becomes exposed again. In all matters Oswald listened humbly and joyfully to the bishop's advice, and showed great concern to build up and extend the Church of Christ within his kingdom. The bishop was not fully conversant with the English language, and on many occasions it was delightful to watch while he preached the Gospel and the king himself, having acquired a perfect knowledge of Irish during his long exile, acted as interpreter of heaven's word for his aldermen and thanes.
"From that time many missionaries from Irish territory began to arrive in Britain as the days went by, who preached the word of the faith with great zeal to the English kingdoms ruled by Oswald; and to those who believed, such of them as held the rank of priest administered the grace of baptism. Churches were built in various places, and the people gladly flocked together the hear the Word. By the gift of the king estates and lands were granted for the establishment of monasteries, and English boys together with their elders were given systematic instruction by Irish teachers and taught to observe the discipline of a Rule."
From Lindisfarne many monasteries were built in various parts of the north. Thus there was Melrose, where the great St. Cuthbert became a monk, Hartlepool, where the first abbess was Heiu "the first woman in the kingdom of the Northumbrians to take the vows and habit of the religious life", Coldingham, where Oswald's sister St. Ebba was the first abbess, and Whitby, where St. Hilda was the first abbess. Oswald also strengthened the faith in Wessex, where he became godfather of the first Christian king Cynigils and married his daughter.
St. Oswald, writes Bede, "was always humble, kind and generous towards the poor and towards strangers. For example, it is said that once at Pascha, when he was sitting at dinner with the bishop, and a silver dish was placed before him on the table full of royal fare, they were about to raise their hands to ask a blessing on the bread when one of his officers, whose duty it was to bring relief to the needy, suddenly came in and told the king that a large crowd of poor people from every district was sitting in the precincts, asking for alms from the king. He at once ordered the meal that had been served to him to be taken out to the poor, and the dish to be broken in pieces and divided among them. When he saw it, the bishop who sat with him was delighted by the act of mercy, and took his right hand and said: 'May this hand never wither with age.' And his prayer and blessing were fulfilled, for when Oswald was killed in battle his hand and arm were severed from his body, and they remain undecayed to this day. They are preserved in the royal town named after Bebba, a former queen, stored in a silver casket in the church of St. Peter, and are venerated with due honour by everyone."
Bede also records that St. Oswald was a great zealot of prayer. Thus "it is said, for example, that he often remained at his prayers from the time of the office of Mattins until daybreak, and because of his frequent habit of prayer and giving thanks to God, wherever he sat he used to have his hands on his kness with the palms upward."
St. Oswald subdued the kingdom of the Mercians and drove the pagan King Penda into exile in Wales. However, in 642 Penda gathered a large heathen army and, allying himself with the Welsh ruler of the mid-Severn valley Cynddylan, he unexpectedly attacked Oswald near Oswestry. "But the man of God," writes Reginald of Durham, "hitherto renowned for his honour as a soldier, refused to consider flight, in case he should seem a man unskilled in the conduct of battle. He considered it dishonourable to be found vanquished and disgraced at the end, when hitherto he had appeared to all to be a vigorous and victorious warrior. And so he summoned a small force of soldiers and proceeded to commit himself to Christ, gladly choosing to die for the honour of the Lord and the faith of the Cross, and for the salvation and freedom of his Christian people... He therefore advanced to battle with great confidence, seeing that he was summoned by the Lord's mercy to a martyr's crown. Penda had gathered a large force of the heathen, and suddenly advanced to the field of battle, where he slaughtered a great number of the Christian people together with their holy and most Christian king."
Bede records that when the saint "saw that he was surrounded by enemy forces and about to be slain, he prayed for the souls of his army; and this is the origin of the proverb, 'God have mercy on their souls, said Oswald falling to the ground'."
Penda took the saint's head and hands and fixed them on stakes for a whole year, to be an object of derision and scorn. But his head was later retrieved by his brother Oswy, and was placed in St. Cuthbert's coffin, where it still remains. And his right hand - the one St. Aidan had blessed - was placed in a silver casket at Bambrough, where it remained completely incorrupt until at least the twelfth century, as both Abbot Aelfric and Simeon of Durham attest.
At the place where he died - praying, with arms outstretched, for the souls of his men - many miracles were wrought. People took dust from the place and, mixing it with water, applied it with wonderful effect to sick men and animals. Once a house caught fire and burned down, and only the post on which some of the holy dust had been placed remained completely untouched.
In the year 697 Queen Ostrythe of Mercia, who was the saint's niece, and was later murdered herself, decided with her husband King Ethelred to translate the relics of the saint to the monastery of Bardney in Lindsey (Lincolnshire). But the monks of that monastery, entertaining a grudge against Oswald because he had once been king over that region, refused to allow the relics through the monastery gates. So they remained on a waggon covered by a tent throughout the night.
However, during the night a great column of light was seen stretching from the waggon up to heaven, which was visible throughout Lindsey. Chastened, the monks brought the holy relics inside the gates, washed them with reverence, and placed them in a specially constructed shrine in the church with a gold and purple banner over it. The water used in the washing was poured away in a corner; but the earth which had received it was found to have the power of expelling demons.
Reginald describes the appearance of the head in the twelfth century as follows: "The roundness of the head, completely spherical, is extraordinary, and gives off a wonderfully sweet fragrance; it has a glassy colour, glowing a deep yellow all over which surpasses the yellowness of wax and is closer, in its great beauty and loveliness and in its gleaming brightness, to the appearance of gold. It is a sphere of large dimensions, in width, in length, and from front to back; and a smooth line, like the circle of a helmet, rises and falls around the middle of its curvature. Its bulk is considerable, but... when held in the hands it seems quite light, although to the eyes observers, judging by its size, it looks a heavy weight. The forehead is broad and prominent, the nose of moderate proportions. The length of the face and cheeks lend the face a certain nobility, clear testimony to his manly glory."
His fame quickly spread throughout the British Isles and into continental Europe, where relics of his body, including fragments of the wooden cross he erected at Heavenfield and earth taken from his grave, worked many miracles, several of which are recorded by the Venerable Bede. One of these took place at a monastery founded by St. Wilfrid in Sussex in the second half of the seventh century: "About the time that this province accepted the Faith of Christ, a dangerous epidemic struck many provinces of Britain. When, by God's dispensation, it reached the monastery, ruled at the time by the most religious priest of Christ, Eappa, it swept from this life many of the brethren, some of whom had come with the bishop, while others were South Saxons recently converted to the Faith. The brethren therefore decided to observe a three-day fast and implore God in His mercy to show pity on them, that He would preserve those who were in danger of death by disease, and deliver the souls of those already departed this life from eternal damnation.
"In the monastery at this time there lived a little Saxon boy, who had recently been converted to the Faith; this child had caught the disease, and for a long time had been confined to bed. About the second hour on the second day of prayer and fasting, he was alone in the place where he lay sick, when, by Divine Providence, the most blessed Princes of the Apostles [Peter and Paul] deigned to appear to him; for he was a boy of innocent and gentle disposition, who sincerely believed the truths of the Faith that had been accepted. The Apostles greeted him very lovingly, and said: 'Son, put aside the fear of death that is troubling you; for today we are going to take you with us to the Kingdom of heaven. But first of all you must wait until the Liturgies have been celebrated, and you have received the Viaticum of the Body and Blood of our Lord. Then you will be set free from sickness and death, and carried up to the endless joys of heaven. So call the priest Eappa, and tell him that our Lord has heard the prayers of the brethren and regarded their fasting and devotion with favour. No-one else in this monastery and its possessions is to die of this disease, and all who are now suffering from it will recover and be restored to their former health. You alone are to be set free by death today, and will be taken to heaven to see the Lord Christ Whom you have served so faithfully. God in His mercy has granted you this favour through the intercession of the devout King Oswald, so beloved by God, who once ruled the people of the Northumbrians with outstanding devotion as their early king and whose Christian piety has won him an everlasting kingdom. For today is the anniversary of the king's death in battle at the hands of the heathen, when he was taken up to the joys of the souls in heaven and enrolled among the company of the saints. If the brethren consult the annals that record the burials of the dead, they will find that this is the day on which he departed this life, as we have said. So let them celebrated Liturgies in all the oratories of the monastery, either in thanksgiving for God's answer to their prayers, or in commemoration of King Oswald the former ruler of their nation, who has prayed for them as newcomers of his nation. Let all the brethren assemble in church, and join in offering the heavenly Sacrifice; and let them end their fast and take food to restore their strength.'
"When the boy had called Eappa and told him all that the Apostles had said, the priest particularly asked him to describe the clothes and appearance of these men who had appeared to him. 'They wore wonderful robes,' the boy replied, 'and their faces were very kindly and handsome, such as I have never seen before. I did not believe that there could be men so distinguished and wonderful. One of them was tonsured like a priest and the other had a long beard; and they said that one of them was Peter and the other Paul, and that they were servants of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, sent by Him to protect our monastery.' The priest then believed the boy's statement, and went off at once to consult his annals, where he found that King Oswald had indeed been killed on that very day [August 5]. So he summoned the brethren, ordered a meal to be prepared, Liturgies to be celebrated, and all the brethren to communicate as usual. He also directed that a particle of the Lord's Offering should be taken to the sick boy at the time of the holy Sacrifice.
"A little while later the same day the boy died, and his death proved the truth of what Christ's Apostles had told him. In further confirmation of his statement, no-one except himself died in the monastery at that time. Many who heard about the vision were wonderfully inspired to implore God's mercy in every trouble, and to adopt the wholesome remedy of fasting. And from that time the heavenly birthday of Christ's warrior King Oswald was commemorated each year by the offering of Liturgies, not only in this monastery but in many other places as well."
St. Oswald is commemorated on August 5 and October 8.
(Sources: The Venerable Bede, Ecclesiastical History of the English People; St. Adomnan, Life of St. Columba; Reginald of Durham, Life of St. Oswald; David Farmer, The Oxford Dictionary of Saints, Oxford; The Clarendon Press, 1978, pp. 304-305; John Marsden, Northanhymbre Saga, London: Kyle Cathie, 1992)