Saint of the Day – 5 August – Saint Oswald of Northumbria (c 604-642) Martyr and King, apostle of prayer and charity, diplomat – born in c 604 in Northumbria, England and was killed in battle with invading pagan Welsh and Mercian forces on 5 August 642 at Maserfield, Shropshire, England. Patronage – Zug, Switzerland.
St Oswald was the son of Ethelfrith, king of Northumbria. When Edwin seized the kingdom in 616, he fled to Scotland with his family and became a Christian at Iona. When Edwin died in 633, the royal exiles returned to Northumbria. Oswald’s brothers, Osric and Eanfrid, were killed by the tyrannical British king Cadwalla. Subsequently, Oswald, at the head of a small army (possibly with the aid of allies from the north, the Scots and/or the Picts, 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.
Adomnán in his Life of Saint Columba offers a longer account, which Abbot Ségéne had heard from Oswald himself. Oswald, he says, had a vision of Columba the night before the battle, in which he was told:
“Be strong and act manfully. Behold, I will be with thee. This coming night go out from your camp into battle, for the Lord has granted me that at this time, your foes shall be put to flight and Cadwallon your enemy shall be delivered into your hands and you shall return victorious after battle and reign happily.’
Oswald described his vision to his council and all agreed that they would be baptised and accept Christianity after the battle. In the battle that followed, the British were routed despite their superior numbers; Cadwallon himself was killed.
When peace was restored, he sent for a bishop to preach the Gospel. The first man who came was critical and strict and made no headway. He was soon replaced by the kindly St Aidan of Lindisfarne (c 590-651). Oswald interpreted his sermons and gave him the island of Lindisfarne for a monastery and episcopal seat near the royal residence of Bamburgh. As this was not far from 0swald’s main “palace” at Bamburgh, the king and the new bishop could work together for the conversion of the people.
Under St Oswald’s rule peace was restored in Northumbria and good relations developed with the Anglo Saxon kings. He married Cyneburga, daughter of the King of Wessex. But his reign did not last long. After only eight years St Oswald was killed by the pagan king Penda of Mercia at the battle of Maserfield. He was just 38. As he was dying, he prayed for the souls of his bodyguards who died with him. His body was dismembered and sacrificed to the god Woden in a pagan ritual.
Like all Anglo-Saxon kings Oswald was a warrior. Like other kings he expected to die on the battlefield and so indeed in the end he did. But unlike other kings, before he died Oswald had won for himself the reputation of being a saint and his death in battle against Penda the heathen king of Mercia was seen as a martyr’s death.
His remains and relics were moved many times around the country. His skull was said to have been discovered in the tomb of St Cuthbert in 1827. Many miracles were attributed to them. Seventy churches are dedicated to him in England and there are many in Portugal, Bohemia, Holland, Germany, Austria and Switzerland. St Oswald was celebrated for his heroism, his generosity and his piety.