Oswald (605?-642) (DNB00)
OSWALD or OSUUALD, Saint (605?–642), king of the Northumbrians, born about 605, was second son of Ethelfrid or Æthelfrith [q. v.], king of the Northumbrians. His mother was Acca, sister of Edwin or Eadwine (585?–633) [q. v.], king of the Northumbrians, and daughter of Ælla (d. 588) [q. v.] Thus on his father's side he was of the line of Ida [q. v.] of Bernicia, and on his mother's of the royal house of Deira. His younger brother, Oswy (612?–670), is separately noticed. When his father was defeated and slain by Rædwald in 617, he and his brothers were driven out of Northumbria, and Oswald, accompanied by a band of young nobles, took shelter with the Scots in Iona, where he was converted to Christianity and baptised. On the death of Eadwine, who was slain in 633 at Heathfield by the joint forces of Cædwalla (d. 634) [q. v.] and Penda, Osric (d. 634) [q. v.] obtained the kingdom of Deira, and Oswald's eldest brother Eanfrid was accepted as king by the people of Bernicia. But when Eanfrid was treacherously slain as he was going to meet the British king Cædwalla to sue for peace in 634, Oswald advanced from the north with a small army and encamped at a place near the Roman wall, called by Bæda (Hist. Eccl. iii. c. 2) Hefenfelth or Heavenly Field, and by Nennius (c. 64) Catscaul, and supposed to be St. Oswald's, about seven miles to the north of Hexham in Northumberland (Priory of Hexham, Pref.) There, as Oswald told the Abbot Segine in the hearing of the Abbot Failbe, who told the story to Adamnan, St. Columba appeared to him in a vision, and bade him give his enemies battle the following night, promising him the victory (Vita Columbani, i. c. 1). He set about raising a cross, and, the time being short, held it with his own hands while his men fixed it in the ground. As the day was breaking he joined battle with Cædwalla (see Skene, Celtic Scotland,, i. 246, for the possibility that Oswald's opponent was not Cædwalla himself, but a certain British king called Catlon), and defeated him with great slaughter. Cædwalla was slain at a stream called Deniseburn, a tributary of the Rowley water. Oswald's cross was long an object of veneration. The brethren of Hexham used each year to make a procession to it on the day before that of the king's death to pray for his soul and celebrate mass before it, and they built a church there which was held in special honour; for there was not, until Oswald's cross was erected, any symbol of Christianity, any church or altar, in the Bernician land (Bæda, iii. c. 2).
Oswald's victory put an end to the short period of Welsh success in the north. It gave him the kingship of both the Northumbrian lands, and it opened a way into England to the Scottish missionaries. He dwelt chiefly at Bebbanburg or Bamborough, the capital of the Bernician kings, and invited his early teachers, the monks of Iona, to send him a bishop to preach the gospel to his people. The first missionary sent to him had little success, for he was an austere man, and the people did not like him. On his return to Iona, Aidan [q. v.] was sent to take his place. Oswald laboured with him to spread the gospel, gave him the island of Lindisfarne, which he chose for his see, attended his ministrations, and, as Aidan was not thoroughly master of the English tongue, used to translate the bishop's discourses to his nobles and thegns (ib. c. 3). Christianity spread rapidly, churches were built, and lands were given to monasteries, which were peopled by Scottish monks. In Deira Oswald completed the church which Eadwine had begun to build at York (ib. ii. c. 14). There too the Scottish rite was widely accepted, though James, the deacon of Paulinus, remained at his post and had much success as a missionary. Oswald was humble, gracious, and charitable to the poor. One Easter when Aidan was dining with him, and a silver dish laden with royal dainties had been set before him, just as the king and bishop had raised their hands to say grace, the thegn, whose special duty it was to relieve the distressed, came in and told the king that the streets were thronged with a multitude of poor crying out for alms. Oswald ordered that the food prepared for him should be given to them, and that the silver dish should be broken into small pieces and distributed among them. Seizing the king's right hand, Aidan said ‘May this hand never decay.’ Bede believed that the bishop's prayer was answered (ib. iii. c. 6). Oswald is said to have had wider dominions than any of his ancestors, and to have received into his lordship peoples of the four tongues spoken in Britain—Britons, Picts, Scots, and English (ib.). He must therefore have had great power in the north-west, and was probably owned as over-lord by the Welsh of Strathclyde (Green, Making of England, p. 291). As he is said to have had a kingdom with the same limits as that of Eadwine (Bæda, ii. c. 5), he must have had authority over the Trent valley, and was certainly supreme in Lindsey, where he was regarded by the people with hostile feelings (ib. iii. c. 11; Green). Though it is perhaps going too far to assert that Penda murdered a son of Eadwine, who lived at his court, ‘at the pressure of Oswald’ (Green), it seems probable that this crime, which was, as Bede significantly notes, committed during Oswald's reign, was caused by the Mercian king's wish to please him. In Kent, Eadbald [q. v.] was so far under his influence as to compel his sister Æthelburh, Eadwine's widow, to send her children into Gaul (Bæda, ii. c. 20). His supremacy was evidently acknowledged by the West-Saxon king Cynegils [q. v.]; he stood sponsor for Cynegils when he was baptised at Dorchester, now in Oxfordshire, in 635, and joined him in giving that city to Birinus [q. v.] for his episcopal see (ib. iii. c. 7). Bæda, who styles him ‘rex christianissmus,’ reckons him as the sixth Bretwalda (ib. ii. c. 5), and Adamnan calls him ‘emperor of the whole of Britain.’ In 642 there was war between him and Penda, king of Mercia, and on 5 Aug. he was defeated and slain by Penda in a fierce battle, and, according to one account, by stratagem (Nennius, c. 65) or by surprise (Reginald, c. 14), at Maserfelth, supposed to be Oswestry or Oswald's Tree in Shropshire. When he saw himself surrounded by his foes, and knew that his end was come, he prayed for the souls of his soldiers, and the words ‘“May the Lord have mercy on the souls,” said Oswald as he fell to earth,’ became a proverbial saying in the north (Bæda, iii. c. 11). He died in his thirty-eighth year (ib. c. 9). His wife was the daughter of Cynegils, king of Wessex, whose name is said to have been Kyneburga (Cyneburh); by her he had a son named Æthelwald or Oidilvald [see art. Oswy]. After her husband's death Cyneburh is said to have taken the veil (Reginald, c. 3). Reginald, writing in the twelfth century from an account given him by a certain brother of the hospital at York, who said that he found the particulars in an old English book, describes Oswald as tall, with blue eyes, yellow hair, a long face, and thin beard; his lips were rather small, and wore a kindly smile; his hands and arms were long, and showed strength (c. 50). In Nennius he is called ‘Lamnguin,’ which is said to mean ‘white hand’ or ‘free hand,’ probably in reference to the alleged incorruptibility of the hand blessed by Aidan.
After the battle at Maserfelth, which, according to Reginald, took place at Whitchurch in Shropshire (c. 12), Penda caused the head and hands and arms of Oswald to be cut off and stuck on stakes. The place where he fell and the dust of the ground worked miracles (Bæda,, iii. cc. 9, 10). His body was several years later given by his niece, Ostrith or Osthryth (d. 697), the daughter of his brother Oswy and the wife of Æthelred, king of the Mercians, to the monastery at Bardney in Lindsey. The monks were at first unwilling to receive it, for, though they acknowledged the king's holiness, they remembered him with dislike as a stranger to their own people, who had held sovereignty over them. A miracle induced them to take the body into their church, where they laid it in a tomb with a cross at each end, and with the king's banner, which was of purple and gold, hung above it (ib. c. 11; Reginald, c. 43). Subsequently miracles were worked there. Offa, king of the Mercians, adorned the tomb with gold, silver, and precious stones (Carmen de Pontiff. 1. 380 seq.). By Reginald's time only three of the king's bones remained at Bardney. The relics had been kept carelessly, and had disappeared during the Danish invasions, being carried off by devout persons. Of these the chief were Ethelfleda or Æthelflæd [q. v.], the ‘lady of the Mercians,’ and her husband Æthelred, who founded a monastery at Gloucester in honour of St. Oswald about 909, and translated his bones thither (Will. Malm. Gesta Pontiff. p. 293). They were translated to a more honourable shrine by Thomas II, archbishop of York in the reign of Henry I, Reginald, the biographer of Oswald, being present at the function (Reginald, c. 44). Oswald's head and hands were removed from the stakes on which they had been stuck, his hands being carried to Bamborough, where they were placed, being free from corruption, in a silver shrine in the church of St. Peter, and were an object of veneration (Bæda, iii. 6). Symeon of Durham declares that in his time the king's right hand was, according to Aidan's prayer, preserved incorrupt; that a monk of Durham named Swartebrand had often seen it, and that it was wrapped in a pall (Hist. Dunelm. Eccl. i. c. 2; Hist. Regum, an. 774). The king's relics were in time treated with neglect at Bamborough, and a monk of Peterborough stole the right arm and carried it to his own monastery, which was enriched in consequence by many offerings (Reginald, c. 48). Oswald's head was buried at Lindisfarne (Bæda, iii. c. 12), and a light was said to have been shed from heaven on the spot. Hearing this, his kinsmen removed the head to Bamborough, where for some time it was honoured, and when, in common with the other relics, it was neglected, it was believed that St. Cuthbert appeared to a certain aged man and charged him to remove it, which he did by a stratagem, related by Reginald on the authority of Ælred of Rievaux (c. 49). It was taken to Lindisfarne, and when the monks there fled from the Danes in 875 they placed it in St. Cuthbert's coffin, which they carried with them to different places, until, after long wanderings, it found a final resting-place at Durham in 998. The head was in the coffin at the translation of St. Cuthbert in 1104, and when the coffin was opened in 1828. Reginald gives a long description of it (c. 51 ; see also Raine, St. Cuthbert). Other relics of St. Oswald — his sceptre, his ivory horn, his standard, and some parts of his armour — were preserved at Durham, where his memory is greatly venerated. His day is 5 Aug. Besides the 'Life' written by Reginald, and printed by the Surtees Society, and as regards all its important parts in the Rolls edition of Symeon of Durham (vol. ii.), there are manuscript lives founded on Bede at Trinity College, Cambridge, and in the Chapter library at Peterborough (see further Dictionary of Christian Biography, art. 'Oswald' (1), by Canon Raine).
[Bede's Hist. Eccl. ii. cc. 5, 14, 20, iii. cc. 2, 3, 6, 7, 9, 10, 11, 12, 14 (Engl. Hist. Soc.); Adamnan's Vita Columbani, i. c. 1, ed. Reeves; Nennius, cc. 64, 65 (Engl. Hist. Soc.); Symeon of Durham's Hist. Eccl. Dunelm. and Hist. Regum, i. 17–20, ii. 14, 45, 379 (Rolls Ser.); Reginald's Vita ap. Symeon of Durham, i. 326–385 (Rolls Ser.), and ed. Raine (Surtees Soc.); Alcuin's Carmen de Pontiff. ap. Historians of York, i. 356–64 (Rolls Ser.); William of Malmesbury's Gesta Pontiff. pp. 158, 263, 293, 317 (Rolls Ser.), and Gesta Regum, i. 51–4 (Rolls Ser.); Raine's Mem. of Hexham Priory, pref. (Surtees Soc.); Miscellanea Biogr. pp. 2, 3, 7, 121 (Surtees Soc.); Raine's (the elder) St. Cuthbert, pp. 183–7; Dict. Chr. Biogr. art. ‘Oswald’ (1), by Canon J. Raine; Skene's Celtic Scotland, i. 244–6, 251, 252; Green's Making of England, pp. 274–6, 290–4.]