King of Northumbria 634 -642
born circa 605, died 642

His rise to power

Oswald was the eldest son of Aethelfrith, king of Northumbria by his second marriage to Aacha of Deira and probably born in AD 605 (Although he was preceded by an elder half-brother Eanfrith, the product of Aethelfrith's first marriage.)

Oswald spent his childhood in Northumbria, but in 616 his father was killed in battle when the kingdom was invaded by Raedwald, King of East Anglia, and Edwin their uncle, Acha's brother. The queen Aacha fled with her children to Dal Riada and took sanctuary at the monastery at Iona. Where naturally, Oswald and his brother, Oswiu,were converted to Christianity.

There they remained until 632 when Edwin was defeated and killed at the battle of Meigen or Hatfield Moor by the alliance of Penda and Cadwallon ap Cadfan. Eanfrith Oswald's half-brother (who had sought refuge in the kingdom of the Picts) returned to Deira to take power whilst Bernicia fell to Osric, cousin of Edwin. Both were dead within the year, killed by the same Cadwallon ap Cadfan who was now busy ravaging Northumbria.

Which gave Oswald his opportunity; he came south with an army (presumably largely made up of Dal Riadan warriors) to claim his inheritance and clashed with Cadwallon ap Cadfan in 634 at the battle of Heavenfield somewhere near Hexham. Oswald won and his victory enabled him to reunite the Northumbrian kingdom, a task that he was suited for as he could claim descent from the royal houses of Bernicia and Deira.

Oswald as Braetwalda

The Venerable Bede claimed that Oswald had a greater dominion than any of his predecessors, and that "he brought under his sway all the nations and provinces of Britain". Which was undoubtedly an exaggeration (Bede was fond of his puffing up his fellow Northumbrians). However he certainly followed the expansionist policies of his predecessors Edwin and Aethelfrith, and it has been variously suggested that he was responsible for the following (1),

  • that he marched north and took over the British kingdom of Goddodin after besieging and capturing Edinburgh in 638
  • that he conquered the kingdom of Lindsey, just to the south of Deira
  • that he arranged for the marriage of his brother Oswiu to Rhiainfellt (or Rieinmelth) heiress of the British kingdom of North Rheged ensuring an alliance with Rheged and its eventual peaceful takeover by Northumbria

He certainly made a diplomatic marriage alliance with Cyneglis, king of the Gewissae. The Gewissae themselves were under pressure from Mercia and keen for a fellow Christian ally in their struggle against the pagan Penda. But what exact influence he is supposed to have had over the northern kingdoms of Dal Riada and Strathclyde as well as that of the Picts is not clear. And more to the point, what authority Oswald could claim over the south of England is uncertain; he can scarcely have exercised much power in the far south of the island without secure a route through the midlands, and the territory of Mercia.

The end of Oswald

Oswald's alliance with the Gewissae may well have been part of a strategic plan to isolate Mercia; conflict with Penda was to a great extent inevitable if Oswald was to continue his dynastic expansionism. Border skirmishes seem to have led to an invasion of Mercian territory by Oswald.

He and Penda met at the battle of Maserfeld in 642, believed to be in the vicinity of modern Oswestry in Shropshire deep in the Mercian/Welsh borderlands. Unfortunately for Oswald, Penda and his Welsh allies won the day. Oswald himself was killed and his body was reputedly hacked to pieces and his head and arms stuck on poles. Which explains how various dismembered limbs later turned up as holy relics in various monasteries around the country.

Oswald as saint

He attracted the reputation of a saint, which mainly arose from his re-introduction of Christianity (2) to the Northumbrian Angles. Once in power he sent for the Irish Bishop Aidan to assist him with this task, who came and established his episcopal see at Lindisfarne in 635.

It is said that Oswald himself acted as an ecclesiastical interpreter, since Aidan being Irish spoke only Gaelic. Certainly he seems to have been an active promoter of Christianity, responsible for the building of a number of churches and monasteries as well as completing the construction of the church at York, begun by Edwin. Which is perhaps why Bede described him as the "most saintly" and the "most Christian" of kings.

After his death, Oswald became the focus of something akin to a cult. His dismembered body was recovered from the battle field, where it had been , and his head was preserved at Lindisfarne while his right arm went to Bamburgh. Bede recounts various miracles of healing associated with Bardney Abbey in Lindsey where his body was initially kept, before being moved to the church of St. Oswalds in Gloucester.

(1) I don't believe that there is any specific historical authority for these claims, only that it is known Gododdin, Rheged and Lindsey all became part of greater Northumbria at some point in the mid to late seventh century, and ascribing them to Oswald is more a matter of tradition. Although I believe there is an entry in the Irish Annals relating to the siege of Edinburgh in 638.

(2) Edwin had of course converted to Christianity earlier, but his bishop, Paulinus had fled to Kent as soon as Edwin was killed, leaving the Northumbrians without a bishop.

Saint Oswald

Oswald lived as a youth in exile amongst the monks of Iona and was thus baptised a Christian although much of Bernicia, the land of his birth remained ignorant of the faith.

On the eve of the Battle of Heavenfield he saw a vision of Columba who foretold of his victory and in thanks for the recovery of his kingdom "he filled the land with churches and monasteries" as The Venerable Bede recounts. So Oswald is accorded a place of particular honour amongst the kings of Northumbria for his establishment of the Christian faith amongst the Angles of the north.

After his brutal death at the hands of the pagan Penda on the field of Maserfield his body was dismembered and his limbs displayed upon the field of battle. His head was recovered and returned to Lindisfarne and his arm and hand, which remained entire and uncorrupted unto Bede's time, where taken to St. Peter's church in the royal city of Bamburgh and where they were kept in a silver case. The Venerable Bede recounts of the many miracles that where occaisioned both at place where Oswald was killed and by his holy relics including the deliverance of people possessed by the devil and many miraculous cures effected.

In recognition of these attested miracles and his piety he was canonised a saint some fifty years after his death with the day of his death on the 5th August being celebrates as his feast day.

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