Oswald was born around 601 AD, the second son of the pagan king Aethelfrith of Northumbria. After their father’s death his elder brother Eanfrith fled north, while Oswald, his younger brother Oswy and sister Ebba were looked after by the community at Iona. Oswald grew into manhood taught by the community, he could read and write, he was a brave soldier and most of all a Christian prince. He fought in Ireland, and returned after his brother Eanfrith was killed trying to reclaim his father’s throne. Oswald rallied the disparate forces of his brother and father to fight the welsh prince Cadwalla and Penda, the king of Mercia, who had formed an alliance and extended their power northwards.
In 632 the small force of warriors led by Oswald assembled a few miles from Hexham, at a place now known as Heavenfield. Cadwalla and Penda had a much greater force, possibly three times the size, more experienced and battle hardened. Oswald spent the night in prayer before the battle and placed a large wooden cross in front of his camp. During his prayers he had a vision of Columcille (St. Columba) telling him that if he fought in the shadow of the cross he had put up, he would be victorious. Assembling his force at the first light of dawn, he prayed and then led his army down the hill, overwhelming Cadwalla and Penda, leaving Cadwalla dead and Penda fleeing for his life. His victory re-united the two separate provinces Bernicia and Deira of his father’s old kingdom of Northumbria.
Oswald quickly became the most powerful king of the Angles and Saxons. He made alliances with neighbouring kingdoms and became overload of a vast area, stretching from Lothian, Dumfries and Galloway, all the way through modern Cumbria and Lancashire to Cheshire, and then on the other side of the Pennines down to modern Lincolnshire. He was also in alliance with Wessex, marrying Cyneburch, daughter of the king Cyneglis. It was at this time the Pope gave him the title Bretwalda, which means ‘Lord of Britain’.
In 632 the new king invited Iona to establish a community in Northumbria, and after a failed first attempt St Aidan founded the community at Lindisfarne. Bede and other sources describe how the two would travel together around the kingdom and proclaim the faith, Oswald often acting as translator for the Gaelic speaking Aidan. As Oswald’s power and influence grew so did the distance travelled.
The faith spread quickly, and the pattern of conversion was simple. The story is told of Oswald coming to the valley which later Norse settlers called Grasmere, and finding the local people worshipping an oak tree set among their ancestor’s graves, he cut down the tree to make an altar. He told the people about Jesus and ordered a simple church be constructed on the site. It is said the people received the new faith with joy.
No one knows the site of this event. In the seventh century the tiny population lived in or near what is now the Hollins on the Keswick road; however no archaeological remains of a Saxon church have been found there. Ancient peoples did not bury their dead next to where they lived, and often had burial grounds near water, lakes and rivers. As the present church is next to the river where the marshes would have led down to the lake, it is entirely possible it is built on the site of the pagan oak tree.
Oswald was well known for his acts of kindness and generosity, the most famous story being of his gift to the poor one Easter Day, when king Oswald had sat down to dinner at his castle in Bamburgh with Bishop Aidan, and a silver dish was placed on the table before him full of rich foods. They raised their hands to ask a blessing, when there came in an officer whose duty it was to help the needy, telling him that a great multitude of poor people from every district was asking alms of the king. He at once ordered the food which had been set in front of him to be carried to the poor, the dish to be broken up, and the pieces divided amongst them.
The bishop, who was sitting by, was delighted with this pious act, grasped him by the right hand, and said, “May this hand never decay”. His blessing and his prayer were fulfilled when Oswald was killed in battle, his hand and arm were cut off from the rest of his body, and were preserved in a silver shrine in St Peter’s Chapel in Bamburgh castle. (The chapel was in ruins by the 18th century, the shrine long since lost, and the site was covered by extensive rebuilding in the Victorian era.)
He was also known as ‘Oswald the open handed’ on account of his unusual manner of praying, seated with his arms outstretched and the palms of his hands turned upwards.
War though was always a consideration for Oswald. In 642 Oswald was not so fortunate and as he pursued Penda again, this time back into Mercia, he was fatally wounded in battle. As he lay dying he prayed for the souls of those who had died that day. The place became the site of many miracles and a shrine was established there with a small chapel, known as Oswald’s Oratory – today we call it Oswestry. Oswald was proclaimed a saint of the church shortly afterwards and the powerful kingdom of Northumbria remained a fervently Christian powerhouse under his successors Oswy and Oswin. The great community of Lindisfarne inspired generations of Christian leaders, and Oswald rightly deserves his place as the model Christian king for the centuries that followed.
With acknowledgments to Cameron Butland who compiled much of this material in various publications, 2013 – 2015.