The article of the month
Living Stones: Saints of Our Isles by Kathryn Turner
Much of what we know about Oswald (c. 604—5th August 641/642) comes from Saint Bede, who deemed him a saintly king. At a time when life was often brutal and warfare personal and grisly, the fact that he had a reputation for holiness, as well as courage and leadership, says much for the way he ruled. In fact, his story may have found an echo in The Lord of the Rings: like Aragorn, the young Oswald was forced to find sanctuary in a community that educated and nurtured him in readiness to return and fulfil his destiny. Whether or not Tolkien was inspired by Oswald, there is something iconic about a figure who has fled and been forced to lead a hidden life until the time came for him to be revealed as the rightful king.
When Oswald’s father was killed in battle, his uncle Edwin became king and, due to the turbulent times, Oswald’s mother, Edwin’s sister Acha took her three sons to Scotland. It was during this time that the family converted to Christianity and Oswald came into contact with monastic communities on Iona and, probably, in Ireland. With the death of Edwin in battle, Oswald returned to a Northumbria under threat from Cadwallon, the king of Gwynedd, and the pagan Penda of Mercia. His small army was outnumbered when, on the eve of the battle at Heavenfield, he ordered a cross to be raised and spoke of a vision of Saint Columba, who had brought Christianity to Iona and who urged him to faith and to courage.
The battle was won; Oswald reunited the kingdoms of Bernicia and Deira and asked the monastic community of Iona to send a mission to re-evangelise his kingdom. Oswald’s seat was in Bamburgh on the north-east coast and he invited the missionary community to live there too but the leader of the group, Aidan, asked that they have somewhere that could be a place of study and prayer. Oswald gifted them the island of Lindisfarne—known even today as Holy Island. Aidan had his wish for a tranquil place of prayer, and yet the castle and the monastery were visible to each other across the water.
Oswald, however, needed people to go around his kingdom and preach. Aidan was willing to travel with his monks to do this but did not have a strong command of the local language. So determined was Oswald that the Good News should be proclaimed that he acted as translator for the missionaries. He was concerned not just for the spiritual well-being of his people but also for the poor. At table with Aidan one day, Oswald was told of a group of people who had come in search of food. Oswald gave generously from his own table and even had the silver plate broken up and shared among them.
His rule was not to be long. Oswald was killed in battle with Penda, possibly near Oswestry, and his body dismembered. His followers found his head, and this became a Northumbrian treasure that, when the Vikings began their invasions, was placed in the coffin with the body of Saint Cuthbert, coming finally to rest in Durham. Many statues of Cuthbert show him holding Oswald’s head in his hand. It is somewhat ironic that when iconoclasts attacked statues in the cathedral, they knocked off the head of the saint but were afraid to touch that of the ancient king!
Although Oswald died defending his Christian kingdom, Bede does not make as much of his martyrdom as he does the miracles that happened on the site of his death and with his recovered relics. He sees in Oswald a king who, even in death, watched over the welfare of his people.
Kathryn Turner is a member of the Catholic Bishops Conference of England and Wales Spirituality Committee and has a long-established website, wellspring.co.uk, which offers a variety of prayer and spirituality resources.