Oswald of Northumbria

From Academic Kids

Oswald (c. 604August 5, 6421) was King of Northumbria from 633 or 634 until his death. He was the son of Aethelfrith of Northumbria and came to rule after a period of exile, and he is best remembered as a Christian saint and martyr.

Oswald's father Aethelfrith was the first ruler of a united Northumbria; Northumbria consisted of two kingdoms, Bernicia (in the north) and Deira (in the south), and the king of Bernicia, Aethelfrith, came to rule Deira as well around the year 604. He married a member of the Deiran royal line, Acha, and it was she who was the mother of Oswald. When Raedwald of East Anglia defeated and killed Aethelfrith at the River Idle around 616, a member of the Deiran line, Edwin, became king of Northumbria, and Oswald fled to Dalriada, where he was converted to Christianity by the monks of Iona.

After the king of Gwynedd, Cadwallon ap Cadfan (in alliance with Penda of Mercia), killed King Edwin in battle at Hatfield Chase in 633 (or 632, depending on when the years used by Bede are considered to have began), Northumbria was split between its sub-kingdoms of Bernicia and Deira. Oswald's half-brother Eanfrith became king of Bernicia, but he was killed by Cadwallon in 633 (or 634) after attempting to negotiate peace. Subsequently, Oswald, at the head of a small army, met Cadwallon in battle at Heavenfield, near Hexham. Before the battle, Oswald made his soldiers construct a wooden cross. 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. In the battle that followed, the Welsh were routed despite their superior numbers and pursued for miles by the Northumbrians; Cadwallon himself was killed.

Following this victory, Oswald reunited Northumbria and reestablished the Bernician supremacy which had been interrupted by Edwin. He is considered to have been Bretwalda for the eight years of his rule (both Bede and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle say that Oswald's reign was actually considered to be nine years, the ninth year being accounted for by assigning to Oswald the year preceding his rule, "on account of the heathenism practised by those who had ruled that one year between him and Edwin"), and was the most powerful king in Britain, although his authority over the other Anglo-Saxon kingdoms seems to have been limited and he may have struggled to assert it. In particular, the Mercians to the south (who, geographically speaking, could be a barrier inhibiting Northumbrian power in the south of England) may have made it difficult for Oswald to establish an authority equal to that of Edwin, although it is thought that Penda acknowledged Oswald's authority in some sense after Heavenfield, and it may have been to appease Oswald that Penda had Eadfrith, a captured son of Edwin (and thus a dynastic rival of Oswald), killed.

Oswald seems to have been on good terms with the West Saxons: he stood as sponsor to the baptism of their king, Cynegils, and married Cyneburh, the daughter of Cynegils. With her he had a son, Ęthelwald.

Although Edwin had previously converted to Christianity in 627, it was Oswald who did the most to spread the religion in Northumbria. It was he who gave the island of Lindisfarne to the bishop Aidan, who established a monastery there.

It was a conflict with the pagan Mercians under Penda that proved to be Oswald's undoing. He was killed by the Mercians at the Battle of Maserfield, near the lands of the Welsh (at a place generally identified with Old Oswestry, although without certainty) in 642,1 and his body was dismembered. (Bede says that Oswald died in the thirty-eighth year of his age.) It appears that Penda had some Welsh allies in this battle, although Oswald himself may have had an ally in Penda's brother Eowa, who was also killed in the battle (this is, however, speculation—all that is known is that Eowa was killed, not the side on which he fought). Oswald's head and limbs were placed on stakes, but according to legend, one of his arms was taken by his pet raven and dropped on a tree. The people quickly came to regard Oswald as a martyr and saint: a holy well of healing was said to have sprung up at the spot where the arm had landed, and the site soon became known as Oswestry, or "Oswald's Tree". His feast day is August 5.

Bede mentions a story that gives some indication of how Oswald was regarded in conquered lands: years later, when his niece Osthryth tried to move his bones to a monastery in Lindsey, its inmates initially refused to accept them, "though they knew him to be a holy man", because "he was originally of another province, and had reigned over them as a foreign king", and thus "they retained their ancient aversion to him, even after death". It was only after Oswald's bones were the focus of an awe-inspiring miracle—in which, during the night, a pillar of light appeared over the wagon in which the bones were being carried and shined up into the sky—that they were accepted into the monastery: "in the morning, the brethren who had refused it the day before, began themselves earnestly to pray that those holy relics, so beloved by God, might be deposited among them."

Notes

  1. Bede gives the year as 642; however, there is some question as to whether what Bede considered 642 is the same as what would now be considered 642. R. L. Poole (Studies in Chronology and History, 1934) put forward the theory that Bede's years began in September, and if this theory is followed (as it was, for instance, by Frank Stenton in his notable history Anglo-Saxon England, first published in 1943), then the dates of the battle of Heavenfield is pushed back from 634 to 633. Thus, if Oswald subsequently reigned for eight years, he would have actually been killed in 641. Poole's theory has been contested, however, and arguments have been made that Bede began his year on December 25 or January 1, in which case Bede's years would be accurate as he gives them.

References


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