Oswald, King of Bernicia

There are so many fascinating people who lived in the 7th century. I have highlighted a couple of them on the blog. And it’s well past time to introduce you to one of the most important figures of the time: Oswald, King of Bernicia. He is relatively unknown now, but for centuries after his death in 642 AD he was famous throughout Europe, venerated as a Saint for his role in establishing the Christian church in England.

Oswald was the oldest son of the Anglian king Æthelfrith, who had a fierce reputation among the native Britons he fought against in his occupation of their ancient lands. They gave him the nick-name Flesaur, which means “twister”, which gives us sense of the perhaps begrudging respect his enemies gave to this most canny of warriors.

Æthelfrith is the first Bernician king of Britain that we really know much about with any accuracy, and that is probably because of his prowess as a warrior and a king.  He defeated Ælla of Deira, sending Ælla’s son Edwin into exile, and became the first king of both Bernicia and Deira (the area we know now as Northumbria). He eventually married Ælla’s daughter Acha, probably to legitimize his hold on the Deiran throne by marrying the former king’s daughter. Æthelfrith was a pagan, like the other Angles and Saxons of the time.

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Bamburgh, the seat of the Bernician kings, was known as Bebbanburg in ancient times. It was called by the Irish, Dún Guaire, but re-named Bebbanburg in honour of Bebba, Æthelfrith’s wife. And yes, he was also married to Acha. Perhaps he married Bebba later in his reign, after Acha died, or it is also possible he was polygamous, which was not unknown at the time among the pagan Anglo-Saxon kings. Photo by Michael Hanselmann, on WikiCommons

Oswald was born in 604 AD, at the height of his father’s power. He was not the first son and heir, that honour went to his older brother Eanfrith. But when Oswald was twelve, his life as a privileged atheling (prince) of the ruling family came to an abrupt end. In 616 AD, Æthelfrith’s past came back to haunt him in the form of Edwin, who joined forces with Rædwald of Wessex to oust Æthelfrith from the throne, killing him in battle.

For their safety, Oswald and his siblings (there were actually eight of them altogether) fled  north, to the Irish kingdom of Dál Riata, out of Edwin’s reach. And from all accounts, Oswald thrived there during the long years of exile. He quickly adapted to the Irish culture and became fluent in the language, and even fought on the side of his hosts. And, importantly, he was taught by the monks at the school at Hii (Iona), and through their influence converted to Christianity.

In 633 AD Edwin was killed by the combined forces of Cadwallon of Wales and Penda of Mercia, and Northumbria was divided into Bernicia and Deira once again. Perhaps because of a previous alliance of some sort with Cadwallon, Eanfrith returned from exile and was crowned king of Bernicia. He was, after all, the heir to the Bernician throne. But if there was an alliance, it quickly fell apart. Cadwallon slew Eanfrith the next year when Eanfrith went to him seeking peace, and Cadwallon took his place as king of Bernicia (Game of Thrones, anyone?).

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Although George R.R. Martin purportedly got his inspiration from The War of the Roses, he could have just as easily looked a few centuries back to Dark Ages Britain! There was a whole lot of throne-swapping, alliances, and treachery going on then, too. Photo credit: Flickr

Enter our hero, Oswald, the next in line to the throne. From the historian Bede’s account, Cadwallon was a vicious, tyrannical ruler – killing, raping, and pillaging the Angles and Saxons in his new kingdom with impunity. We can take this account with a grain of salt, perhaps, but safe to say something dire reached Oswald’s ears about the upheaval in Bernicia, and we can only imagine how he felt about it.

Regardless of how he felt, we do know what he did, which was to gather an army, most likely made of some of the retainers that had accompanied the royal children while in exile, some of his brothers, and  a contingent of Irish warriors, and return to Bernicia to attempt to wrest the throne from Cadwallon and restore his father’s legacy.

And what happens next is remarkable, and has implications that reverberate down to us, today. Bede tells us that,

After the murder of his brother Eanfrith, Oswald arrived with an army small in numbers but protected by their faith in Christ, and he slew the accursed leader of the Britons and all that vast army that he boasted none could resist…

That is the summarized version, but Bede goes on to tell us the details. He writes,

On approaching this battle Oswald set up the sign of the holy cross…it is said when the cross had been quickly made and a hole made ready for it to stand in, Oswald himself, fired by his faith, seized it and placed it in its hole and held it upright with both hands, until the soldiers heaped up the soil and made it fast in the ground. Thereupon he raised his voice and cried aloud to the whole army: “Let us all kneel, and together pray the almighty, everliving and true God to defend us by His mercy from a proud and cruel enemy; for He knows that the war we have engaged in for the deliverance of our people is a just war.” They all did as he had ordered and, advancing thus against the enemy as dawn appeared, won the victory as the reward for their faith. 

Perhaps Oswald was inspired by the story of Constantine, who conquered his enemies under the standard of the Cross. But be that as it may, the prayer and Oswald’s example certainly inspired his army, resulting in the route of Cadwallon’s larger army, the death of the usurper, and the restoration of a son of Æthelfrith to the throne of Bernicia.

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The cross at Heavenfield, commemorating Oswald’s victory over Cadwallon. Photo: David Dixon

But not just any son. A Christian, who had been educated in the Irish north, and who came to faith under the influence of the Celtic Irish monks of Iona. And a man who wanted to bring that faith to his people. One of his first acts as king was to send a message back to Iona, asking them to send someone to begin spreading the Gospel among the Bernicians. Which eventually resulted in the mission of Aidan, who resided at Lindisfarne in the monastery established at that rocky outcrop close to Bamburgh on land granted by Oswald.

Oswald and Aidan began the  work together, Bede tells us, with Oswald travelling along with Aidan in the early days, acting as his translator between the Irish bishop and the Anglian people. This mission was responsible for the conversion of the pagan Bernicians to Christianity, and was the first church-state alliance in England’s history.

Oswald himself became a king to be reckoned with. With perhaps a touch of his father’s wily intelligence, he negotiated and fought his way to becoming king of a once-more united Northumbria, and one of the most powerful kings of England. He is one of the  kings given the honorific, bretwalda, meaning a king holding more than one territory.

Oswald ruled over Northumbria for less than ten years, which although is a short period by our standards, by the standards of the day is actually quite a long reign, given the penchant of the early medieval kings to make war upon another. He brought relative peace and stability to Northumbria, and the beginnings of a Christian society.

Alas, all good things must eventually come to an end, and in August of 642 AD, Penda of Mercia killed Oswald at the Battle of Maserfield, subjecting poor Oswald to the fate of having his body chopped up into parts and displayed in pagan fashion upon spikes as a way of celebrating the victory. Which eventually leads to the daring recovery of his brother’s arm by his younger brother Oswy and the later cult of Oswald’s arm, which is a whole ‘nother story…..

But although an obscure king today, you can still find Oswald hinted at in one of the most famous works of literature in our day. As I explained here, J.R.R. Tolkien was himself a scholar of Anglo-Saxon history, and included in The Lord of the Rings many nods to Anglo-Saxon culture and history. In reading Max Adams’ fascinating book, King of the North: Oswald of Northumbria (recommended reading if you want to know more about Oswald and the times in which he lived), Adams hints that perhaps Tolkien’s character, Aragorn heir of Elisdur, could perhaps have been based on the story of Oswald.

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Aragorn = Oswald?

I think Adams has a solid idea here. Think of it. Aragorn is the exiled son of a king, waiting to take his place on the throne. And when his people are threatened by an evil ruler, he reappears, ready to fight and reclaim the throne. And what about the Battle of Helms Deep, when Aragorn and Gandalf appear at dawn to help route the much larger orc army? Oswald won his great victory at dawn, too!*

Anyhow that’s just a fun example of how the legacy of Oswald still echoes today. I suspect, however, that he would be more gratified that his legacy of faith begun so many years ago with his friend Aidan still continues in the wild northlands of Britain, the ancient home of the Bernician kings.


*For more on the link between Oswald and Aragorn, see this article. And for a fictional take on Oswald, check out Oswald: Return of the King, by Edoardo Albert, the second book in his Northumbrian Thrones series. I reviewed the first book, Edwin: High King of Britain, here on the blog and have Book 2 on my must-read list!

Featured image from The Diocese of Lancaster

 

 

 

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The Wanderer

So, it’s the last Friday of the month and I’m supposed to have my Year of Important Books post ready. Whoops. Still reading the book…so we’ll get to it next month. In the meantime, how about a little Lord of the Rings mixed up with Anglo-Saxon history? Without further ado, I present….The Wanderer.


One of the poignant moments in Peter Jackson’s The Two Towers is the scene where King Théoden, newly restored to himself after Wormtongue’s enchantment, prepares for the upcoming battle of Helm’s Deep. Have a listen:

Wonderful! Just this little snippet made me want to go back and watch all three movies, but I digress…

The poem that Théoden quotes here comes from Tolkien, but in the book it is said by Aragon, as he introduces the Riders of Rohan to his companions. It has been condensed somewhat in the film, the original version is this:

Where now are the horse and the rider? Where is the horn that was blowing?

Where is the helm and the hauberk, and the bright hair flowing?

Where is the harp on the harpstring, and the red fire glowing? 

Where is the spring and the harvest, and the tall corn growing? 

They  have passed like rain on the mountains, like wind on the meadow;

The days have gone down in the West behind the hills into Shadow.

Who shall gather the smoke of the deadwood burning? 

Or behold the flowing years from the Sea returning? 

One day I am going to do a longer post about Tolkien, the Anglo-Saxons, and Aragon in particular, but for today I wanted to give you just a little tidbit, illustrated by this poem.

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Ah, yes, Aragon, aka Strider, aka son of Arathorn, aka heir of Esildur, aka…well, stay tuned to the blog to find out! 

Tolkien, of course, was an Anglo-Saxon scholar, and in particular he modelled the Rohirrim after the people and culture of Anglo-Saxon Britain.

This poem that Aragon quotes is adapted from one of the poems that survive from that period, called The Wanderer. It begins like this (translated, of course, from Anglo-Saxon):

Often the solitary one 

finds grace for himself

the mercy of the Lord.

Although he, sorry-hearted,

must for a long time

move by hand [i.e. row]

along the waterways,

(along) the ice-cold sea,

tread the paths of exile. 

Events must always go as they must! 

This poem can be found in the 10th century anthology of Anglo-Saxon poetry called the Exeter Book, but many scholars believe that this poem existed long before then in oral tradition, and could date back to the 6th century.

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Facsimile of the first page of The Wanderer from the Exeter Book (from Wikipedia). This looks like it is written like prose, not poetry, but if you look carefully you will see extra spaces between words, which is the indication of a half-line division of a line of poetry. Also you will see some dots between words, which is also meant to show other half-line breaks. 

 

The poem itself is about a warrior who is wandering in exile, having lost his liege lord, kin, and comrades in battle, defending his homeland from attack. It is melancholy in nature, which comes as no surprise – for in the Anglo-Saxon culture with its emphasis on close family ties and allegiance to a lord, to be alone in a strange land with no kin or lord to protect you is almost a fate worse than death.

In the first stanza quoted above, you can see a fascinating mix of the old Saxon religion and beliefs and the new Christian ones. It shows a culture in the midst of transition from the old ways to the new. The opening lines show that the warrior is looking for mercy from God, but at the end of the stanza you see “Events must always go as they must!” 

When you look up this poem you will find that there are many different ways to translate the Anglo-Saxon original, so that last line I can also find translated as, “Fate is established!” or “Fate has been decreed.”

This is the Saxon concept of wyrd, the inexorable fate that binds every person, that cannot be denied. So the poem begins with both the Christian concept of God’s mercy and the Saxon idea of fate. And you will see these two world-views juxtaposed throughout the poem.

In the midst of The Wanderer is the part that Tolkien adapted for The Two Towers. It comes in the poem after the warrior has contemplated the brevity of life, “as now in various places throughout this middle-earth walls stand, blown by the wind, covered with frost, storm-swept the buildings.” After meditating on this the warrior says,

Where is the horse gone? Where the rider? 

Where the giver of treasure? 

Where are the seats at the feast? 

Where are the revels in the hall? 

Alas for the splendour of the prince! 

How that time has passed away,

dark under the cover of night, 

as if it had never been! 

It’s all a bit gloomy, I’ll admit, but I can imagine the effect of the scop singing or reciting this poem on the people gathered in the mead hall, snug against the winter storms, surrounded by their kin and secure in their own place in the world. It would have given both a sobering contemplation of the fate of the exiled stranger, and the delicious relief that they were not him. Kinda like the effect of a thunderstorm when you are in bed, you feel extra cozy knowing that you are  not outside in the storm itself.

The Wanderer ends with the counsel, “It is better for the one who seeks mercy, consolation from the father in the heavens, where, for us, all permanence rests.” The Christian world-view has obviously won out for the original writer of the poem. Of course there are other speculations that one could make, for example, that some scribe along the way altered the poem, adding more overtly Christian elements than were originally in there. It’s hard to say, and I guess we will probably never know.

One of the best ways to understand a culture is to read their literature. Unfortunately, as the Anglo-Saxon culture was in many ways an oral culture, we have lost so much of their stories. I’m so glad this poem survived to open up to us the world of the mead-hall, and to enable us to meet the exiled wanderer, journeying alone through the icy mist.


I took my translation of The Wanderer from Anglo-Saxons.net. Hop on over there if you want to see the whole poem in Anglo-Saxon along with the English translation.

And just for fun, click here if you want to hear it read in the original Anglo-Saxon.

 

Featured photo: Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog, by Caspar David Friedrich, from WikiCommons