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.
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?).
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.
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.
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