Oswald was born around AD 605, a son of King Æthelfrith of Bernicia and his second wife, Princess Aacha of Deira. Æthelfrith had recently taken Deira from its King, Edwin. Around AD 616 Edwin and his East Anglian army re-took the kingdom of Deira and the 11 year old Oswald fled to Scotland with his brothers.
Oswald's family took refuge with King Eochaid Buide at Dunadd. Oswald and his brother, Oswiu, were educated at the Abbey on Iona and converted to Christianity. Aged around 23 Oswald went to Ireland with King Connad Cerr of Dalriada and fought against the Irish Cruithne at the Battle of Fid Eoin.
Meanwhile, back in Northumbria, King Edwin was at war with the combined forces of Gwynedd and Mercia. Oswald's half-brother, Eanfrith, took the throne after Edwin died in battle in AD 633, but was captured and killed after less than a year in power. Oswald's time had come.
Return to Northumbria
Oswald marched south with a small army which included some warrior monks from Iona, but at Heavenfield (near Hexham) they encountered a large Welsh force led by Cadwallon (King of Gwynedd). Oswald raised a large cross and he and his soldiers prayed around it before the battle. One account speaks of a vision which Oswald had of St Colbumba who guaranteed him victory. Cadwallon was killed in the battle, Oswald was victorious and led his troops into York.
Oswald ruled for eight years and was described by the Venerable Bede as the most powerful king in Britain, his rule extending as far north as Edinburgh.
Soon after becoming king Oswald sent to the Irish for a bishop to help convert the people of Northumbria to Christianity. The first bishop sent was not well liked so Oswald requested a replacement. The new bishop was Aidan and Oswald gave him Lindisfarne where he set up a monastery.
Bishop Aidan was a Gaelic speaker and had difficulty communicating with the local populace, Oswald had learned Gaelic and often travelled with Aidan to translate for him.
Bede's account of King Oswald places an emphasis on the King's generosity. It includes a story of an Easter feast at Bamburgh Castle when a servant reported that the poor were in the street begging alms from the king. Oswald not only sent out food to the poor but also had the silver platter broken up and distributed. Aidan reportedly seized the king's right hand and said, "May this hand never perish."
Not content just with evangelising his own people Oswald convinced Cynegils, King of Wessex, to allow St. Birinus to preach there. In AD 638 Oswald began to expand his kingdom by both diplomatic means (marrying his brother, Oswiu, to Princess Rhiainfelt of North Rheged) and military. Eventually Oswald's rule covered Edinburgh and large parts of lowland Scotland.
In AD 642 King Penda of Mercia combined his forces with the armies of Gwynedd, Powys and Pengwern and marched against Oswald. The armies met in battle at Maserfield (most likely the town now called Oswestry) on August 5th. Again Oswald erected a cross and prayed for the lives of his men.
Despite Oswald's army being victorious, Oswald was killed and his head and arms were removed and placed on stakes. Bede tells us that the spot where Oswald fell became associated with miracles and people regularly look dirt from the site. Reginald of Durham speaks of a Raven which carried off Oswald's right arm and dropped it near an ash tree, where the arm fell a spring rose up and both tree and spring were associated with healing miracles.
Oswald's head eventually was placed in the coffin of St Cuthbert of Lindisfarne (although the two were not contemporaries) and currently resides in Durham Cathedral. The arms were recovered and taken to Bamburgh Castle by Oswald's brother and successor Oswiu. The left arm was later taken to Nostell Priory in West Yorkshire while the right (still uncorrupted after Aidan's blessing) was stolen by monks from Peterborough Abbey who built a special chapel to house it.
What Oswald Means To Us
Oswald sets us a great example to follow. First and foremost he was a missionary. Jesus told us to "Make disciples of all the nations" and Oswald did this in a scale that most of us can only dream of. Oswald cared about his people, he appointed one of his servants specifically to "relieve the poor." And the events of that Easter speak clearly of his generosity of spirit.
Perhaps most importantly Oswald's prayers around the cross at Heavenfield and again at Maserfield show us a king that put his trust always in the Lord.
Through your servant, Oswald,
You showed us all that we should be.
Grant that, like him, we will
Be generous in spirit,
Care for the poor,
Humble ourselves in your service,
Work to spread your word,
And that we will withhold nothing from you,
Not even our lives.
Through Jesus Christ, our Lord,