Saint of the day: Oswald of Northumbria

After Edwin’s death the different parts of Northumbria split once again, and Ethelfrith’s son  Eanfrith ruled Bernicia, the people reverting to the ‘abominations’ of paganism in Bede’s words, whatever that means. Paulinus fled, leaving another Italian, James the Deacon, all alone to run an isolated church in the wilds of Deira. Luckily Northumbrian kings never lasted long, and Eanfrith was no exception; he had made a truce with the local British chieftain Cadwallon but after falling out he went off with 12 soldiers to negotiate peace. It’s not recorded what they talked about but by the end of the meeting Eanfrith was dead.

He was replaced by his brother Oswald, who once again united Deira and Bernicia after defeating Cadwallon. Since his uncle Edwin probably wanted him dead, Oswald had grown up in exile in the Gaelic-speaking world in what is now the west of Scotland, along with his younger brothers Osguid, Oswiu, Oslac, Oslaph and Offa (Anglo-Saxons had the habit of giving their children names all starting with the same letter). There he had converted to Christianity, probably more sincerely than Edwin, and went one better than his uncle by becoming an actual saint. Oswald earned this by establishing the faith in his kingdom, asking his Irish contacts to lend him a bishop; the first one they sent was apparently too austere, so instead they dispatched St Aidan (Oswald, who spoke Gaelic, acting as his interpreter). Aidan established churches all over Northumbria and probably did more even than Augustine in making England Christian.

In fact the Irish generally played a huge part, through monasteries. Monasticism had begun in Egypt in the 4th century with St Anthony the Great, a holy man from Alexandria who fled to the desert to escape the attention of adoring intellectuals and other pseuds, his fans rather annoying him. Instead the city folk followed him to his hermit’s cave, and then to the desert, and realizing he’d never escape from them he established a community of hermits. And so the first monastery, St Anthony’s, was created and by the 5th century there were 700 around the eastern Mediterranean. The idea really picked up in Ireland soon after the country was converted to Christianity by St Patrick in the 5th century. Irish monks in particular loved the austerity and self-inflected misery associated with the religious life, and the country’s harsh environment provided the perfect backdrop; the most extreme was Skelling Michael, off the coast of Kerry, an isolated mountain island that is absurdly dangerous to reach and climb up and can only be reached on calm days. There was almost certainly some competition among Irish men to find the most inconvenient and uncomfortable place to settle down in, to show how holy they were.

In doing so Irish monks helped to preserve many of the ancient texts, despite the island being marked by chaos and warfare between endless squabbling clans. They even had wars about monastic books, of all things; in one debacle, called the Battle of the Book, which took place in the kingdom of Cairbre Drom Cliabh in north-west Ireland between 555 and 561, two clans went to war after St Columba had illegally copied a version of the Psalms belonging to St Finnian, most likely the only war to even begin over copyright infringement. The battle between the two groups led to ‘thousands’ of deaths.

The religion spread across all of England, and the Anglo-Saxons in turn converted the Germans back in Saxony Overseas, as they called what is now Germany,until last pagan stronghold Sussex succumbed. The South Saxons only changed religion in exchange for the Isle of Wight, which Wulfhere of Mercia (658-675) gave them on condition that they convert.

Oswald, who had gone by the rather exaggerated title ’emperor of all Britain’, died fighting the Mercians in 642, and power passed to his brother Oswiu, who struggled to keep together the various factions in the kingdom. Oswald, having fallen in battle with pagans, was soon hailed as a saint; before his burial, a beam of light was seen coming out of his grave, and his cult spread across northern Europe, his image being found on various old churches in England and Germany. His head was taken to Durham cathedral and his arm ended up in Peterborough for some reason; a second head of Oswald’s turned up in Frisia, where it was reverently received apparently without scepticism,while others were found in Luxemburg, Switzerland and Germany. As none of his contemporaries mentioned him having five heads – which probably would have been the first thing a casual observer mentioned – we can be fairly sure they aren’t all authentic.

This is from Saxon v Vikings: a Very, Very short history of Alfred the Great and the Dark Ages. Buy it here.

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