King and Saint: King Oswald of Northumbria and His Lost Throne Quest
Much of English history was defined by critical wars, conflicts, and invasions. However, not everything was drenched in chaos and bloodshed. Throughout the ages, powerful rulers were there to keep their citizens protected, working in the best interest of the state, the church, and the people. Without kings and saints, a nation can quickly lose its strong foundations and topple over. Luckily, England had a lot of both. But not many individuals from its history had the privilege to be both a king and a saint. King Oswald of Northumbria is one such historic figure. One of the most important leaders from the earliest parts of the English medieval period, King Oswald rose as a powerful and brave ruler, but passed on into the memory of men as a venerated Christian saint. What aspects of King Oswald’s life led to this transformation from king to saint?
A map showing the locations of the Anglo-Saxon peoples around the year 600 AD and the Northumbria territory is the one Oswald needed to reclaim to become King Oswald of Northumbria. (Hel-hama / CC BY-SA 3.0)
Who Was King Oswald of Northumbria, and What was his Story?
By the earliest parts of the emerging medieval period, the British Isles, still recuperating from the sudden departure of the Romans, were a ripe prize for the taking. To that end, they were gradually conquered by the Anglo-Saxons, the fierce Germanic warriors that came to help, turned to conquest, and eventually stayed for good.
Over the following decades and centuries, the Anglo-Saxons became the masters of England. They established their own, small kingdoms, and many of the rulers accepted Christianity, quickly surpassing the preceding Germanic paganism. The very early kings of these small entities are somewhat obscure but after a few generations lineages and dynasties formed. That is how we know today of the earliest Anglo-Saxon rulers and their heirs. And this brings us to King Oswald of Northumbria, one of the principal rulers of Anglo-Saxon England.
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Young Oswald was born in 604 AD, to quite noble parents. His father was Æthelfrith, king of Bernicia, while his mother was called Acha, the daughter of King Ælle, a king of Deira. Bernicia and Deira were two neighboring petty kingdoms, established by the Anglians after their arrival. Oswald’s father Æthelfrith was one of the most important figures in the history of the future kingdom of Northumbria, for it was Æthelfrith who defeated the neighboring King of Deira and conquered his realm, thus uniting the two territories under a single ruler.
This was the foundation of what was to become the powerful kingdom Northumbria. This vast territory would remain the primary Anglo-Saxon entity for centuries to follow. It was bound by the River Tweed to the North, and the Humber River along the south.
Alas, the Anglo-Saxons were never truly unified after their arrival in the British Isles. In fact, they almost always warred and feuded with one another, pitting tribes against tribes and rulers against rulers. Thus, it was that Oswald’s father Æthelfrith met an untimely end at the hands of one of his rivals. He was killed in battle by Raedwald, king of East Anglia, and thus his rule over early Northumbria came to an end. Raedwald replaced him with Edwin, the brother of Acha (Oswald’s mother), and the deposed heir of conquered Deira.
Satellite image of Scotland and Northern Ireland showing the approximate greatest extent of the kingdom Dál Riata (shaded) to which Oswald and his family fled after his father was usurped by Edwin. (NASA / Public domain)
King Oswald: A Usurped Throne and a Life of Exile
Needless to say, this created a slew of other problems and gave Oswald of Northumbria a true “baptism by fire,” by forcing him to reclaim his rightful throne and fight against the foes that deposed his father. It is important to know that around this time, the Anglo-Saxons were not yet fully converted to Christianity. Some reverted to their old heathen ways, while only a few rulers would stick to the Christian faith.
When Æthelfrith was deposed, the new King Edwin became a Christian and was baptized in 627 AD. Thus, his kingdom gained Christian characteristics, and marked his reign as a peaceful and prosperous one. This could have created issues for young Oswald who wanted to see it reclaimed.
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After his father’s death, Oswald, his mother Acha, and his younger brother Oswiu, were forced to flee into exile, waiting for the right time to reclaim their lands. They fled to Scotland, into the Gaelic kingdom of Dál Riata, beginning a long life of exile. Here, Oswald and his kin were converted to Christianity. However, the others did not stick to the faith, quickly returning to paganism.
Only Oswald believed fervently, becoming a devout Christian and a pious nobleman. Still, it is likely that his exile was focused on fighting, as many deposed noblemen and princes would resort to mercenary work and fight to provide an income, to gain followers, all the while biding their time in wait for a chance to reclaim their throne.
Oswald likely warred across Scotland, and Ireland too. Historians agree that Oswald is most likely one of the three “Saxon princes” mentioned in the Irish poem Togail Bruidne Dá Derga, where he is called “Osalt.” Amongst the Irish warriors of Dal Riata, Oswald gained substantial fame, proving his worth as an able warrior.
During this time, he gained a nickname, Lamnguin, meaning White Blade, as stated in the 9th century work “Historia Brittonum.” In Dal Riata, he likely served under King Eochaid Buide, gaining his fame, and patiently working towards his future and the return to his homeland and throne.
View of the ruins of Iona Abbey in the late 19th century, which the future King Oswald visited during his exile from his homelands. (Public domain)
Oswald Bides His Time and Sharpens his Christian Faith
But Oswald didn’t only war and fight during his exile. He also got in touch with his newly found Christian faith. It is said that Oswald of Northumbria traveled to distant Christian communities in Ireland, notably to the Hebridean isle of Iona ( Ì Chaluim Chille), the site of the Iona Abbey which was the center of Gaelic monasticism for many centuries. Here, he undoubtedly deepened his faith and became a fervent Christian.
And it is this strong Christian faith of his that would become a fundamental shift in English history. For Oswald was determined that once he regained his father’s lost throne, his new kingdom would be devoutly Christian. The only thing that remained was actually wresting the power out of the hands of King Edwin of Northumbria.
In the meantime, however, Edwin became a powerful ruler. He expanded his lands, taking parts of Mercia and Scotland, and established himself as one of the most prominent Anglo-Saxon rulers. This meant that Oswald of Northumbria would have a difficult challenge if he attempted to usurp him. What is more, Oswald could not find any allies in his quest to regain the throne because no monarch in the region was strong enough to face Edwin head on.
And thus, Oswald was left with nothing but patience. He spent many long years waiting for the right time to strike. When he went into exile he was but 12 years old, and now, entering his 30’s, he finally found the chance he was looking for because King Edwin had died!
In an expected turn of events, a coalition emerged in the south. In 632 AD, the Welsh king of Gwynedd, Cadwallon ap Cadfan, allied himself with the ferocious pagan king of Mercia, Penda, and the two set their sights upon Edwin. In a decisive battle at Hatfield Chase near Doncaster, in October 633 AD, King Edwin, the man who usurped Oswald’s father Æthelfrith so many years before, was decisively beaten and killed.
And that was the chance Oswald sought. Still, it was his elder half-brother, Eanfrith, who tried to retake the throne first, claiming the small kingdom of Bernicia for himself. However, Eanfrith was quickly murdered by Cadwallon ap Cadfan, and his lands taken. In neighboring Deira, one of Edwin’s cousins, Osric, established himself as a ruler. He too was utterly defeated in battle by the Welshman Cadwallon, who mercilessly swept across Northumbria, which was now in total disarray.
King Oswald as the crowned king of Northumbria from a 13th-century manuscript. (Public domain)
An Army to Defeat the King of Gwynedd
But Oswald was not dismayed. He was determined to claim what was rightfully his, and bolstered by his unwavering Christian faith, he set about gathering allies and a sizable army that would grant him victory in his quest. But where to find the men? The Kingdom of Dal Riata was nominally allied to Cadwallon ap Cadfan, so that was not a possibility. Oswald did gain the support of some exiled Bernician nobles that fled the land to join him, but the bulk of the army still had to be found.
To solve this issue, Oswald journeyed to the kingdom of Rheged. It was situated in Hen Ogledd, the “Old North” of Britain, and was a Brythonic kingdom. Here, he managed to gain supplies and expand his army with horsemen and infantry, gaining the support of the king of Rheged. To this force he also likely added a number of men from the north, either Scots or Picts (or both), which might have been hired as mercenaries. Either way, he was now as ready as he could be to face the infamous king of Gwynedd, Cadwallon.
With his army being smaller, faster, and unencumbered by a baggage train, Oswald was able to move swiftly and act. As soon as he amassed his army, he traveled and landed at Carlisle, aiming to meet the army of Cadwallon that was encamped nearby, at the village of Hexham, at the place called Heavenfield.
Here, the ancient sources firmly state that Oswald chose to erect a large wooden cross before the battle. He knelt down holding the cross himself until it was firmly in the ground and prayed to god for help. A manuscript from the Abbey of Iona, written in the first decades following Oswald’s rule, states that this leader had a vision of Saint Columba before the battle, and the saint told him:
“Be strong and act manfully. Behold, I will be with thee. This coming night go out from your camp into battle, for the Lord has granted me that at this time your foes shall be put to flight and Cadwallon your enemy shall be delivered into your hands and you shall return victorious after battle and reign happily.”
Either way, it is likely that Oswald surprised Cadwallon and his army in the early dawn, while they were still encamped. A great slaughter ensued, with a great number of Cadwallon’s army being killed, and the rest fleeing. Cadwallon ap Cadfan was killed as well, and his reign brought to an abrupt end. This was a marvelous victory for Oswald, and a culmination of years of patient waiting for the right time to strike. His main foes were all dead, and the path towards his lost throne was open.
In the following years, King Oswald of Northumbria became the most powerful ruler in Britain. He reunited Bernicia and Deira, forming Northumbria, and soon annexed the kingdom of Rheged as well.
He worked to introduce Christianity amongst the common folk, and enlisted Bishop Aidan for this task. To help him spread the Christian faith, Oswald gifted him the island of Lindisfarne, where an important abbey was formed. It was this same Lindisfarne that would be sacked by the Vikings in 793 AD, an event that began the infamous Viking Age, which would once again completely change the face of the British Isles.
A 12th-century painting of Saint Oswald in Durham Cathedral, England. (Robin Widdison / Public domain)
King Oswald: A Great Christian King and Beloved Saint
Oswald’s reign was sadly quite short. Although immensely powerful as the king of Northumbria, he was not without enemies. He entered into a prolonged conflict with the kingdom of Mercia, which was led by the famed heathen King Penda. In 642 AD, at the Battle of Maserfield, King Oswald of Northumbria was defeated, killed, and dismembered. It was a sad and untimely end for a powerful and pious ruler. And it is likely for this piety that his heathen Mercian enemies despised him so much and desecrated his body.
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But either way, the name of Oswald continued to live even after his death. In his brief rule, he was a devout Christian who worked with all his might to establish this faith across Britain, raised churches, and brought forth missionaries and monks to help spread the word of God. He was also noted for his charity towards the poor and was thus well loved by his people.
In the decades following his death, he was considered a saint and a martyr, as it was said that he was dismembered while praying for the souls of his dead soldiers. A cult devoted to Saint Oswald emerged in the Medieval period and spread across Europe. England’s Durham Cathedral, in particular, celebrates Saint Oswald.
A patient youth, yearning for his father’s lost throne that was rightfully his, warring his way across Gaelic lands and getting in touch with his soul and his firm belief in Christ, King Oswald of Northumbria was undoubtedly a hero and an inspiring medieval figure. He showed us that patience is the mother of success: if you wait and work hard towards your goals, a time will come when you will succeed!
Top image: Saint Oswald's Church, Ashbourne, Derbyshire, England, dedicated to King Oswald of Northumbria, who became a saint. Source: Peter / Adobe Stock
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