Friday 5 August 2016

The Celtic Relations of Saint Oswald of Northumbria

August 5 is the feastday of Saint Oswald of Northumbria, a protege of Saint Aidan of Lindisfarne, and below is a 1909 paper on the Irish influences in the life of this royal martyr:


J. M. Mackinlay

By relationships I do not mean ties of blood, but ties of circumstance. St. Oswald was Anglic by birth, and ruled over an Anglic people, but at various times during his romantic career he was brought into touch with Celtic influences. When his father, AEthelfrith, King of Northumbria, was killed in battle in the year 617, and was succeeded by Eadwine, brother-in-law of the dead king, Oswald, who was then about thirteen years of age, had to flee from his native land. He went to the north-west, and along with his elder brother Eanwith and a dozen followers, sought refuge in the monastery of Iona. St. Columba had been dead twenty years; but the tradition of his sanctity was still a living force in the island. Celtic monasteries were places of education as well as of devotion. When speaking of monastic institutions in Erin, Miss Eleanor Hull in her Early Christian Ireland remarks: 'Let us see what sort of life a boy lived in one of these great schools. It was a busy life, for they had not only to learn lessons and to attend the services of the church, but they had also to take their share in the general work of the place. The monks and students alike seem to have taken part in cultivating the ground, in grinding and baking bread, and in doing the duties both of farmers and cooks. Even the bishops and clergy seem at first to have worked with their hands, and to have laboured in the fields, but as the establishments grew larger the work must have been divided, and the lay brethren no doubt performed the ordinary duties, while the monks and clergy gave themselves to teaching and the services of the Church. But in St. Columcille's time all shared the work, and even men of noble birth ploughed and reaped and attended to the wants of the establishment.'

When Oswald and his brother, along with their companions, entered the monastery of Iona, they apparently did so merely because it supplied an asylum during a time of political unrest, for they were still Pagans. They allowed themselves, however, to be instructed in the doctrines of Christianity. Eventually they made profession of the new faith and received the seal of baptism. When Oswald came to Iona its Abbot was Fergna Brit, i.e. the Briton, otherwise called Virgnous, who was head of the monastery from 605 till 623. He had been one of its inmates when St. Columba was Abbot, and according to Adamnan was witness of a miraculous light which, on one occasion, enveloped the saint, and which he alone of all the brethren was permitted to see.

Meanwhile political changes were making themselves felt in Northumbria, rumours of which penetrated even into the recesses of the Icolmkill monastery. Though evidently content with his mode of life there, with its round of study, labour, and devotion, Oswald did not forget his home-land and his royal ancestry. At Iona he was still an exile. 'Unhappy it is for a man, however good his means and his lot, if he does not see his own country and his own home at the time of rising in the morning and at the time of lying at night.' This sentiment thus expressed in Dr. Alexander Carmichael's admirable version of Deirdire was found true in the experiences of the royal exile.

In 633, sixteen years after Oswald became a fugitive, Eadwine fell in battle at Heathfield (now Hatfield), in Yorkshire, crushed by the combined armies of Penda, ruler of Mercia, and his ally Csedwalla, a British prince. Eanwith thereupon ascended the Bernician throne, and Osric, a cousin of Eadwine, that of Deira ; but in the following year both these princes were slain, and the two thrones were vacant. This was a call to Oswald to enter public life, and he did not let the opportunity pass. With a small army recruited probably, as Dr. W. F. Skene suggests, from among the men of the Border north of the Tweed, he marched south and met, near the Roman Wall, between the Tyne and the Solway, a Pagan army much larger than his own, under the leadership of Catlon, who has been identified, though not conclusively, with Caedwalla.

On the day before the battle Oswald was sleeping in his tent, when, according to the narrative of Adamnan, a wonderful and cheering vision was vouchsafed to him. Adamnan says : 'He saw St. Columba in a vision, beaming with angelic brightness, and of figure so majestic that his head seemed to touch the clouds. The blessed man, having announced his name to the king, stood in the midst of the camp, and covered it all with his brilliant garment, except at one small distant point ; and at the same time he uttered those cheering words which the Lord spake to Jesua Ben Nun before the passage of the Jordan, after Moses' death, saying, " Be strong and of a good courage ; behold, I shall be with thee," etc. Then St. Columba, having said these words to the king in the vision, added, "March out this following night from your camp to battle, for on this occasion the Lord has granted to me that your foes shall be put to flight, that your enemy Catlon shall be delivered into your hands, and that after the battle you shall return in triumph, and have a happy reign." ; To give emphasis to the above story Adamnan adds: 'I, Adamnan, had this narrative from the lips of my predecessor, the Abbot Failbe, who solemnly declared that he had himself heard King Oswald relating this same vision to Segine the Abbot.' The incident, however we may interpret it, is of special interest as showing what a hold the monastery of Iona had taken on the mind of Oswald. What he had there heard of its great founder had so impressed him that now, at a critical juncture in his life, his imagination was stirred by memories of what he had been told.

In the battle that followed Oswald and his army obtained a decisive victory. The scene of the conflict was a place some seven or eight miles north of Hexham, styled in the English tongue Heavenfield or the Heavenly Field, which name, according to Bede, 'it formerly received as a presage of what was afterwards to happen, denoting that there the heavenly trophy would be erected, the heavenly victory begun, and heavenly miracles be wrought.' Bede's reference to the heavenly trophy and the heavenly miracles relates to a wooden cross erected by Oswald before the battle and to the cures believed to have been wrought by chips of its wood when placed in water. The conflict is styled by Nennius the battle of Catscaull, supposed to represent Cad-ys-gual, i.e. the battle at the wall. A church was afterwards built on the spot, and dedicated to St. Oswald.

Nothing now lay between Oswald and the throne of Northumbria, and in ascending it he re-united the kingdoms of Bernicia and Deira. In addition he was overlord of practically all England except Kent, of the islands of Anglesea and Man, and even of the Cymric kingdom of Strathclyde, whose capital was Alcluith, now Dunbarton, i.e. the hill or fort of the Britons. During the time of Eadwine Christianity had been introduced into Deira by St. Paulinus ; but in Bernicia heathenism still prevailed. Accordingly when Oswald formed a plan for evangelising the northern portion of his realm, it was natural that his thoughts should turn to Iona for the help he needed. ' The same Oswald' says Bede, 'as soon as he ascended the throne, being desirous that all his nation should receive the Christian faith, whereof he had found happy experience in vanquishing the barbarians, sent to the elders of the Scots . . . desiring they would send him a bishop by whose instruction and ministry the English nation, which he governed, might be taught the advantages and receive the sacraments of the Christian faith.' In response to the king's request one of the brethren named Corman, was sent to Bernicia, but he was too austere and had little success in his preaching. On his return to Iona he was succeeded among the Angles by Aidan, whom Bede describes as ' a man of singular meekness, piety, and moderation.' The only blemish in his character hinted at by Bede was his habit of celebrating Easter at the Celtic and not the Roman time of year.

The king assigned to Aidan as his Episcopal seat, Lindisfarne, off the Northumbrian coast, known later as Holy Island. It had a special attraction for the missionary bishop as it recalled his Scottish home. Aidan, as the Rev. Canon Raine points out, 'had been long accustomed to the sea-girt shore of Iona; and Lindisfarne would doubtless appear to him a second Iona embosomed in the waves'. The Bishop, unaccustomed to the Anglic speech, had difficulty in making himself understood in Northumbria ; but the king, who had become familiar with Gaelic during his residence in Iona, was in the habit of acting as interpreter to the chief men of the court. Bede tells us that many other Scottish missionaries settled in different parts of the Northumbrian realm, that churches were built, and that money and lands were given by the king to found monasteries. An anecdote told by Bede exemplifies King Oswald's kindness to the poor. One Easter the king was sitting at dinner with Bishop Aidan, and on the table was a silver dish full of dainties. When the king was informed that a number of starving people stood without seeking alms, he at once sent food to them, and ordered the silver dish to be broken up, and divided among them ; 'at which sight' says Bede, 'the bishop, much taken with such an act of piety, laid hold of his right hand and said, "May this hand never perish." Which fell out according to his prayer, for his arm and hand, being cut off from his body, when he was slain in battle, remain entire and uncorrupted to this day.

In 642, eight years after his accession to the Northumbrian throne, Oswald was slain in battle at a place called by Bede Maserfield, believed to be Oswestry in Shropshire. His conqueror was Penda of Mercia, who, flushed with triumph, caused the dead king's head, arms, and hands to be cut off and fixed on stakes. The story of Oswald's relics forms a picturesque chapter in the annals of hagiology; but the narration of their wanderings lies beyond the scope of the present article. The stake on which the king's head was fixed was believed to have acquired thereby miraculous powers. Bede tells us that when Acca, afterwards Bishop of Hexham, was in Ireland on pilgrimage he found that the fame of the king's sanctity was already spread far and near. A violent plague was raging at the time. Acca was asked by a certain scholar, who was dangerously ill, if he could supply any relics of St. Oswald, in the hope that they might bring restoration to health. Acca replied that he had with him a piece of the oaken stake on which the king's head had been fixed at Maserfield. He forthwith blessed some water and placed in it a chip of the wood as was done in the case of the cross at Heavenfield, already referred to. The sick man drank the water and recovered, and King Oswald got the credit of the cure.

The Celtic Review, VOLUME V JULY 1908 TO APRIL 1909, 304-9.

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