Today the Church commemorates Oswald.
The Baptsim of St Oswald
Oswald’s father Æthelfrith was a successful Bernician ruler who, after some years in power in Bernicia, also became king of Deira, and thus was the first to rule both of the kingdoms which would come to be considered the constituent kingdoms of Northumbria (Bernicia in the northern part and Deira in the southern part); it would, however, be anachronistic to refer to a “Northumbrian” people or identity at this early stage, when the Bernicians and the Deirans were still clearly distinct peoples. Oswald’s mother, Acha, was a member of the Deiran royal line who Æthelfrith apparently married as part of his acquisition of Deira or consolidation of power there.Oswald was apparently born in or around the year 604, since Bede says that he was killed at the age of 38 in 642; Æthelfrith’s acquisition of Deira is also believed to have occurred around 604.
Æthelfrith, who was for years a successful war-leader, especially against the native British, was eventually killed in battle around 616 by Raedwald of East Anglia at the River Idle. This defeat meant that an exiled member of the Deiran royal line, Edwin (Acha’s brother), became king of Northumbria; Oswald and his brothers fled to the north. Oswald thus spent the remainder of his youth in the Irish kingdom of Dál Riata in northern Britain, where he was converted to Christianity. He may also have fought in Ireland during this period of exile
After Cadwallon ap Cadfan, the king of Gwynedd, in alliance with the pagan Penda of Mercia, killed Edwin of Deira in battle at Hatfield Chase in 633 (or 632, depending on when the years used by Bede are considered to have begun), Northumbria was split between its constituent kingdoms of Bernicia and Deira. Oswald’s brother Eanfrith became king of Bernicia, but he was killed by Cadwallon in 634 (or 633) after attempting to negotiate peace. Subsequently, Oswald, at the head of a small army (possibly with the aid of allies from the north, the Scots and/or the Picts), met Cadwallon in battle at Heavenfield, near Hexham. Before the battle, Oswald had a wooden cross erected; he knelt down, holding the cross in position until enough earth had been thrown in the hole to make it stand firm. He then prayed and asked his army to join in.
Adomnán in his Life of Saint Columba offers a longer account, which Abbot Ségéne had heard from Oswald himself. Oswald, he says, had a vision of Columba the night before the battle, in which he was told:
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.
Oswald described his vision to his council and all agreed that they would be baptised and accept Christianity after the battle. In the battle that followed, the British were routed despite their superior numbers; Cadwallon himself was killed.
Although Edwin had previously converted to Christianity in 627, it was Oswald who did the most to spread the religion in Northumbria. Shortly after becoming king, he asked the Irish of Dál Riata to send a bishop to facilitate the conversion of his people, and they sent Aidan for this purpose; initially, the Irish sent an “austere” bishop who was unsuccessful in his mission, and Aidan, who proposed a gentler approach, was subsequently sent instead. Oswald gave the island of Lindisfarne to Aidan as his episcopal see, and Aidan achieved great success in spreading Christianity; Bede mentions that Oswald acted as Aidan’s interpreter when the latter was preaching, since Aidan did not know English well and Oswald had learned Irish during his exile.
Bede puts a clear emphasis on Oswald being saintly as a king; although he could be interpreted as a martyr for his subsequent death in battle, Bede portrays Oswald as being saintly for his deeds in life and does not focus on his martyrdom as being primary to his sainthood—indeed, it has been noted that Bede never uses the word “martyr” in reference to Oswald. In this respect, as a king regarded as saintly for his life while ruling—in contrast to a king who gives up the kingship in favour of religious life, or who is venerated because of the manner of his death—Bede’s portrayal of Oswald stands out as unusual. Bede recounts Oswald’s generosity to the poor and to strangers, and tells a story highlighting this characteristic: on one occasion, at Easter, Oswald was sitting at dinner with Aidan, and had “a silver dish full of dainties before him”, when a servant, whom Oswald “had appointed to relieve the poor”, came in and told Oswald that a crowd of the poor were in the streets begging alms from the king. Oswald, according to Bede, then immediately had his food given to the poor and even had the dish broken up and distributed. Aidan was greatly impressed and seized Oswald’s right hand, stating: “May this hand never perish.” Accordingly, Bede reports that the hand and arm remained uncorrupted after Oswald’s death.