The sacrificial king
Oswald had reigned for less than a decade when he was hacked down on the Welsh marches at the Battle Maserfield in 642AD and then cut into pieces. In a final insult, his pagan rival Penda of Mercia had his severed head and arms mounted on wooden stakes. It was a brutal and apparently ignominious end to a short but glittering reign. This was the same Oswald who famously returned from exile in present-day Scotland to reclaim his kingdom at the point of the sword – a story that helped inspire the character of Aragorn in Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. He may even have been the subject of a lost Old English epic.
Oswald famously raised a cross on the eve of his victory at Heavenfield near Hexham in in 633 or 634 – a triumph that saw him become the most powerful man in Britain, an overlord known in the late ninth-century Anglo-Saxon Chronicle as a “Bretwalda” (possibly ‘broad-ruler’ or ‘Britain-ruler’). Presented by Bede as Northumbria’s answer to Constantine the Great, his kingdom (probably headquartered in Bamburgh) stretched from the banks of the Humber in the south right up into what is now southern Scotland, and from the North Sea coast possibly as far as the Irish Sea. He had not only reunited his vast and war-ravaged kingdom but reinvented it as a theocracy aligned with Ireland and Scotland. His reign heralded the beginning of an unprecedented cultural renaissance that ultimately led to the production of masterpieces such as the Lindisfarne Gospels. With help from Aidan, an Irish missionary from the Columban monastery on Iona, he brought Christianity and new hope to vast swathes of the pagan north.
Now, in a spectacular reversal of his fortune, his butchered remains were left out as carrion in act of degradation and savagery that would make a serial killer blanch. Was this a warning to enemies, a sacrifice to the heathen gods, a ritual humiliation, or an indication that death alone was not enough to satiate long-term rival Penda’s vengeful fury? Or perhaps this gruesome stage set was intended to signal the Mercian’s prowess in the theatre of war, in essence a form of macho showboating. In the Old English epic Beowulf, the eponymous hero tears off Grendel’s arm and displays it on the gable of the very same hall which the monster had plagued in life. His gigantic head was later dragged along the floor by its hair, allowing bystanders to gawp at this hideous spectacle and marvel too at the martial courage of the hero who had vanquished this night-stalking terror with his bare hands.
It is also perhaps worth noting that acts of ‘justice’ visited upon the dead have a long history in this country, from early medieval times into the seventeenth century. Harold I Harefoot, king of England between 1035 and 1040, had the body of his predecessor and half-brother, Harthacanute, dug up and cast in a pen with animals. The most recent and infamous example is the treatment of Oliver Cromwell’s remains. The regicide’s body was exhumed from its resting place in Westminster Abbey in 1661, on the twelfth anniversary of the execution of Charles I. His corpse was hanged in chains, and then thrown into a pit. His head was cut off and exhibited on a pole outside Westminster Hall until 1685. Historically, Christians believed that the resurrection of the dead required that the body should be buried whole facing east so that it could rise facing God. Dismemberment was therefore a way of thwarting the passage of a Christian’s soul to the afterlife.
Writing in The King in The North, Max Adams speculates that Penda’s punitive actions may have been intended as in insult not only to Oswald himself but to his dynasty and his subjects:
“Oswald and his people were deprived of the obsequies benefitting a great warrior king. The conspicuous consumption of the funeral feast, the placing of treasure and weapons beyond gift or use so evident in the Sutton Hoo ship burial and in pagan Anglo-Saxon burials by the thousand, were essential components of the death of a warrior king, as they were for the fulfilment of his earthly life. Penda would allow no such end for Oswald or the Bernicians [Bernicia being the northern portion of the kingdom of Northumbria] who mourned him. And the Idings [Oswald’s royal dynasty] were not just robbed of their farewells and mourning rituals, the necessary components of social bonding in the Early Medieval kingdom; they failed to retain the possession of the body of their dead king.” P. 237
In support of his argument, Adams alludes to the guarding of Beowulf’s body by a faithful kinsman ahead of the king’s lavish funeral. We cannot understand Oswald simply as a king who died, but as the physical embodiment of his people’s collective fortunes and the focus for their group identity. Penda’s atrocity was therefore calculated to demoralise his people, and to inflict maximum hurt upon his family and heirs. This goes some way towards explaining why Oswiu led a raid deep into enemy territory to recover his brother’s remains. This ostensibly reckless mission, undertaken a year after the battle, indicates the high value attributed to these relics. The approximate site of the battle has been identified as Oswestry, ‘Oswald’s Tree’ (Welsh: Croesoswallt) in Shropshire, a long and dangerous journey from Bamburgh.
Why would Owsiu go to such great lengths to retrieve these gruesome trophies, putting his own life and the future of his kingdom in jeopardy?
Adams has suggested that allowing Penda’s display of Oswald’s head was a stain on Northumbrian pride, the repatriation of the remains, therefore, being a matter of honour to his dynasty. In retrieving the hands and head of his brother, Owsiu was restoring some of the sacred luck of his sibling. In my own book about Saint Aidan of Lindisfarne, The Man Who Gave His Horse to a Beggar, I suggest another possible motive for this act of derring-do – Aidan may have asked Oswiu to embark upon the quest. We know that the bishop’s relationship with Oswald was one of mutual respect, with the king acting as his interpreter in the early phase of the mission. They had worked together for almost a decade, sharing its highs and lows, and may even have known one another from Oswald’s stay on Iona. Aidan had invested great time and effort in teaching him how to become a good Christian king, and the thought of his remains being left out to glut the crows would have been difficult for him to bear.
How Oswiu was able to confidently identify the remains of his brother is another question, but one assumes they were still in situ on the poles where Penda had displayed them. A legend appearing in Reginald of Durham’s often fantastical twelfth-century Vita Sancti Oswaldi (‘The Life of Saint Oswald’) describes how Oswiu had help finding his brother’s body parts from an unexpected quarter. A great bird (perhaps a raven) plucked the king’s right arm from the stake upon which it had been mounted and carried it to a nearby ash tree, which became thereafter ageless. When the bird dropped the arm, a healing spring burst forth from the earth. Reginald also reports that no one damaged the ash tree with impunity and that the sick could be healed from its shade and by touching or tasting its leaves (Victoria Tudor, ‘Reginald’s Life of Oswald’, in Oswald, p. 190).
The god Woden from whom many early Germanic kings, including Oswald, claimed descent was depicted in the company of ravens as far back as the Iron Age, while the ash tree was said to be sacred to him. It has even been suggested that Oswald was presented as an offering to Woden, but it could equally have been a mockery of the Christ’s death. Both were ‘crucified’, Woden on the World Tree and Jesus on another life-giving tree, the Cross; and both were said to have risen from the dead after their respective sacrifices.
The king’s blood
Bede stops short of describing Oswald as a martyr but there are early signs that he was on the way to being regarded as such:
“It is also a tradition which has become proverbial that he died with a prayer on his lips. When he was beset by the weapons of his enemies and saw that he was about to perish he prayed for the souls of his army. So the proverb runs, ‘May God have mercy on their souls, as Oswald said when he fell to the earth.’” (EH III.12)
Oswald’s violent death enabled subsequent generations to weave together various popular narratives. There is the archetype of the brave hero who lays down his life for his people, examples of which include Beowulf, Cú Chulainn and, of course, Christ; and the pre-Christian idea of the king as a semi-divine figure who embodies the luck of his people, an idea found in both Irish and Anglo-Saxon tradition.
Oswald’s remains (and even objects with which he had been in contact) were said to be endowed with healing powers befitting his totemic status as a tribal leader. Physical contact with a Germanic king in life was believed to heal the sick, properties retained posthumously by their body parts.
The brutality of Oswald’s death and post-mortem treatment not only facilitated his emergence as a Christian martyr but also tapped into the idea of the king as a sacrifice. The ritual killing of human beings was practised across Britain and Ireland in the prehistoric period, with their remains sometimes deposited in bogs in rites that appear to have been associated with sovereignty and ensuring the fertility of the land. Interestingly, the place where Oswald’s blood soaked into the soil was said to be “greener and more beautiful than the rest of the field” (EH III.10).
Kings had a sympathetic relationship with the land in pre-Christian Europe and were associated with promoting the fertility of land and of animals. Interestingly, Oswald later became the patron saint of cattle, the harvest and of weather in Alpine countries (Annemiek Jansen, ‘The Development of St Oswald Legends on the Continent’, p. 237, in Oswald). Writing in ‘Region and Nation in Late Medieval Devotion to Northern English Saints’, Christiania Whitehead adds that Oswald is venerated in sites across the Tyrol, Austria, as a patron saint of agricultural plenitude, working with his raven to ensure favourable weather, retrieved February 19th 2021). Reginald of Durham in his Life of Oswald indicates that during his reign the earth was extremely fertile, yielding abundant crops.
Bede also tells us of various healing miracles associated with the ground where Oswald was killed which tie in with the idea of kings as sacred figures. Indeed, the custom of removing earth from the area where he fell and adding it to water to cure the sick became so popular that, in time, a hole as deep as a man was opened up (EH III. 9). Early Irish saints’ tombs had holes cut in them so that pilgrims might take a handful of dust from the holy soil. The stake upon which his head was mounted and the cross he raised at Heavenfield were both believed to have healing powers, the boundary between traditional sympathetic magic and the power of holy relics appearing very blurred here.
Bede reports that a man’s horse fell sick near the site of the battle, writhing around in agony and foaming at the mouth. However, when the suffering animal came into contact with the area where the king had fallen, it recovered instantly and began to greedily crop the grass (EH II.9). Recognising the sacred qualities of the site, the horseman marked the spot and travelled to the nearest inn where he intended to lodge for the night. There he discovered the patron’s niece was suffering from paralysis and told her family of the place where his horse had been cured. They promptly brought her in a cart to the place and she too was healed of her infirmity.
Bede also describes how a house burned down during a feast with the single exception of a post containing soil sanctified by the king’s blood. Stories like this have the quality of folk stories, combining oral tradition and popular superstition. And it appears that Oswald’s cult may, initially at least, have grown up spontaneously around the site of the battle. It was only later that the Church, recognising the potential of Oswald’s legend, began to take institutional possession of his cult (Adams, KITN, p. 250).
The king’s head(s)
When Oswiu returned with the severed head of his brother and presented it to the monks of Lindisfarne, they interred it in the church cemetery. This action has often seen as evidence that the island’s ecclesiastical hierarchy, including Aidan, were uncomfortable with the king’s grisly gift. The suggestion is that, by burying his skull, they were, in a sense, hiding it. Writing in his article on Oswald’s remains, ‘Membra Disjecta: the Division of the Body and the Diffusion of the Cult’, Alan Thacker argues that Oswiu’s gesture raised “sensitive issues” for the Irish monks because it would have recalled the cults of their pagan ancestors (Oswald, p.102).
Among the Celtic and Germanic peoples, the heads of heroes, kings, even of enemies were believed to possess talismanic properties which could bring good fortune. They could be enshrined in temples, mounted on gateposts or ramparts. However, inhumation did not automatically signal the concealing of a taboo, or an effort by the Church to neutralise the totemic potency of pagan cult practises. The interment of a saint’s remains could also be performed with reverence as a means of harnessing or invoking divine power. The tomb of Saint Peter in Rome was used as the foundation for the building of the first basilica during the reign of Constantine I. And nor was the veneration of severed heads an exclusively pagan practise. The head of John the Baptist (himself a monk of sorts) was the focus of a cult as early as the fourth century. And in Aidan’s own lifetime, the head of Edwin was carried to York and enshrined on the porch of St Peter’s, close to the site of the present Minster.
In the Second Branch of The Mabinogi, compiled in the twelfth to thirteenth centuries from earlier records, the Celtic hero, Brân the Blessed is beheaded by his companions at his own request, but their bodiless companion continues speak to them and bring them good fortune on their travels! The gigantic skull of the Irish hero, Conall Cernach had the power to bring strength to the Ulstermen if used as a drinking vessel; while in Norse legend, Odin was said to carry around the head of a wise being called Mímir, who would profer secret knowledge and offer advice.
Throughout Britain, the veneration of the head was closely linked to holy wells and healing springs. The seventh-century Welsh saint, Winifred, was said to have spurned the advances of a chieftain’s son who was so enraged that he decapitated her. But because of her purity and goodness, legend has it that a spring immediately burst forth from the ground at the spot where the body part fell, evidence of the intermingling of pagan and Christian notions of the sacred. Similar tales are told of the British sister saints Juthwara and Sidwell. Irish and Welsh sources, written in the Christian period, ascribe to the head magical properties. And even the stake upon which Oswald’s head was fixed by Penda was said to be imbued with supernatural properties. Bede reports that an Irishman on the brink of death was cured by taking a splinter of the oak with water (EH III.14).
The motif appears in ancient Celtic water sites, including the Well of Coventina [NY 858 712] at Carrawburgh on Hadrian’s Wall, in Northumberland, where a sculpted male head was recovered alongside other votive offerings. There are also numerous water shrines devoted to Oswald, with examples at Elvet in Durham, Kirkoswald in Cumbria, Oswestry in Shropshire and Winwick in Cheshire to name a few. The veneration of the head in Celtic tradition may account for the large number of holy wells dedicated to Oswald.
Reginald of Durham describes how a miraculous light allowed the resting place of the king’s head on Lindisfarne to be pinpointed. However, exactly when this holy relic found its way into Cuthbert’s coffin is the subject of scholarly debate (for an excellent summary of the confusing and contradictory accounts, see ‘St Oswald’s Heads’ by Richard N. Bailey, in Oswald, pp. 195-209). Reginald also suggests Oswald’s head may have spent some time at Bamburgh before it was taken to Durham. This contradicts received wisdom that it remained on Lindisfarne until Cuthbert’s body was removed to safety in the ninth century under the threat of Danish attacks. Reginald describes how, many years after Oswald’s death, Cuthbert appeared to a monk caring for his incorrupt body and demanded the return of the king’s head even though the two saints had never met in life. He obeyed and brought it back to Lindisfarne from nearby Bamburgh at which point the door to the tomb opened to receive it, closing of its own accord as soon as the relic had been placed inside!
Durham, in northern England, has the most plausible and longest recorded claim to Oswald’s head. We know that the king’s skull was found in Cuthbert’s coffin during the 1104 translation of his body. Reginald even includes a description, detailing the damage caused to the cranium by the sword-strike that presumably killed him. Apparently, the skull was a reddish-brown colour that resembled gold, was not as heavy as one might expect and possessed a full set of teeth. Reginald also indicates that it gave off a sweet odour, which suggests the head may have been embalmed (see Victoria Tudor, ‘Reginald’s Life of Oswald in Oswald, p.188).
Later medieval iconography shows Cuthbert holding Oswald’s severed head. This is partly in recognition of the burial arrangements. However, this also allowed ecclesiastical spin doctors to illustrate that the king was very much a secondary figure, subordinate to Cuthbert.
The bishop’s tomb was the focus of one of the most lavish and popular shrines in medieval England – Durham Cathedral – and nothing could be allowed to threaten this carefully-cultivated status. This reputation had been built on a compelling foundation narrative nurtured through the centuries. The story goes that Cuthbert’s body had been found incorrupt and his coffin carted about for seven years before the monks of Lindisfarne received affirmative signs from on high that Durham was their divinely appointed destination.
This is the context which saw Oswald cast very much in a supporting role despite his early and central importance in the reintroduction of Christianity to Northumbria (Cuthbert was merely a babe in arms when the king invited monks from Iona to Northumbria and patronised their missionary efforts). Oswald’s head became an attribute of Cuthbert, a stage prop for the main character (much like Yorick’s skull in Shakespeare’s Hamlet). The spotlight was very much on Cuthbert.
This perhaps explains why Canon Raine made such a perfunctory inspection of Oswald’s skull when he opened the tomb in 1827. It has been suggested by Bailey (cited above) that this British antiquarian was so obsessed by the idea of Cuthbert’s legendary incorruption that he overlooked important details about the other corporeal relics inside the coffin. He describes what he believed to be Oswald’s skull “in a somewhat imperfect state” but his account is frustratingly light on other details about the king’s head. A later examination carried out in 1899 was far more thorough and uncovered evidence of a cut on one of the skull fragments that appeared to have been inflicted by a bladed weapon. Given what we know of Oswald’s death in battle, this adds weight to the theory that Durham Cathedral is in possession of the ‘real’ Oswald’s head. Interestingly, Reginald also describes a deep cut in the crown of the skull in forensic detail in his Life of Oswald:
“There appears yawning the opening of a certain aperture, from a side blow, which the enemy’s sword inflicted in the battle wherein he fell, and which lies quite open three fingers depth in the crown of the sacred head. For the crown of the head was so cut away by the devouring sword that it looks as though the hole in question had been sliced open by the stroke of a very sharp razor or by a headsman’s slash. Still the stroke of the shattering sword seems not to have inflicted any other injury except that opening, which through separation of part of the skull is so conspicuous”.
Cited in ‘St Oswald’s Heads’ by Richard N. Bailey, in Oswald, p.205).
The king’s arms
To understand the veneration of Oswald’s right arm, we must go back to a time when it was still attached to his body. Bede narrates how the he was seated next to bishop Aidan at an Easter feast when a silver dish was set before the king (EH III.6). Just as the bread was about to be blessed, signalling the formal start of festivities, a servant appointed to relieve the poor entered the hall and told the king that a large crowd of starving men, women and children had gathered outside, begging for alms. Oswald immediately ordered food to be carried out, and the silver dish to be broken up and divided among them. Impressed by this act of piety and compassion, Aidan seized his right arm and declared, “May this arm never perish”. The prayer was apparently efficacious, with the limb remaining incorrupt after it was cut from his body in battle.
Oswald appears in the Historia Brittonum (‘History of the Britons’), a ninth-century work traditionally ascribed to Nennius, with the epithet Lamnguin which has been translated as ‘Bright’ or ‘Blessed Arm’ (and sometimes as ‘White Blade’). White signalled holiness, divine power and the ‘Otherworld’ in Celtic tradition. Oswald’s incorrupt limb recovered by Oswiu was housed in a silver reliquary or casket, perhaps cast in the shape of the arm it contained. The limb was given pride of place in St Peter’s Church, probably on the site of the ruined chapel in the eastern corner of the Castle, described in the twelfth-century Historia Regum (‘History of the Kings’):
“It has, on the summit of the hill, a church of very beautiful architecture, in which is a fair and costly shrine. In this, wrapped in a pall, lies the uncorrupted right hand of St Oswald.”
When compared to the more discreet burial of Oswald’s head on Lindisfarne, the special treatment of his arm was surely in recognition of its perceived superiority as a relic. The precious right arm was later stolen from Bamburgh by a monk called Winegot, who carried it off to Peterborough some time before the Norman Conquest, perhaps to raise the prestige of the monastery (they apparently lacked a sufficiently high-profile saint of their own). Twelfth-century chronicler Hugh Candidus glosses over the theft but a later commentator, writing in the thirteenth century, took great pains to justify the act:
“But a certain monk, a sanctified robber, a faithful defiler, pious and guilty by one and the same translated the right arm thence by furtive abduction to the cloister of Peterborough; yet a wise man should take note that this was done by the will of God: the king had earlier desired to be venerated there, but now preferred this place, for the clergy of that former place [Bamburgh] are diligent in the Psalms, but this congregation more so.”
Hugh of Avranches, edited and translated by Townsend, pp. 253- 5 and cited by Dr Johanna Dale in her lecture on Saint Oswald for The Churches Conservation Trust on January 28th, 2021.
The arm was installed in a chapel in the south transept dedicated to Saint Oswald where it was displayed as the monastery’s most-prized possession. Here it was guarded day and night, which is ironic indeed given that a monk from Peterborough had stolen it in the first place. Very soon after the Norman Conquest, the arm was carried away by Anglo-Saxon freedom fighter Hereward the Wake to Ely and from here to Ramsey Abbey. The relic was only returned to Peterborough following threats from the then abbot Thorold to burn Ramsey Abbey to the ground. When the abbot William of Waterville was deposed in 1175, he entered the church with armed men in an attempt to carry off Oswald’s arm, injuring some of the monks in the process. It was later encased in a reliquary of gold and silver set with precious stones. And in 1515, the Bishop of Lincoln had to discipline a monk who had stolen jewels from the shrine of St Oswald and given to women in the town (I owe the summary above to Dr Johanna Dale’s lecture on Saint Oswald for The Churches Conservation Trust).
Hugh Candidus reports that King Stephen came to visit the arm, which was apparently taken out of its reliquary, allowing the king to look upon the flesh of Saint Oswald blessed by Aidan over four centuries before. Hugh himself claims to have washed the arm and vouched that it remained incorrupt:
“There is preserved here a relic precious above all gold, the right arm of St Oswald king and martyr, intact with both flesh and skin, according to the vow of benediction of St Aidan the bishop. I myself have inspected it with my own eyes, kissed it, handled it, and washed it, when it was shown to the Bishop Alexander of Lincoln, to the whole convent and to many other clerics and laymen… in the four hundred and eighty-seventh year from the martyr’s death.”
The Chronicle of Hugh Candidus, ed. W.T. Mellows (Oxford, 1949), p. 52.
Dr Johanna Dale has found evidence of a liturgical use for the arm during the Abbacy of Martin de Bec who oversaw the rebuilding of the church following a fire in 1116. During the feast of St Peter (after whom Peterborough is named), a number of relics, including Oswald’s arm, were brought into the newly completed chancel in the presence of various high-ranking clergymen and noblemen. Hugh recounts that it was used to bless the assembly.
Oswald’s arm disappeared from the chapel during the Reformation along with its silver casket. Gloucester claimed to possess his left arm and even some of the Northumbrian king’s hair. Reginald of Durham describes how these relics gave off a delightful fragrance when they were transferred to a new reliquary by Archbishop Thomas II of York in the early twelfth century. He adds that this divine odour made the people forget their earthly cares and pleasures (See Victoria Tudor, ‘Reginald’s Life of Oswald’ in Oswald, p.193).
The king’s body
Oswald’s niece Osthryth (died 697), queen of Mercia, together with her husband Æthelred, is said to have taken the saint’s bones to Bardney Abbey in the kingdom of Lindsey on the fringes of the present-day Lincolnshire fens (Bede, EH III.11). Bede does not specify which of his body parts were brought here but one must assume, by process of elimination, that he was referring to the legs and torso, the rest having already been accounted for. However, the gesture was not well-received by the monks of Bardney who had been nursing a grudge against the Northumbrian king:
“The carriage on which the bones were borne reached the monastery towards evening. But the inmates did not receive them gladly. They knew that Oswald was a saint but, nevertheless, because he belonged to another kingdom and had once conquered them, they pursued him even when dead with their former hatred. So it came about that the relics remained outside all night with only a large tent erected over the tent in which the bones rested.” (Bede, EH III.11).
One wonders why Osthryth failed to forewarn the ecclesiastical hierarchy of her intention and had so spectacularly misjudged the mood of the community. Indeed, so intransigent were the monks that it took a miracle to change their minds. During the night, Bede describes how a beam of light shone forth from Oswald’s bier, reaching up into the heavens. The monks who had refused to admit the relics the day before now prayed earnestly that they might be granted the honour of becoming their custodians. According to tradition, they removed the great doors to the Abbey so that such a mistake could never happen again. This is thought to be behind the phrase “were you born in Bardney?” used when someone had left the door open.
The monks constructed a shrine and placed over it his banner of gold and purple, Bede’s description of which is thought to be the inspiration behind Northumberland’s county flag. The water used to wash his bones was poured out in the corner of the sanctuary, the soil into which it soaked said to have the power to drive out devils and heal the sick. In another tale from Bede, a boy with the ague kept vigil by the tomb and was cured.
How did this royal couple come into possession of Oswald’s body in the first place? Osthryth’s husband Æthelred was the son of Penda, the very man who cut her uncle Oswald into pieces. Using this and the presence of the king’s battle standard as starting points, Max Adams offers up an intriguing theory:
“It must surely be the case that the headless and armless corpse was wrapped in the king’s own battle standard at the time and removed from the place where it was stored…If Æthelred was in possession of these remains after about 679 when Bardney was founded, it is possible that Penda himself ordered that the body be kept; he would surely be interested in keeping Oswald’s battle standard as a trophy.” (KITN, p.258)
Adams also admits the possibility that an enterprising body-snatcher may have sold the headless torso, or that Oswiu may have collected it at the same time he retrieved the head and arms. This would explain how his daughter Osthryth came to have it. In subsequent centuries, these relics were dispersed throughout Britain and the Continent until eventually only three small bones remained at Bardney, which were said to be efficacious against fevers. In 909, in response to increased Viking raids, Oswald’s bones were translated to the new St Oswald’s Priory, Gloucester. They are now lost.
The king is dead: long live his cult
Regardless of what Penda hoped to achieve, Oswald’s violent death and the treatment of his remains served to bolster the dead saint’s reputation. More importantly, it allowed his legend to be disseminated along with his body parts. An act surely intended primarily to insult and demean helped to secure his growing status as a hero and saint worthy of reverence. Ultimately, it helped him to emerge from Saint Cuthbert’s long shadow, at least on the Continent.
Saint Wilfrid (c. 633 – 710AD) began to actively promote his cult at home from places like Hexham, in Northumberland. We find Oswald relics listed in many churches across England. Hyde Abbey in Winchester claimed a tooth, while St Paul’s in London an arm and a finger, though it is not clear whether these were the relics of Oswald the archbishop or Oswald of Northumbria (See David Rollason, ‘St Oswald in Post-Conquest England’ in Oswald, p.169). Unspecified relics of the king and martyr were also thought to be at Bath, Glastonbury, Reading, St Albans, Salisbury, Christ Church in Hampshire, Tynemouth, York, Hexham and Nostell near Pontefract (ibid). Durham claimed to have not only his head but also a portion of his mail-shirt, some of the cross he had erected at Heavenfield, his banner, his ivory horn and sceptre and even a rib enclosed in a silver gilt image of the saint (Rollason, ‘St Oswald in Post-Conquest England’ in Oswald, p.168).
While Wilfrid raised Oswald’s profile in Britain, his fellow Northumbrian Willibrord (c. 658-739 AD) helped boost his growing status in Europe. The mssionary carried with him a splinter of the stake upon which Oswald’s head had been impaled and helped to establish Oswald’s cult in his monastery at Echternach. As Bede remarks, “Not only did the fame of this renowned king spread through all parts of Britain but the beams of his healing light also spread across the ocean and reached the realms of Germany and Ireland.” (EH III.13).
Later Oswald’s cult received renewed impetus thanks to the influence of high-profile English women like Judith, the former wife of Tostig of Northumbria, who later married Welf IV of Bavaria. Indeed, his cult came to be fostered by German noble houses through their marriage alliances with royal English women (See Dagmar Ó Riain-Raedel, ‘Edith, Judith, Matilda: The Role of Royal Ladies in the Propagation of the Continental Cult’ in Oswald, pp. 210-229). This milieu helps to explain why several high-profile religious foundations on the Continent claimed to have some of Oswald’s remains. Zug and Schaffhausen in Switzerland, Hildesheim in Germany, Utrecht in Holland and Echternach in Luxembourg all believed themselves to be custodians of an authentic Oswald head relic. However, there is absolutely no possibility that all of these fragments could be reassembled to form a single skull (Bailey, ‘St Oswald’s Heads’, in Oswald, p.203).
And Oswald’s corporeal remains multiplied like loaves and fishes to meet this popular demand. International dynastic and ecclesiastical connections help account for Oswald’s popularity on the Continent, inspiring including numerous legends in vernacular German literature and rival claims by foundations to be in possession of his relics. As his reputation spread throughout Europe along with his relics, Oswald became a truly international saint who lived on in legend. His death and dismemberment were not the end of his remarkable story but the beginning.
Main works cited
[EH]: Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People, edited by Bertram Colgrave and R.A.B. Mynors (Oxford University Press, 1969)
[KITN]: Max Adams, The King in the North, The Life and Times of Oswald of Northumbria (Head of Zeus Ltd, London, 2013)
[Oswald]: Clare Stancliffe and Eric Cambridge, editors of Oswald, Northumbrian King to European Saint (Paul Watkins, Lincolnshire, 1995)