"Come to me, all who are weary and whose load is heavy - I will give you rest." - Matthew 11-28

cross graphicOswald of Northumbriacross graphic

Go back, in your imagination, nearly 1400 years.
See a boat leave the island of Mull, off the west coast of Scotland, and head across to the smaller island of Iona. Among the passengers were four children, three boys and a girl: the fatherless and exiled children of Aethelfrith, Anglo-Saxon king of Northumbria, recently killed in battle.
Why were they going to Iona?
There was an Irish monastery of Christian monks there, but these children were not Christian yet. Indeed their father, who was known as the 'Destroyer', had once massacred 1200 Welsh Christian monks who had gathered to pray against his victory, even though they were unarmed and defenceless. But the monks of Iona received the exiles kindly, guarded them, taught them and eventually baptised them.
We may imagine the monks talking zealously to the most serious of the princes, Oswald, about the dark heathenism of the kingdom that had been his father's. Possibly the growing lad Oswald discussed all this earnestly with another of much the same age, a young Irishman who was going to be a monk on Iona, whose name was Aidan.
We don't know whether it really happened as we have imagined it. But we do know that, however it happened, Oswald in exile met the monks of lona, and that meeting was a moment of destiny. For through that moment came the conversion of the greater part of England to the Christian faith.
King OswaldWhen Oswald decided to fight to regain his father's kingdom the battle, at a place called Heavenfield, was fought in the shadow of a big wooden cross erected by his own hands, to show that he fought as a Christian against a non-Christian foe. When he became king he turned naturally to Iona to ask for a missionary to convert his people, and the monks of Iona sent Aidan.
When Aidan arrived Oswald gave him free choice of land on which to found his monastery and Aidan chose Lindisfarne. As this was not far from 0swald's main "palace" at Bamburgh the king and the new bishop could work together for the conversion of the people.
Like all Anglo-Saxon kings Oswald was a warrior. Like other kings he expected to die on the battlefield, and so indeed in the end he did. But unlike other kings, before he died Oswald had won for himself the reputation of being a saint, and his death in battle against Penda the heathen king of Mercia was seen as a martyr's death.
What is a Christian saint, if not one who lives a life of love, first to God and then to man?
King OswaldOswald was a man of prayer, and this must have been quite unusual among kings of his day. He used to get up very early in the morning to pray in the hour before dawn. Bede tells us he prayed so much that whenever he sat down his hands naturally rested on his knees in an upturned gesture of prayer and thanksgiving. Bede also tells us that his last conscious thought was prayer for his soldiers, for as he fell in battle he said, "God have mercy on their souls."
Oswald was a man of compassion. One of the best-known stories describes how one Easter, when he was about to dine with Bishop Aidan, a great crowd of the poor came begging alms. The king gave them not only the food but also the silver dish, to be broken up and distributed among them. Aidan was so moved by this generosity that he grasped the king's right hand and exclaimed, "May this hand never perish!" (And Bede tells us that it didn't, for in his day the king's hand, which had been severed in his last battle, was preserved in Bamburgh church!)
So great was Oswald's compassion for the sick that even the earth on which he died passed on its blessing in healing so people said; and not to human beings only. One day a horseman was riding near this place when his horse began to feel great pain: it rolled in agony on the ground, apparently dying, until it happened to roll over the spot where Oswald had died. Then it was immediately cured. lt's owner told the story at the nearest inn, and the people there decided to take a paralysed girl to the same spot. She was cured too. Then people began to take earth from this spot to put into water for the sick to drink. So much earth was removed that it left a pit large enough for a man to stand in, says Bede. Further, when Oswald's niece wished to have his body buried at Bardney Abbey in Lincolnshire, the monks there were at first reluctant to accept it, as they looked upon the Northumbrian overlords as no friends of theirs. But a light from the coffin at night persuaded them to take it in, and when they washed the bones and poured away the water they found that the ground into which it had sunk had power to heal.
King OswaldBede gives us more stories. A sick man in fear for his salvation drank water which contained a chip of the stake on which Oswald's head had been spiked; the man got better and reformed his life. A little boy at Bardney was cured of a fever by sitting by Oswald's tomb. Power to heal was claimed also for pieces of the cross which had been set up at his first victorious battle, and moss from this cross was said to have healed a broken arm. A plague in Sussex was stopped by Oswald's intercession, and even in distant Germany Archbishop Willibrord recounted to St. Wilfrid tales of miracles worked by some of Oswald's relics.
What do we make of all this?
Bede finds it not surprising, in view of the devotion and compassion shown by Oswald in his life. Ordinary people of the time found it not surprising, for they thought that a good and powerful man was the same man after death, but nearer to the source of goodness and power.
King OswaldWhy do we find it surprising?
History can tell us of King Oswald, one of the most powerful of all the northern kings skilful in both war and diplomacy. Such men do not find it simple to be Christian, beset as they are by all the difficult decisions and ambiguities that face any man who wields great earthly power. How much easier to be a Christian bishop than a Christian king! But Bede's story invites us to see in Oswald more than the king: to see the saint who gave his life to God and the martyr who gave his death, and who therefore in life or after death could be called on with confidence by those in need.
Copyright © Kate Tristram