Oswald of Northumbria

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The holy, glorious, right-victorious martyr and right-believing King Oswald of Northumbria (c. 604-August 5, 641/642) was the king of Northumbria (Northern England) from 633 or 634 until his death. The son of Æthelfrith of Bernicia, King of Northumbria, he is best remembered as a Christian martyr. His feast day is August 5.


After his father was defeated and killed by Raedwald of East Anglia, Oswald fled to Dalriada, where he was converted to Christianity by the monks of Iona. He fought under Connadd Cerr in the Battle of Fid Eoin in Ireland.

After the king of Gwynedd, Cadwallon ap Cadfan (in alliance with Penda of Mercia), killed King St. Edwin of Northumbria in battle at Hatfield Chase in 632 (or 633), Northumbria was split between its sub-kingdoms of Bernicia and Deira. St. Oswald's half-brother Eanfrith became king of Bernicia, but he was killed by Cadwallon in 633 (or 634) after attempting to negotiate peace. Oswald then returned from exile with an army and marched against Cadwallon; his ranks were bolstered by Scots sent by the king of Dalriada, Domnal Brecc. The day before the two sides met in battle at Heavenfield, Oswald made his soldiers construct a wooden cross. 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. In the battle that followed, the Welsh were routed despite their superior numbers and pursued for miles by the Northumbrians; Cadwallon himself was killed.

Following this victory, Oswald reunited Northumbria. He is considered to have been Bretwalda ("Lord of Britain") for the eight years of his rule (both Bede and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle say that Oswald's reign was actually considered to be nine years, the ninth year being accounted for by assigning to Oswald the year preceding his rule, "on account of the heathenism practised by those who had ruled that one year between him and Edwin"), although his authority over the other Anglo-Saxon kingdoms seems to have been limited. He did, however, form an alliance with Wessex under Cynegils: Cynegils converted to Christianity and accepted baptism, and Oswald married Cyneburh, the daughter of Cynegils. With her he had a son, Æthelwald.

Although Edwin had previously converted to Christianity in 627, it was Oswald who did the most to spread the religion in Northumbria. It was he who gave the island of Lindisfarne to the bishop St. Aidan, who established a monastery there.

Oswald won some successes against the British to the north, but the primary concern of his reign was Northumbria's conflict with the rising power of Mercia under Penda. He was killed by the Mercians at the Battle of Maserfield in 641 or 642, and his body was dismembered by the pagan Penda. (Bede says that Oswald died in the thirty-eighth year of his age.) Oswald's head and limbs were placed on stakes, but according to legend, one of his arms was taken by his pet raven and dropped on a tree. The people quickly came to regard Oswald as a martyr and saint: a holy well of healing was said to have sprung up at the spot where the arm had landed, and the site soon became known as Oswestry, or "Oswald's Tree." His holy relics now reside with those of Ss. Aidan and Cuthbert in the cathedral at Durham, England.


  • One Easter he was about to dine with Saint Aidan. A crowd of poor came begging alms. Oswald gave them all the food and the wealth he carried on him, then had his silver table settings broken up and distributed.
  • Saint Aidan was so moved by the king's generosity that he grasped Oswald's right hand and exclaimed, "May this hand never perish!" For years after, the king was considered invincible. The hand has, indeed, survived, as it is enshrined as a relic in the Bamburgh church.
  • Oswald's body was hacked to pieces on the battle field where he fell, and his head and arms stuck on poles in triumph. One arm taken to an ash tree by Oswald's pet raven. Where the arm fell to the ground, a holy well sprang up.
  • Once a horseman was riding near Heavenfield. The horse developed a medical problem, fell to the ground, rolling around in pain. At one point it happened to roll over the spot where Oswald had died, and was immediately cured.
  • The horseman told his story at a nearby inn. The people there took a paralysed girl to the same spot, and she was cured, too.
  • People began to take earth from the 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.
  • Oswald's niece wanted to have the king buried at Bardney Abbey, Lincolnshire. The monks were reluctant as they were not on good terms with Northumbrian overlords. However, the coffin admitted a light at night. The monks considered it a sign, and allowed the burial.
  • When the monks washed the bones prior to enshrinement, they poured the water onto the ground nearby. Local people soon learned that the ground had power to heal.
  • A sick man who had led a dissolute life drank water which contained a chip of the stake on which Oswald's head had been spiked. The man was healed, reformed his life.
  • A little boy was cured of a fever by sitting by Oswald's tomb at Bardney.
  • Pieces from the Heavenfield cross were claimed to have healing powers.
  • Healing powers were claimed for moss that grew on the cross.
  • A plague in Sussex was stopped by Oswald's intercession.
  • Archbishop Willibrord recounted to Saint Wilfrid tales of miracles worked in Germany by Oswald's relics.


Represented as a king in crown, carrying sceptre and orb, ciborium, sword, palm-branch, and/or with his raven.

From Saint Oswald's Church

Lord God our King, who by the hand of your servant Oswald lifted up the standard of the cross in the land of Northumbria, that your Gospel might be preached in that land: Plant the standard of the cross in our hearts, and let your grace shine forth in our lives, so that many may be drawn to the knowledge and love of you; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and ever.

Lord God, whose servant Oswald the King sent for preachers to bring the Good News of salvation to the people of his country, and stood beside the preacher Aidan and interpreted his words into the Anglo-Saxon language: Place in our hearts a concern for those who have not heard the message of your love; and where we have not the ability to reach them ourselves, grant us the discernment and the charity to uphold those who do have it, that your way may be known upon earth, your saving health among all nations, through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Ghost, one God, now and ever.

Lord God almighty, who so kindled the faith of your servant Oswald with your Spirit that he set up the sign of the passion in his kingdom and turned his people to your light: grant that we, being fired with the same Spirit, may ever be found faithful servants of the gospel; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Collect prayer from the memorial Mass of King Saint Oswald

Lord God almighty, who so kindled the faith of King Oswald with your Spirit that he set up the sign of the cross in his kingdom and turned his people to the light of Christ: grant that we, being fired by the same Spirit, may always bear our cross before the world and be found faithful servants of the gospel; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.

Post-Communion prayer from the memorial Mass of King Saint Oswald

God, who gave us this holy meal in which we have celebrated the glory of the cross and the victory of your martyr Oswald: by our communion with Christ in his saving death and resurrection, give us with all your saints the courage to conquer evil and so to share the fruit of the tree of life; through Jesus Christ our Lord.