If you were to ask most people to name an Anglo-Saxon king, they might mention Alfred (he was Great, after all!), or Harold (with the infamous arrow in the eye). A few might even bring up names like Ethelred the (mistranslated) Unready, or, if they are a bit more into pre-Norman Conquest British history, they might dredge up Offa and his famous dyke.
Very few, if any, would name kings from the seventh century, from a time long before England even existed. Kings such as Edwin, Rædwald, Sigebehrt, Eadbald, Penda, or Oswald. In many ways, this is not surprising. The details of this period, in what is commonly referred to as the Dark Ages, are not taught in school (or at least not in any school I went to). In the seventh century, the island of Britain was divided into many small countries, each with its own king, who often didn’t hold on to his throne for very long. Most of these kings died bloody deaths in disputes over borders with their neighbours, frequently only managing to remain in power over their parcel of land for a handful of years, or in some cases, months.
Many of these men would have been little more than modern-day gang leaders, each claiming dominion of a turf and lording it over those who worked the land, exacting payment of tribute from them in exchange for protection from rival warbands. But some in this dark and distant past were more than that. Some had greater ambitions and dreamt of more; of a unified island under one king and worshiping a single god.
One such man was Oswald.
Oswald’s father was Æthelfrith, a great warlord who had united the two northern kingdoms of Deira and Bernicia, making him overlord of the north, from the Humber estuary to the Tweed valley. But you don’t become an overlord without making some enemies, and in 616, Edwin, Oswald’s maternal uncle, and exiled son of the previous king of Deira, faced Æthelfrith in battle and slew him, taking back the kingdom from which he had been ousted.
The return of one exiled atheling, meant the exile of others, and Oswald and his brothers fled into the east and north where they were harboured by the Irish or the Picts. Oswald, still only a boy, spent a large part of his youth with the Christian monks on the island of Iona (pictured above). These holy men would have a great influence on Oswald that would later see him bring their Irish brand of Christianity back to his homeland.
Many years passed, during which time little is known of Oswald’s deeds. However, there is evidence that points to Oswald and his brother, Oswiu, fighting alongside their Irish hosts in battles against enemy clans in Ireland, building their reputations and warbands and biding their time.
In 633 the opportunity arose for the young men to return to their homeland and claim their birth right. King Edwin was killed in a battle against an alliance of Angles and Welsh, led by Penda of Mercia and Cadwallon of Gwynedd. Into the resulting power vacuum first stepped another of Æthelfrith’s sons, Eanfrith, who quickly apostatised while Cadwallon rampaged through the land, seemingly intent on killing all of the accursed invaders from across the North Sea. Eanfrith didn’t last more than a few months before he was murdered by Cadwallon when tricked into meeting him with only twelve of his retinue. I imagine he was not the brightest of Æthelfrith’s offspring!
In his History of the English Church and People, Bede describes the year as “wretched and shameful” and passes over Eanfrith, instead attributing the year to the reign of the Christian Oswald. Seizing the opportunity to take the throne that had been his father’s, Oswald came from the North West with a warband and confronted Cadwallon near Hadrian’s Wall. Outnumbered against the proven king-killing warlord, Oswald turned to his faith. Following a dream in which Columba of Iona spoke to him, he ordered a great cross to be erected where his warhost had gathered and there, at a place called Heavenfield, near Hexham, his men knelt and prayed to God for victory.
And it seems God answered those prayers. Oswald’s host crushed the Welsh force, slaying Cadwallon and cementing Oswald as the ruler of Northumbria by divine right. Christ had granted him victory and he would bring Christ to the people.
No sooner had he established himself as king, than he sent to Iona for a bishop to lead his people from the pagan darkness into the spiritual light of Christianity. After a bit of a rough start, and a bishop who could not get on with the heathen Angles, the brethren of Iona sent Aidan. He was a gentle and patient man who believed in engaging all, kings, nobles, poor men, even slaves, in discourse about Christ and leading by example. He set up a monastery on the island of Lindisfarne, also known now as Holy Island. From that island base, which in many ways mirrored Iona in the west, Aidan set about restoring Christianity to Northumbria.
Now, like his father before him, Oswald became the overlord of the northern kingdoms. He strengthened his position with powerful alliances, such as his marriage to the daughter of Cynegils, King of Wessex. Oswald also sought to spread the word of God and was godfather to his father-in-law when the members of the Wessex court were baptised. Thus family ties and religion were used to bond kingdoms together.
For eight years Northumbria prospered under Oswald’s rule. The monastery on Lindisfarne thrived. Aidan and his followers travelled the land founding churches and converting the populace. And while the holy man from Iona spread Christ’s teachings throughout Oswald’s kingdom, the king expanded his realm by strength of arms, capturing Din Eidyn (Edinburgh) in the north. Other kingdoms paid tribute to Oswald and Bede refers to him as Bretwalda, ruler of the whole of Britain. However, such was not truly the case, and the lands were far from peaceful.
As with almost all the kings of this era, it was not Oswald’s destiny to die in his bed. In 642, his ambition saw him lead an army into Mercia, where he faced the man who proved to be a thorn in the side of so many kings: Penda. At a place called Maserfield, perhaps Oswestry in Shropshire, Oswald and Penda met in battle. The great Christian king against the last true pagan warlord of Britain.
The battle was a disaster for Northumbria. Oswald was killed, then dismembered and his body parts mounted on poles. Northumbria split once again into two kingdoms, with Oswald’s brother, Oswiu, ruling the northern kingdom of Bernicia, while Edwin’s cousin, Oswine, took the southern kingdom of Deira. Penda’s victory over Oswald led to him becoming the most formidable ruler in Britain.
Miracles and sainthood
Soon after Oswald’s death, tales of miracles began to circulate. These were related to the battlefield where he died or linked to his body’s remains. A man was cured of his illness after drinking water in wherein had soaked a shard of wood from the stake on which Oswald’s head had been skewered. Moss from the cross erected at Heavenfield was said to have cured a man’s broken arm. Even far to the south, in Sussex, it was said that Oswald had interceded and halted the advance of a plague. Already by the time of Bede less than a century later, these tales had become numerous enough for several pages of his History to be dedicated to them and for him to have become a saint in the eyes of the faithful.
Bede portrays Oswald as the ideal Christian king, saintly in deed, strong and just in warfare. Into a time of upheaval and darkness, Bede saw Oswald as the beacon of Christianity come to bring the one true faith to the heathen people of Britain. He may not have completely attained that lofty goal, but by bringing Aidan and his brethren from Iona and giving them their own island base in Lindisfarne from which they could preach and convert, it is easy to see why Bede saw this king as a cut above the rest. The miracles people attributed to him, made Oswald a saint before too long, and his cult was powerful for centuries, reaching far into continental Europe.
Whether he was as saintly as Bede makes out, we will never know, but by Oswald’s death the re-Christianisation of Britain was well underway. His brother, Oswiu, picked up where Oswald had left off and was even the host for the famous Synod of Whitby some years later, by which time, Christianity had conquered the island and it was the niceties of the religion, such as the date for Easter and how monks should cut their hair that needed to be agreed.
Great Anglo-Saxon king
Oswald reigned over a small kingdom some 1,400 years ago and it would be all too easy to dismiss him in favour of later, more famous kings when thinking of the Anglo-Saxon era. And yet, such is the power his life’s story that he continues to inspire to this day. Oswald was the inspiration for Aragorn in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings and if you would like to read more about the man and the world in which he came to prominence, albeit briefly, you could do much worse than pick up a copy of Max Adams’ The King in the North: The Life and Times of Oswald of Northumbria. For a novelization of his life, try Edoardo Albert’s Oswald: Return of the King, part two in his Northumbrian Thrones trilogy.
And, in the unlikely event you are ever asked to give the name of an Anglo-Saxon king, in some bizarre pub quiz perhaps, remember Oswald of Northumbria: exile, king, saint.
Oh, and if you’ve got this far and are still wondering what is mistranslated in ‘Ethelred the Unready’, and you haven’t yet Googled it, I will put you out of your misery. The Old English word ‘unræd’ means bad-counselled. This was a play on the king’s name ‘Æthelred’, meaning noble-counselled.
All photos licensed under Creative Commons:
- Isle of Iona by Jan Smith
- St Oswald, in Church of St Paul Mirfield, West Yorkshire by Linda Spashett
- St Oswald’s Cross, Heavenfield by Oliver Dixon
- St Aidan, Lindisfarne Priory by Mattphotos