Monday, August 5, 2013

Bits and Pieces of Saint Oswald

Happy Saint Oswald's Day (5 August).

You forgot again, didn't you.

We have so few windows into the Dark Ages.  One of our better ones is a fellow called The Venerable Bede, who scribbled down maddeningly incomplete stories of the years after the Roman collapse in Britain.  Much of what we know about Saint Oswald comes from him.

Last May on a day off from digging at Vindolanda I hiked over to this spot:

This is St. Oswald's church, about ten miles north east of Hexham and near Hadrian's Wall.  And it was the scene of momentous events.

Oswald was born in 604 AD, just about the Darkest hour of the Dark Ages.  His father was one of many squabbling Post-Roman kings.  Life was continuous warfare between rival factions.  Some were Anglo-Saxon, some Welch, some barbarian Scots and Picts.  When an armed, shaggy horde appears at your frontiers it seems to modern sensibilities that their lineage and religious persuasion are matters of minor import.

Not so to The Venerable, who takes great pains to portray Oswald as being a good Christian prince, who found himself at the head of a small army facing off against a motley assortment of vile heathens under Penda of Mercia and Cadwallon of Gwynedd.

The date was probably 634 AD, and the location was certainly what we see above.

The night before battle King Oswald is said to have had a vision of Saint Columba which foretold victory.  He had a wooden cross set up, prayed for victory and commended his troops to baptism and conversion.

The next day, in the shadow of Hadrian's Wall, Oswald was victorious, Cadwallon was slain and his Welsh soldiers were scattered to the winds.

On the site where Oswald raised the Cross an early Anglo Saxon church was erected.  The Wooden Cross was still around almost a century later when Bede happened by and noted that:

"Even to this day, many cut off small chips from the wood of the Holy Cross, which being put in water, men or cattle drinking thereof, or being sprinkled with that water, are immediately restored to health."

As the cross was eventually whittled away it has always been replaced by another one, stone or wood,

Here is the current one.

Not quite historically true, this stands on the hill below St. Oswald's church by the edge of the "modern" military road and presumably overlooking the site of Hadrian's Wall, which is at this location not visible.  The current St. Oswald's church is pretty darned new, built in 1817.  It is probably the third church on the site, with various bits and bobs of earlier construction found in its walls and foundations.  Oh, and there is also this:

Inside the church is this rather substantial bit of stone supporting a vase of flowers.  It is a much weathered Roman altar, and is said to have once been the foundation stone of a stone cross on the site during Medieval times.  The symbolism of having the Cross atop a relic of former pagan times is not subtle!

The day after Oswald raised the Cross and prayed a battle was fought.  In recognition of the Divine Intervention it is recalled as the Battle of Heavenfield.  The location is not certain, although local tradition says that in the fields just south of the current Cross location a large number of skulls and bones were once unearthed.  That would make the Battle of Heavenfield fought right here:

But really, who knows.  So much blood has been shed in these hills over the millenia.  And if the battle was as tradition has it,  really fought with Hadrian's Wall as the southern boundary...well, the Wall was probably exactly where I was standing when I took this shot.  It was in modern times knocked down and reused to build the roadway.  I suppose a mass grave could have been dug anywhere, but hauling smelly pagan corpses over a wall that still probably stood 20 feet tall at that point seems quite a bother.

With the victory Oswald re-established the Northumbrian kingdom as the most powerful in Britain, and he seems to have been acknowledged as "Bretwalda" or Overlord during his eight year reign.  Bede really liked the guy, no doubt because he did much to promote Christianity in an era where pagan beliefs still appealed to many.

As to Oswald himself, well his life is not recalled in great detail, probably it was after the fashion of the day an endless succession of campaigns against assorted unhappy neighbors.  Eventually he and Penda fought a rematch that ended badly.  Oswald was slain, his body dismembered with the head and limbs mounted on pikes.

But in death Oswald became quite renowned.  All manner of miracles were associated with his relics. Dirt from the place where he died was taken for its healing properties...a hole as deep as a man's height was made.  A raven took one of his limbs to a nearby tree...the tree gained perpetual vigor and when the arm was dropped to the ground a miraculous healing spring arose.  Paralytics were cured.  Strange lights were seen in the sky.

The various sub units of Saint Oswald became very valued items among the monasteries and cathedrals of the day.  It is said that a party of monks from the Peterborough Abbey once snuck into Bamburgh Abbey and stole one of the uncorrupted limbs of Oswald.  After getting it back to their own abbey they realized the potential for another theft.  So they put the relic in a room at the top of a narrow stair and had a monk guarding it 24/7!

By the way, this worked for quite a while but the arm disappeared during some of the anti-monastic troubles in the age of Henry VIII.

Durham Cathedral ended up getting all sorts of relics from saints of this era.  Bede ended up there, I once stood in front of his tomb and scolded him for leaving out so much in his writings. Oswald's head is also there as is the tomb of St. Cuthbert a considerably  later chap who is considered the Patron Saint of northern England.  Truth and legend become is a stained glass window with Cuthbert holding the head of Oswald.

Dark Ages history is a funny business.  Oswald got sainted because he is said to have converted his army to Christianity on the eve of battle.  This is obviously an echo of Constantine and his dream of "In this Sign you will conquer".  So who did the copying, Oswald or Bede?

I have no particular reason to believe that Oswald was better or worse than any other glorified war lord of the era.  A fact that Bede seems to gloss over is that Ozzie was killed in battle at a location that suggests he had undertaken an invasion of Penda's kingdom.

In the end Oswald was effectively remembered for being dismembered.  I think we can assume that the sheer volume of miracles attributed to the man was actually multiplied by the number of places that bits and pieces of him came to rest!

I suppose I should let Bede have the final word:

"If history relates good things of good men, the attentive hearer is excited to imitate that which is good."

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