Butler’s Lives of the Saints – Saint Oswald, King and Martyr

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The English Saxon kingdom of the Northumbers was founded by Ida in 547. After his death the northern part called Bernicia was preserved by his children; but Deira, that is, the southern part, comprising Yorkshire and Lancashire, was occupied by Ælla or Alla, and after his death was recovered by Ethelfrid, grandson of Ida, who ruled the whole kingdom of the Northumbers twenty-four years. He being slain in battle by Redwald, king of the East-Angles, in 617, his sons Eanfrid, Oswald, and Oswi took refuge among the Scots, where they were instructed in the Christian faith, and received the sacrament of regeneration. In the meantime, Edwin, the son of Alla, reigned seventeen years over both kingdoms; but in 633 was killed fighting against the united forces of Penda the Mercian, and Cadwalla, king of the Britons or Welch, a Christian by profession, but a stranger to the maxims of his religion; in his manners a barbarian, and an implacable enemy to the English Saxons. Upon this revolution the three sons of Ethelfrid returned from Scotland; and Eanfrid, the eldest, obtained the kingdom of the Deira, whilst Osric, cousin-german to Edwin, was chosen King of Bernicia. Both these princes loved the glory of men more than God, and apostatized from the faith which they had embraced; but were both slain the same year by Cadwalla; Osric in battle, and the other soon after by treachery. Hereupon Oswald was called to the crown, both of Deira and Bernicia, he being the son of Ethelfrid, and nephew of Edwin, whose sister Acca was his mother. This prince had embraced the faith with his whole heart, and far from forsaking Christ, as his unhappy brothers had done, to court the favour of his subjects, he had no other view than to bring them to the spiritual kingdom of divine grace, and to labour with them to secure a crown of eternal glory.

At that time Cadwalla ravaged all the Northumbrian provinces, not as a conqueror, but as a cruel tyrant, laying every thing waste with fire and sword, at the head of a vast army, which he boasted nothing could resist. Oswald assembled what troops he was able, and being fortified by faith in Christ, marched confidently, though with a small force, against this mighty enemy, who had by that time proceeded as far as the Picts’ wall. Oswald gave him battle at a place called by Bede Denis-burn, that is, the brook Denis, adjoining to the Picts’ wall on the north side. Being come near the enemy’s camp, the evening before the engagement, the pious king caused a great wooden cross to be made in haste, and he held it up himself with both his hands whilst the hole dug in the earth to plant it in was filled up round the foot. When it was fixed, Saint Oswald cried out to his army: “Let us now kneel down, and jointly pray to the Omnipotent, and only true God, that he would mercifully defend us from our proud enemy; for he knows that we fight in a just war in defence of our lives and country.” All the soldiers did as he commanded them. The place where this cross was set up was called in the English tongue Hevenfelth, that is, Heaven’s field, by a happy omen, says Bede, because there was to be erected the first heavenly trophy of faith; for, before that time, no church or altar was known to have been raised in the whole kingdom of the Bernisians. This cross of Saint Oswald remained afterwards very famous. Bede tells us, that to his time, many cut little chips of it, which they steeped in water, which being drank by sick persons, or sprinkled upon them, many recovered their health. He adds, that after the death of King Oswald, the monks of Hexham used to come to the place on the day before the anniversary of his death, there to watch the night in prayer, reciting the office with many psalms for his soul, and the next morning to offer the victim of the holy oblation. A church was built on the spot some time before Bede wrote, who mentions that one of the monks of Hexham, named Bothelm, then living, having broken his arm by falling on the ice as he was walking in the night, and having suffered a long time much anguish from the hurt, was perfectly cured in one night by applying a little of the moss which was taken off from this cross, and brought him. The learned Alcuin, in his poem on the bishops and saints of York, published by Mr. Thomas Gale, at Oxford, relates how the pious king, no ways daunted at the multitude and ferocity of his enemies, encouraged his soldiers to a confidence in Christ, and exhorted them to implore his protection prostrate with him on their faces before the cross which he had set up. This author likewise adds an account of several miracles wrought down to his time in 780, at the relics of Saint Oswald, and at this cross; or by chips cut from it infused in water, by drinking which, many sick were cured, even in Ireland, and other distant countries. So great was the veneration of the people for this cross, that the abbey of Durham used for its seal, during several ages, this cross on one side, and on the reverse the figure of Saint Oswald’s head, as Mr. Smith exhibits it from several ancient records. Almighty God was pleased to bless the king’s faith and devotion by granting him and his small army a complete victory over Cadwalla, who was killed in the battle, and his forces, with those of his allies, entirely routed.

Saint Oswald, after giving thanks to God, immediately set himself to restore good order throughout his dominions, and to plant in them the faith of Christ. By his ambassadors he entreated the king and bishops in Scotland to send him a bishop and assistants, by whose preaching the people whom he governed might be grounded in the Christian religion, and receive baptism. Aidan, a native of Ireland, and a monk of the celebrated monastery of Hij, was chosen for the great and arduous undertaking; and by his mildness soon repaired the mischief done by another monk sent thither before him, whose harshness had alienated many from the sweet law of the gospel. The king bestowed on Aidan the isle of Lindisfarne for his episcopal seat; and was so edified with his learning and zeal, that this great prince, before the bishop could sufficiently speak the English language, would be himself his interpreter, and explain his sermons and instructions to the people.

Oswald filled his dominions with churches and monasteries, and whilst he was governing his temporal kingdom, was intent only to labour and pray for an eternal crown. He very often continued in prayer from the time of matins (at midnight, to which he rose with the monks) till day-light; and by reason of his frequent custom of praying or giving thanks to our Lord at all times, it is said that wherever he was sitting he would have his hands on his knees turned upwards towards heaven. Bede says that he reigned over Britons, Picts, Scots, and English. The kingdom of Northumberland was then extended as far as the Frith of Edinburgh; but by this expression of Bede some other provinces of the Picts, and others in Wales must have paid homage to him. Penda, the Mercian, being one of the allies of Cadwalla, and, according to Malmesbury, present at his defeat, Mercia also paid him a kind of submission; and so great was his power, that all the other kings of the heptarchy acknowledged a certain dependence; whence Adamnan, abbot of Hij, in the life of Saint Columba, styles him emperor of Britain.

Wonderful were the humility, affability, and charity of this great king amidst his prosperity; of which Bede gives us the following instance. One Easter-day whilst he was sitting down to dinner, an officer, whose business it was to take care of the poor, came in, and told him there was a great multitude of poor people at his gate desiring alms. Whereupon the king sent them a large silver dish full of meat from his own table, and ordered the dish to be broken into small pieces and distributed among them. Upon this Saint Aidan, who happened to be at table, taking him by the right hand, said: “Let this hand never corrupt.” Bede adds, that this arm being cut off from his body after he was slain, remained incorrupt till his time, and was then kept, being honoured by all with due veneration, in the church of Saint Peter, at the royal castle of Bebbaborough, (so called from Bebba, a former queen,) now Bamborough in Northumberland. Simon of Durham, and Ingulphus testify that this arm was afterwards kept at Peterborough.

When Saint Oswald had reigned eight years in great prosperity, Penda, the barbarous Pagan king of Mercia, who nine years before had slain the pious King Edwin, uncle to Saint Oswald by his mother, but had been vanquished by our saint in the beginning of his reign, found means again to raise a great army and invade the Christian dominions of our holy king. Saint Oswald met him with an inferior force, and was killed in the battle that was fought between them. When he saw himself surrounded with the arms of his enemies, he offered his prayer for the souls of his soldiers. Whence it became a proverb: “O God be merciful to their souls, said Oswald when he fell.” He was slain in the thirty-eighth year of his age, of our Lord 642, on the 5th of August, in a place called Maserfield. This seems to have been at Winwick in Lancashire, where is a well still called Saint Oswald’s, which was formerly visited out of devotion; and that this territory was called Maserfelte, appears from an old inscription in Winwick church. Nevertheless, Oswaldtry, that is, Oswald’s cross, a market town, seven miles from Shrewsbury, is supposed by some to have also been formerly called Maserfelth; and Capgrave, Camden, and others think this the place where Saint Oswald was slain; for, he might before this, say they, when he defeated Penda, have added that part of Shropshire to his kingdom. The famous church of Saint Oswald there stands without the New gate. Leland in his Itinerary says it was once a monastery; this must have been in the Saxon times; but soon after the Norman conquest this church of Oswaldtry or Oswald’s cross, was a parish when it was given to the monastery of Shrewsbury, to which it afterwards belonged, and was impropriate. See Tanner in his Monastic history; who says the town called Album Monasterium or White-minster, was not Oswaldtry, but Whit-church, which was once a monastery. The church of Oswaldtry was probably so called from Saint Oswald’s cross, of which it was probably possessed; but Winwick in Maserfelth in Lancashire more justly claims the honour of his martyrdom. The inhuman tyrant caused the saint’s head and arms to be struck off, and fixed on poles; but Saint Oswald’s brother and successor Oswi took them away the year following, and carried the arms to his own royal palace, and sent the head to Lindisfarne. The head was afterwards put in the same shrine with the body of Saint Cuthbert, and with it translated to Durham, as Malmesbury and others assure us. The rest of Saint Oswald’s body was translated by his niece Osfrida, wife of Etheldred, king of Mercia, to the monastery of Bardney in Lincolnshire. During the Danish irruptions these relics were removed, by the care of Edilred, king of the Mercians, to Gloucester, where Elfleda, countess of Mercia, and daughter to king Alfred, built the church of Saint Peter. The monument erected to Saint Oswald there, is still to be seen in a chapel of this cathedral between two pillars; but part of the relics were translated to the abbey of Saint Winoc’s Berg in Flanders, in 1221, and deposited there with great solemnity by Adam, bishop of Terouanne. The barbarous king Penda, after he had slain five pious kings, Edwin, Oswald, Sigebert, Egric, and Annas, turned his arms against Oswi, who tried in vain to soften him by presents and the most favourable proposals. Seeing himself rejected by man, he turned his gifts into prayers, and bound himself by vow, in case he should be victorious, to consecrate to God his daughter Enfleda, then only one year old, and give with her twelve portions of land (each of which was sufficient to maintain ten families) to build and endow monasteries. God heard his vow, and Oswi, with an inferior army, defeated and slew the tyrant near Loyden, now Leeds in Yorkshire, in 655. The place of this battle was called Winwidfield or Field of Victory; situated on the river Winuaed, now Aire. With Penda, who was then eighty years old, of which he had reigned thirty, fell thirty commanders of royal blood.

MLA Citation

  • Father Alban Butler. “Saint Oswald, King and Martyr”. Lives of the Fathers, Martyrs, and Principal Saints, 1866. CatholicSaints.Info. 4 July 2014. Web. 23 August 2017. <>