Saint Oswald, King and Martyr, by Father Oswald Bennett, CP

Since it is the fashion to think in centenaries, Saint Oswald, King and Martyr, whose thirteenth centennial anniversary as ascending the throne of Northumbria occurs this year, and whose feast is celebrated in this country on August 9, should not be forgotten. He is remarkable as the first of the Anglo-Saxon kings actually to commence his reign as a Christian. He continued a valiant champion and promoter of the Faith – unlike his brother who apostatized – and died fighting gloriously in its defence.

The kingdom of Northumbria, one of the Heptarchy of that period and comprising the six northern counties, was in a sad plight when in 635 Oswald came to rule. Edwin, his predecessor, baptized by Saint Paulinus who had begun to sow the seed of Christianity there, had been slain, near Hatfield, in Yorkshire, by the pagan Penda, ruler of Mercia, in alliance with Cadwalla, the British and nominally Christian king of North Wales, and the kingdom lay devastated. Oswald had been taught the Christian Faith on the island of Iona, off the western coast of Scotland, a spot hallowed by the prayers and labours of the great Irish missionary, Saint Columba. There on that peaceful island, set as it were in a sea of strife, he had been baptized and had so grown to love the teaching and practice of the fervent monks living on it that his one ambition was to spread their Faith in his own country. When Oswald landed from Iona he found Cadwalla ravaging Northumbria with fire and sword, sparing neither age nor sex and boasting that he would exterminate the race. One cannot help wondering what a modern pacifist would have done in such circumstances – strike a blow in defence of the innocent victims, many of whom were Christians, or leave them, on principle, to perish? Happily for the Northumbrians, Oswald did not hesitate. Iona had made no dreamer of him, but had trained him to do his duty. To him that duty was plain – to drive the savage invader from the land and to restore freedom and order to the people for whom he was responsible. Hastily gathering a small band of heroes like himself, he sought out the enemy’s encampment near Hexham; then, erecting a Cross – the first to be raised in that part of the country – as the sign in which alone he trusted for victory, he exclaimed, as the Venerable Bede – who had a special love for this glorious Saint – narrates: “Soldiers, let us bend our knees and beg of the true and living God to protect us from the ferocity of our enemies; for He knows that our cause is just, and that we fight for the salvation of our country.” Victory was his. Cadwalla was slain and the invader driven out. The peace of good government settled upon the land for the seven short years of Oswald’s reign, so that it could be said, as in the days of Edwin, “a woman with a babe at her breast might have travelled over the land without suffering an insult.” His first duty – the freedom of the people – accomplished, Oswald at once set about the second, their delivery from the darkness of paganism to the glorious light of Christianity, a work only partially accomplished under Edwin. For this he naturally turned to the holy island which had been his own nursery in the Faith of Christ, and which was to him replete with hallowed memories. The story of the coming of the monk Corman, as told by Bede, is well known. Disgusted by the ignorance and barbarism of the Northumbrians, he returned to Iona, to be gently chided by Aidan for his lack of patience. Then came Aidan himself to Northumbria. He was helped and encouraged by that truly saintly King, who delighted to translate the instructions of the monk to the people. Anxious to have an Iona in his own kingdom, Oswald gave the island of Lindisfarne, off the Northumbrian coast, since called Holy Island, to Saint Aidan who built there a monastery as his episcopal seat. From there, as from Iona, he went forth to preach the Gospel with such success that Christianity soon became the predominant religion, and many churches and monasteries were built.

Oswald, depicted as a giant in stature, with the typical blue eyes and flaming yellow hair of the Anglo-Saxon, was acknowledged by the other kings of the Heptarchy as Bretwalda, or sovereign of Britain, to whom they paid some kind of homage, and his sway is said to have extended even to the Picts and Scots. But it is rather his own homage to Christ that we admire. What he was when forced to take refuge in Iona we do not know, but he was certainly a pagan, a man whose father had delighted in deeds of dark and savage cruelty. When he emerged, his Christian Faith had transformed the natural fierceness of his character into one of justice and courage, seeking before God only the good weal of his people in this world and the next. In Iona he had learned the strength that comes from prayer. He would rise to chant Matins with the monks at midnight, and continue in prayer until break of day. Bede’s story of his charity is none the less precious because it is familiar. Dining on Easter-day with Saint Aidan and hearing of the poor who waited at the gate, he ordered the royal dinner to be given, and even the silver dishes to be broken up and distributed among them. It was through the influence of Saint Oswald also that the King of Wessex and his family were baptized, together with many other leading thanes in that kingdom.

After a short but glorious reign of seven years, in which the King had the happiness of witnessing the growth of the religion so dear to his heart under the heroic labours of Saint Aidan and his missionary monks, Oswald was defeated and slain by his old enemy Penda, the pagan ruler of Mercia, in all probability near the town since called Oswestry – ” Oswald’s Tree” or Cross – on 5 August 642, when only thirtyseven years of age. He expired with the words “Lord, have mercy on the souls of my people” upon his lips. He died a glorious death, upholding to the last his love for Christ and defending the new-born Faith of the people whom he had served so well against the hordes of heathenism. He is thus honoured by the Church as one of her splendid company of martyrs, emphasized in the Gospel of his feast: “Greater love than this no man hath, that a man lay down his life for his friends.”

Does not the spirit of the North, Saint Oswald’s own country which he loved so well, owe something of its sturdy courage in defence of Christian principles to the life, death, and intercession of its glorious martyr? Do not all English Catholics especially need him as their patron and example at the present time? Whatever may be said for pacifism in the social order among the nations, we can never cry “Peace, peace” in the realm of spiritual ideals until the Faith for which Saint Oswald fought and died is loved and practised by all. That is not yet. In that very land from which Saint Oswald’s fathers came, the mummified remains of gods which he renounced as false and evil legends have been dug up from their Valhalla and pieced together as symbols of force and pride, in opposition to the love and power of the living Christ. The principles, at least, if not the gods, are always with us. In the material shock of arms Saint Oswald fell, but in the divine husbandry it was the fall of the rich grain of wheat into the soil that should bring forth much fruit, to ripen at length into the golden harvest of a nation won to God. Let us so acquit ourselves in life and death that we may have a sheaf for the Divine Sower at Harvest-home. Such is the spirit of the prayer in the Mass of Saint Oswald: Almighty and everlasting God, who, because hallowed by the martyrdom of blessed King Oswald, hast made this to be to us a day of pleasantness and of spiritual joy: so increase in our hearts our love of Thee, that we who wonderingly ponder his glorious fight for the faith may, like him, be steadfast even unto death.

– article from The Tablet, 3 August 1935