St. Oswald, Martyr

(604-642)

When the pagan Angles and Saxons invaded Britain, the British Christians resented the invasion. Actually, the invaders were to profit spiritually, for in Britain they gradually became acquainted with Christianity and accepted it.

It was a slow process, however. Penda, king of Mercia, was opposed to Christianity. When he slew King St. Edwin and conquered his kingdom, Northumbria (in northern England above the Humber River), there was a danger that the Northumbrians would never get to hear the Gospel.

Fortunately, Oswald, the proper heir to the Northumbrian throne as nephew of St. Edwin, was an earnest Christian. When he gathered his troops to drive Penda out of the kingdom, it was his intention, on winning, to consolidate the Christian faith among his countrymen.

The battle with King Penda was joined in 634. On the night before the engagement, Oswald had a huge wooden cross made and planted in the battlefield. Then he asked all his soldiers (although only a few of them were Christian) to pray for heavenly help: “Let us all kneel and jointly beseech the true and living God almighty, in his mercy, to defend us from the haughty and fierce enemy, for he knows that we have undertaken a just war for the safety of our nation.” The soldiers all complied. That night Oswald had a dream in which St. Columba of Iona assured him of victory. They did indeed triumph, and Northumbria was recovered. Oswald’s great cross was highly venerated thereafter for miracles, and a church was built on the spot.

Young King Oswald did not delay to express his gratitude to God. He invited monks to come down from Scotland (where he himself had been baptized) to preach the faith to the Northumbrians. He also asked that one monk be sent to become a bishop. The monastery of Iona chose the Irish-born St. Aidan, and Oswald established his see on the island of Lindisfarne. Soon the region north of the Humber had its Christians and its churches and monasteries, thanks to the zeal and generosity of the devout king.

Oswald’s piety was obvious. In his spare moments he prayed much and gave thanks to God, resting his hands on his knees, the palms facing heaven. He was most considerate of the poor, and one Easter day when a crowd appeared at the castle gate asking for alms, he sent out a large silver dish of meat, and ordered that after the meat had been taken, the dish be broken up and its silver fragments distributed among the poor. St. Aidan, then at the king’s table, seized Oswald’s right hand and prayed, “May this hand never perish.”

However, after King Oswald had reigned in peace for several years, Penda, whom he had defeated, returned with an army bent on recovering control of Northumbria. The two royal armies met on a battlefield in Shropshire, Oswald with a smaller force than the invaders. King Oswald, seeing his soldiers doomed to defeat, prayed for the souls of those who would die. It became a local proverb ever after: “O God, be merciful to their souls, as said Oswald when he fell.” He died on the field of battle on August 5, 642, aged only 38. It was a political death, but it was also a martyrdom, for Penda had remained a bitter enemy to the Christian faith.

St. Bede the Venerable, who lived just a century later, collected most of the information we have about this holy English ruler. He relates some of the miracles that happened afterwards, especially on the site of this death, and were still happening from time to time, to man and beast alike. St. Bede also recounts the sequel to St. Aidan’s prayer over Oswald’s generous right hand, “May this hand never perish.” When the king died, his arm was cut off as a relic. It remained incorrupt for almost five centuries.

St. Oswald was for years considered one of the great national heroes of England, and devotion to him also spread to the Continent. Although his cult has since become dimmer, his feast is still observed in several dioceses in England and Scotland, and even in Germany, at Meissen and Trier.

–Father Robert F. McNamara

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