August 3rd is the feast of St Oswald, King of Northumbria. Oswald was born around 604, and was King of Northumbria from 634 until his death. Oswald’s father Æthelfrith ruled over Bernicia, and later over Deira, thus becoming the first to rule the two constituent kingdoms of Northumbria (Bernicia in the north, Deira to the south).
Æthelfrith was killed in battle around 616 by Raedwald, King of East Anglia, with the result that Oswald and his brothers were forced to flee to the north. Oswald himself grew up in the Irish kingdom of Dál Riata in northern Britain, where he was converted to Christianity.
Æthelfrith had been succeeded as King of Northumbria by St Edwin, but, after Edwin had been defeated and killed by Cadwallon ap Cadfan (King of Gwynedd) and the pagan Penda (King of Mercia) in the Battle of Hatfield Chase in 632/633, Northumbria was once again divided between its constituent kingdoms of Bernicia and Deira.
Oswald’s brother Eanfrith became king of Bernicia, but he too was slain by Cadwallon, whom Oswald confronted in 634 at Heavenfield near Hexham. Before the commencement of battle, inspired by a vision of St Columba the previous night (as recounted by Adomnán in his Life of St Columba), Oswald knelt before a large wooden Cross, commanding his army to join him in earnest prayer.
His council agreed that they would be baptised and accept Christianity after the battle, and, in spite of their greater numbers, the pagan British were heavily defeated by the soon-to-be-baptised Northumbrian.
As a result of his victory at Heavenfield, Oswald reigned over a united Northumbria, and was established as the most powerful king in the British Isles – Adomnán describes him as “ordained by God as Emperor of all Britain”), while Bede states that he “brought under his dominion all the nations and provinces of Britain”.
Edwin had converted to Christianity in 627, but Christianity had never really taken hold in the region. Oswald invited the Irish of Dál Riata to send a bishop – St Aidan – to help convert his subjects, and Oswald furnished Aidan with the island of Lindisfarne to Aidan as his center of operations and episcopal see, often acting as his interpreter when he was preaching, as Aidan’s grasp of Anglo-Saxon was initially poor, whereas Oswald was a good Irish-speaker.
In 642 Oswald was killed in battle (probably at Oswestry) and dismembered at the hands of the pagan King Penda of Mercia. According to Bede he final act in the face of imminent death was to pray for the souls of his own soldiers.
The site of Oswald’s death soon came to be associated with miracles. Many regarded his death as a martyrdom, though Bede sees his sanctity as consisting more in his great personal holiness, and, in particular, in his love and compassion towards the poor.