King Oswald of Northumbria (c 603-642) is one of the heroes of the Venerable Bede’s Ecclesiastical History, in which he is described as “a man beloved of God”.
“Under his rule the English people not only learned to hope for the kingdom of heaven, which had been unknown to his ancestors. He was also granted by Almighty God, Creator of heaven and earth, a greater earthly kingdom than his ancestors enjoyed.
“For at length Oswald brought under his sceptre all the kingdoms and provinces of Britain, comprising the four languages of British, Pictish, Scottish and English.”
At his birth even Northumbria had been divided into two parts, though the marriage of his parents had brought them closer. He was the second son of Aethelfrith, king of Bernicia, and Acha, daughter of the king of Deira.
In 616, however, Aethelfrith was killed in battle at the hands of Acha’s brother Eadwine. Oswald and his six brothers fled, thus beginning 17 years of exile in Ireland and Scotland.
Oswald learned to speak Irish fluently, and at some point was converted to Christianity, very likely being baptised at the Columban monastery of Iona.
In 633 Eadwine, who had united Northumbria, was overthrown by an alliance between the British king Cadwallon of Gwynedd and the ferocious Penda of Mercia.
After a year of chaos in Northumbria, Oswald returned from exile and trounced Cadwallon at the battle of Heavenfield, probably near Hexham. This victory he attributed to the help of St Columba, even though there were only 12 Christians in his army.
King Oswald lost no time in asking the Scottish elders to send him a bishop to help him establish Christianity in Northumbria. When, eventually, they sent him Aidan, Oswald appointed the island of Lindisfarne as his see.
At first Aidan could not speak Anglo-Saxon, so the king translated for him, which must have encouraged conversion. Oswald often prayed all night, sitting with his hands turned upwards on his knees.
Once, at Easter, when some paupers arrived begging for alms, the king ordered his own food to be distributed, and the silver dish to be broken in pieces and divided between them.
Bishop Aidan then exclaimed that Oswald’s charitable right hand would never decay. Nor did it, apparently, at least for five centuries.
After nine years as king, Oswald, like so many Christians, fell in battle against pagan Penda of Mercia, who ordered his body to be dismembered and his head and limbs nailed to a tree. The place name Oswestry – Oswald’s tree – may be derived from this barbarity.
“At the place where he was killed,” Bede reported, “sick men and beasts are healed to this day… for during his lifetime Oswald never failed to provide for the sick and needy, and to give them alms and aid.”