Once I was a clever boy learning the arts of Oxford... is a quotation from the verses written by Bishop Richard Fleming (c.1385-1431) for his tomb in Lincoln Cathedral. Fleming, the founder of Lincoln College in Oxford, is the subject of my research for a D. Phil., and, like me, a son of the West Riding. I have remarked in the past that I have a deeply meaningful on-going relationship with a dead fifteenth century bishop... it was Fleming who, in effect, enabled me to come to Oxford and to learn its arts, and for that I am immensely grateful.

Friday, 5 August 2011

St Oswald

Amongst the other feasts that occur today is that of the Northumbrian Saint-King Oswald (d.641). Last August I posted something about him and in particular his holy arm which was once preserved and venerated in the abbey at Peterborough.

My home area in Yorkshire had a long-standing tradition of devotion to him, with several ancient church dedications, the early twelfth century Augustinian priory of St Oswald at Nostell near Pontefract, and, once, a cross to his honour in the centre of my home town, which served as the meeting place of the wapentake of Osgoldcross. Other centres of devotion were at Bamburgh in Northumberland, Bardney in Lincolnshire, Durham, Peterborough and St Oswald's Priory in Gloucester.

There is an online article about him and his cult here. The following paragraphs are initially based upon Dillon's Medieval Religion Saints of the day entry, with a number of my own additional comments and reflections:

Most of what we know about Oswald comes from St. Bede' s Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum. The second son of a Christian king of Northumbria who had lost his throne to pagan opponents, Oswald spent seventeen years in exile in Scotland and Ireland before returning upon the death of a brother and securing his kingdom against Welsh invaders at the battle of Heavenfield in the early 630s. Both St Adomnán in his Vita of St. Columba and Bede present Oswald. as a divinely assisted Christian victor over a pagan host (Adomnán has St. Columba appear to him in a vision and promise him victory; Bede has him erect a great wooden cross on the eve of battle).

Oswald at Heavenfield as depicted in an earlier fourteenth-century collection
of French-language saint's Lives (Paris, BnF, ms. Français 183, fol. 78v)

Memorably generous to the poor, Oswald. was instrumental in establishing Christianity in Northumbria.

Oswald was killed in battle, at what is now Oswestry in Shropshire, against an old enemy, the pagan King Penda of Mercia, although historians have suggested, quite reasonably, that, despite what Bede wrote, the conflict may have been political rather than religious. Penda had his fallen opponant's head, arms, and hands shown publicly on stakes. These relics were later recovered by Oswald's brother and successor Oswiu, who donated the head to Lindisfarne.

Miracles were attributed to Oswald, and a cult arose. One of Oswald's hands was said to be undecayed; in the late eighth century it was still displayed in a silver reliquary in the palace church at Bamburgh. This was the relic which later went to Peterborough, and Bamburgh became a cell of Nostell in the twelfth century.

Other of Oswald's relics later were dispersed still further. In the early tenth century some wound up at St Peter's Priory in Gloucester, which soon became St Oswald's Priory instead. A page on that site is here; the site lies just north-west of what is now Gloucester cathedral. There is more here on Oswald's posthumous journeys. Devotion to him was extensive, spreading to the continent, and he remained popular in England down to the reformation, and, probably thanks to the account in Bede, it has revived in the last century or so.


St Oswald.
Manuscript illumination of c.1220
New York Public Library MS Spencer 1, f.89v

Image: Wikipedia

Both Durham Cathedral and that of Hildesheim have heads said to be those of St Oswald. Polycephalous saints are not unknown - and the Clever Boy would not be too cynical about that - they may well all be parts of the same skull.

What Durham claims as his head is enclosed in the coffin of St Cuthbert, placed there by the monks when they fled from Lindisfarne in the face of Viking attacks. As a result the usual depiction of St Cuthbert has him holding a severed King's head.


St Cuthbert holding St Oswald's head as depicted in the St Cuthbert window in York Minster.
The window was the gift of Bishop Thomas Langley of Durham, d.1437.
(window sVII in the CVMA notation)

Photograph by Gordon Plumb

There is a view of his late twelfth-century head reliquary at Hildesheim, dated to 1185-89 here.
Devotion to him on the continent also resulted in St Oswald becoming the patron of the Swiss canton of Zug, and at least one church in Carinthia is dedicated to him. This is doubtless an indication of the activities of Northumbrian missionaries working within German speaking-lands in the centuries following his life and martyrdom.

The eleventh-century Fleming Drogo of Saint-Winnoc penned three sermons on Oswald. (BHL 6362-6234), treating him not only as a Christian hero but also explicitly as a martyr. As a saint of Durham, Oswald has an impressive Vita in three books by Reginald of Durham (BHL 6365). In the 1220s the poet Henry of Avranches produced a Vita of Oswald. in hexameters (BHL 6365d).

All of which points to the vitality of devotion to him and of the Northumbrian church over many centuries. May St Oswald continue to pray for all committed to his patronage and for us all.

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