Upon the death of King Aethelfrith of Northumbria in 616, the throne of the kingdom fell to a rival Northumbrian nobleman named Edwin. When the new king took power, the late Aethelfrith’s young sons were forced to seek asylum outside of Northumbria. One of these sons, Oswald, found shelter on the island of Iona, part of the Hebrides archipelago off the coast of Scotland. At Iona, the resident Irish monks, led by a man named Aidan, converted Oswald to the Christian religion.
Oswald ended his exile around 633, after King Edwin of Northumbria was defeated and killed in battle by a coalition army led by King Cadwallon of Gwynedd and King Penda of Mercia. After letting his homeland stew for a while in civil war, Oswald returned to Northumbria, seized the throne and immediately gained prestige by killing King Cadwallon, around 634, in a battle near modern Northumberland. At the height of his reign, King Oswald (r. 633-642) ruled a sprawling domain consisting of Northumbria, which was made up of Bernicia (approximately modern Durham, Northumberland and Firth of Forth), Deira (Yorkshire) and Lindsey (Lincolnshire)), as well as other pieces of England, Wales and Scotland.
After King Oswald took power, he invited Aiden and the Irish monks from Iona to preach in his kingdom. The king gave the priests access to Lindisfarne as their headquarters, and Aidan became the region’s first bishop. The monks were thankful of King Oswald’s kindness, and at some point Bishop Aiden allegedly grasped the king’s arm and prayed, “May this hand never wither with age” (Bede, Ecclesiastical History, Book 3, Chapter 6). This random prayer allegedly turned out to have much more power than Bishop Aidan may have guessed.
In 642, King Oswald was killed by King Penda of Mercia during a battle that occurred near modern Oswestry, in Shropshire County. After the battle, Penda had the fallen king’s body dismembered and displayed on stakes. Although Oswald was dead, his story was far from over. From this point on, the tales about the king’s mutilated corpse becomes really strange.
After the gruesome death of Oswald, the king’s brother, Oswiu (or Oswy) took the scattered pieces of his brother that he could find and sent the separate remains to be enshrined in various churches. According to Bede, Oswui’s daughter, Queen Osthryd of Mercia, found more bones of Oswald in the late 7th century and had them transported to Bardney Abbey, in Lincolnshire. As the story goes, the monks were hesitant to bring the remains into the abbey because of some old prejudice or grudge they held against the late king, so they left the cart holding the remains outside of the abbey. Yet, during the night, the bones of King Oswald were apparently lit up like a spotlight by a luminous beam that was bright enough to be seen by all in Lincolnshire. Acknowledging the blatant divine hint, the monks received the remains and washed the bones. They then dumped this used water out into their cemetery. Supposedly, any material that the water touched—be it soil, stone or dust—miraculously became imbued with the power of exorcism. Also, after Oswald’s remains were properly enshrined at the abbey, merely visiting the tomb could supposedly lead to miraculous healing.
Pieces of King Oswald’s body were spread far and wide. King Oswiu sent Oswald’s head to Lindisfarne. What was found of his body was sent to Bardney Abbey (because of the story above) and Gloucester. A piece of the king was even shipped to the region of Frisia. The veneration of Saint King Oswald spread throughout much of Europe, leaking from the British Isles into places such as France, Holland, Germany, Switzerland and parts of Italy. Oh, and if you remember the story about Bishop Aiden touching King Oswald’s hand and proclaiming that the limb would never age, Venerable Bede (673-735) attested that the impeccably preserved severed arm of Oswald could be found within a church located in modern Bamburgh, England.
Despite the bizarre dissemination of King Oswald’s dismembered remains, the bones of the king were not the main source of the miracles that his death reportedly spawned. Most of the miracles connected to King Oswald, or at least the majority of the ones that Bede collected for his History of the English People, were focused more on dirt and soil that had touched the remains or blood of Oswald.
According to Bede, the place near Owestry, where Oswald was slain by King Penda, became so imbued with holiness that the grass and plant life on the spot was visibly greener and more vibrant than the rest of the landscape surrounding it. Like the powerful dust and soil hit by the water at Bardney Abbey, the earth at the spot of Oswald’s death allegedly had potent healing abilities. As Bede told it, you needed only walk over the spot to be cured of all sorts of illnesses, from seizures to plague.
Soon, people discovered that the power of the spot could be made portable by taking the dirt elsewhere and mixing it with water as a sort of healing potion. As the trick caught on, people began to take scoops of the sacred soil home with them for later use—Bede wrote in his history that, during his lifetime, the constant excavation of soil from the holy spot had turned Oswald’s place of death into what could only be described as a pit.
Besides exorcism and healing, the dirt that came into contact with Oswald’s remains also apparently had another interesting quirk. It was fire resistant. In one of Bede’s miraculous stories, an unnamed Briton wrapped up a clump of Oswald’s soil in a linen cloth for later use. He then took this bag of dirt to a house in a nearby village, where he planned to stay for a while. Upon entering the house, our nameless pilgrim should have worried about the scene he witnessed inside the house—the other residents of the home were holding a feast indoors, centered around a large fire built in the center of a room. All of this (the partiers, feast and fire) happened sheltered by a flammable thatch roof. Nevertheless, the man simply hung his bag of dirt on a nearby beam within the house and then went to partake of the food and drink that was being served by the revelers. Yet, as was bound to happen, a rogue ember from the fire touched the thatch ceiling and engulfed the whole house in flames. The revelers managed to escape but most of the house collapsed—allegedly, the only part of the structure to survive the fire was the beam from which the bag of holy dirt had been hung.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
Top picture attribution: (Oswald, King of Northumbria, c.604-41. Stained glass window, All Souls College Chapel, Oxford. [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People (and relevant letters), translated by Leo Sherley-Pride, R. E. Latham and D. H. Farmer. New York: Penguin Classics, 2003.