Saints of Heavenfield

Heavenfield is a rural site near Hadrian’s wall, within the medieval monastic estate of the Abbey of Hexham. This rural patch of pasture is far from the traditional holy sites in Britain and yet it has a number of saints associated with it that could rival anywhere else in England. Here is a synopsis of the Heavenfield saints:

  1. Oswald, King and Martyr, who raised the cross at Heavenfield during the summer of 634 is, of course, the primary saint of this site.
  2. Columba of Iona: Columba died before Oswald was born. According to Adomnan, Oswald had a dream of St. Columba on a night before the battle of Denisesburna (ie at Heavenfield). There should be no doubt that as a convert of Iona who looked to Iona for his missionaries, Oswald would have considered St. Columba to be the primary local saint of his kingdom. Oswald’s vision is one of the (relatively) few posthumous miracles/visions in Adomnan’s Life of Columba.
  3. Audrey of Ely (Æthelthryth), Queen of Northumbria was married to Oswald’s nephew from c. 660 to 672, and queen of Northumbria only from 670-672. We know that Hexham (with Heavenfield) was given to her as a wedding gift and from Bede, that she maintained her own separate household run by staff from East Anglia. It is therefore possible that Audrey lived at Hexham for the first ten years of her marriage. Her refusal to consummate their marriage only became a problem when Ecgfrith became king and his need for a heir became dire. Audrey may have only come to live with Ecgfrith when she was required to take on the responsibility of being queen. When she was allowed to leave her marriage to enter the church, she gave the estate of Hexham (with Heavenfield) to Bishop Wilfrid to found a monastery.
  4. Wilfrid, Bishop of York: When Wilfrid won the debate at the Synod of Whitby, he ended Lindisfarne’s control of the Northumbrian church and put it and the rest of England under the authority of Rome. This officially undid the last of King Oswald’s political legacy. In 672-3 Bishop Wilfrid gave Queen Audrey the veil of a nun and took the estate of Hexham for a monastery. Wilfrid built the Church of St. Andrew at Hexham as a glory of the North. Wilfrid’s attitude to Oswald and Heavenfield probably waxed and wained based on his relationship with Oswald’s nephews Ecgfrith (r. 670-685) and Aldfrith (r. 685-705). At the very least, Wilfrid did not repress the site. Given Wilfrid’s role in ending Lindisfarne’s dominance, he may have relished controlling such an important Oswaldian site. Bede’s account of Heavenfield, relaying the official position of Hexham, is definitely more Romanized than Adomnan’s account. After his second exile from Northumbria, he returned as Bishop of Hexham from c. 705 to his death in 709.
  5. Eata of Hexham: He was probably Aidan’s oldest and most trusted English pupil, one of his original twelve English disciples. He was the first known Abbot of Melrose, seemingly while Aidan was alive. He later founded the monastery of Ripon, but was forced to hand it over to the young Romanist Wilfrid. After the Synod of Whitby, Eata became the first English Abbot of Lindisfarne. He was the first bishop of the diocese of Lindisfane and Hexham combined (c. 679-685) and then Hexham alone (685-c.687). As Eata seized the monastery of Hexham when Wilfrid was (first) exiled, his reception at Hexham may have been chilly.
  6. Acca of Hexham: Bishop of Hexham after Bishop Wilfrid’s death from about 710-731. The pilgrimages to Heavenfield that Bede describes in his History clearly occurred during Acca’s tenure and the chapel recently built there must have been built by Acca. He was also a major informant of Bede’s on other miracles credited to Oswald. Acca’s material had a clear role in making Oswald acceptable to Romanists and reporting early international veneration in Ireland and Frisia.
  7. Adomnan, Abbot of Iona: First person to write about the events of Heavenfield and therefore the first to give the site textual importance. His representation of Oswald as a New Joshua is major step in influencing Oswald’s memory. Adomnan was also the author of the Law of the Innocents enacted at the Synod of Birr in 695 that protected women, children and clerics from the violence of war and women from domestic abuse. Thus, Adomnan’s law was one of the most important ecclesiastical contribution to civilizing early medieval Britain and Ireland, even if the laws enforcement was lackluster.
  8. Bede of Jarrow: primary author of all we know on King Oswald and the second account of Heavenfield with the raising of the miracle working cross that he claimed still stood in his day a hundred years later. Bede’s portrayal of King Oswald has had the greatest influence on the development of Oswald’s veneration (as Bede intended).

Honorary saints of Heavenfield:

  1. Aidan Bishop of Lindisfarne: Leader of King Oswald’s evangelistic efforts. Although Bede does not credit him with a single convert, Aidan’s mission can be credited with converting over half of England. He is an honorary saint of Heavenfield because he does not have direct association with the site. Of his students, only Eata was stationed at Hexham.
  2. Willibrord, Archbishop of Frisia: He was a child of Deira (Yorkshire) and raised at Bishop Wilfrid’s monastery of Ripon. When he left to study in Ireland he took with him a fragment of the stake that held Oswald’s head at Maeserfelth (as Bede reported). He carried the relic to his pagan missionary field in Frisia (Netherlands) and started interest in St. Oswald in Frisia/Flanders and Germany.

Its quite a collection here. Leaving aside the honorary Heavenfield saints, we are still left with shall we say three international saints: Oswald, Columba and Bede. Bede only really making international status in the last century or two, just as Oswald seems to be fading internationally. Pan-English saints Audrey of Ely and Wilfrid of York are remembered in much of the Anglican Communion, if not in the United States. Others are more local Hexham saints: Eata and Acca; while Adomnan is remembered primarily as a scholar with limited local remembrance in Ireland and Scotland. Both honorary saints are recognized internationally by Anglicans and Catholics. Willibrord is the patron saint of ecumenical relationships between Anglican and Old Catholics in Europe.


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