For the feast of St. Oswald (August 5th), I’d like bring the new hill walkers trail, St. Oswald’s Way, to your attention and offer a few reflections.
First, for the hikers, St. Oswald’s Way is a 97 mile hiking trail that charts a route from Lindisfarne (Holy Isle) to Heavenfield. It is divided into six stages. The route follows the North Sea past the impressive castle at Bamburgh (where archaeologists recently found a cemetery from St. Oswald’s era) and the church of St. Aidan (where Aidan died) along the pristine white beaches of Northumbria to the River Croquet. The current castle and church of Bamburgh are built on top of Oswald’s castle and Aidan’s church. The castle of Bamburgh still preserves the outline of St. Oswald’s chapel within the grounds where his arm shrine would have been kept in the late Saxon era. The island at the mouth river Croquet is where St. Cuthbert met Abbess Ælfflaed in the Life of St. Cuthbert. The trail follows the river Croquet inland to Rothbury and then goes through the hill country to Hadrian’s Wall, and from there to Heavenfield. Heavenfield is marked today by a modern commemorative cross and a chapel from the 1700s. The nearly 1000 years between Oswald’s battle camp and the building of this chapel make the location unverifiable. We really should consider a several mile radius around the modern site to be Heavenfield. From Heavenfield it is worth your time to proceed on to the Abbey of Hexham, where you can pick of the train or pick up a car. Part of the crypt built by St. Wilfrid remains, along with the medieval Bishop’s throne and part of St. Acca’s cross. There are other Roman era sites to see in the area as well.
All along St. Oswald’s Way the trail is marked with the logo featuring Oswald’s raven.
Given that they are walking to Heavenfield, where Oswald planted the miracle-working cross, it is unfortunate that the way could not have been marked by crosses, but apparently that is the logo for St. Cuthbert’s Way (Melrose to Lindisfarne). I suppose I don’t mind the raven too much, even though there is no connection between Oswald and ravens prior at least the last Saxon period. The Woden inspired ravens do remind us of the blending of traditions that occur in any conversion period. It should be another reminder to Anglicans that the English are still not immune to this type of blended Christian and pre-Christian tradition that we see elsewhere in newer missionary fields like southern Africa and the Caribbean. Indeed, no church that calls the feast of the Resurrection Easter, after a pagan goddess, should ever forget their origins. In Oswald’s Northumbria, no doubt many of his people still worshiped the goddess Eostre. When Oswald publicly celebrated Easter with Bishop Aidan, it was an act of evangelism as well as piety.
To look at St. Oswald’s way in another sense, what made him Bede’s ideal king and the first native English saint? Oswald was first recognized as a saint by the common people who made pilgrimages to the site of his death and to Heavenfield. These sites were openly accessible to the people, unlike his relics that were sequestered in royal or monastic churches where the people had little or no access. I don’t believe this was merely because of his violent death, or ancestral king worship. Plenty of other early Christian kings met violent deaths without being considered a saint. Oswald was different — a strong king who was active and visible in his evangelism. He could lead his people in prayer before battle without the aid of a priest. Oswald could translate Bishop Aidan’s sermons before the people without looking weak. He was a respected warrior who prayed for his soldiers and perhaps his enemies. Oswald’s proverb summed up what the common people needed to know about Oswald (Bede, HE III.12):
When he was beset by the weapons of his enemies and saw that he was about to perish he prayed for the souls of his army. So the proverb runs, ‘May God have mercy on their souls, as Oswald said when he fell to the earth’.
It has been observed that this proverb falls easily into Old English verse. Bede has obviously interpreted this proverb for us to mean that Oswald prayed for his own soldiers who were falling around him. The Mercian Old English Martyrology interprets it to mean that he was praying for his enemies, like Jesus from the cross. Given that no Northumbrians should have survived near their fallen king to hear his last words, it is possible that –if the proverb is historical– it was remembered by his Mercian enemies. Prayer for his slayers would have made quite an impression on them and it was the Mercians who built his most impressive shrine at Bardney in Lindsey. Such early acceptance by his mortal enemies must surely say volumes that Oswald had that special something extra. Let us remember Oswald with one of his traditional collects:
“Lord God almighty, who so kindled the faith of King Oswald with your Spirit that he set up the sign of the cross in his kingdom and turned his people to the light of Christ: grant that we, being fired by the same Spirit, may always bear our cross before the world and be found faithful servants of the gospel; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.”