Heavenfield and Northumbrian Ethnogenesis

Today is Holy Cross Day, a day to remember and celebrate the cross as an instrument of salvation. Holy Cross Day began as a celebration of the founding of the true cross in Jerusalem by St. Helena and later the dedication of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. So, I think this is a good day to take a look at the role of Oswald and his cross at Heavenfield had on the development of Northumbrian ethnogenesis, a process that included their becoming a Christian people.

Ethnogenesis is the process of developing a sense of ethnicity; of “us” vs. “them” and who “we” are. Ethnogenesis is one of the first steps toward national unity, nationality.

Conditions required for (medieval) ethnogensis:

  1. Common ancestral past
  2. Religious conversion
  3. Victory in battle over a traditional enemy

Common ancestral past

Oswald’s ancestry united the two kingdoms that provided Northumbrian royal dynasties and are considered the core of Northumbria. His father Æthelfrith was a heir to the kingdom of Bernicia and his mother Acha was the daughter of Ælle, King of Deira. The conditions of their marriage have been much speculated over because Ætethelfrith eventually ruled over both kingdoms, but nevertheless Oswald united both dynasties. Indeed, Bede presented Oswald as the natural successor (but not heir) of his uncle King Edwin, heir of Deira. The term ‘Northumbria’ was unknown in Oswald’s time and he would have been known as King of Bernicia and Deira, or just King of Angles.

Through Bede’s History we can see the persistence of the identity of the two “sub” kingdoms, Deira and Bernicia. Bede does claim that both kingdoms were populated by Angles and any other claim to common ancestry of the people would have been based on pre-immigration ethnic ties and mythological genealogy links. Interestingly, the oldest genealogy to list these mythical ancestors (like Woden) is believed to have been fixed during the reign of Oswald, the most Christian king of the Northumbrians.

It is true that after Oswald’s death, the united kingdom of Bernicia and Deira broke apart for about a decade. Oswald’s successor in Deira, Oswine, was succeeded by Oswald’s son Oethelwald and Oswald’s nephew Ecgfrith united the kingdoms for the final time without the pretense of a subking during his reign (r. 670-685). It was Ecgfrith’s queen who gave Hexham with Heavenfield to Bishop Wilfrid to found a monastery, and Ecgfrith’s sister Osthryth, Queen of Mercia, who founded the shrine of St. Oswald at Bardney in Lindsey.

Religious conversion

We know that Oswald was a figure of religious conversion during whose reign the conversion of Northumbria progressed at least to the point that the both Bernicia and Deira remained Christian after his death. The same could not be said for his uncle King Edwin, the previous convert Christian king of Deira and Bernicia.

Adomnan of Iona is specific in saying that the only Christians with Oswald at Heavenfield were those who had been in exile with him and the remainder promised to be baptized after the coming battle. Oswald was not a priest, nor apparently did he have one with him, so baptism was not part of the events at Heavenfield.

“Oswald, when he was about to engage in battle, set up the sign of the holy cross, and on bended knees, prayed God to send heavenly aid to His worshippers in their dire need….when a cross had been hastily made and hole dug in which it was to stand, he seized the cross himself in the ardour of his faith, placed it in the hole and held it upright with both hands until the soldiers had heaped up the earth and fixed it in position. Thereupon he raised his voice and called out to the whole army, ‘Let us all kneel together and pray the almighty, everliving, and true God to defend us in his mercy from the proud and fierce enemy; for he knows that we are fighting for a just cause for the preservation of our whole race.‘ They all did as he commanded, advancing on the enemy just as dawn was breaking, and gained the victory that their faith merited.” (Bede HE III.2, McClure and Collins, 1994:111).

I’ve always wondered if Oswald’s victory itself was considered a miracle. In the previous chapter, Bede summarizes the account

After his brother Eanfrith was killed, Oswald came with an army small in numbers but strengthened by their faith in Christ, and destroyed the abominable leader of the Britons together with an immense force which he had boasted was irresistible, at a place called in the English tongue, Denisesburn, that is the brook of the Denise. (Bede HE III.1; McClure and Collins 1994:111)

Although Bede thought he was being very specific, the placename has been lost. It is interesting that it was the cross at the battle camp that became the site of pilgrimage and not the battlefield.

In both Adomnan and Bede’s accounts there are also ties to pre-Christian royal behavior here — Oswald the king is the intermediary between God and the people, not a Christian priest or bishop. He is taking on the Old Testament role of David and Melchizedek as a king-priest. The role of a king-priest would have been comforting to his yet unconverted (or barely converted) people, who were accustomed to their kings being an intermediary with their gods. By taking this pagan role and putting it to Christian uses, Oswald was making a bold statement of Christian evangelism. We can not underestimate the importance of the king as a Christian role model.

Oswald’s cross became a tangible reminder of the divine sanction for the Northumbrian people. Bede reported that all kinds of people visited the cross and removed splinters or moss from it as relics. Oswald’s cross at Heavenfield was out in the open and freely accessible to the people, unlike the corporal remains kept in monasteries or even a royal chapel where access was strictly guarded. Bede seems to indicate that Oswald’s veneration began with relic collecting by the common people, regular wayfarers who needed a little extra help or healing in their everyday lives.

Scholars have speculated in the past that Oswald’s cross was also the role model for the proliferation of large stone crosses in Northumbria like the Ruthwell cross, a trend that seems to have predated the erection of stone crosses in the south.

Victory in battle over a traditional enemy

Oswald’s greatest victory was at the battle of Denisesburn against Caedwalla (Cadwallon) King of Britons, immediately after the events at Heavenfield. Bede did not specify which British kingdom Cadwallon ruled, and this has caused some speculation of late. Bede portrays Cadwallon as a great ethnic and political enemy, but also a religious enemy. “Cadwallon , although a Christian by name, was nevertheless a barbarian in heart and disposition and spared neither women or innocent children” (Bede HE II.20). Throughout his History, Bede portrays the Britons as false Christians who refused to cooperate with Augustine and Rome in general, refusing to evangelize the English (with or without Rome). In effect, Bede considered the British to be heretics. So while Canon Brown is correct, that Oswald did fight other Christians, heretics are not quite brothers in the church. Bede relates the story of Augustine’s Oak to legitimize war against the British.

“It is said that Augustine, the man of God, warned them with threats, if they refused to accept peace from their brethren, they would have to accept war from their enemies; and if they would not preach the way of life to the English nation, they would suffer the vengeance of death at their hands. This, through the workings of divine judgment, came to pass in every particular as he had foretold. For later on, that very powerful king of the English Æthelfrith [Oswald’s father]…collected a great army against the city of the legions [Chester]…and made great slaughter of that nation of heretics.” (Bede, HE II.2, McClure and Collins, 1994, p. 73)

It is true that in our modern terms, we believe the British were in communion with the Irish of Iona and by extension Lindisfarne but in terms of ethnogensis what is important is how the past is viewed by later generations; here, Bede’s view dominates. Given that Cadwallon was ravaging Oswald’s homeland, Cadwallon’s Christianity should not be expected to alter Oswald’s response. Besides, no where in scripture does it say do less physical violence to other Christians than to pagans!

Politically, in the year before the battle of Denisesburn, Cadwallon had slain three kings, two from Deira (Edwin and Osric) and one from Bernicia (Oswald’s elder brother Eanfrith). Cadwallon was a common enemy to both Anglo-Saxon kingdoms that formed the core of Northumbria. Therefore, he was an ethnic, political and religoius foe whose defeat could be savored by all the peoples of Bernicia and Deira, the proto-Northumbrian state.

In summary then, Oswald and the events at Heavenfield played an important role in the development of the Northumbrian state. The cross at Heavenfield became the tangible reminder and a continuing witness. Oswald became the native national saint of Northumbria, one accepted by king, commoner, and cleric alike of all factions.

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