Acca of Hexham: Defining St. Oswald

Today is the feast of St. Acca, Bishop of Hexham 710-731. He is best known as the person to whom Bede dedicated most of his works. He was Bede’s bishop for most of his adult life. The same year that Bede finished his History, Acca was ‘driven out’ of his see and went into exile. There are legends about where Acca went in his exile but no conclusive proof. He seems to have been buried at Hexham in c. 737 (ASC). All we know of Acca comes from Bede’s History, Stephan’s Life of Wilfrid, and Bede’s dedications to him in the preface of his works.

Bede praised Acca for building up the church and monastery of Hexham. He continues many of the building efforts of his mentor Wilfrid, but with all his efforts focused on the single small diocese of Hexham. He particularly notes that Acca builds up the library at Hexham and is a great collector of stories about the saints. Stephan reports that he wrote the Life of Wilfrid at the command of Bishop Acca and Abbot Tatberht of Ripon.

“Wilfrid’s nominee, Acca, was accepted as abbot in his place. The depth of his love he bore his father in God can be seen in the numerous practices he instituted in his honour. Acca himself celebrated a private mass daily for the repose of his soul [Wilfrid’s] and had every Thursday, the day of his death, kept as a feast just like Sunday. He decided to mark every anniversary of the death by giving a tenth part of all his herds and flocks to the poor — all this over and above the charity he distributed every day for the repose of his master’s soul and the welfare of his own, always in Wilfrid’s name.” (Stephan, Life of Wilfrid, ch. 65, Famer ed., 1988, Age of Bede, p. 178-179)

Acca diligently collected relics and builds multiple alters within the church of St. Andrew and it is to his tenure that we should date the chapel of St. Oswald at Heavenfield. In his reports on Oswald’s miracles, we see Acca gathering stories as early as 704 while he was still the confessor of exiled Bishop Wilfrid. The three chapters of material in Bede’s Ecclesiastical History that can be credited to Acca directly or to Hexham in his time really define and solidify the veneration of St. Oswald. To be sure, Acca had a vested interest in developing the veneration of this most local saint because the site of Heavenfield is within the monastic estate of Hexham.

So lets look at the three chapters of the Ecclesiastical History that come from Acca personally or Acca’s Hexham:

  • Book III Chapter 2 Heavenfield : The account of heavenfield comes entirely from this chapter which includes a miracle for Bothelm of Hexham (who was still living in c. 731) and its account of the recent church built there. This account makes no mention of St. Columba or Dalriada. It also stresses the Latin name for the place that Bede claims predated Oswald’s actions (though one wonders if it might not come from an early Latin account) and notes its location near the Roman wall, perhaps trying to link events to Rome as much as possible. The previous chapter with its tight historical narrative of events in 633-634 refers only to the battlefield of Denisesburn. It is possible that there was some competition between the two sites, and Denisesburn may have been outside of Hexham’s estate.
    • “To this place the brethren of the church at Hexham, not far away, have long made it their custom to come every year, on the day before that on which King Oswald was killed, to keep vigil there for the benefit of his soul, and to sing many psalms of praise, and, the next morning to offer up holy sacrifice and oblation on his behalf. And since that good custom has spread, a church has lately been built there so that the place has become still more sacred and worth of honour in the eyes of all. And rightly so: for, as far as we know, no symbol of the Christian faith, no church, and no altar had been erected in the whole of Bernicia before that new leader of the host, inspired by his devotion to the faith, set up the standard of the holy cross when he was about the most savage enemy.” (McClure and Collins eds, 1994, p. 112).
  • Book III Chapter 13 Willibrord in Frisia: This chapter tells us that English peregrani like Willibrord carried relics of native saints like Oswald on their journeys. Miracle are credited to Oswald in Ireland and Frisia. Thus, it shows that Hexham’s local saint had become an international saint. It is also a dig at the Irish who are very learned but lacking in faith.
  • Book IV Chapter 14 Vision of Peter and Paul in Sussex: According to the editors, this chapter is not found in the c class of the manuscript. The editors suggest that it may have been added to the manuscript late by Bede. A small boy has a vision of Peter and Paul who told him the monastery would be saved from a plague except him alone and that:
    • “This divine mercy has deigned to grant the brethren by the intercession of the saintly King Oswald, beloved of God, who once reigned gloriously over the Northumbrian people with the authority of temporal kingship and with the devotion and Christian virtue which brought him to the everlasting kingdom . It was on this very day that the king was slain in battle by the heathen and was forthwith carried to the everlasting joys of the souls in heaven, joining the ranks of the elect. Let them seek in their books in which the deposition of the dead is noted down and they will find that it was on this day that he was taken from the world. So let them celebrate masses in all the chapels of this monastery, both in thankfulness for answered prayers and in memory of King Oswald, who once ruled over this people though strangers …” (McClure and Collins ed., 1994, p. 196)

    Look at how much Acca achieve in this one vision? First of all, he has shown that Oswald is acceptable to Peter and Paul and immediately accepted into heaven. If he is acceptable to St Peter, no one can object to his relationship with Iona/Lindisfarne. This miracle shows that Oswald’s intercession is available to all the people he once ruled over, even if they don’t ask for it. Bede comments that from this time not only this monastery but many over places began to celebrate Oswald’s feast.

So what does Acca’s information or actions accomplish?

  1. Establishes Heavenfield as a pilgrimage site and its cross as a healing relic.
  2. Establishes Oswald as an international saint.
  3. Establishes that Oswald is acceptable to God (by coming to heaven immediately) and endorsed by Sts. Peter and Paul.
  4. All three accounts are tied to healing miracles, the most common type of miracle and the most immediate to the average believer.

Acca has done the necessary work to establish Oswald among the saints of the church catholic. In the process he as brought the monastery of Hexham a saint who is less divisive than Wilfrid and more likely to bring royal patronage.

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2 thoughts on “Acca of Hexham: Defining St. Oswald

  1. I would suggest http://www.rootsweb.com or http://www.ancestry.com . One of them has a function where you can see which countries people with the surname Oswald came from. As it is fairly common Germanic first name, your surname doesn’t necessarily relate to St Oswald. On the other hand, it could; some people took surnames that incorporated the name of a saint that the family was particularly devoted to. There is also at least one town in Switzerland, I believe, named St. Oswald. St Oswald of Northumbria is patron saint of one of the cantons of Switzerland.

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