Random thoughts on St Oswald at Prayer

From Bede’s History III.12 (McClure and Collins, p. 129)

“It is related, for example, that every often he [King Oswald] would continue in prayer from matins to daybreak; and because of his frequent habit of prayer and thanksgiving, he was always accustomed, whenever he sat, to place his hands on his knees with the palms turned upwards. It is also a tradition which has become proverbial, that he died with a prayer on his lips. 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'”

This passage has attracted the most attention for his palms up posture. I’ve read here and there some odd talk about it reflecting pre-Christain postures. Nonsense… look around your local church and then look at ancient murals and art and you will see palms up postures throughout.

What has attracted my attention is the claim that he prayed continually from matins to daybreak. This is one sleep deprived king! Did he have insomnia? Matins is supposed to be the midnight office and daybreak is lauds. Obviously, matins can’t be really midnight. In reality various monasteries and churches set matins at various times of the night. It is likely that each monastic system had a schedule set for daily prayer, and it was practiced by members of the house(s) where ever they were. It seems likely that Oswald followed the schedule from Lindisfarne, led by a personal priest. This also suggests that the hours of the office were done somewhere within Bamburgh’s enclosure so that it was easily accessible to Oswald.

It is one of the mysteries of Oswald’s reign that his personal priest is not mentioned. We know that his brother Oswiu had personal priests — Utta, later Abbot of Gateshead, and Eadhead, later Bishop of Lindsey– and his son Oethelwald had Caelin, brother of bishops Cedd and Chad, as his personal priest. All of these priests were from the Lindisfarne family, and as the founder of Lindisfarne it is almost certain that Oswald would have had an Irish priest by his side. There wouldn’t have been any English priests trained until at the very earliest late in Oswald’s reign. Given that Bede is promoting the close relationship between Oswald and Bishop Aidan I suppose its not surprising that his personal priest, who really couldn’t be Aidan, isn’t mentioned.

One of the things this calls to mind is that first of all, Oswald was surely, remarkably pious. After an evening in the hall with his court, getting up before dawn for prayer is impressive. It may also be the only time during the day when a king could quietly think. Once the rest of the court awakes, the day’s business will begin and by evening his hall will be full of his retainers. It also occurs to me that this formal position, with palms turned up, indicates that Oswald was a rather impressive, kingly figure otherwise these odd details would not have been remembered.

This also brings up Oswald’s understanding of Latin. How many kings would go daily to hear the office if they couldn’t understand it. Granted, he may have just wanted to be present when what he considered to be sacred rites were preformed and to pray silently to himself. Still it all suggests quite a lot of formation on Oswald’s behalf done by Iona before he returned and afterwards fostered by the monks of Lindisfarne.