Plague Tales: Willibrord’s relic

I thought I would celebrate the feast day with a plague story related to King Oswald of Northumbria who died on this day, August 5, 642. For those of you not familiar with King Oswald his reign is flanked by two remarkable events. His reign began effectively on the eve of battle in a battle camp that was later called Heavenfield (yes, for which this blog is named) where Oswald personally raised a cross and dedicated his whole kingdom, then functionally non-Christian, to Christ and went out to defeat the greatest enemy his people faced before the Vikings, Cadwallon of Gwynedd. After defeating his enemy, Oswald invited missionaries from Iona into his kingdom who evangelized over half of ‘England’ and brought Anglicanism a Celtic flavor that lasts through today. King Oswald was killed at the battle of Maserfelth somewhere in the English midlands by pagan King Penda of Mercia after a short eight year reign. To celebrate his victory Penda had Oswald dismembered and placed his head and arms on stakes. The exact location of this display is unclear but probably at the battlefield or the Northumbrian – Merican border. Within a year Oswald’s brother Oswiu led a raid to this site and recovered Oswald’s head and arm(s) taking them back to the Bernician fortress of Bamburgh. The location of the blood-soaked stake that had held Oswald’s head is unclear but was apparently available to relic collectors who considered him a martyr. King Oswald is one of the few early saints who was really chosen by the common people who began reporting miracles and relic collecting at the site of his death immediately before his family or the church embraced him as a saint.

One relic collector was a young monk from Yorkshire named Willibrord who spent most of his youth at the Deiran monastery of Ripon. In the late 670s Willibrord leaves his homeland to study in Ireland and takes a piece of Oswald’s stake with him as a relic. Willibrord became quite a famous Anglo-Saxon in his own lifetime. After spending several years studying in Ireland, he undertook a mission to Frisia (Netherlands) setting up his cathedral at Utrecht. He was made Archbishop of Frisia by the Pope and his mission became the gateway for Anglo-Saxon missionaries to the Germanic peoples east of the Rhine. With all his later success and even fame in his lifetime, Willibrord kept home near him in the form of the relic of St Oswald’s stake.

While he was Archbishop of Frisia (around 706?) he received a visit from his old abbot, now exiled Bishop Wilfrid of York and his priest Acca, on their way to Rome. During their stay Willibrord related many stories of miracles tied to his relics of Oswald there in Frisia and also during his stay as a younger man in Ireland. Later when Acca became Bishop of Hexham, he collected many miracle stories related to Oswald and relayed this one told to him by Willibrord to Bede:

‘At the time of the plague’, he said, ‘which caused widespread havoc both in Britain and Ireland one of the many victims was a certain Irish scholar, a man learned in literary studies but utterly careless and unconcerned about his everlasting salvation. When he realized that he was near death, he trembled to think that, as soon as he was dead, he would be snatched away to bondage because of his sins. As I [Willibrord] happened to be near by, he sent for me, and trembling and sighing in his weakness, tearfully told me his troubles. ‘You see’, he said, ‘that I am getting worse and how have reached the point of death; nor do I doubt that, after the death of my body, my soul will immediately be snatched to everlasting death to suffer the torments of hell; for in spite of all my study of the scriptures, it has long been my custom to entangle myself in vice rather than obey God’s commands. But I have made up my mind, if, by the grace of Heaven I am granted any further term of life, to correct my vicious ways and to devote my whole heart and life to obeying the divine will. I know indeed that it will not be through any merits of my I own that I shall receive a new lease on life, I can not hope to receive it unless perhaps God should deign to grant me forgiveness, wretched and unworthy though I am, through the intercession of those who have served him faithfully. Now we have heard a wide-spread report about an extremely holy king of your race named Oswald, and how since his death the occurrence of frequent miracles has borne witness to his outstanding faith and virtue. So I beg you, if you have any relics with you, to bring them to me, so that the Lord may perhaps have mercy on me through his merits.’ I answered, ‘I have some of the wooden stake on which his head was fixed by the heathen after he was killed. If you firmly believe with all your heart, God, in His grace, can grant you a longer term of earthly life through the merits of this man and also fit you to enter eternal life.’ He at once answered that he had complete faith in it. Then I blessed some water, put the splinter of the oak into it, and gave it to the sick man to drink. He immediately felt better, recovered from his sickness, and lived for many years. He turned to the Lord in his heart and deed and, wherever he went, he proclaimed the goodness of the merciful Creator and the glory of His faithful servant’. Bede HE III:13

There are many things to unpack in this story. Starting with the belief in intercessors, medieval people transferred their methods of dealing with secular powers to dealing with divine powers. If you need something badly from a local, secular ruler then it best to have a well placed, respected person intercede for you with the ruler. Saints are well placed, respected/glorified people who can intercede with God on your behalf based on their relationship with God. Just as you curry favor with earthly people who are close to the ruler, likewise with the saint.

Bede also made a conscious choice in including this story out of all those Willibrord told to Acca. Some people have seen it as slamming the Irish but I don’t necessarily think so. Bede generally has a good opinion of the Irish and I’m sure he of all people knew that anyone was vulnerable to the moral of the story — a good scholar who knew his material, the scriptures, but missed the point of his material, the salvation of his soul.

Last but not least, we have the use of a relic for healing. This type of relic based medicine was very common in Antiquity and medieval period. It was used in addition to the work of physicians. However, the work of physicians was not very helpful so people often felt their chances were as good or better with relics. Given the harm some practices like bleeding could do they may indeed have been better off with religious healing that at least would not harm.

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One thought on “Plague Tales: Willibrord’s relic

  1. What a beautiful testimony to the power of heaven and the path of honorable men of God. Thank you for sharing it.

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