St Oswald and the Sussex Plague

Modified from the vault for St Oswald’s Day:

Happy St. Oswald’s Day!

It has been a while since I wrote but I can’t miss the feast of St. Oswald.

What little time I have had for medieval topics this summer has been focused on the plague, so this brings to mind the unique place King Oswald has in Anglo-Saxon plague history.

oswaldPlague isn’t recorded in Anglo-Saxon England during Oswald’s lifetime. Oswald’s legacy surely was in the thoughts of his countrymen in 664 when the plague is first recorded, but his role as founder of the Irish church of Lindisfarne would have made him a rather controversial topic in 664. Remembrances of St Oswald were also just beginning in 664. Although I think that his hand had probably been translated into a shrine in the church of Bamburgh by this time, other sites associated with his veneration (like Heavenfield and Bardney) still didn’t have official recognition or had not yet been established.

By the time the second major wave of plague circulated around Britain in the 680s much had changed. Although there are no plague associated miracles at Bardney, this is about the time it was established and he was credited with healing miracles there. Likewise, the site of Heavenfield was probably contained within the monastic grounds of Hexham by then under the rule of Bishop Wilfrid of York.

It was at one of Wilfrid’s monasteries in Sussex that St Oswald was said to have interceded on behalf of the monastery to stop a plague. As far as I can recall, this is the only plague intercession in Bede’s History. [As a matter of fact, I can only think of two plague intercessions in 7-8th century Britain — this one by Oswald and Adomnan’s credit of his preservation from the plague while visiting Northumbria to Columba.]  It is significant that Bede notes that it was from this point that Oswald came to be widely celebrated throughout southern England. This may indicate that he was, at least for a while, seen as an intercessor for the plague in a time of plague.  The vision of Sts. Peter and Paul telling the child that the monastery was being spared further plague by the intercession of St. Oswald for his people on the day of his own death (August 5), the day of the vision, is surely unique. It also satisfies the Wilfridian circle’s need for a Romanist vision vouched for by two primary Romanist saints.

We can be skeptical that this miracle occurred in one of Wilfrid’s monasteries, given that Wilfrid also controlled Heavenfield, but Wilfrid is unlikely to have really embraced the idea of a royal intercessor, given his own troubles with kings and that royal power was in conflict with episcopal power. I’ve discussed Acca’s role in developing Oswald’s veneration before, but it is possible that this miracle, a late insertion into Bede’s History, really was considered a major event in Anglo-Saxon England. Bede surely didn’t have to make such a late insertion. Its unlikely that this is the type of material that King Ceolwulf would have demanded.

In much later medieval times, Oswald was considered a plague intercessor in Italy. People would make long pilgrimages into the Alps to visit his shrine there seeking his intercession for their illnesses, so this was a theme of Oswald’s medieval cult.

What ever you think about such miracles, today is a day to recall St Oswald and ponder on the cultural role of Anglo-Saxon kings.


4 thoughts on “St Oswald and the Sussex Plague

  1. Counting a Saint among one’s ancestor has always been a ‘in’ thing wheter in imperial or plain royal families. If you add the weight of ‘competing with the Jones’ here the Franks, you get an interesting angle. Meroweg’s bloodline counts at the time of Bede: Chlothildis, Radegund, Gunthram, possibly already Chlodoweg and maybe already Clodoald (the famous Saint Cloud near Paris; yes the one who survived his uncles’daggers by entering religious life). So Northumbrian kings who through Eanflaed were related to the Merovingian dynasty must have felt somehow induced to transfer sainthood to the ‘martyred’ Oswald. I wonder what happened to the Gwynedd king he killed in 634???

  2. The Franks really don’t have a linkage to Oswald. They protected Eanflaed’s brothers from Oswald and her brother Eadbald. If anything that made them his enemies. Further Oswald really wasn’t a saint among the Franks. Later English brides fostered the his veneration in Germany and the Netherlands. It was through the Germanic lands that Oswald’s popularity grew in Europe.

  3. Michelle,

    Oswald had it rain all feast-day yesterday in Northumberland. But he promises fine weather for the launch of my new biography The King in the North, on Thursday. Would you review it? Can I get the publishers to send you a nice fresh copy? Just let me know. I hope you will like it. Check it out on Amazon meantime.

    Best wishes,


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