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.

The Bone Thief: Stealing St Oswald


[I didn’t intend to be gone this long. I hope someone is still out there!]

Its been years since I’ve taken much time to read novels. I’m embarrassed to say how few I’ve read in the last couple years, but the Bone Thief finally was a temptation too great. How could I resist a novel about the theft/transfer of St Oswald’s bones from Bardney to Gloucester?

VM Whitworth‘s The Bone Thief did not disappoint. Readers of this blog will know that Oswald’s relics were enshrined at St Oswald’s Minster in Gloucester, so I don’t want to give away anything else. Not surprisingly it follows a quest tale type but it’s not a very typical quest. He doesn’t have to go  very far, but Whitworth finds plenty of obstacles and surprises to keep the tension. She nails the shifting loyalties and tensions of the time perfectly and managed to place Oswald’s relics centrally in West Saxon – Mercian politics  without cheapening their spiritual importance. I loved the way she treated St Oswald throughout the book (and what a nice little surprise at the end!).  I highly recommend the Bone Thief.

For a glimpse into Lady Ætehlfled’s Mercia, here is a previous post on their defense of Chester.

Heavenfield, Hefenfeld, and Caelestis Campus

Not the cross at Heavenfield!

A little while ago Tim Clarkson of Senchus brought an Andrew Breeze paper  about the history and derivation of the name Hefenfeld*, the Old English version of Heavenfield, to my attention. Its taken me a while to get to it but here is what I think.

It is clear to anyone who has looked at the history of this place-name or even just the place-names that surround it, that versions of hefenfeld have spread over a wide landscape.  S Oswaldes Asche is mentioned in several late medieval accounts presumably referring to the cross or a version of it. The entire valley was called halydene (holy valley) by Leland. I know I’ve read of more heavenfield related place-names than Breeze lists; suffice it to say that the holy site left a big footprint in local place-names and lore.

There is also nothing new about the annoying tendency of  historians and antiquarians to confuse the camp site of Hefenfeld (modern Heavenfield) with the nearby battlefield site of Denisesburna.  (Many otherwise good historians have made real hash out of the places and dates for Oswald’s camp site and battlefield!) This confusion reaches well back into the Middle Ages and may be a reflection of the vague notion about where both were located from the very beginning (though most modern mistakes are just careless reading of Bede).  Breeze reviews all of this in considerable detail, although it is only important to his argument to show that the name for the site was never very fixed. [He says that he has shown the date to be 633 but I don’t think he has shown that at all.]

Breeze then gets down to his main argument on the relationship and derivation of the names hefenfeld and caelestis campus. First he rules out the Old English name Hefa as a source for hefenfeld, though his reasons don’t seem very sound. Hefa’s becoming ‘hefan’ as in modern Hevingham  in Norfolk doesn’t seem that far from Hefenfeld to me. Breeze opts to take Bede at his word, that Hefenfeld is derived from caelestis campus. Fair enough. The English would have been new enough settlers in that area that English place names like X’s field are unlikely to be completely supplanted by alternative place name lore by Bede’s time (though there may have been some intentional renaming of landmarks in English from their British names).

Breeze then turns to the “curious expression” of Caelestis campus. He points to two parallel constructions elsewhere in Bede’s History: campus roborum (‘plain of oaks’, Durrow) and in the Moore Bede campus Cyil, the plain of Kyle in Galloway. Equally he finds more similar constructions in Welsh-Latin texts including Campus Gaii, the plain of Gaius, the name for Bede’s Winwead in the Angles Cambriae and the Historia Brittonum (HB). The HB also includes campus Elleti, where the boy Ambrosius Aurelianus is found my Vortigern’s men. Looking to hagiography Breeze finds campus Heli in the Life of Padarn and Campus Malochu in a charter linked with St Dyfrig. Ok, so we have campus being a common Latin word for plain in Welsh-Latin and apparently taken up for at least place names in early English Latin. This wasn’t really in doubt but its good to see them all collected together. At this point I would like to point out that three of these plains are named for people (Gaius, Elleti, and Malochu) and two are descriptive, plain of oaks in Ireland and plain of brine/salt water (heli) in Brittany. Not surprising for its date and topic, Breeze zeroes in on campus Gaii for comparison.

Since Welsh-Latin used campus Gaii ‘plain of Gaius’ for the battlefield of Uinued, where the Roman road from York to Donchester crosses the river Gwent, Caelestis campus may be explained not as ‘heavenly plain’ but as ‘plain of Caelestis’. It would be a similar place-name survival from Roman times. There is no difficulty about Caelestis as a personal name in Celtic Britain. An inscription of about the year 500 at Barmouth in Gwynedd reads CAELEXTI MONEDORIGI ‘(monument of) Caelestis Mondorix (‘mountain king”). So the evidence suggests that, just as the flood-plain of  Gwent was known in British-Latin tradition as campus Gaii, so also the defensive site used by Oswald was known as Caelestis campus, presumably after a local British chieftain or lord, a namesake** of the fifth-century Caelestis of North Wales. (Breeze, p. 196)

First, Caelestis is a late Roman name rendered in modern English as Celestine. It was not uncommon in late antiquity. Pope Celestine I had a tenure from 422 to 432. There is no problem with it being a name in Roman Britain or post-Roman Britain. I don’t think its helpful to think of 7th century Britain as Celtic Britain. To me, Celtic Britain was pre-Roman or areas never under Roman control. I don’t have a problem with caelestis campus referring to a Roman or Romano-British person. It makes more sense than there being a pagan shrine or sacred tree at the site.

St Oswald in Lee, Heavenfield via Google Earth February 2009

Second, Breeze stresses that it was a plain not a field, a plain being much larger. I just want to say that there is another language issue here between US English and UK English. In US English a plain is a very large, flat stretch of land. When a friend and I visited England several years ago we went to Stonehenge. Apart from our impression that it is much smaller than all of the pictures make it out to be, we both agreed that we would never consider it to be sitting on a plain. We also visited Vindolanda on Hadrian’s Wall and Hexham; believe me, I didn’t see any plains. There were some large open fields of rolling but very large hills with lots of valleys. Most of what I saw I would consider hillsides.  If you all want to see some plains come the US Midwest.  I don’t have a problem with the translation of campus to field. Besides just because the name wasn’t fixed to a specific spot in the later medieval period doesn’t mean that it wasn’t originally more localized.  When looking at this picture of Heavenfield to the right keep in mind that we don’t know how wooded the area was in the seventh century.  Even so the slope in the land is visible even in this open field picture.

Northumbrian settlers, failing to recognize the personal name in the genitive case here, and taking caelestis as a masculine adjective, seemingly mistranslated the toponym as Hefenfeld. Thereafter Bede could exercise sacred wit on the form, even though in origin it had not more to do with Christian heaven than, say, Anguli in the anonymous Whitby life of Gregory had to do with angeli, Æelli with Alleluia, or Deire with de ira Dei. (Breeze, p. 197)

I’ve never really bought mistranslation explanations. It takes some knowledge of Latin to make this conversion. The average Northumbrian settler would not know that caelestis meant heavenly (as in the heavens, the sky). Knowledge of Latin means churchmen, and churchmen of presumably Hexham would have a motive to use word play to rename the site a fitting name for their shrine. Remember that Bede gives his explanation of the name in an episode that he credits directly to a source at Hexham. It is possible that visiting churchmen or churchmen stationed at the royal estate of Hexham (before it was given for a monastery) renamed the site using word play. It seems to me that the word play translation makes sense and may have been close enough to a translation of the original name (whose namesake would probably have been long dead) to be acceptable to local Britons.


Andrew Breeze. (2007). Bede’s Hefenfeld and the Campaign of 633. Northern History, XLIV: 2, p. 193-197.

*Hefenfeld is also sometimes written as hefenfelth.

**Namesake means different things in US English and UK English. In UK English namesake just means sharing the same name.  In US English namesake usually means that one is named directly after the other, ie. John Jr is the namesake of John Sr but not of unrelated Johns.

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.

Benedict Biscop

I’ve gained a new appreciation for Benedict Biscop this week after rereading the History of the Abbots and the Life of Ceolfrith, along with Ian Woods’ contribution to the new Cambridge Companion to Bede. What follows is a little musing on Biscop and questions his life open up.

I used to think of Biscop as a restless retired warrior who spent his time seeking ecclesiastical treasures. The History of the Abbots reminded me first that Biscop was not an old or retired warrior but in his mid-twenties when he left the king’s service to explore the church. When King Oswiu made him a thane and gave him land it was recognition that it was time for him to begin the life of an active adult male. His warrior days were not expected to be over. In any major campaign the thegns would be expected to participate along with what ever men they could bring. The kings retinue that Biscop would have left were mostly teenagers in various levels of training and responsibility. Biscop was a young man in his prime when he began his first trip to Rome.

Biscop’s contacts

He must have been a very charismatic person. Just think about all the contacts he made across England and the continent. Setting out on his first trip with young Wilfrid (future bishop of York) he knew well enough not to get bogged down in Lyon with Wilfrid. After his visit to Rome he made his way to Lérins, one of the most influential monasteries of the late antique world, where he stayed for two years, learned their rule and was tonsured. We all probably way underestimate the influence of Lérins on Biscop and ultimately Bede. It was probably at Lérins that he took the name Benedict. He must have been good with languages, speaking at least fluent Latin and probably learned Frankish. He must have known Latin before he left Britain, or he couldn’t have been Theodore of Tarsus’ translator, much less navigated his way to Rome or had a meaningful stay at Lérins.

Thinking of Theodore, Biscop just happened to be handy to the Pope in Rome for an assignment to escort Theodore to Britain. While Biscop may have sought out the English group in Rome when the grapevine brought him news of their arrival, it is still significant that he was chosen to be Theodore’s escort rather than a survivor of Wighard’s party. Theodore liked and trusted Biscop enough to make him Abbot of St Peter’s monastery in Canterbury for his first two years, until Hadrian arrived from Gaul. When Biscop then returned to Northumbria (after a detour to Wessex), he told King Ecgfrith of his travels and his close relationship with the new Archbishop of Canterbury. Ecgfrith then gave him 70 hides of land, a large grant, at Wearmouth. We shouldn’t underestimate Biscop’s connections with Canterbury through Archbishop Theodore and the monks at St Peter’s whom Biscop worked with for two years. Biscop’s dedication of his new monastery to St Peter may not only be due to his dedication to Rome, but also because he had just ended his tenure as abbot of St Peter’s monastery in Canterbury. We need to see Bede’s connections to Canturbury and admiration for Theodore through the lens of Biscop and his personal connections.

Biscop’s secular contacts were impressive too. It is well-known that Biscop received land from two Bernician kings, more on that below. He  had a close relationship with King Alchfrid of Deira who wanted to accompany Biscop to Rome but was stopped by his father. (This is the same trip that Wilfrid did accompany Biscop on.) Like Wilfrid, he also had a close relationship with King Cenwealh of Wessex, but apparently not with his successor. He only goes home to Bernicia/Northumbria because King Cenwealh has died.

What are the underlying connections? An obvious connection between Northumbria/Deira and Wessex is King Oswald’s widow, who was the sister of Cenwealh. Both Biscop and Wilfrid were too young to be associated with King Oswald, but his widow and children may have continued on in Northumbria, possibly Deira specifically, even under Oswald’s cousin King Oswine.  (I remember reading somewhere that Oswine may have been sheltered in Wessex during Oswald’s reign.) If Oswald had his main seat at York, where he completed the cathedral, then his widow and sons may have continued to live in York. Given that Oswald himself was the son of Acha of Deira, sister of Edwin, he may have spent his childhood more in York than Bamburgh. The continued presence of Oswald’s widow and children in Deira could explain how Bishop Aidan was welcomed so warmly by Oswine (but that is another topic). If Oswine was given refuge from Oswald in Wessex, then he could hardly have retaliated against Oswald’s sons because they were also the grandsons of King Cynegisl and nephews of King Cenwealh of Wessex. This could explain how Oswald’s son Oethelwald, nephew to both King Oswiu of Bernicia and possibly king Cenwealh of Wessex, became king of Deira. If he did not have an adult heir, King Oswine could have made King Cenwealh of Wessex’s sister’s son  Oethelwald son of Oswald his heir in Deira. After Oethelwald’s death/disappearance, his successor Oswiu’s son Alchfrith also had a close relationship with King Cenwealh of Wessex specifically on ecclesiastical issues.

The relationship between Deira and Wessex was longstanding. It seems likely that King Edwin of Deira, Oswald’s maternal uncle, was instrumental in Cynegisl becoming the sole (or primary) king of Wessex after Edwin drove out previous kings in c. 625. King Oswald’s role in standing as godfather to Cenwealh’s father Cynegisl and confirming the land grant to Bishop Birinus, Apostle to Wessex, could have provided a way in for Wessex to play a role in bringing first Deira and then all of Northumbria into the sphere of Rome. Recall that Birinus’ mission was part of the Roman church but sponsored from Gaul, initially independent from Canterbury. As part of the Roman church, Bishop Birinus accepted the authority of Canterbury, although Gaulish influence is strongly felt for another two generations. Birinus’ successor, the Frankish bishop Agilbert was very influential on Wilfrid.

Biscop was part of the relationship between Deira/Northumbria and Wessex not only in his early travels. As the familial relationship between the house of Cyngisl and Edwin eventually faded they were renewed by another royal marriage, between King Aldfrith and the sister of King Ine of Wessex, a probable cousin of Aldhelm of Malmesbury. Significantly, not only were Aldfrith and Aldhelm friends, but this marriage likely occurred during a time when Biscop was an adviser to King Aldfrith.

Biscop’s land

Benedict Biscop (Source: Wikipedia commons)

In his contribution to the Cambridge Companion to Bede, Ian Wood demonstrates that the land ownership for Wearmouth and Jarrow are not as simple as Bede or the Anon. Life of Ceolfrith claim. Like much hagiography on founders, there is reason to believe that Bede wrote the History of the Abbots to establish land claims, even though he didn’t list specific pieces of property. I want to come back to this in another post someday but just to point out one of the discrepancies:  in the History of the Abbots, Bede writes that King Oswiu gives Biscop land due a thane, but he never says that land is at Wearmouth or part of the monastery’s holdings. Bede writes in the introduction and later in the work that Wearmouth was given to Biscop from his own (Ecgfrith’s) royal land. So we have to consider the claims of Biscop’s blood family to his lands and the monastery’s desires to keep as much land as possible. Did Biscop’s brother have a claim to his thane land, or did that thane land intended to be familial land give him a claim to more of Biscop’s property? The land ownership discrepancies are food for further thought.

Biscop as founder

I suppose I also have a renewed appreciation for Biscop as an ideal monastic founder, perhaps in no small part to Bede’s skills. Biscop did the two things that a founder must do: provided their rule with careful consideration from the best of what he learned in his many travels, and provided a physical space with all the supplies in enviable quantities. His many connections outside of Northumbria also established ecclesiastical ties that the monastery could build upon over the next two generations. Without Biscop there would not have been a scholar of Bede’s quality in Britain because Bede’s skills were only honed with the library Biscop built.

So this is what I have been pondering this week. I hope to be able to blog on a more regular basis this fall on a variety of topics.


The History of the Abbots of Wearmouth and Jarrow and the Anonymous History of Ceolfrith. in  The Age of Bede, trans. DH Farmer. Penguin Classics, 1998.

Ian Wood. “The foundation of Bede’s Wearmouth-Jarrow” in Cambridge Companion to Bede, Cambridge University Press, 2010.

St Oswald’s English Raven

I mentioned in a recent post that the diffusion of St Oswald’s legend on the continent owed something to the development of an Oswaldian bridal quest that featured a raven. When you look at late medieval and renaissance artwork, church murals, and some stained glass windows featuring Oswald, you often see a raven (sometimes holding a ring in its beak) somewhere around him. The ultimate origins of the raven are not hard to fathom but how the two distinct branches of  raven/bird stories developed are a bit of a mystery.

Oswald was born to a pagan king named Æthelfrith and his wife Acca just as the first Roman missionaries were landing in Kent. Perhaps as a pagan reaction to the new threat of Christianity coming from within Anglo-Saxon society (it had always been there from British society), there was a revival of pagan inspired names containing the Os- prefix, meaning God. The name Oswald means “ruler of the gods” (Os = god, wald= ruler). It was a reference to the Germanic god Woden/Odin. Five of Æthelfrith’s seven sons were given names containing the Os- element, even though there is little precedent in either family for Os- related names. To people of Oswald’s era, the allusion to Woden in his name would have been obvious. I should point out there that Oswald’s sainthood may have something to do with his name surviving among Christians to this day, as few of the other Os- related names have survived (Oswood/Oswudu, Oswiu, Oswine/Oswin, Oslac, Oslaf, Osred, Osric were all once popular Anglo-Saxon names).

Ravens in English Paganism

18th century Icelandic illustration of Odin and his ravens

Part of Woden/Odin’s iconography were two ravens named thought and memory who sat on his shoulders and acted as his spies. Other attributes of Odin are a magic spear that never misses, an 8-legged horse,  a magic ring, and a pair of wolves. Part of Odin’s story in the Prose Edda is that he sacrifices one of his eyes to drink from the spring of wisdom. According to some legends, Odin hung from the world tree Yggdrasil, an ash tree, for 9 days pierced by his own spear to gain wisdom. (Spears were also made out of ash wood.) Sacrifices to Odin were hung from trees, often after being stuck with spears (or perhaps impaled on spears?).

Ravens were considered messengers of the Gods. One raven does appear in Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English when Paulinus is trying to preach in Yorkshire. The croaking of a raven appears to be competing with Paulinus and the people think that the Gods are arguing with Paulinus.

This is all relevant for Oswald’s iconography in particular his associations with ravens and rings, and the reputed site of his death at Oswestry (Oswald’s Tree). In the only historical account of Oswald’s death in Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People, Oswald is slain in battle at a place called Maserfelth. After his death,  King Penda of Mercia had his head and arm(s) removed and impaled on a stake. The rest of his body was buried nearby. The head and arms remained on the stake until they were recovered by Oswald’s brother Oswiu the following year and his remainder of his body was recovered by his niece Mercian Queen Osthryth at least twenty years later and enshrined at Bardney. The head was buried at Lindisfarne and eventually was collected into St Cuthbert’s coffin when Lindisfarne was abandoned due to frequent Viking raids. The arm was kept in a silver shrine in the chapel in Bamburgh castle for as long as  a king ruled from Bamburgh. It was removed in twelfth century by Judith wife of Earl Tostig. This is the historical account and there are no ravens mentioned. Of course there would have been ravens around because they are attracted to battlefields and to exposed human remains. Different stories of St Oswald and the raven appear about simultaneously in England and Germany in the twelfth century.

The English Raven Legend

The English stories focus on the site of his death at Oswestry in Shropshire. The primary source is Regnald of Durham’s Life of Oswald from 1165. Unfortunately this life has never been translated because it is considered poor literature/hagiography.

“Reginald describes in some detail the location of Oswestry, which he always refers to as ‘Maserfeld’, and mentions the ‘white church’, dedicated to Oswald, which stood there. Nearby were to be  found Oswald’s well or spring and a huge ash tree, also named after the saint. There were located close to where the king’s head and arms remained fixed to stakes for a year after his death, and wood from these stakes was still preserved locally. Reginald goes on to describe the vision in which Oswald’s brother, Oswiu, was commanded to retrieve the relics. The right arm, however, had been carried off by a great bird to an ancient ash tree. The arm, which enjoyed the gift of incorruption thanks to Aidan’s prophecy, conferred on the tree a renewed freshness and vigour, which it never subsequently lost. The bird lets its booty fall, however, and where it struck the ground, the spring burst forth. Oswiu carried the relics away with him, but the tree and spring still demonstrated the saint’s miraculous powers even in Reginald’s time. No one damaged the tree with impunity, while the sick received healing from its shade or by touching or even tasting its leaves. Water from the spring similarly had healing properties, releasing the possessed from their affliction and curing all manner of ailments.” (Tudor, p. 190-1).

The similarity between this story and Odin’s story in the Prose Edda is striking. Oswald’s right arm is taken to an ash tree by a raven, Odin’s bird, who drops it and starts a holy well; Odin hung from the tree to drink from the sacred well at its base to gain wisdom. This similarity must be credited to English belief, as the Norse never controlled the area of Oswestry. While the Welsh name for the place clearly refers to a holy cross that was erected near the church that grew up there, it is still questionable if Oswestry refers to this cross, a tree, or the tree from the raven legend. It is likely that there was a holy well located there in Saxon times. We should recall that some of the earliest miracles credited to the site of Oswald’s death were by Mercians and even a passing Briton, and that the Mercians were not converted to Christianity until at least 655-6, over a dozen years after Oswald’s death. So there was probably a full generation of those who were in the area when and where Oswald died, and the early miracles occurred for whom Germanic paganism was at least an equal contender with Christianity, if not the default belief system. Its not hard to see how the legend would have blended belief systems.

Tudor mentions that 400 years after Reginald, Leland described much the same story including an ‘eagle’ that carried away the arm. Near contemporary support for Reginald’s reference to Oswald’s shrine at Oswestry comes from Gerald of Wales also refers to the church present at Oswald’s Cross (CroesOswalt) in his books on Wales in 1191-1194. How we get from Reginald to the ‘raven and the ring’ German bridal quest legends is another matter entirely and the way is obscure.


Virginia Tudor (1995) Reginald’s Life of Oswald. pp. 178-194,  Oswald: Northumbrian King to European Saint. Paul Watkins.

St Oswald Hagiography & Literature

This post is a run down of existing hagiography and literature on St Oswald. I’m really concerned here more with literature than history. The works listed on the indented bullet under each work lists the known sources or influences in that work. I may also list a few key translations or secondary works on these pieces.  If diagrams worked better in blogs I would have done one with all the lines connecting the works, but this will have to do. This list is necessarily a work in progress.

As you will see the literature really forks in four directions:

  1. Historical directly from Bede through William of Malmesbury, Simeon of Durham, and others. Only the earliest historical works are listed here.
  2. Hagiographical from Bede and Adomnan through the various hagiographical versions that often derive directly from Bede.
  3. Matter of Britain: Geoffrey of Monmouth really does some interesting things with his last chapter that are usually completely overlooked because they contradict history (as with everything else he writes) and do not include Arthur. Yet this last chapter is key to understanding Geoffrey’s overall purpose.
  4. German Literature: Mostly falls into the bridal quest category. The Munich Oswalt holds an important place in the development of German courtly literature.

Original Sources: Oswald died August 5, 642.

  1. Iona Chronicle (lost) – no longer exists but the Annals of Ulster is usually considered to be the closest. The Iona Chronicle could have been contemporary with Oswald.
  2. Adomnan of Iona, Life of St Columba, Latin, c. 700. (earliest surviving source)
    1. Sources: Adomnan heard his account from his predecessor Failbe who as a child overheard it directly from King Oswald to Abbot Segene.
  3. Willibrord of Frisia, Calendar of Willibrord, Latin,  c. 702-5.
    1. Willibrord was educated at Ripon and had connections to Lindisfarne and Ireland.
  4. Bede, Ecclesiastical History of the English People, Latin,  c. 731.
    1. Sources: Acca of Hexham collected stories, oral tradition, local calendars and regnal lists.

Hagiography and Literature

  • Old English Martyrology, Mercian, Old English, 8th century, narrative martryology
    • Bede, History
  • Historia Brittonum, Gwynedd, Latin, 825
  • Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Old English. c. 900.
    • Bede, History
    • Historia Brittonum ?
  • Ælfric of Eysham, Life of St Oswald, Latin, c. 1000.
    • Bede, History
  • Bonedd y Sant (Pedigrees of the Saints), Welsh, 12th century (a blog post)
  • Geoffrey of Monmouth, History of the Kings of Britain, historical fiction, Latin, 1130s?
    • Bede, History
  • Wace, Roman de Brut, Old French, Historical fiction
    • Geoffrey of Monmouth, History
  • Layamon, Brut , Middle English, c. 1190, historical fiction
    • Wace, Roman de Brut
    • oral history and local legend
  • Breton version of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain has a particularly touching version of Oswald’s death.
  • Reginald of Durham, Life of St. Oswald, Latin, 1165
    • Bede, History
    • Adomnan, Life of Columba
    • oral history in Northumbria and Mercia
    • perhaps Symeon of Durham

  • Anonymous, Brut y Brenhydd (History of the Kings), Middle Welsh, 13th century. Welsh translation of Geoffrey of Monmouth with modifications including of Oswald material.
  • Munich Oswalt, Old High German, Bridal Quest., 15th century

    • Reginald of Durham, Life of St Oswald
    • Bede, History
    • Translation: JW Thomas. (1989) The ‘Strassburg Alexander’ and the ‘Munich Oswald’: Pre-courtly Adventure of the German Middle Ages.

    Wiener Oswald, 15th century, Bridal Quest

  • Dat Passionael “Oswald”Van Sunte Oswaldo, Deme Konninghe (About St. Oswald, King),  Low German, 1478
    • Translation and disucssion: Marianne Kalinke, St Oswald of Northumbria: Continental Metamorphosis, Arizona Center for Medieval and Renassiance Studies, 2005.
  • Osvald’s Saga, Middle Icelandic, Bridal Quest/Conversion/Martyr legends/miracles, c 1530
    • Translation and disucssion: Marianne Kalinke, St Oswald of Northumbria: Continental Metamorphosis, Arizona Center for Medieval and Renassiance Studies, 2005.
  • John Dryden,  ‘King Arthur, or The British Worthy’, English opera, 1691. (“Oswald of Kent” is Arthur’s English opponent!)