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.


Bishop Wilfrid and the Sussex Famine

When I was working on my Kalamazoo presentation last spring, I was looking for references to famines or malnutrition. Bede’s History is pretty pitiful in this regard. He only records two famines, one before the arrival of the English and the second when Bishop Wilfrid first came to Sussex. As we will see below, this famine is more than suspect.

“For three years before his coming to the kingdom no rain had fallen in those parts, so that a most terrible famine assailed the populace and pitilessly destroyed them. For example it was said that forty or fifty men, wasted with hunger, would go together to some precipice or to the sea shore where in their misery they would join hands and leap into the sea, perishing wretchedly either by the fall or drowning. But on the very day on which the people received the baptism of the faith, a gentle but ample rain fell; the earth revived, the fields once more became green, and happy and fruitful season followed. So, casting off their ancient superstitions and renouncing idolatry, ‘the heart and flesh of all rejoiced in the living God’; for they realized the He who was the true God had, by His heavenly grace, endowed them with both outward and inward blessings.

The hagiographical tools are hard to miss. A drought induced famine that is only relieved by a gentle ample rain that began on the day of the first baptisms. A three-year drought without a single drop of rain, in coastal Sussex? I find a three-year drought hard to believe anywhere in England. Then there are the very strange ‘suicides’. According to Bede its desperation that drove 40-50 men who hold hands and jump off a cliff into the sea. A single person might be driven to suicide but a whole group of only men? I have to wonder if these were not pagan sacrifices to the sea, perhaps of slaves or prisoners of war who were tied together. The suicide story could have come up when Bishop Wilfrid’s party inquired about bones scattered on the shore.

Wilfrid, Apostle to South Saxons , holding a net of fish.

When the bishop first came to the kingdom and saw the suffering and famine there, he taught them how to get their food by fishing: for both the sea and rivers abounded in fish but the people had no knowledge of fishing except for eels alone. So the bishop’s men collected eel-nets from every quarter and cast them into the sea, with the help of divine grace, they quickly captured 300 fish of all kinds. There were divided into three parts: a hundred were given to the poor, a hundred to those who supplied the nets, while they kept a hundred for their own use. By this good turn the bishop won the hearts of all and they had the greater hope of heavenly blessings from the preaching of one by whose aid they gained temporal blessings.” (Bede IV.13, McClure and Collins, p. 193-194)

More fishiness in Wilfrid’s net casting. Apparently people in Sussex are happy to believe that Wilfrid taught them to fish (as seen in this church window).  So let me get this straight, the rivers are full of fish but all they can catch in nets are these slippery, snake-like eels?

Wilfrid doesn’t bring any new technology or reported techniques. He teaches them how to catch fish with their own eel nets?

Wilfrid’s party may have brought more modern administrative skills and organizing the community into a church owned collective would have improved production. Yet, Wilfrid’s fishing skills appear to be as hagiographic as the drought. It mimics the large fish catches of Jesus in the gospels.

There is good reason why the people of the South Saxons venerated Bishop Wilfrid. For all his abrasive actions with other parts of England, it is very likely that Bishop Wilfrid made lives better in Sussex. At least for some Wilfrid may have been a protector during the worst ravages of King Caedwalla of Wessex in both Sussex and the Isle of Wight. After Wilfrid returned to Northumbria, the West Saxon overlords of Sussex annexed Sussex to the territory of the Bishop of Wessex. After he was gone, the South Saxons could romanticize Wilfrid for bringing them the faith under their last independent kings.

Earliest Depiction of St. Oswald?

Kentish coin, c. 720 from BBC-History.

Kentish coin, c. 720 from BBC-History.

I found this coin this afternoon on the BBC History website. Click here to enlarge the coins. They are actually very detailed for their size. The coin is described as being about the size of the fingernail from the little finger. I’d say that makes them a little smaller than an American dime. Their interpretation of this coin is that it is a part of a five part series that illustrate the five senses – sight, taste, hearing, smell and touch. This coin which shows a king drinking from a chalice illustrates taste. The obverse they suggest its either a noble holding a falcon or St Oswald and his raven. I don’t know about coins themed on the five senses. They don’t show any of the other coins in this hypothetical series. They point to the large knot on the headband of the king as being typical “imaginative” art from the Anglo-Saxon period. It looks to me like an attempt to incorporate some typical knotwork onto the small coin.

Coin Reverse

Coin Reverse

This coin has prominent crosses on both sides which makes me think it is more than just a ‘five senses’ series. It is interesting that this coin does not have the mark of a moneyer like other Anglo-Saxon coins. This makes me wonder if the moneyer could have been the church. I suppose it is possible that a moneyer could have used a depiction of a saint as his mark.

On the front, there is cross hovering above the chalice that makes it a liturgical chalice. Looking closer at the reverse there is the bird in one hand and is that a long cross in the other hand? If you look down from the hand there is a raised ball that looks like the end of a a cross or staff. If that is a long cross then it looks more like St Oswald than a random noble out falconing. Again there is a cross hovering over his shoulder even if the shaft doesn’t extend down to his hand (though I think it does, the more I look at it). If this is Oswald, then it shows that the raven was part of his story from a very early date. It appears that the king is wearing a mail shirt or breastplate that may rule out typical falconing. On the other hand a warrior king like Oswald may have been depicted by contemporaries in his war gear all the time, shown here with the cross from heavenfield in one hand and a war raven in the other. I’m not sure what that semicircle under the figure is supposed to be. A boat? or just decoration?

So why would Oswald have been on a Kentish coin? We know of no chapels or shrines to Oswald in Kent, though we can not rule out the dedication of alters or side chapels within churches. Bede does give us one clue. A late entry into Bede’s History, seemingly added during his last revision for King Coelwulf (missing from class c of the text), is the story of Oswald’s intercession against the plague in Sussex. When the plague ended with no more deaths after the boy, Bede records that “not only in this monastery but in many other places, the heavenly birthday of this king and soldier of Christ [Oswald] began to be celebrated yearly by the celebration of masses”(HE IV.14, McClure & Collins, p. 196-197).  We know that Bede got the story from Bishop Acca but we don’t know when Acca first heard the story or how long it took for the story to diffuse throughout the churches of England. On thing is for sure, a reoccurrence of the plague or any epidemic illness would have increased the speed to commemorations. It is even possible that other kings used Oswald’s example to support their own rule in a time of instability caused by an epidemic. The king of Kent from 692/4-725 was Wihtred son of Egbert who was known for his devotion and zeal, coming to the throne after considerable dynastic instability. Wihtred’s grandfather Eorcenberht had died of plague in 664. Thus the plague had played a role in the dynastic instability of Kent after 664*. It may have also been a gesture toward Northumbria during a period when Kent was under pressure from Mercia and Wessex. It could also simply reflect the growth of St Oswald’s veneration.

This coin is not the only one to feature St. Oswald. Eneas Mackenzie’s An Historical, Topographical, and Descriptive View of the County of Northumberland (1825) reports the discovery of a large coin depicting St Oswald (Oswald’s head on one side and a large cross on the other) during the restoration of a chapel of St Oswald at Heavenfield (p. 300-301). Mackenzie reports that the convent of Durham used it as its seal for many years in honor of St. Oswald. Mackenzie also claims that in the field (at Heavenfield?) skulls and hilts of swords are frequently turned up by farmers. (p. 301)  Whether or not this is the dead from the battle of Denisesburn or not, it does bring up the point that many battlefields may have been lost because they have been ploughed up over the centuries. It seems likely that the dead of a battlefield would have been buried fairly shallow just because of the amount of work it took to bury them all. It is even possible that they were not buried at all but left to decay and eventually be covered by dust and silt. Skulls would have been noticed more than other bones because they are more distinctively human; fragments of other bones could have more easily passed as animal bones. Anyway, there are other coins with Oswald as well. Swiss coins from the 1500s also have a sharp depiction of St Oswald and his raven. St Oswald is the patron saint of the canton of Zug, Switzerland.

* Ok, so Eorcenberht’s murder of his nephews Æthelred and Æthelbert and his own succession over an elder brother Eormenred indicates that the throne may not have been as stable as it appears. Regardless, the plague must have hit Kent hard in 664 to take both King Eorcenberht and the Archbishop of Canterbury in the same month. As far as we know, Eormenred may have fallen ill with the plague as well, assisting his younger brother’s rise to the throne. Even if Eormenred didn’t die of the plague, such a significant illness could have gotten him passed over for a younger, healthier brother.