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BBC - The growth of St Oswald's healing cult



Type of Spiritual Experience


A description of the experience

Oswald, Northumbria and Mercia

The story of King Oswald is brimming with heroism, kingship and Christian valour. His father, King Aelfrith, laid the foundations for the mighty realm of Northumbria by uniting the kingdoms of Bernicia and Deria. Anglo-Saxon Northumbria stretched from Hull to Edinburgh, the name refers to ‘land north of the Humber’.

In 617, at the age of 11, Oswald fled to Dal Riada in western Scotland after the murder of his father by his brother in law, Edwin. In 634, after 17 years in exile and a failed attempt by his elder brother Osfrid to regain his father’s kingdom, Oswald set off with a small army to avenge his father and brother’s death. Oswald’s victory Cadwallon of Gwynedd (North Wales) at Heavenfield, outside Hexham, was the beginning of his eight year reign.

During his exile, Oswald had been baptised on Iona, which at the time was at the head of an important community of monasteries located in Ireland and Scotland. During his reign as King, he acquired a reputation as a devout Christian, committed to using his power to promote his faith. When looking for a bishop, he invited one of St Columba’s (the founder of Iona’s monastery) disciples from Iona to found a monastery on Lindisfarne, now known as Holy Island located off the North East coast. The monk sent was Aidan; Oswald and Aidan have become legendary figures in the conversion of England to Christianity.

During Oswald’s reign as king of Northumbria, the neighbouring kingdom of Mercia, which encompassed most of central England and was ruled by the pagan King Penda, posed the greatest obstacle to a Christian England. In 'The Conversion of the English', historian H Curtois describes Mercia during Oswald’s lifetime as “a big black blot of heathenism, untouched as yet by Christian effort”.

Violent death of a mighty king

In 642, when Oswald and Penda met in battle at Maserfield (now widely identified as Oswestry), Oswald fell victim to the pagan warrior’s sword. As a warning against attempts to infiltrate and convert his pagan kingdom of Mercia, Penda dismembered Oswald, attaching his head and arms to stakes at the site of his death. The brutal circumstances of Oswald’s death quickly attracted legend and folklore. In his 'Ecclesiastical History', Bede depicts Oswald uttering a prayer as he dies at Penda’s hands.“O God, have mercy on their souls.”

According to local folklore, soon after Penda displayed the dismembered body parts of Oswald, an eagle picked up Oswald’s right arm. When the bird dropped the arm, it hit a tree before landing near the site of his death.

The tree (reputably an ash) became sacred and a spring bubbled forth from the spot where the arm landed. The location soon became associated with miraculous healing powers, which existed predominantly in oral form until recorded much later in 730 by Bede in his 'Ecclesiastical History',.

Bede reports that the site’s healing properties were first identified by a rider whose horse was unwell; after rolling on the ground where Oswald died, his horse made a miraculous recovery. The area’s sacred healing reputation developed quickly, meaning that hopefuls had removed so much earth from around the tree that a hole as tall as a man was created.

These early miracle stories were the product of folklore and not the machinations of the church.

In 'Membra Disjecta: the Division of the Body and the Diffusion of the Cult', Alan Thatcher writes that “as far as we know, no ecclesiastical community had guardianship over the site or controlled the dispensing of the wonderworking dust”.

This absence of ecumenical intervention is perhaps due to the curiously pagan nature of Oswald’s legend; this early form of Oswald’s cult incorporated two Celtic features: the holy well and the veneration of his severed head.

Despite the initial frosty welcome by the Northumbrian Christian community, by the time Bede was writing in the 730s, Oswald had become an important English saint in the kingdoms of Northumbria and Mercia. Alan Thatcher discusses the “more than regional importance” enjoyed by Oswald, as proved by the 272 lines devoted to him by Alcuin and the description of Oswald’s miracles as “great on this side as well as beyond the sea” in 'An Old English Martyrology'. One important factor contributing to Oswald’s establishment as a Saint-King, was the adoption of his cult by the important monastic centre of Hexham.

At Hexham, St Wilfred and his Christian community provided much of the information that makes up Bede’s 'Ecclesiastical History' content on Oswald. Thatcher argues that by the early Eighth Century, the monastery at Hexham had developed customs and encouraged the cult of St Oswald, thus securing Oswald’s fame. In contrast, the cult of his uncle King Edwin faded from the collective memory.

The source of the experience

King Oswald of Northumbria

Concepts, symbols and science items


Activities and commonsteps