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King Oswald of Northumbria

Category: Business and political leaders

Oswald (c 604 – 5 August 641/642) was King of Northumbria from 634 until his death, and is venerated as a saint.  He was given a ‘strongly positive assessment’ by the historian Bede, writing a little less than a century after Oswald's death, who regarded Oswald as a saintly king; it is also Bede who is the main source for present-day historical knowledge of Oswald. After eight years of rule, in which he was the most powerful ruler in Britain, Oswald was killed in the Battle of Maserfield.

The reason we have him on the site is because his relics turned out to have remarkable healing abilities.  These days the effect of the mind on the body is called ‘Psychogenesis’ and it has become an area of very serious study.  For example:

The Effect of Mind on Body, Brain & Experience BPS Consciousness & Experiential Psychology Section (CEP) 21st Annual Conference 2019 University of Sussex

The evidence for mental influences on states of the body, brain and phenomenal experience (psychogenesis) is extensive, for example in the study of psychosomatics, functional disorders in psychiatry and neurology, psychoneuroimmunology, placebo effects in medicine, and research on the physiological and psychological consequences of meditation, visual imagery, bio/neurofeedback and hypnosis on body, brain and phenomenal experience.
Within science and clinical practice, it is largely taken for granted that physical causes can have …., in certain cases, mental effects., …. However, that mental causes can have physical, as well as mental effects has sometimes been regarded as problematic. This interdisciplinary conference will examine empirical, clinical and theoretical approaches as well as evidence on how these relationships can be explored and understood.

People’s belief in the goodness of King Oswald was enough to heal a considerable number of people.  In fact he appears to have done more good after his death than before!


The Lives of the Saints - Rev. Alban Butler -  Volume VIII: August.  1866.
St. Oswald, King and Martyr

THE ENGLISH Saxon kingdom of the Northumbers was founded by Ida in 547.

After his death the northern part called Bernicia was preserved by his children; but Deira, that is, the southern part, comprising Yorkshire and Lancashire, was occupied by Ælla or Alla, and after his death was recovered by Ethelfrid, grandson of Ida, who ruled the whole kingdom of the Northumbers twenty-four years.

He being slain in battle by Redwald, king of the East-Angles, in 617, his sons Eanfrid, Oswald, and Oswi took refuge among the Scots, where they were instructed in the Christian faith, and received the sacrament of regeneration.

In the meantime, Edwin, the son of Alla, reigned seventeen years over both kingdoms; but in 633 was killed fighting against the united forces of Penda the Mercian, and Cadwalla, king of the Britons or Welch, a Christian by profession, but a stranger to the maxims of his religion; in his manners a barbarian, and an implacable enemy to the English Saxons.
Upon this revolution the three sons of Ethelfrid returned from Scotland; and Eanfrid, the eldest, obtained the kingdom of the Deira, whilst Osric, cousin-german to Edwin, was chosen King of Bernicia.

Both these princes loved the glory of men more than God, and apostatized from the faith which they had embraced; but were both slain the same year by Cadwalla; Osric in battle, and the other soon after by treachery.

Hereupon Oswald was called to the crown, both of Deira and Bernicia, he being the son of Ethelfrid, and nephew of Edwin, whose sister Acca was his mother. This prince had embraced the faith with his whole heart, and far from forsaking Christ, as his unhappy brothers had done, to court the favour of his subjects, he had no other view than to bring them to the spiritual kingdom of divine grace, and to labour with them to secure a crown of eternal glory.

The Battle with Cadwalla

Oswald was pitted against a ruthless and very significant foe.  At that time Cadwalla had ravaged all the Northumbrian provinces, not as a conqueror, but as a cruel tyrant, laying everything waste with fire and sword, at the head of a vast army, which he boasted nothing could resist.

Oswald assembled what troops he was able, and ‘being fortified by faith in Christ’, marched confidently, though with a small force, against this terrifying enemy, who had by that time proceeded as far as the Picts’ wall.  On the night before the battle Oswald had a vision [see observation], which greatly bolstered him and his troops

The Lives of the Saints - Rev. Alban Butler -  Volume VIII: August.  1866.
St. Oswald, King and Martyr

 Oswald gave him battle at a place called by Bede Denis-burn,   that is, the brook Denis, adjoining to the Picts’ wall on the north side. …………………   Almighty God was pleased to bless the king’s faith and devotion by granting him and his small army a complete victory over Cadwalla, who was killed in the battle, and his forces, with those of his allies, entirely routed.

Above :  Bamburgh Castle.  St. Oswald, in the former part of his reign, seems to have lived chiefly at Bamborough, anciently Babbenburg, a castle in Northumberland, built by Ida, first king of the Northumbers, as we learn from the Saxon Chronicle, ad an. 547, and so called from Queen Bebba

Building on the victory

Right:  Lindisfarne Castle at Holy Island on the Northumberland Coast by Martin Lawrence

King Oswald then set about ‘restoring good order throughout his dominions’, and in general he did this by using religion.   He sent ambassadors to the king and bishops in Scotland asking them if they would send him a bishop and assistants, by whose preaching the people whom he governed ‘might be grounded in the Christian religion, and receive baptism’.

And the main reason he did this is because the Picts had already been through this process of consolidation via religion.  Bridei mac Maelchon (r. c. 550–84) was the first identifiable king of the Picts.  Christian missionaries from Iona began the conversion of the Picts to Christianity from 563 in his reign.  St Columba ‘converted’ the northern Picts near Inverness first.  Why was this change undertaken?

Bridei mac Maelchon had seen that the Romans had achieved the seeming impossibility of creating from tribes and cultures with different languages, and beliefs one unified empire, by using religion as the uniting force.  The Romans didn’t actually care what religion it was, but Christianity being new, easy to understand and easy to explain without books was an obvious choice.  During the reign of the Roman Emperor Constantine the Great (306–337 AD), Christianity began to transition to the dominant religion of the Roman Empire.

The Lives of the Saints - Rev. Alban Butler -  Volume VIII: August.  1866.
St. Oswald, King and Martyr

Aidan,  a native of Ireland, and a monk of the celebrated monastery of Hij, was chosen for the great and arduous undertaking; and by his mildness soon repaired the mischief done by another monk sent thither before him, whose harshness had alienated many from the sweet law of the gospel. The king bestowed on Aidan the isle of Lindisfarne for his episcopal seat; and was so edified with his learning and zeal, that this great prince, before the bishop could sufficiently speak the English language, would be himself his interpreter, and explain his sermons and instructions to the people.

Oswald filled his dominions with churches and monasteries, and whilst he was governing his temporal kingdom, was intent only to labour and pray for an eternal crown. He very often continued in prayer from the time of matins (at midnight, to which he rose with the monks) till day-light; and by reason of his frequent custom of praying or giving thanks to our Lord at all times, it is said that wherever he was sitting he would have his hands on his knees turned upwards towards heaven.

Bede says that he reigned over Britons, Picts, Scots, and English. The kingdom of Northumberland was then extended as far as the Frith of Edinburgh; but by this expression of Bede some other provinces of the Picts, and others in Wales must have paid homage to him. Penda, the Mercian, being one of the allies of Cadwalla, and, according to Malmesbury, present at his defeat, Mercia also paid him a kind of submission; and so great was his power, that all the other kings of the heptarchy acknowledged a certain dependence; whence Adamnan, abbot of Hij, in the life of St. Columba, styles him emperor of Britain.             

One is reminded of the words of that great mystic Lao Tzu that softness overcomes hardness as water eventually overcomes stone. 

Oswald succeeded because he set an example, practised what he preached and used the principles inherent in Christianity, which is in the end a religion of non aggression [despite the travesties enacted in its name].

The Lives of the Saints - Rev. Alban Butler -  Volume VIII: August.  1866.
St. Oswald, King and Martyr

  Wonderful were the humility, affability, and charity of this great king amidst his prosperity; of which Bede gives us the following instance. One Easter-day whilst he was sitting down to dinner, an officer, whose business it was to take care of the poor, came in, and told him there was a great multitude of poor people at his gate desiring alms. Whereupon the king sent them a large silver dish full of meat from his own table, and ordered the dish to be broken into small pieces and distributed among them. Upon this St. Aidan, who happened to be at table, taking him by the right hand, said: “Let this hand never corrupt.”

Bede adds, that this arm being cut off from his body after he was slain, remained incorrupt till his time, and was then kept, being honoured by all with due veneration, in the church of St. Peter, at the royal castle of Bebbaborough, (so called from Bebba, a former queen,) now Bamborough in Northumberland.


Right St Cuthbert holding St Oswald’s Head, Hexham Abbey wood panel, 15th century

The peace and prosperity that Oswald managed to bring to the new kingdom was short lived.  After only eight years, Penda, the ‘barbarous Pagan king of Mercia’, who nine years before had killed King Edwin, uncle to Oswald by his mother, decided he would challenge Oswald’s power base.  Penda raised a great army and invaded King Oswald’s kingdom.

The Lives of the Saints - Rev. Alban Butler -  Volume VIII: August.  1866.
St. Oswald, King and Martyr

St. Oswald met him with an inferior force, and was killed in the battle that was fought between them. When he saw himself surrounded with the arms of his enemies, he offered his prayer for the souls of his soldiers. Whence it became a proverb: “O God be merciful to their souls, said Oswald when he fell.

He was slain in the thirty-eighth year of his age, of our Lord 642, on the 5th of August, in a place called Maserfield. This seems to have been at Winwick in Lancashire, where is a well still called St. Oswald’s, which was formerly visited out of devotion; and that this territory was called Maserfelte, appears from an old inscription in Winwick church.

Nevertheless, Oswaldtry [Oswestry], that is, Oswald’s cross, a market town, seven miles from Shrewsbury, is supposed by some to have also been formerly called Maserfelth; and Capgrave, Camden, and others think this the place where St. Oswald was slain; for, he might before this, say they, when he defeated Penda, have added that part of Shropshire to his kingdom.

The famous church of St. Oswald there stands without the New gate. …………………………….  The inhuman tyrant caused the saint’s head and arms to be struck off, and fixed on poles; but St. Oswald’s brother and successor Oswi took them away the year following [sic], and carried the arms to his own royal palace, and sent the head to Lindisfarne.

King Oswald was succeeded in Bernicia by his brother Oswi, and in Deira by Oswin, a cousin of the great King Edwin. After reigning seven years, Oswin was killed in war by Oswi at Gilliny, near Richmond in Yorkshire.

King Penda, eventually killed five kings, Edwin, Oswald, Sigebert, Egric, and Annas.   However, Oswi, with an inferior army, defeated and killed him near Loyden, now Leeds in Yorkshire, in 655.  With Penda, who was then eighty years old, fell thirty other commanders of royal blood.  If you live by the sword, you die by the sword.

Relics and the spread of his fame

Right:   Oswald-head-reliquary

Several churches and places now bear the name of St Oswald, including St Oswald's Grasmere; St Oswald's Church, Compton Abdale in Gloucestershire ; Oswaldtwistle in Lancashire – meaning the twistle [confluence, junction, fork of a river or road] of Oswald  and Kirkoswald in Cumbria. 

The relics of Oswald are now said to reside all over the place and hopefully are still doing their healing job:

  • Durham cathedral - The head was eventually put in the same shrine with the body of St. Cuthbert.  Durham Cathedral was originally built to house the Shrine of St Cuthbert in 1093, his body having been moved from Lindisfarne in Northumberland following Viking invasions during the 9th Century.
  • Bardney monastery - The rest of St. Oswald’s body was translated by his niece Osfrida, wife of Etheldred, king of Mercia, to the monastery of Bardney in Lincolnshire.
  • Gloucester cathedral - The monument erected to St. Oswald, is ‘still to be seen in a chapel of this cathedral between two pillars’
  • Peterborough cathedral - Simon of Durham, and Ingulphus testify that an arm was kept at Peterborough
  • The abbey of St. Winnoc’s  in Flanders
  • Echternach Luxemborg - his cult is remarkable for its rapid dissemination into mainland Europe. Willibrord, the Northumbrian missionary known as the ‘apostle to the Frisians’, brought Oswald’s cult (and reputedly his head relic) to Echternach in modern-day Luxemborg by the early eighth century.
  • Weingarten in Bavaria.  Oswald and his raven clearly catch the popular Austrian imagination, too, and the king is venerated in sites across the Tyrol as a patron saint of agricultural plenitude who works together with his raven to ensure favourable weather
  • The Swiss canton and city of Zug - Yet another of St Oswald’s several heads reputedly made its way here, and his iconography retains pride of place in the magnificent late fifteenth-century St Oswald-Kirche

By the High Middle Ages his cult was being celebrated all the way from Iceland in the north (where we find a late ‘Osvald’s saga’), through the German-speaking lands of central Europe, into Poland and Hungary.


  • The Augustinian monastery of Klosterneuberg, just outside Vienna, has a vast number of well preserved manuscripts in its medieval library, still the largest private library in Austria.
    "There, staring out at me from an enormous Latin legendary, was Oswald once more, abbreviated but intact – back in the form in which Bede presented him
    Right:   The monastic library at Klosterneuburg


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