The son of Æthelfrith, king of Northumbria, Oswald was born around the year 604. When his uncle Edwin seized the kingdom after Æthelfrith’s death in battle with Rædwald of East Anglia in 616, Oswald fled to the Irish kingdom of Dál Riata on the western coast of Scotland. While in the west, he came under the tutelage of the monks of Iona, where he was converted to the Christian faith and received baptism. On Edwin’s death in battle with the British king Cadwallon of Gwynedd, Oswald returned home. His elder half-brother, Eanfrith, became king of Bernicia, the northern part of Northumbria, and ruled as a tyrant for a year until he too was slain in battle with Cadwallon ap Cadfan. Oswald then claimed the kingdom of Bernicia and with a much smaller army than that of his foe, defeated and killed Cadwallon. Before the battle, Oswald had a wooden cross erected, which he held in place himself until sufficient earth had been placed into the hole to keep the cross upright. He then assembled his army to pray for victory around it.
Soon after the battle of Heavenfield, Oswald sent to Iona for a bishop to preach the Gospel in Northumbria. Bede tells us that at first a severe bishop was sent, who met with no success among the people, whom he considered barbarous and obstinate. This bishop was soon replaced by the patient and kindly Aidan, whom Oswald himself accompanied on missionary journeys in order to translate Aidan’s sermons into English. Oswald gave Aidan the island of Lindisfarne for a monastery and episcopal seat, close to the royal residence at Bamburgh. Aidan met with great success, many of the people of Northumbria became Christians, and the Irish mission to Northumbria and more widely into England was established.
Like his father before him, Oswald united both parts of Northumbria, Bernicia and Deira, under his rule (Æthefrith had originally been king of Bernicia, and Oswald’s mother, Acha, was of the royal house of Deira). Other Anglo-Saxon kings acknowledged Oswald’s overlorship, and he married Cyneburga, the daughter of Cynegils, king of Wessex, to whom he stood as godfather at his baptism. But Oswald’s reign was not longlasting. After only eight years he was killed by the pagan king Penda of Mercia in the battle of Maserfield at the age of only thirty-eight, praying with his dying breath for the warriors of his guard who died with him. His body was mutilated afterwards on Penda’s orders, his head, arms, and hands being hung up on stakes. The various members were recovered an venerated in various places. The head was buried at Lindisfarne, and from 875 it shared the wandering of Cuthbert’s body and was found when Cuthbert’s tomb was opened in Durham in 1827. Willibrord took relics of Oswald with him on his mission to Frisia, and various of these relics are found churches in Germany and the Low Countries.
prepared from The Oxford Dictionary of Saints
Lord God almighty, who so kindled the faith of Oswald with your Spirit that he set up the sign of the Cross in his kingdom and turned his people to the light of Christ: Grant that we, being fired by the same Spirit, may always bear our cross before the world and be found faithful servants of the gospel; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.