Oswald was a 7th-century Anglo-Saxon king. He came to power in Northumbria around 633 or 634 AD.
Oswald ruled over the Northumbrian kingdoms of Bernicia and Deira and held power over parts of modern-day England, Wales and Scotland. From the end of the 6th century through much of the 7th century, two royal houses were competing for dominance — the Angles in the north and the Saxons in the south.
In 604, Oswald’s father, Aethelfrith, became king of Deira as well as Bernicia. He married Acha, sister of Edwin of Deira and daughter of the deposed king, uniting the two rival kingdoms under his own rule.
Edwin, Deira’s brother,fled south to escape Aethelfrith. For some years, Edwin wandered in exile while Aethelfrith tried to have him killed. Eventually, Edwin was welcomed at the court of Raedwald of East Anglia. Raedwald refused Aethelfrith’s request to have Edwin killed; instead, he turned on Aethelfrith, defeating and killing him in battle near the River Idle c. 616 CE.
Aethelfrith’s death forced his sons to flee north into exile as Edwin had done years earlier. Oswald spent his exile in the Gaelic kingdom of Dal Riata, which covered much of western Scotland and part of Ireland. During his exile, Oswald converted to Christianity though his father had been a pagan. Edwin regained a throne but only held it shortly. Oswald’s brothers returned to claim the seats of Bernicia and Deira and abandoned their Christian faith.
Accompanied by a small force and possibly a few Scottish and Pictish allies, Oswald returned to claim the family’s kingdom. On the night before the battle, Oswald erected a large wooden cross, and he and his troops prayed to the Christian God for victory. At least one account mentions a vision of St. Columba appearing to Oswald, assuring him that he would be victorious. The so called Battle of Heavenfield became a decisive victory for Oswald, and the new king united his late brothers’ kingdoms.
Oswald was baptized long before coming into power. His brothers forsook Christianity upon obtaining their thrones. As a result of his time spent in Dal Riata and beyond, Oswald allied himself with the Celtic Christian faith centered around the monastery of Iona.
Oswald also was a friend to the poor. He promoted the Christian faith beyond his own borders. He stood as godfather to the West Saxon king Cynegils (611-642) upon his baptism in Dorchester and also married Cynegils’ daughter. In doing so Oswald’s status grew as overlord over the other Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of his time.
Oswald was killed at the age of 38 at the Battle of Maserfield (Maserfelth) on Aug. 5, 641 or 642, after a reign of only eight years. Though details of the conflict are scant, the battle was fought between Oswald’s forces and the army of Penda of Mercia, who had taken part in the victory over Edwin roughly nine years earlier.
Upon his death, Oswald prayed for the souls of his warriors. After the battle, the pagan Penda had Oswald’s head and hands cut off and displayed as trophies, a possible offering to the pagan god Woden.
Oswald is responsible for the spread of Christianity in England. His veneration began almost immediately after his death and he served as a model of Christian kingship for centuries to come.
Adapted by A.J. Valentini