|St. Oswald's Scottish Episcopal Church, Glasgow
Saint Oswald King and Martyr.
Oswald was the son of King Ethelfrith of Northumbria, the grandson of Ida the first king of a unified Northumbria. On Ida's death the northern part of Northumbria, Berenicia, remained under the rule of his house, but Aella took Deira, the southern part. After Aellas death, Ethelfrith seized Deira for the House of Ida, and Ethelfrith regned over the reunited kingdom for nearly a quarter of a century.
Edwin eventually won the support of King Redwald of Mercia, who led an army north in support of his claim to the throne. Ethelfrith died in battle in 616/7, and Edwin, the brother of Ethelfrid's queen, established his rule over all Northumbria, forcing Ethelfrith's sons to flee to Scotland, where they were converted to Christianity by Celtic monks.
Edwin proved a capable ruler. He married Ethelburga, daughter of Saint Ethelbert, King of the East Angles (celebrated May 20). Ethelbert had at first refused his daughter's hand to a pagan, but when Edwin promised her freedom of religion and declared he favoured the Christian faith, Ethelbert accepted his suit, and Ethelburga travelled north in the company of Saint Paulinus (celebrated Oct. 10). Edwin supported Paulinus's mission to his people and in 627 was baptized by Saint Paulinus, whom he thereupon appointed as bishop of York, and began building a stone church for him there.
In 633 King Edwin was killed in battle, defending Northumbria against Penda, the pagan King of Mercia, and the Christian Cadwalla, King of the Britons. Edwin's support for Paulinus, his heroic death defending his kingdom, and his virtuous rule led to his being worshipped as a saint (celebrated Oct. 10). The sons of Ethelfrid now returned from Scotland. The eldest, Eanfrid became King of Deira, while Osric, a cousin of Edwin, became King of Berenicia. Both new kings, however, were dead within the year, Osric slain in battle against Cadwalla.
Oswald now ascended the reunited throne of Northumbria, as heir of both houses, the House of Ida through his father, the House of Aella through his mother. At once he faced the ferocious armies of Cadwalla, whose forces were raiding and devastating wide areas of his kingdom. Summoning his army, Oswald advanced against Cadwalla, planted a great Cross on the battlefield, and summoned all his men to pray before it seeking victory of the justice of God. Despite facing a much larger army, King Oswald and his forces were victorious. The place near Hexham, where they fought, became known as Heavenfield and Oswald's Cross became a focus for pilgrimage, famous for its healing powers. Before Oswald's victory, says Bede the Venerable, there had been no churches in Berenicia; now churches and monasteries rose and the faith spread. Oswald also took up Saint Edwin's task of building a stone cathedral for York, the metropolitan see of Northern England.
At Oswald's request, monks were sent from Scotland, foremost amongst them Saint Aidan. Oswald gave Lindisfarne to Aidan as a base. The gentle and scholarly monk and his companions travelled from the island around Berenicia, preaching, teaching, establishing Christian communities throughout Oswald's kingdom. It is recorded that on many occasions Oswald himself served as Aidan's interpreter when he preached.
Oswald laboured to bring order and law to his kingdom. He won great reverence for his kingly virtues as well as his virtually monastic life of prayer and devotion. He was famous for his care for the poor. A beautiful story preserved by Saint Bede tells that Oswald was sitting at dinner one Easter day, Saint Aidan at his side, when he was told a great crowd of poor people were seeking alms at the gate. Taking a massive silver dish, he loaded it with meat from his own table and ordered it distributed amongst the poor, and ordered the silver dish to be broken in fragments, and those too distributed to them. Aidan, Bede says, took hold of the kings right hand, saying "Let this hand never decay!" His blessing was fulfilled. After Oswalds death his incorrupt right arm was preserved as a sacred relic.
Oswald reigned eight years, his kingdom enjoying peace and prosperity under his rule. Then the grim Penda of Mercia invaded once more. Oswald hastened to confront him, but his army was far inferior to Pendas and he was defeated and killed. He died praying for his fallen soldiers. Penda had Oswald's body gruesomely dismembered, his head and arms were hacked off and stuck on poles, until his brother Oswy was able to retrieve them a year later. Oswald's head was eventually preserved with the relics of Saint Cuthbert in Durham.
Saint Oswald has been worshipped as a martyr since his death. Although he died on the battlefield, he was a true Apostle of Christ in his own kingdom, a model ruler and benefactor of his people. The pagan king Penda who defeated and slew him was hostile to Oswalds faith, and his mutilation of the king's body was intended to insult his religion as well as his memory. His reign and his death both witnessed to the Gospel of Christ. Had he been an Eastern Ruler, Oswald would certainly have merited the title Isapostolos.
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