'O God, be merciful to their souls'

St Oswald of Northumbria, 642

Saints and Martyrs

St Oswald

Feast 3rd August

St Oswald, the 7th century Christian King of Northumbria, was killed by the pagan King Penda of Mercia in a battle fought at Maserfield, probably Oswestry in Shropshire, after which his body was mutilated and displayed (Oswald’s tree).

He was son of the King of Northumbria who was exiled and took refuge at Iona where he became a Christian. When his uncle, King St Edwin of Northumbria, was killed in battle against Penda and Cadwallon in 633, St Oswald recovered his kingdom, seeking first and foremost to turn his subjects into Christians.

But first he had to defeat the pagan Cadwallon who was ravaging his provinces. In 634 St Oswald assembled a comparatively small force and on the eve of the decisive battle erected a wooden cross crying out to his army, which was predominantly pagan: “Let us now kneel down, and together pray to the almighty and only true God that he will mercifully defend us from our enemy, for He knows that we fight in defence of our lives and country.”

The soldiers did as he commanded and that night St Oswald had a vision that St Columba of Iona had stretched his cloak across his sleeping troops and promised them victory. The next day, three miles south of Hexham, near Newcastle, the saint’s army routed their foes with Cadwallon himself killed in battle.

St Oswald then proceeded to successfully plant the seed of the Christian faith throughout his vast kingdom, enlisting the help of St Aidan, an Irish monk of Iona, to whom he gave Lindisfarne as his episcopal see.

The saint later married Cyneburga, the daughter of Cynegils, the first Christian King of Wessex, whom St Oswald had sponsored at his baptism. They had a son, Ethelwald, who became King of Deira, but who was of little credit to his father.

After some years, war broke out with Penda, who had allied himself with the Welsh. St Oswald marched south into Shropshire to find himself overwhelmed by a superior force. On 5th August 642 he and his troops were surrounded and St Oswald was slain, aged 38, after uttering a prayer on behalf of his soldiers: “O God, be merciful to their souls.”

The saint’s head was eventually buried with the intact body of St Cuthbert at Durham.

Source: Butler’s Lives of the Saints