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18 June 2014
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Legacies - Shropshire

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Myths and Legends
Holy Island Priory
Holy Island Priory, Lindisfarne
Cult of a King

Violent death of a mighty king

In 642, when Oswald and Penda met in battle at Maserfield (now widely identified as Oswestry), Oswald fell victim to the pagan warrior’s sword. As a warning against attempts to infiltrate and convert his pagan kingdom of Mercia, Penda dismembered Oswald, attaching his head and arms to stakes at the site of his death. The brutal circumstances of Oswald’s death quickly attracted legend and folklore. In his 'Ecclesiastical History', Bede depicts Oswald uttering a prayer as he dies at Penda’s hands.

“O God, have mercy on their souls.”

According to local folklore, soon after Penda displayed the dismembered body parts of Oswald, an eagle picked up Oswald’s right arm. When the bird dropped the arm, it hit a tree before landing near the site of his death.
St Cuthbert
St Cuthbert holding Oswald's head
© Jarrold Publishing, Chapter of Durham
The tree (reputably an ash) became sacred and a spring bubbled forth from the spot where the arm landed. The location soon became associated with miraculous healing powers, which existed predominantly in oral form until recorded much later in 730 by Bede in his 'Ecclesiastical History',. Bede reports that the site’s healing properties were first identified by a rider whose horse was unwell; after rolling on the ground where Oswald died, his horse made a miraculous recovery. The area’s sacred healing reputation developed quickly, meaning that hopefuls had removed so much earth from around the tree that a hole as tall as a man was created.

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