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18 June 2014
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Legacies - Shropshire

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Myths and Legends
St Oswald's well

© Oswestry & Welsh Border Tourism Accociation
Cult of a King

Development of Oswald’s cult

These early miracle stories were the product of folklore and not the machinations of the church. In 'Membra Disjecta: the Division of the Body and the Diffusion of the Cult', Alan Thatcher writes that “as far as we know, no ecclesiastical community had guardianship over the site or controlled the dispensing of the wonderworking dust”. This absence of ecumenical intervention is perhaps due to the curiously pagan nature of Oswald’s legend; this early form of Oswald’s cult incorporated two Celtic features: the holy well and the veneration of his severed head.

Iona priory
Oswald was baptised on Iona
A year after Oswald’s death, his brother and successor Oswisu removed his limbs and head from the battlefield at Oswestry. Oswisu took his brother’s head to the monastery at Lindisfarne, where it was buried and never displayed for people to pay homage to. The monks’ apparent neglect of an important cult relic can be understood as an attempt to distance itself from the pagan tradition of publicly worshiping heroes’ severed heads.

The low priority given to Oswald’s head by the Lindisfarne monks also suggests the reluctance of the church to worship holy warriors. In contrast, Oswald’s arms enjoyed a high profile position, enshrined in a silver reliquary at the dynastic stronghold of Bamburgh. The disparity between these celebrations shows that Oswald’s legend was initially one favoured by the king’s own people rather than ecclesiastical authority.

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