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18 June 2014
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Myths and Legends
Iona
Oswald was baptised on Iona
Cult of a King

From warrior to saint

Despite the initial frosty welcome by the Northumbrian Christian community, by the time Bede was writing in the 730s, Oswald had become an important English saint in the kingdoms of Northumbria and Mercia. Alan Thatcher discusses the “more than regional importance” enjoyed by Oswald, as proved by the 272 lines devoted to him by Alcuin and the description of Oswald’s miracles as “great on this side as well as beyond the sea” in 'An Old English Martyrology'. One important factor contributing to Oswald’s establishment as a Saint-King, was the adoption of his cult by the important monastic centre of Hexham.


Detail from St Oswald window
© Jarrold Publishing, Chapter of Durham
At Hexham, St Wilfred and his Christian community provided much of the information that makes up Bede’s 'Ecclesiastical History' content on Oswald. Thatcher argues that by the early Eighth Century, the monastery at Hexham had developed customs and encouraged the cult of St Oswald, thus securing Oswald’s fame. In contrast, the cult of his uncle King Edwin faded from the collective memory.

The legend of St Oswald relies upon the story of his violent death; persisting to this day through the place-name Oswestry, which is widely accepted as referring to Oswald’s Tree or Cross – the bloody construction of the dismembered king’s body parts.

The development of the cult reveals the way in which legends can evolve according to the contemporary political outlook. His cult was initially overlooked by ecclesiastical authorities on account of his warrior status and the pagan associations of his death-site at Oswestry. Once the notion of sanctifying a holy warrior became accepted by ecclesiastical authorities, and thanks to the backing of an important religious centre, the cult of St Oswald gained power and influence “beyond the sea”.


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