How One Anglo-Saxon Boy Changed the Course of English History

Oswald St John Lee

Oswald Iding may not be a household name, but soon after he returned home in AD633 to reclaim his family throne he also founded a monastery on the tiny North Sea island of Lindisfarne. It was an act that would change the course of English history; Lindisfarne quickly became one of the first great centres of power and pilgrimage and a landmark in the formation of a new post-Roman state. Why did he do it and what were the consequences? Max Adams traces its origins back to Oswald’s exile as a 12 year-old boy 1,400 years ago.

Oswald was just 12 years old when he was exiled from his native Northumbria to the Scottish kingdom of Dál Riata in AD617. It was one of those small but pivotal episodes by which the fates of great kingdoms are bent towards a new path.

After the fall of the Roman Empire, the British Isles were a patchwork of kingdoms, with an extensive cast of kings, some pagan and some trying out the new cloak of Christianity, fighting each other for more power and greater control. But Oswald was no ordinary boy: he was the son of Æðelfrith, Britain’s greatest 6th-7th century pagan warlord and King of Northumbria.

His ancestral fortress at Bamburgh, not far from Lindisfarne, was the power base from which Æðelfrith ruled all the lands between Humber and Forth. But after 24 years in power, Æðelfrith was killed in battle by his brother-in-law, Edwin, a Deiran prince whose lands lay to the south, in what is now Yorkshire east of the Pennines.

Having seized the Northumbrian throne, Edwin converted to Roman Catholic Christianity. He had a more southerly, European outlook and, in truth, fancied himself as a latter-day Roman emperor.

Acha (Oswald’s mother and Edwin’s sister) rather sensibly decided not to wait for her victorious brother to return. Would he choose to kill her children, who were the sons and daughters of the recently slain king, or would he reconcile them? Finding out was not a risk she was prepared to take. Instead, she fled north to Scotland, taking her children and her households treasures with her to seek the sanctuary of distant relatives at the court of Eochaid Buide – Eochaid Yellow-hair.

Unlike Edwin, the kings of Oswald’s new home in Dál Riata were Gaelic in their cultural affinities and thoroughly Irish in their Christianity. They fostered Oswald and his siblings; raising them to fight in their dynastic wars at home and in Ulster, and sending them to be educated on Iona, where a great monastic house had been founded by Colm Cille (St Columba) in about AD565.

It was here on Iona, at the hands of Abbot Ségéne, that Oswald learned Irish; learned, too, about the vengeful, righteous kings of the Old Testament.  We have every reason to believe that he was absolutely genuine in his conversion at the hands of Iona’s monks, whose style of Christianity had been forged long before in the sands of the Sinai desert among the followers of St Anthony; their relationship with God was personal, ascetic, tribal.

Colm Cille’s relationship with the kings of his adopted land was intense: he anointed them and legitimised their successors; he instructed them in good kingship and in the absolute necessity of protecting the holy family – the paruchia – of Iona, in an everlasting bond which ensured their dynasty success in battle and their souls everlasting salvation in heaven.

In the meantime, Edwin’s conversion might have saved his soul, but he in turn was slain in battle in AD632 by Cadwallon of Gwynedd and Penda of Mercia.  Northumbria was apostatised. Its Catholic Christianity was only skin deep, and its old pagan sensibilities quickly became resurgent.  Chaos reigned for a year and, as Bede tells us, it was a year so infamous that ‘those who compute the dates of kings’ effaced it from history.

A year later, propelled by the vision of a new Iona in Northumbria, and by the recovery of his father’s old kingdom, Oswald (now aged 27) came to Heavenfield on Hadrian’s Wall with a small band of his father’s warriors, a party of Dál Riatan young bloods and, we suspect, a band of Ionan monks, hard as nails and bristling for a fight in the true cause.

Oswald raised a wooden cross and the night before battle, he saw a vision of Colm Cille. Spurred on, his motley crew fell on the battle-tough, booty-gorged army of King Cadwallon at Corbridge and utterly routed them.

Many a promise given in haste has been forgotten in retrospect.  Not so Oswald.  A year after Heavenfield he brought Bishop Aidan from Iona and, in imitation, founded the monastery, his ‘Iona in the East’, on Lindisfarne: an island remote from the cares of the world but well in sight of its kings at Bamburgh to remind them of their Christian duty.

This time the conversion was no mere skin-deep line-toeing exercise in political conformity: it was thorough, penetrating and effective.  Oswald was able, in his short reign of eight years, to bring many of the other English kingdoms under his overlordship; to begin the process of conversion of their kings; to develop a lasting and sincere relationship with Aidan – a paragon of subtle but effective management of Iona’s own Northumbrian king and his warrior élite.

Aidan’s church and Oswald’s kingship were rational: from the seed planted on Lindisfarne a state arose, engineered by Oswald’s brother and successor Oswy, in which royal lands donated to the church for the founding of monasteries created a network of stable communities investing in agriculture, engineering, the production of learning and of learned men.

It was the first post-Roman institution, and a landmark in the rebuilding of the English state after the Empire’s collapse. In time it became the civil service to a state, which could even survive the death of the king.

Since the founding of Lindisfarne, all the English kingdoms have been Christian states, and on such small fates as the exile of a 12 year-old boy is this history written.

Max’s book ‘The King in the North: The Life And Times Of Oswald Of Northumbria’ is published by Head of Zeus, and we thoroughly recommend it for anyone joining or following our excavations at Lindisfarne.

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Max Adams

Written by Max Adams

Max Adams is an archaeologist and author based in the North-East of England. He has written widely on the Early Medieval period and on great Northumbrians, and is an avid long-distance walker, musician and woodsman.

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