The Shrines of
St. Oswald, King of Northumbria
By David Nash Ford
S H R I N E S T O
S T. O S W A L D
The Man who reintroduced Christianity to the North
In the Kingdom of Northumbria, St. Oswald was a king
worthy of emulation by modern monarchs. The shrines of St.
Oswald were many, a natural sequence to the brutality of his
conqueror, King Penda of Mercia, who mutilated the body of his victim on the
battlefield (Heavenfield 5th August AD 642).
The arms and head of the dead king were impaled on stakes
until St. Oswald's successor, King Oswiu, removed them to various
localities. His head was buried at Lindisfarne and placed
within the coffin of St. Cuthbert, in which it remains to this
day, in the Cathedral at Durham. In the 14th century, Durham also claimed to have a
rib enclosed in a silver gilt image of Oswald. Further associated
relics there included his banner, ivory horn, ivory sceptre and
parts of his mail-shirt and the cross which he erected before
The arms of St. Oswald were enshrined in silver at
the Northumbrian Royal Seat of Bamburgh, traditionally in the Church
of St. Oswald. This no longer exists, bur appears
to have stood on the site of the present Castle Chapel. This chapel
along with the parish church, was later given to Nostell Priory
in West Yorkshire and, in the 13th century, the monks there claimed
hold a substantial portion of Oswald's body, presumably one of the arms.
The second, right and incorrupted, arm, blessed by St. Aidan, had been
stolen from Bamburgh by the monks of Peterborough Abbey (now the
Cathedral). Here it was preserved as one of the monastery's most
prized possessions, until lost or destroyed at the Reformation. St.
Paul's Cathedral in London also claimed an arm of St. Oswald, though
this may have been St. Oswald of Worcester.
St. Oswald's body, which had originally been buried on the field
of battle, was dug up by his neice, Queen Osthryth of Mercia, and
translated to Bardney Abbey in Lincolnshire some time in the 680s or 90s.
The story goes that the Mercian monks were not over-keen to welcome an
old enemy who had imposed his rule on them not so many years before.
The bones arrived at their gates on a cart, but they refused them
entry until persuaded by an unquestionable miracle. Having been
accepted, the relics were washed and the water poured away into a
corner of the sacristy. They were finally enshrined in a fine
feretory and covered with the King's gold and purple standard.
Not only this shrine, but also the dust from the dust from the
floor of the sacristy, became the source of many miracles and a
popular destination for pilgrims. The feretory became covered in
gold and silver and was bejewelled by King Offa of Mercia.
Thus the Bardney monks learnt to become quite attached to their
profitable acquisition; and, in the days of Norse piracy, were obliged
to resort to all sorts of expedients for the preservation of such a treasure.
The feretory was even saved from marauding Danes by Prior
Aethelwold secreting it in the straw of his bed. It was because of
such attacks that, in AD 909, St. Oswald's remains were
again translated by Queen Aelflaed of Mercia (daughter and ally of
King Alfred the Great), to St. Peter's Priory in Gloucester,
thenceforth known as St. Oswald's, where his shrine was a
conspicuous object of veneration until the sixteenth century.
Three bones were said to have remained at Bardney and there
were others claimed by monasteries across the country: at Bath,
Glastonbury, Reading, St. Albans, Christchurch (Hants), Tynemouth
and York. His cult was also popular abroad. St. Winnoc's monastery in Bergues (Flanders) claimed to have been given St. Oswald's body by King Harold Harefoot. This was burnt by protestants in 1558. St. Willibrord also recorded as having taken a number of the King's relics to Frisia and his foundation of Epternach (Luxemburg) once possessed a supposed head of St. Oswald. In the 11th century, Lady Judith, widow of Earl Tostig of Northumbria, also appears to taken some Oswaldian relics to the Continent. There are further rival head shrines, to those at Durham and Epternach: at Schaffhausen & Zug in Switzerland, Uhtrect (Netherlands) and Hildesheim (Germany). The magnificent shrine from the latter town's cathedral can now be seen in the Dom und Diozesanmuseum (see photo above).
Click for Christian Shrines of Britain