King Oswald and Saint Aidan

Oswald and Aidan : AD 633 – 655

Oswald, King of Northumbria, was from the Bernician dynasty which lived north of the Tees. King Edwin, who died in 633AD, was a rival from Deira (Yorkshire) and during Edwin’s reign, Oswald sought exile on the Christian island of Iona, where he learned about Christianity. Oswald remained a pagan, but his defeat of the Welsh at Hexham in 634AD persuaded him to convert. Before the battle, he prayed to the Christian God for victory. His prayers were seemingly answered. Oswald employed a monk from Iona called Aidan to become Bishop of his people. Aidan chose Lindisfarne as the centre of his bishopric.

St Aidan sculpture, Lindisfarne.
St Aidan sculpture, Lindisfarne. Photo © David Simpson 2015.

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633 – Enemy takes Mercian crown

Penda celebrates his victory over King Edwin of Northumbria and becomes King of Mercia (the Midlands). Penda becomes one of the most powerful kings in the country along with his Welsh ally Caedwalla who claims the throne of Deira.

633 – North returns to paganism

Eanfrith, a pagan son of Æthelfrith, is the new but only in Berniciam Osric (a nephew of Aelle, the first Deiran king) becomes king in Deira. Northumbria reverts to paganism. St Paulinus, the Christian Bishop of York who had been a missionary of King Edwin returns to Kent.

634 – King Oswald

King Eanfrith, the eldest son of Æthelfrith, is killed by his younger brother Oswald who has returned from exile on Iona. Oswald, a Bernician becomes king of all Northumbria.

King Oswald depicted in stained glass in Durham Cathedral
King Oswald depicted in stained glass in Durham Cathedral © David Simpson 2021

635 – Oswald victory at Heavenfield

Oswald heavily defeats Penda of Mercia and the Welsh under Caedwalla at the battle of Heavenfield in the Chollerford area near Hexham, not far from Hadrian’s Wall  (today the battlefield is marked by a cross and a small chapel). The victory leaves Oswald undisputed over king (Bretwalda) of all England, a title previously held by King Edwin. Before the battle, he had asked his men to pray to God and is convinced that the Christian faith helped bring victory.

Site of the Battle of Heavenfield
Site of the Battle of Heavenfield Photo © David Simpson

635 – Lindisfarne monastery

King Oswald is determined to reintroduce Christianity to the North-East and he employs St Aidan, an Irish monk from the Scottish island of Iona, to convert Northumbria to Celtic Christianity. Aidan establishes a monastery on the island of Lindisfarne and becomes the first Bishop of Lindisfarne. Celtic Christianity is slightly different to the Roman style of Christianity introduced by Paulinus under King Edwin. These differences are largely subtle and presentational but they will be resolved at the Synod of Whitby in 664.

Lindisfarne Church
Church at Lindisfarne, the Holy Island © 2015 David Simpson

638 – Northumbrians attack Lothians

The Lothians and Edinburgh are besieged and captured by Oswald who adds them to Northumbria. Edinburgh was the chief fortress of an ancient British tribe called the Gododdin.

640 – Monastery at Hartlepool

A monastery has been established on the coastal headland at Hartlepool by Hieu, an Irish princess, who becomes the first abbess.

Hartlepool Headland viewed from Seaton Carew beach
Hartlepool Headland viewed from Seaton Carew beach © David Simpson 2022

642 – Oswald completes York Minster

Oswald completes the work begun by King Edwin on St Peter’s Church in York. It is a predecessor of the current York Minster.

Aug 5, 642 – Oswald killed at Masserfelth

Oswald is killed in battle at Maserfelth (now called Mackerfield between Wigan and Warrington) fighting against Penda of Mercia. Some sources place the battle site at Oswestry in Shropshire.

St Cuthbert depicted on Darlington church
St Cuthbert depicted on Darlington parish church. The saint (as here) is often symbolically depicted holding the head of St Oswald, the King of Northumbria. Relics of the king and other saints were considered precious and even magical © David Simpson 2021

642 – King Oswy

Oswald is succeeded by his brother, Oswy as King of Northumbria.

643 – Mercia takes Northumbrian land

Penda of Mercia seizes Northumbrian land in Deira, Lincolnshire and Elmet near Leeds. He placed these under the rule of Osric, a grandson of Edwin. Splitting Northumbria in two. Elmet is the name of a later surviving Celtic kingdom that had had been absorbed by Northumbria.

644 – Oswine King of Deira

Oswine succeeds his father Osric as King of Deira.

649 – Hilda of Hartlepool

Hieu, the founder and abbess of the monastery at Hartlepool, has been succeeded by St Hilda (or Hild).

Church of St Hilda, Old Hartlepoo
Church of St Hilda, Old Hartlepool © David Simpson 2022

651 – Aidan dies at Bamburgh

St Aidan dies in the church at Bamburgh. He is succeeded by Bishop Finan. Meanwhile, a boy called Cuthbert sees the death of Aidan in a vision while shepherding on the moors near the Tweed. Cuthbert decides to become a monk and joins the monastery of Mel rose.

Bamburgh Castle
Bamburgh Castle © David Simpson 2018

651 – Deiran king murdered at Catterick

Oswine, King of Deira, is murdered after backing down from military confrontation with Oswy of Bernicia at Wilfar’s Hill near Catterick. Oswine’s hiding place at Gilling is discovered by one of Oswy’s men and he is killed. Oswine is (supposedly) buried at Tynemouth.

651 – Deiran ‘sub king’

Oswy is King of Northumbria and claims Deira on the strength of his marriage to Eanfled, daughter of the late King Edwin. However, Oswy, appoints another Bernician, his nephew Æthelwald, (the son of Oswald), as King of Deira but only as a subordinate king.

652 – Pagan attacks Northumbria

Penda, the pagan king of Mercia, attacks Northumbria as far as Bamburgh in an alliance with Æthelwald, King of Deira.

Bamburgh Castle and village
Bamburgh © David Simpson 2018

653 – Pictish king is Oswy’s nephew

The Picts, who live in central and eastern Scotland, elect Talorgen, a nephew of the Northumbrian King Oswy, as their king.

653 – Goat’s Head : Gateshead on Tyne

Uttan is the abbot at the monastery of Ad Caprae Caput on the south bank of the River Tyne. Ad Caprae Caput means Goat’s Head (Gateshead). It may refer to some kind of totem signifying a meeting place.

654 – Lastingham Priory founded

Lastingham Priory has been founded by St Cedd in North Yorkshire.

Nov 15, 655 – Welsh and Mercians defeated

The Mercians and Welsh are defeated in battle near Leeds. Penda, King of Mercia, and 30 enemy chieftains are killed. Many Mercians are drowned in a nearby river as they try to escape.

655 – Oswy seizes north Mercia

Oswy, king of Northumbria, is proclaimed Bretwalda or ‘overking’ of all England. He appoints Penda’s son Peada as King of Mercia south of the Trent. Oswy takes north Mercia for himself.

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