Oswald a Battle Martyr

Dan Graves, MSL

Oswald a Battle Martyr

The life of a King in most former ages was troubled and short. When Oswald's father, king of Northumbria, was killed by enemies, eleven-year-old Oswald fled to Scotland. There he took refuge with Columba's monks on the isle of Iona. The monks led him to Christ.

In 633 King Edwin of Northumbria perished in battle against Penda and Cadwallon. Oswald, who was either his nephew or brother, succeeded him to the throne. Cadwallon ravaged Northumbria and so Oswald marched against him. In Oswald's tiny force, few knew Christ or wanted to. On the eve of battle Oswald boldly set up a cross, holding it upright while dirt was packed into the hole dug for it. He then cried out, "Let us now kneel down and together pray to the almighty and only true God that he will mercifully defend us from our enemy; for He knows that we fight in defense of our lives and country."

That night while Oswald rested, Columba of Iona appeared to him in a vision, assuring him that he would have victory. Although enemy numbers were far greater than his own, Oswald won. The upshot was his people became willing to follow Christ.

Oswald restored order throughout Northumbria and brought missionaries from Scotland to teach his people. Chief among these was Aiden. Oswald himself offered to be Aiden's translator so that his people might hear and understand the gospel. Thousands became Christians. The isle of Lindisfarne was given Aiden for a Bishop's seat and a famous monastery grew up there. Churches sprang up all across Northumbria.

The King was famous for his prayerful spirit. So often did he praise God and lift petitions to him that even at meals he kept his hands in an attitude of prayer. In the few short years that he reigned, Oswald's kingdom gained such preeminence that all the other kings of England were subject to him.

Oswald's charity was great, but one instance particularly stands out because of subsequent events. Once he gave a silver dish with its contents of meat to the poor who clamored at his gate. Aidan blessed his hand for the deed, exclaiming, "May this hand never perish." Oddly it was preserved after Oswald's death and was seen in good condition 500 years later. The cross he erected was said to heal many who soaked little pieces of it in water and swallowed them for healing. Oswald journeyed through his lands, establishing his people in faith and freeing slaves, many of whom he made into monks.

Oswald's death came in battle. The pagan ruler, Penda of Mercia, who had earlier defeated Edwin, raised an army and on this day August 5, 642, met Oswald with overwhelming forces. Surrounded by enemies, Oswald prayed one last prayer--for God's mercy on the souls of his soldiers. He was considered a martyr because he died at the hand of a pagan while defending a Christian nation. He was named a saint.


  1. Butler. Lives of the Saints. Various editions.
  2. Latourette, Kenneth. History of the Expansion of Christianity. The Thousand Years of Uncertainty. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 1970.
  3. "Oswald, St." The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church. Edited by F. L. Cross and E. A. Livingstone. Oxford, 1997.
  4. Parker, S. Anselm. "St. Oswald." The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton, 1914.

Last updated April, 2007.

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