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St. Oswald's supposed Head-Shrine at Hildesheim (Germany)St. Oswald's Shrines
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 his death.

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).


    Nash Ford Publishing 2001. All Rights Reserved.