The Battle of Maserfelth
Bede writes affectionately of Oswald's wonderful piety; a king, saint, and martyr who unified Bernicia and Deria. But the 8th century historian only shows interest in two of Oswald's major battles which mark the beginning and end of his reign; the first, the victory at a place Bede calls in the English tongue Heavenfield in 634 AD, where Oswald defeated and killed the British king Cadwallon; the second, at Maserfelth, where Oswald himself was slain at the hands of the Mercian warlord Penda eight years later on 5th August 642 AD.2
In celebration of his victory Penda ordered that Oswald's head and forearms be hacked off and fixed on stakes. The Mercian must have had reasons for mutilating Oswald's corpse, in what bears indications of some sort of pagan sacrificial tradition of desecration.
|On the way to Oswald's Well in Oswestry|
Heavenfield has been identified as Denisesburna, near Hexham by Hadrian's Wall where Oswald erected a wooden cross as a place of worship prior to the battle. Today a replica of the cross stands beside the B6318 road near Hexham. Following Oswald's victory over Cadwallon the original cross soon became a secondary relic with pilgrims collecting splinters and placing them in water as a curative potion.
Since at least the 12th century Maserfelth has been identified with Oswestry in Shropshire, and it has remained the popular choice for the site of Oswald's martyrdom. Yet, although Reginald of Durham first recorded this connection in his vita of Oswald, c.1165 AD, Bede never made such a connection. The derivation of Oswestry from Old English Oswaldestreow, “Oswald's Tree” coupled with the Welsh name for Oswestry, Croesoswald, “Oswald's Cross”, it has received general acceptance.
|St Oswald's Well, Oswestry|
The Journeys of St Oswald's Relics
A year after the battle of Maserfelth Oswald's brother Oswiu journeyed to the battle site and collected Oswald's head and forearms. The head went to Lindisfarne priory and was interred with St Cuthbert, finally resting at Durham Cathedral where it remains to this day. An uncorrupted arm went to Bamburgh and Peterborough claimed another. The stake on which his head had been impaled at Maserfelth bacame a secondary relic and was later used to cure a man in Ireland
Some years later, between 675 – 697, Osthryth (Oswald's niece) collected his remains, presumably just the torso and legs, from the battlefield and brought them to Bardney Abbey in Lindsey (modern Lincolnshire).
When St Oswald's body (minus the head and forearms) was first brought to Bardney the monks refused to accept it, because the Abbey was in the Kingdom of Lindsey, a disputed territory, the war zone, between Northumbria and Mercia, which Oswald had once conquered. St Oswald's relics were locked outside the Abbey gates, but during the night a beam of light shone from his bier reaching up into the heavens. The monks declared that it was a miracle and accepted the body, hanging the King's Purple and Gold banner over the tomb. When the monks washed the bones the ground onto which the water fell is said to have gained curative powers. Bede records that when a boy with the fever kept vigil by the tomb he was cured of his illness. St Oswald's shrine at Bardney was later covered in gold and silver and embellished with jewels by King Offa of Mercia.
Bardney lies a long way from Oswestry; indeed it is on the otherside of the country. If the battle of Maserfelth was fought at Oswestry then is it conceivable that Osthryth could journey across country and retrieve Oswald's body some 30-50 years later? The same doubt must be expressed for Oswiu's earlier collection of the head and forearms; could the Northumbrian king travel, apparently freely and unchallenged, through a frontier zone, crossing the hostile realm of Merica to the battle site on the Welsh border?
|Oswald's Well, Oswestry|
Major conflicts between Northumbria and Mercia, such as Aethelfrith's final battle in 617, Edwin's demise in 633, Oswiu's defeat of Penda in 655, and the Mercian victory on the Trent in 679, were fought in this zone or along its periphery. Clarkson suggests that the lost battlefield of Maserfelth should be envisaged as a site in the Northeast Midlands.7
The recovery of Oswald's remains by Osthryth echoes a similar initiative undertaken by her sister Aelfflaed. Sometime after 680 AD the headless body of Edwin of Deira was discovered at the site of his final battle on Hatfield Chase, the location, apparently unknown to his kin although their Dieran territory shared a frontier with Hatfield, was finally provided by a local layman said to have lived in the vicinity of the battlefield. Aelfflaed shared the abbacy of Whitby Abbey with her mother Eanflaed. The relics became the focus of a cult at Whitby. Alan Thacker suggests that the finding and translation of the remains of Edwin and Oswald by two powerful women of the Northumbrian royal family is indicative of a single initiative rather than two distinct events.8
|The Eagle and St Oswald's arm, sculpture above the well, Oswestry|
The translation was seemingly to empower the new burh, sited in the ruins of the former Roman town. It would appear that Æthelflæd may have been responsible for the early development of Oswald cult here. The New Minster at Gloucester, made substantially of masonry from the ruins of Roman Glevum, was founded by Æthelflæd and her husband Æthelred in either the last years of the 9th century or the first decade of the 10th century at the same time as the new burh.
The translation of St Oswald's relics was not an isolated event; Æthelflæd is thought to have been responsible for the relocation of the relics of several saints during the early 10th century in the establishment of her defensive chain of burhs within Mercia.
St Werburg’s relics were brought to the church of St Peter and St Paul in Chester from Hanbury in Staffordshire, in 907 AD when it too became a burh. The relics of St Ealhmund were brought to Shrewsbury from Derby and those of St Guthlac were probably moved from Crowland to Hereford. Æthelflæd was also responsible for establishing the cult of St Bertelin, said to be a Mercian Prince, during the construction of the Stafford burh. Significantly, each of these saints had a connection with the Mercian nobility.
Significantly Werburg was the daughter of Wulfhere, a Christian convert, and the Kentish princess St Eormenilda, and granddaughter of Penda, the slayer of St Oswald.
Copyright © 2016 Edward Watson
Notes & References
1. The Anglo Saxon Chronicle, translation by Rev. James Ingram (London, 1823). Mirfield is situated on the north bank of the river Calder, near Huddersfield in west Yorkshire.
2. Bede - Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum (The Ecclesiastical History of the English People, 731 AD) Book 3.9.
3. Alby Stone, Penda the Pagan: Royal sacrifice and a Mercian king, Mercian Mysteries, No.16 August 1993.
4. Tim Clarkson, Locating Maserfelth, The Heroic Age, A Journal of Early Medieval Northwestern Europe, Issue 9 (Oct 2006); Stancliffe, Clare. 1995. Where was Oswald killed? In Oswald: Northumbrian king to European saint, edited by Clare Stancliffe and Eric Cambridge. Watkins, 1995.
5. Bede, HE 3.9.
6. According to AD Mills in the entry for 'Ashton' (A Dictionary of British Place-Names, Oxford University Press,2003) 'Makerfield' derives from the Celtic name for a 'wall' or 'ruin' and the Old English word 'feld' meaning 'open land'. Ashton-in-Makerfield, Lancashire, is in the parish of Winwick which is situated just north of Warrington on the Mersey. At Winwick the church is dedicated to St Oswald and bears an ancient inscription to the Saint. About a mile north of St Oswald's church at Winwick we find 'St Oswald's Well' in a field alongside the A573 road.
7. Tim Clarkson, Locating Maserfelth, The Heroic Age, A Journal of Early Medieval Northwestern Europe, Issue 9 (Oct 2006).
8. Alan Thacker, Alan, Membra disjecta: the division of the body and the diffusion of the cult. In Oswald: Northumbrian king to European saint, edited by Clare Stancliffe and Eric Cambridge, Watkins, 1995.
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