The Heroic Age

Issue 4

Winter 2001

Oswald and the Irish

By Michelle Ziegler

Belleville IL US

Abstract: To understand King Oswald of Bernicia (r. 634/5-642), it is vital to understand his relationship with the Irish kingdom of Dalriada, which in his lifetime straddled the Irish Sea with territory in Ireland and Scotland. Ramifications of Oswald's exile in Dalriada extended into the secular and ecclesiastical world of Bernicia and beyond.


Oswald and Ireland
Constructed Kinship
Oswald Becomes King
Irish Influence at Heavenfield and the Battle of Denisesburn
The Battle of Mag Rath
The Ionan Mission to Bernicia
The Last Years of Oswald and Domnall Brecc
Addendum added in proof
Figure 1: Map of Northern Ireland
Figure 2: Dalriadan-Bernician Genealogy
Figure 3: Map of North Britain

The relationship between Oswald of Bernicia and the Irish kingdom of Dalriada (Dál Riata) is of critical importance to the understanding of his reign, and, indeed, to the history of seventh century Britain. Through Dalriada, Oswald made contact with other Irish tribes in Ireland. Irish influence seeped into both the secular and ecclesiastical societies of Bernicia and eventually throughout all of Bernicia's territories.

Oswald son of Æthelfrith, King of Bernicia, was the dominant king in Britain during his reign from 634/5 to 642. Adomnan of Iona's assessment that Oswald became "emperor of the whole of Britain" generally confirms Bede's assessment that "he held under his sway all peoples and kingdoms of Britain, divided among the speakers of four different languages, British, Pictish, Irish, and English"[1]. If Oswald's overkingdom did extend to Dalriada, then he managed to accomplish a remarkable feat. To become the overlord of a king who had given him refuge while in exile is remarkable. As we shall see, Oswald's relationship with Dalriada was complex and mutually beneficial.

Oswald's relationship with the Scots evolved through many phases. As a young child, Oswald's father Æthelfrith was the overking of at least North Britain, possibly including Dalriada. The year before Oswald's birth in 604, Æthelfrith defeated Aedan of Dalriada at the battle of Degsastan in central southern Scotland. Yet when Æthelfrith was slain in 616, King Eochaid mac Aedan of Dalriada accepted the exiled Oswald and his siblings, giving them refuge from Edwin of Deira. Oswald and his siblings remained in Dalriada for 17 years, converting to Christianity on Iona (Adomnan 1.1, Anderson & Anderson 1991:17) and possibly fighting for the Irish kings (Moisl 1983)[2].

Oswald and Ireland

Oswald's relationship with Ireland was channeled through his relationship with Dalriada during his period of exile. The Dalriadan people were known as Érainn or Cruthni and were originally members of the Irish overkingdom of Ulaid (Byrne 1973:107-108). By the early sixth century the Dalriadan kings had moved to Scotland while retaining their ancestral lands in Northern Ireland (Byrne 1973: 107-108,120-121). The ancestral Dalriadan territory was sandwiched between the more powerful tribes of the Ulaid and the Northern Ui Neill. From c. 575, Dalriada had been allied with Cenél Conaill of the Northern Ui Neill against the Ulaid. It is possible that Oswald and his siblings spent a considerable amount of time during their exile in Irish Dalriada. Spending time there would have been a safe option during the height of Edwin's power. It is also possible that Oswald and his siblings were well known in the territory of Dalriada's Ui Neill allies, Cenél nEógain and Cenél Conaill (St. Columba's kindred)[3].

In 622, Domnall Brecc [4], son of King Eochaid led a retinue from Dalriada to aid Conall (d. 635) son of Suibne of the Southern Ui Neill at Cend Delgthen in Meath (Bannerman 1974:100). This is the only victory ever recorded for Domnall Brecc and he was not yet king, but possibly leading his father's forces. It is possible that the Bernician princes were part of his retinue. Oswald would have been about seventeen at the time.



Figure 1: Map of Northern Ireland

Click on the map to enlarge.

In 627, Connad Cerr son or nephew of Eochaid was victorious against Fiachna son of Demmain of Dál Fiatach (of the Ulaid) in the battle of Ard Corann. Connad appears to have been sub-king of Irish Dalriada at the time (Bannerman 1974:97-98). According to the Annals of Clonmacnoise, the battle was fought to revenge the death of Fiachna son of Beatain, king of Dál nAraide[5], at the battle of Lethet Midind (Bannerman 1974:97-98). Considering the involvement of the Bernician princes in Conall's next battle, it is possible that Oswald and his brothers also fought at Ard Corann. Oswald would have been twenty-four years old at the time.

In 629, Oswald's protector Eochaid son of Aedan king of Dalriada died. He was succeeded by Conall Cerr. Within a few months of taking the throne Conall was at war again. This time Conall was involved in an internal dispute among the Dál nAraide at Fid-Eoin since both his allies and his enemies were from the Dál nAraide of the Cruthin (Ulaid). It must have been an important battle to all of Dalriada because so many members of the ruling dynasty fell. Not only was the king, Conall Cerr, killed but also Failbe son of Eochaid son of Aedan, their cousin Riguallan son of Conaing son of Aedan, and "Oisiric mac Albruit rigdomna Saxa cum strage maxima suorun" (Osric son of Albruit prince of Saxons with very great devistation to his men, Annals of Tigernach 629, Bannerman 1974:98). This Osric son of Albruit, prince (rigdomna = ætheling) of the Saxons, has not been identified but the entry is ether a garbled memory of a son of Æthelfrith (also called Albruit in the Historia Brittonum) or he was a cousin of Oswald (Bannerman 1974:99, Ziegler 1999). If one Anglian prince was present then it is possible that most of them were there including Oswald, by then age twenty-five. The only mention of Oswald in Ireland, however, is his inclusion in a mythical tale that lists three English leaders, Ósalt [Oswald], Osbrit [Osfrith or Osberht] and Lindas [*Lindæsc] among the retinue of Conaire, a mythical king of Tara (Moisl 1983:110-111). Nonetheless, it is possible that Oswald and several of his brothers fought in Ireland (Moisl 1983: 111-112) and that Oswald may have made his reputation among the exiled Angles in these battles. After the battle of Fid Eoin, Domnall Brecc became king of Dalriada.

Constructed Kinship

During his exile in Dalriada, Oswald possibly gained up to three different types of constructed kinship with the family of Eochaid Bude. When Domnall Brecc's father Eochaid Bude gave Oswald and Oswiu refuge, they were minors, age 12 and age 4 respectively. It is possible that Eochaid considered their refuge as a type of fosterage. In both the Anglo-Saxon and Irish world, fosterage was a type of constructed kinship[6]. Among the Anglo-Saxons, fosterage was a relatively weak form of constructed kinship but was a "pre-eminent form" among the Irish (Charles-Edwards 1997:179), in whose eyes Oswald could have been considered Domnall Brecc's foster-brother. In addition, it is possible that Eochaid Bude had stood as godfather for the children of Æthelfrith (Ziegler 1999). It is also probable that Oswald had married a woman from Eochaid Bude's family during his long exile (discussed below). Thus, Oswald may have had constructed kinship ties to Eochaid's kindred by fosterage, baptism and marriage. In the case of kinship by baptism, Oswald would have been in the junior position but this would have been less so following the death of Eochaid Bude in 629. It is possible that Oswald and Domnall had an equal relationship as foster brothers and through marriage.


Figure 2: Dalriada-Bernician Genealogy

Click the figure to enlarge.


Oswald may have married a kinswoman of Domnall Brecc during his exile in Dalriada (Ziegler 1999) (See Figure 2). Oswald was thirty-one years old when he became king in 635 and may possible have married and had children by then. A marriage between Oswald and the family of Eochaid Bude would have been an expected outcome of his long refuge in Dalriada (Ziegler 1999). Oswald's only known son Oethelwald was perhaps born to an Irish wife during his exile in Dalriada (Ziegler 1999). When Oswald married Cynegils' daughter in 635 (or slightly later), he must have been a widower. He could hardly have set aside or repudiated a kinswoman of any of the northern kings no matter how badly he needed a southern alliance. Further marriages may have been arranged between the kin of Domnall Brecc and Oswald's surviving brothers and sisters.

One of these marriages may have been between a sister of Oswald's, possibly Æbbe, and Domnall Brecc. (See Figure 2) The Anonymous Life of Cuthbert is the only source that specifically refers to Abbess Æbbe as a "widow" (Colgrave 1940:81). When Bede revised the Life of Cuthbert, the reference to her widowhood was removed and he curiously avoids the subject. Elsewhere, Bede is eager to mention dedicated virgins so his silence is telling. According to the Breviary of Aberdeen, Æbbe took the veil from Bishop Finan of Lindisfarne [7] (Anderson 1922: 142). By then she must have been at least 35 years old, supporting the notion that she was a widow. It is possible that she waited from Domnall's death in 642 until at least 651 not only because her brother Oswiu appears to have had a poor relationship with Bishop Aidan but also because she had very young children in Dalriada that she was unwilling to leave until they were older. Eventually, she became the Abbess of Coldingham, the northernmost known Bernician double monastery.

Late traditions claim that Æbbe would have been given in marriage to Domnall Brecc (or was pursued by an Irish king wishing to marry her) if she had not been dedicated to the church [8]. Could this tradition have been developed to end rumors that she had been the wife of an Irish king, who could only be Domnall Brecc? With a seventeen-year exile in Dalriada, Æbbe would have approached marriageable age in Dalriada no matter what age she was at the time of her father's death in 616 [9]. Whether or not Æbbe married Domnall Brecc, a marriage between a sister of Oswald and Domnall would have been highly advantageous and been part of the healing process between Dalriada and Bernicia after Eanfrith's reign.

Oswald Becomes King

Oswald's kingship in Bernicia was unexpected. In October 633, Oswald and his siblings left their seventeen year exile in Dalriada and Pictland under the leadership of the eldest brother Eanfrith who succeeded to the throne of Bernicia. Bede states that the sons of Æthelfrith were "allowed" to return. Stancliffe (1995:48) believes that Cadwallon allowed Eanfrith to become king but it seems more possible that they were allowed to return by their Dalriadan and Pictish hosts who could have refused to release them from their service. It has been suggested that the sons of Æthelfrith were allies of Cadwallon against Edwin (Kirby 1991:86-87) but there is no evidence to support this. News of Edwin's death would have spread like wildfire and upon that news the sons of Æthelfrith would have been quick to act. In the spring of 634, Cadwallon of Gywnedd slew Osric King of Deira "and after this he occupied the Northumbrian kingdoms for a whole year, not ruling them like a victorious king but ravaging them like a savage tyrant" (Bede 3.1, McClure & Collins 1994:110). The Annals of Tigernach (AT) and the Annals of Ulster (AU) indicate that there was a battle between Cadwallon and Eanfrith (Anderson 1922:158). Eanfrith then went to a parley with Cadwallon only to be beheaded [10]. On his death in the spring or summer of 635 (Higham 1997:206), Oswald was elected king of Bernicia and given the responsibility of attacking Cadwallon [11].



Figure 3: Map of Northern Britain

Click the figure to enlarge.

Oswald and Cadwallon clashed at Denisesburn near Hexham where Cadwallon was slain and his forces were dispersed (Bede 3.2, McClure & Collins 1994:111-112). His success in slaying Cadwallon, the overlord of at least the Britons, Mercia, and Deira, vaulted Oswald into the role of overlord of the Anglo-Saxons and at least the northern British virtually on the day he slew Cadwallon (Higham 1997:209). As will be discussed below, it is arguable that there were Irishmen with Oswald at Denisesburn.

Oswald appears to have moved quickly in his first year. He reunited Bernicia and Deira, possibly through his claim as the son of Acha, daughter of King Ælle of Deira and Edwin's sister, but most likely through force of arms [12]. Oswald subsequently sent to Iona for a missionary bishop, arranged marriage alliances with the British[13] and began negotiations with the southern Anglo-Saxons. Oswald's quick actions suggest years of planning and perhaps guidance by an elder, more experienced king who may have been none other than Domnall Brecc.


Irish Influence at Heavenfield and the Battle of Denisesburn

The relationship between Oswald and Domnall may be the key to the latter's hold on the Dalriadan throne even though he recorded only losses in battle throughout his thirteen-year reign. It is possible that Domnall was able to claim much of the credit for the victory at Denisesburn (Stancliffe 1995:48). Oswald had possibly fought for Dalriada before (Moisl 1983:110-112) and Domnall may have supplied a large percentage of Oswald's retinue despite John of Fordun's claims that he would not support the Bernicians against Cadwallon. The execution of Domnall's dependent Eanfrith may have been enough to make Domnall break with the Britons.

The characteristics of seventh century armies and warbands differed significantly from those of later medieval armies. In general, armed groups were small and very personal affairs. According to the laws of King Ine of Wessex (AD 688-726), a band was an armed group of seven to thirty-five men, while an army was any group larger than thirty-five (Evans 1997:27, Attenborough 1922: 41). It is difficult to estimate the size of an average army but 100-300 would be in the general range reflected by literature and archaeology (Evans 1997: 27-32). Great kingdoms such as Northumbria, Mercia, Gwynedd, Dalriada [14] and the Picts, could field much larger armies by drawing on the manpower of subject kingdoms. These larger armies would be composed of numerous warbands loyal to local leaders who were clients of a king who might himself be subordinate to an overking (Evans 1997:34-35)[15].

Leaders of warbands were able to recruit warriors from different lands to their cause or accept volunteers as the fame of the warband grew [16]. However, the core of the warband was composed of members of the lord's kinship group, and, in the case of a king, the leading counselors, warlords, and subkings were kinsmen, although non-kinsman who were valued members of the warband could reach these positions.

The relationship between a lord and his retainers was very personal, a matter of loyalty, involving customary duties and obligations between lord and retainer. A retainer had an obligation to follow his lord in whatever venture the lord chose, to go into exile with the lord if necessary, to die before his lord in battle and, if he survived his lord on the battlefield; he was obligated to seek vengeance . The willingness to endure hardship with their lord illustrates that these warriors were not mercenaries . Although kinship remained important at all levels of society, the relationship between the lord and his retainer became more important than between the retainer and his own kin . Fosterage was also an important avenue for young nobles to make ties that would later be important in developing their own warbands and political ties . The lord-retainer relationship only ended with the death of one of the partners and possibly not even then: when Æthelfrith died in battle in 616 and his warriors could not seek effective vengeance against Edwin, the loyalty of many of them must have transferred to his sons and other kinsman. Many of Æthelfrith's sons were too young to prosper alone in exile; their father's retainers must have guided and protected them [17]. Loyal and honored warriors became valued counselors to their lord and, in the case of Æthelfrith's young sons, to their lord's heirs [18]. Given what we know about seventh century warband structure, his father's fall and his own exile in Dalriada, we can make an informed guess at the composition of Oswald's warband when he came to the throne on his brother's death and faced the most important battle of his life.

It is reasonable to suggest that Oswald's army or warband on the eve of the battle of Denisesburn would have been composed largely of Irish-influenced Angles or Irishmen [19]. There may have been two or three tiers of warriors, ranked by status according to their closeness and trustworthiness to Oswald. We might envision an upper tier, his personal warband, consisting of the Bernician retainers who had accompanied him into exile in Dalriada, together with their sons. Since the battle of Denisesburn was fought 19 years after Æthelfrith's death and Oswald's entry into exile, sons born to these warriors were arguably old enough to take their place in the warband. Some of them may have been half-Irish. Additionally, due to the lengthy period of exile, most of the experienced adult warriors who left Bernicia in 616 may have been too old or too infirm to fight in 635. The upper tier of the warband may therefore have been composed of those Angles who went into exile young or who were born in exile, and by Irishmen who joined Oswald's warband due to personal friendship or obligations. Oswald may have fought alongside some of these Irishmen since he received his arms as a teenager. The warband's second tier may have been represented by warriors loyal to Domnall Brecc, sent by him in 633 to aid Oswald in returning to Bernicia. These warriors may have returned home by 635 but with Cadwallon still at large they might have remained until Oswald's conflict with Cadwallon was resolved. The fact that Eanfrith initially gained the throne over Oswald may have encouraged the Irish warriors to remain longer to enforce Oswald's position relative to Eanfrith, with Eanfrith's decision to reject Christianity further polarizing the two retinues. The warband's third tier would have been composed of Bernician warriors who had not gone into exile with the Æthelfrithings but who joined them in the face of Cadwallon's onslaught, together with the remainder of Eanfrith's retinue.[20] The remnant of Eanfrith's warband may have been driven to avenge its lord at Denisesburn but the allegiance of any non-Bernician (presumably Pictish[21]) members may have been questionable after the battle. Once vengeance for Eanfrith's death had been achieved they may have felt free to leave if they did not support Oswald. However, Oswald may have regarded patronage of these Pictish warriors as a means of gaining diplomatic support from Pictland.

Oswald's pious actions on the eve or morning of the battle of Denisesburn -- the vision of St. Columba granting victory and the erection of a cross in the camp -- takes on an entirely different significance in light of the composition of his retinue [22]. Oswald had to rally all his troops despite their diverse belief systems and do so in a manner that was consistent with his own beliefs. He would have utilized any pagan warrior-based cult that could adapted to his own Christian beliefs. Germanic pagan religion was not codified and was adaptable to fit the leader's situation at the moment (Tolley 1995: 153). The events from his battle camp at Heavenfield described by Adomnan and Bede give us our best guide to Oswald's state of mind and how he negotiated these tricky waters but all is not what it seems in either account.

Beginning with Bede, we get our most substantial information.

"The place is called in English Heavenfield, and in Latin Caelestis campus, a name which it certainly received in days of old as an omen of future happenings; it signified that the heavenly sign was to be erected there, a heavenly victory won, and that heavenly miracles were to take place there continuing to this day" (Bede III.2, McClure & Collins 1994:111-112).

Bede clearly indicates that Oswald's campsite was known as Heavenfield long before he erected the cross and prayed there. Therefore, it was an old pagan holy site. The name Heavenfield has suggested that it was associated with the Anglian "world tree" (Tolley 1995:156, North 1997:286-7). Trees were often associated with meeting places , a prime example being "Augustine's Oak", the location of an ecclesiastical conference in southern Britain during the reign of Oswald's father Æthelfrith (Tolley 1995:164). Given that Heavenfield was an ancient holy place and well known to the Bernicians, it is likely that Oswald sent out calls for his troops to consolidate at the site rather than the army finding itself there by chance.

The most obvious odd feature about Bede's account is Oswald's personal involvement with erecting the cross and leading the prayer.

"it is related that when the cross had been hastily made and the hole dug in which it was to stand, he seized the cross himself with the ardour of his faith, placed it in the hole, and held it upright with both hands until the soldiers had heaped up the earth and fixed it in position. Thereupon he raised his voice and called out to the whole army, 'Let us all kneel together and pray to the almighty, everliving, and true God to defend us in His mercy from the proud and fierce enemy; for he knows we are fighting a just cause for the preservation of our whole race'23. They all did as he commanded, and advanced against the enemy just as dawn was breaking, and gained victory that their faith merited." (Bede 3.2, McClure & Collins 1994:111).

This personal involvement, rather than calling on a Christian priest or monk, is a reflection of Germanic paganism where the king was the leader of religious practices (Chaney 1970). The cross itself could be seen as an adapted form of the "world tree" itself or cult-pillars (Chaney 1970:117). Crosses and pillars were used throughout the Germanic world as analogs of the "world tree" and crosses were called the "Tree of Life" by Christians from the earliest times (Tolley 1995:161-7). In a conflict between Charlemagne and the pagan Continental Saxons in 772, it was recorded that the Saxons created an ad hoc small-scale version of their sacred pillar, Irminsul, to rally the troops and later used it as a focal point of their victory celebrations (Tolley 1995:158-160). It seems that Oswald was creating a similar focal point, turned to Christian uses, to rally his troops. Oswald's subsequent victory would have confirmed that the Christian cross was an acceptable adaptation of their sacred world tree.

Adomnan's account of Oswald's vision of St. Columba informs us more of the depth of his conversion.

"While this King Oswald was camped ready for battle, he was asleep on a pillow in his tent one day when he had a vision of St. Columba. His appearance shone with angelic beauty, and he seemed so tall that his head touched the clouds and, as he stood in the middle of the camp, he covered all of it except one far corner with his shining robe. The blessed man revealed his name to the king and gave him these words of encouragement, the same the Lord spoke to Joshua, saying "Be strong and act manfully. Behold, I will be with thee." In the kings vision Columba said this, adding: 'This coming night go out from your camp into battle, for the Lord has granted me that at this time your foes shall be put to flight and Cadwallon your enemy will be delivered into your hands and you shall return victorious after battle and reign happily". (Adomnan 1.1, Sharpe 1995:110-111).

I would suggest that Oswald had subconsciously equated Columba with Woden. Woden was the Germanic all-father who granted victory and adopted slain warriors (North 1997:78-110, Chaney 1970: 7-42). Columba is clearly granting victory and Oswald would clearly have believed that Columba would be with him in battle. Oswald would have known from his time in exile that Columba's prayers had been credited with giving victory to King Aedan at the battle of Maithi (Adomnan1.8; Anderson & Anderson 1991:119)[24]. The importance Oswald placed on this vision accounts for his recounting it to Abbot Ségéne,

"My predecessor, our Abbot Failbe, related all this to me, Adomnan, without question. He swore that he had heard the story of the vision from the lips of King Oswald himself as he was relating it to Abbot Ségéne." (Adomnan 1.1, Sharpe 1995:111).

The huge size of Columba in the vision is clearly superhuman and Columba could be seen as the father of the Christians of Dalriada[25]. North (1997: 339-340) suggests that the cult of the war god was strong in Bernicia based on Æthelfrith's actions and the frequency of the Os- name element in the family. The effect of a Woden-like image is reflected in the response to Oswald's vision.

"the king awoke and described his vision to the assembled council. All were strengthened by this, and the whole people promised that after their return from battle they would accept the faith and receive baptism." (Adomnan 1.1, Sharpe 1995:111)

The combination of the adapted world tree as the cross and the Woden-like Columba vision would have been powerful symbols of the strength of Oswald's new faith and may have aided the conversion. It is likely that both of these events were recorded in saga form and related to the people during the period Irish missionary activity[26].

While Oswald clearly retained a Germanic worldview, he had also fully integrated Christianity into it. He was a true convert. The Irish church had done its job well. The reflections of his Germanic culture in both of these events increase the likelihood that the vision and erection of the cross were true events rather than ecclesiastical propaganda. Oswald's integration of Irish religion into his worldview suggests that he had also integrated much of Irish culture during his exile.

The Battle of Mag Rath

The battle of Mag Rath [Moria, Country Down, Ireland] in 637 would also involve Oswald in Irish politics. The battle of Mag Rath was fought by a coalition led by Conal, king of the Dál nAraide, accompanied by Cenél nEógain of the Northern Ui Neill and Dalriada against Domnall son of Aed of Cenél Conaill, a member of a rival branch of the Northern Ui Neill and high-king of Ireland (Bannerman 1974:101). According to the late and legendary cycle that sprung up around the battle, Saxons fought in alliance with Dalriada (Moisl 1983:119). This could amount to nothing more than a few Anglian exiles remaining in Dalriada for one reason or another after Oswald returned to Bernicia. As mentioned earlier, it is possible that there were Irishmen in Oswald's retinue. It does not seem implausible that, conversely, some Angles remained in Domnall Brecc's retinue [27]. However, we can not rule out that Oswald might have sent warriors to Domnall's aid. On the same day as the battle was fought at Mag Rath, another naval battle was fought off the coast of Kintrye, between Aed's Cenél Conaill forces and the Cenél nEógain with their Dalriadan allies (Byrne 1973:113). It is possible that the bulk of Domnall's involvement was actually in this battle rather than at Mag Rath itself. Both of these defeats were devastating to the Dalriadans and they may have lost control of their ancestral territory in Ireland as a result (Bannerman 1974:102). This battle ended Ulaid claims to the kingship of Tara and established the Ui Neill as the real power in Northern Ireland (Byrne 1973:114).

A possible point of contact between Oswald, Ireland and the events of 637 is the birth of Oswald's nephew Flann Fina, also known as Aldfrith, son of his younger brother Oswiu. The Irish genealogies claim that Flann Fina's mother was a noble woman of Cenél nEógain (Ireland 1991:77). Oswiu could have come in contact with a woman from Cenél nEógain during his exile or during the mid to late 630s when they were in alliance with Dalriada against Cenél Conaill. However, the naval battle in which Cenél nEógain and Dalriada fought in alliance was not the first sign of close ties between these groups. According to one version of the genealogies, Flann Fina's mother was Fin daughter of Colman Rimid (d. 604) son of Báetán, king of Cenél nEógain and high-king of Ireland (Ireland 1991, Byrne 1973:259-260). Colman's brother was Mael Umai (Maeluma, d. 610) son of Báetán who fought in alliance with king Aedan of Dalriada against Æthelfrith of Bernicia in the battle of Degsastan in 603 and slew Æthelfrith's brother Eanfrith [28] (Byrne 1973:259, Bannerman 1974:87). Given that Dalriada and Cenél nEógain were allied in 603 and again in 637 the alliance may have been continuous. It is therefore possible that Flann Fina was born before Oswald and Oswiu returned to Bernicia in 633, although any time between c. 630 and 637 is possible. It is difficult to see Oswiu remaining in Dalriada beyond 633 especially since he married Rheinmellt of Rheged during this time, possibly c. 635, and they had two children, Alhfrith and Alhflæd, both old enough to be married in the early 650s. It has been suggested that Y Gododdin associates Oswiu with a siege of Eden, noted in the annals under the year 638 (Koch 1997:187). Alternatively, it is possible that Flann Fina was born in c. 650 [29], although this seems less possible.

Oswald's role in the events surrounding the battle of Mag Rath is not easily explained. It is possible that some Angles were present in Domnall's retinue but they could have been Angles who never left Dalriada [30] rather than men sent from Oswald's retinue. The likelihood of intermarriage between the Dalriadan elite and the Bernician exiles makes it difficult to identify particular groups of warriors as either Angles or Scots.


After the battle of Mag Rath, Abbot Cummine of Iona (d. 669) claims Dalriada passed under foreign domination [31]. Since Adomnan did not exempt Dalriada from his assessment that Oswald was the "emperor of the whole of Britain" it is possible that it was Oswald who initially dominated Dalriada after 637 (Anderson & Anderson 1991:xxv-xxvi). On balance it is most arguable that Oswald intervened after the battle to prevent Dalriada from becoming subordinate to the Ui Neill. This was not only a protectionary measure for Dalriada but also for the good of Oswald's domain since the alternative would have allowed the high-king of Ireland to gain a foothold in Britain.

Stancliffe (1995: 39) suggests that Oswald's Irish influence allowed him to accept

"an agreement with Dál Riata and the Picts of the type known in Irish sources which would require a limited amount of military service, under specific conditions, and perhaps some entitlement of hospitality but which would have been perceived as honorable and therefore acceptable even by subject peoples in a way that the tribute-exacting overlordship asserted later by Oswy and Ecgfrith was not."

It is possible that Oswald's agreement with Domnall before the battle of Mag Rath was the reverse of this situation. Moisl (1983:119) found it suspicious that Domnall chose to break his alliance with the Ui Neill at Mag Rath only after Oswald was firmly in control of Bernicia. Oswald's support of Domnall Brecc may have extended to the loan of troops for the battle of Mag Rath (Moisl 1983:119). It is probable that after Mag Rath, Domnall had to share the kingship with Ferchar son of Conadd Cerr (Anderson & Anderson 1991:xxii-xxiii) and may have lost control of Dalriada's territory in Ireland (Bannerman 1974:7). It may have even been Oswald who forced Domnall Brecc to accept Ferchar as a joint king. Bernician hegemony over Dalriada lasted the remainder of Oswald's reign [32].

If Oswald did accept this type of overlordship, it may explain why Bede claimed that Oswiu was the first to dominate and demand tribute from Dalriada and the Picts while he also claimed that his predecessor Oswald was the overlord of the Picts and Scots [33]. Oswald's overlordship, at least in the north, was based on personal obligations and kinship ties between rulers but Oswiu's overlordship was tribute-exacting domination which, if we can use his involvement in Mercia as an example, violated the sovereignty of the subject king by directly interfering at a local level within the subject kingdom [34].

The Ionan Mission to Bernicia

Soon after the battle of Denisesburn in 634/5, Oswald sent to Iona for a missionary to Bernicia, a request that should be viewed in the context of the times. It is probable that the adoption of Eochaid and Domnall's religion was a requirement of the exiles being given refuge in Dalriada and they may have been expected to promote Christianity in Bernicia when they returned (Ziegler 1999).

The relationship between Bernicia and Christian Dalriada would have been strained by Eanfrith's return to the Anglo-Saxon gods [35]. Such reversions were common (Yorke 1999:161-162) but the Christian king of Dalriada would have viewed it more in a political context, a challenge to the overlordship he deserved in return for his protection of Eanfrith's kinsmen during their exile. How much damage this did to their relationship is unknown. We know that the Ionan church had baptized Eanfrith but we do not have a good understanding of other ties between him and Eochaid's kindred since he was possibly given refuge in Pictland [36], although Eochaid was memorialized in the Annals of Ulster as the King of Picts.

Kirby (1991:89) suggests that Oswald's "overtures to Iona also reflect a dependence on Dalriadic military support at the time of his accession". Higham (1997:210) theorizes that "the Bernician adoption of Ionan Christianity was first and foremost a political strategy designed to assist the re-formation of the dynasty long in exile by establishing a cult of proven ability to Oswald himself". The differentiation from Canterbury that the Irish mission gave Oswald may have been a factor (Higham 1997:209-210), although perhaps more of a bonus than a deciding point. Oswald was able to support Christianity, Edwin's God, without the political burden of Canterbury. It should be remembered, though, that Iona's mission also came with political strings. Iona and Dalriada offered Oswald support that Canterbury and Kent could not match [37]. Kent had just proven how weak of a military ally it was when Edwin was slain. Oswald would want at least regional military support from his allies.

Bede alludes to the beginnings of the mission to Bernicia. Shortly after Oswald gained the throne, he requested a missionary from Iona. That missionary, whose name was not recorded, began his mission but soon quit because "the people were unwilling to listen to him" (Bede 3.5, McClure & Collins 1994:117). He returned to Iona complaining about Anglian stubbornness. At a meeting on Iona a discussion was underway to find a method of teaching to the Angles. Aidan spoke up with the suggestion that they should be preached to gently and slowly introduced to the full rule of the church. Bede records that because of his wisdom he was chosen to be the next missionary (Bede 3.5, McClure & Collins 1994:117).

John Marsden (1992:119-120) is correct in saying that Iona, as we understand its organization at the time, did not have the capacity to ordain a bishop [38]. The authority of a bishop was no doubt required to balance the power of Honorius of Canterbury, Paulinus [39] of Rochester (and formerly of York) and Felix of East Anglia. According to the late Martyrology of Donegal [40] for August 31,

Aedhan, son of Lughar. He was of the race of Eochaidh Finn Fuath-nairt, from whom Brigit descends. He was a bishop at Inis Cathaigh [41], and at Inis Medhcoit [42], in the north-west of Little Saxonland; and it was on a pilgrimage that Aidan went to Inis Medhcoit. [He died there in the year 651, according to Bede] (Todd and Reeves 1864:231)

The Martyrology of Donegal is too late (c. 1630) to be considered a historical source but it does contain other older source materials. Aidan is associated with Inis Cathaigh in a gloss in the Francican manuscript of the Martyrology of Oengus dated to c. 1470 [43]. Stokes (1905:xii-xiii) believed that this manuscript was "freely used by the compilers of the Martyrology of Donegal". However, the Martyrology of Oengus did not provide the genealogical information nor the reference to a pilgrimage. Therefore, at least one other source of unknown age must have been used.

As discussed above, there is no evidence that Iona had the capacity to ordain a bishop so it is not improbable that they had to recruit one from Ireland. The pilgrimage referred to above may have been a pilgrimage to Iona where Aidan was elected as the new bishop to the Saxons. It is possible that Aidan's community in Ireland considered his mission to Bernicia to be a continuation of his pilgrimage to Iona, a type of voluntary exile from home following St. Columba's example. Bede appears to simplify the situation because he clearly knew little about Ireland or Iona and he used oral history as his source for Aidan (Picard 1984:58). This all suggests that Aidan had a career worthy of the challenge presented by the mission to Bernicia and that he may have had the necessary diplomatic experience to make it successful.

As quoted above, Oswald met with Abbot Ségéne of Iona to relate his vision of St. Columba. It is unknown if Oswald traveled to Iona or if Abbot Ségéne traveled to Bernicia. Sharpe (1995:253) suggests that Oswald may have traveled to Iona to request the first or second bishop in c. 634-635. Of the two requests, the second is perhaps more possible for a personal visit when the unsuitable missionary was returned and negotiations for the second candidate, Aidan, were undertaken on Iona. Alternatively, sometime shortly after the battle of Mag Rath in 637 would have been another possible context for the visit. Indeed, the second missionary may not have been requested until c. 637. If we follow Bede's detailed chronology, Oswald became king in 635 and soon sent for the first missionary. Allowing for that missionary's time to collect personal and materials, to arrive, attempt his mission and either give up or run into trouble with Oswald may put us in c. 637. If this is the case, Oswald could have traveled to Dalriada after the battle of Mag Rath, asserted his dominance, visited Abbot Ségéne and requested a replacement missionary with his new political authority. Whoever traveled to visit the other, it is significant that Oswald was in direct contact with the Abbot of Iona during his reign.

Oswald and Bishop Aidan appear to have had a friendly relationship (possibly unlike the relationship between Oswald and Aidan's missionary predecessor) and the Bernician king even acted as a translator for the Irish bishop (Bede 3.3, McClure & Collins 1994: 113-114). Higham (1997: 212) stresses that "until Aidan and his associates became sufficiently fluent to enable them to preach without an interpreter, it was the king himself who preached the word of God to his people". His translation efforts may be another reflection of Oswald's beliefs on the role of a king in the religious practices of his people carried over from his father's example in his youth. However, we should not make too much out of this as others who were exiled in Dalriada with Oswald could have also functioned as translators. Oswald would have translated Aidan's sermons in his hall but others would have been assigned to translate for Aidan while he preached away from the royal centers and for assistance in the running of his mission. Bede claims that Oswald translated to his ealdormen and thegns, not to the common people or even to the young landless warriors of his retinue (Bede 3.3, McClure & Collins 1994:114).

Oswald gave Aidan the isle of Lindisfarne to be the ecclesiastical seat of the kingdom. The site of Lindisfarne, possibly an important royal center from the early years of the Idling dynasty, is also, significantly, very close to the royal seat at Bamburgh (Higham 1997:210-211). Lindisfarne was a clone of Iona (and of Inis Cathaig), although it was much closer to the king's fortress than Iona was to the royal centers in Dalriada. Oswald or Oswiu, his successor, gave to Aidan Farne Island two miles from Bamburgh as a personal retreat [44], a custom that continued for the bishop of Lindisfarne through at least Cuthbert's tenure. Aidan also stayed on royal estates as he toured, seeing to his episcopal duties. Oswald clearly intended his bishop to be available and involved in his administration. Aidan retained his spartan existence, accepting little more than the procession of churches and a small amount of adjacent land. He died in a tent next to one of these churches near Bamburgh on August 31, 651 (Bede 3.17, McClure & Collins 1994:135-6).

Although Lindisfarne is remembered as the ecclesiastical seat of the kingdom, York also may have played an important role in Oswald's plans. It appears that some Romanists remained in York with James the Deacon after Bishop Paulinus fled to Kent (Higham 1997:202). There is no evidence that Oswald persecuted the Romanist Christians. According to Bede, Oswald completed the stone church begun by Edwin in York (Bede 2.14, McClure & Collins 1994:97). Alcuin credits Oswald with lavish decorations of this church (Godman 1982:27-29) which, if true, may have been Oswald's olive branch to the Romanist Christians in Deira. Lavish decorations such as those described by Alcuin are not typical of Irish Christianity. Considering that Bede [45] credits Aidan's successor Finan with building the first church on Lindisfarne worthy of an episcopal seat, it is possible that Aidan's public cathedral was at York while Lindisfarne was a monastery for the private use of the clergy. Oswald would then have had an elaborate cathedral to show his power and wealth to the people, including Edwin's Romanist clergy and converts [46]. Such displays of wealth and symbols of power, often in Roman fashion, were important to all prominent Anglo-Saxon kings including Oswald (Yorke 1999:156-157). The more southern location of the cathedral at York would also suit Oswald's ambitions south of the Humber. Had Oswald lived longer and finally tamed Mercia and its allies, York could have served as a missionary base to at least include the church of Lindsey which had been incorporated into the see of York under Bishop Paulinus [47]. The burial of Edwin's head [48] in the church at York may have been part of the process of incorporating Edwin's Christian mission into Oswald's administration. The compromise of having the cathedral in York but Aidan's base at Lindisfarne would have allowed Aidan a foundation suitable for the simple life that the Irish clergy preferred and for teaching in the Irish style but with ready access to the royal court while still providing Oswald with an extravagant public cult center.

Oswald's own power to enforce conversions is difficult to assess. Bede deemed Northumbria and Lindsey to have been converted by Paulinus and any re-conversions would be an admission that Edwin and Paulinus' mission was a failure. This is an admission that Bede was unlikely to make. Further, the most significant region without a mission was Mercia, which may have been in violent conflict with Oswald throughout most of his reign, thereby preventing missionary activity. In contrast with the aftermath of Edwin's sponsored mission, there was no pagan revival on Oswald's death. Not only was Christianity here to stay but the churches of Bernicia and Deira remained humble daughter houses of Iona until 664. Oswald's Deiran successor, cousin and rival, Oswine also submitted to Bishop Aidan of Lindisfarne rather than to Canterbury or Dorchester [49], thus suggesting that Oswald's overlordship and sponsorship of Lindisfarne was more than superficial in Deira. Oswine's acceptance of Aidan may have been aided by the notion that Aidan was also the Bishop of York. The Life of Wilfrid (c. 710) portrays Aidan's second successor Bishop Colman of Lindisfarne as "Bishop of York and Metropolitan" [50] (Colgrave 1927:21).

Oswald's sponsorship of Christianity outside of Bernicia and Deira was very limited. In 635, Oswald stood as godfather to Cynegils of Wessex but Cynegils was baptized by a Gaulish missionary leaving Wessex out of Iona's control.[51] To obtain the alliance that he sought, Oswald also had to marry Cynegils' daughter. Thus, the dominance of godfather over godson was balanced by that of father over son-in-law.[52] Oswald's sponsorship (and possibly overlordship) was not strong enough to incorporate British churchmen in the mission to the Northern Angles. Higham (1997:216) notes that there is no indication that the mission of Birinus was linked with the metropolitan bishop of Canterbury which, he suggests, may imply that the "political marginalization" of Canterbury was known even in Rome. This marginalization may have begun as early as Edwin's reign. The mission of the Burgundian Bishop Felix to East Anglia was also initiated during this time (c. 630/1) and he was consecrated in Gaul. His interface with Canterbury may have been a formality (if it is not an unhistorical later claim by Canterbury).

Gaulish missionary activity did have an Irish connection. Frankish interest in the mission to the Anglo-Saxons "coincided with the new enthusiasm for Christianity among the aristocratic Franks stirred up by the activities of Columbanus (d. 615)", an Irish missionary abbot (Yorke 1999: 160). Aidan's intereactions with Felix and Birinus's successor Agilbert (and perhaps Birinus himself) may have been aided by the possibility that they came from "religious houses founded or inspired by Columbanus" (Yorke 1999:160).

The Irishman Fursa also presents further possible evidence of Oswald's ecclesiastical policy. Higham suggests that the Irish pilgrim bishop [53] Fursa arrived in East Anglia, where he was given an estate to found a monastery by King Sigeberht, during Oswald's supremacy (Higham 1997:214-215). According to Bede [54], "he [Fursa] came with a few companions through the land of the Britons and into the kingdom of the East Angles". To reach East Anglia through the land of the Britons, they had to pass through either the land of Penda of Mercia, the same pagan whose invasions eventually caused them to flee to France, and/or Oswald's territory and it possibly also indicates that they were not associated with the mission of Lindisfarne. It is possible that Fursa was given Oswald's protection and served as Oswald's agent in negotiations with Kings Sigeberht and Ecgric, and their successor King Anna. East Anglia would have been a concern of Oswald's since it's earlier king, Rædwald, had killed Oswald's father Æthelfrith in support of the then exiled Edwin. Fursa could have been a potential rival for Bishop Felix who was sponsored by King Sigeberht (Higham 1997:215). Indeed, Sigeberht's abdication and entry into Felix's monastery could have been due to pressure from Oswald and Fursa who were not comfortable with any of Rædwald's descendants remaining on the throne. It has been suggested that Sigeberht's successor Anna was established with the aid of Oswald (Kirby 1991:88). According to Bede [55], Fursa left East Anglia because "seeing the kingdom was disturbed by heathen invasions and that monasteries were also threatened with danger, he left all things in order and sailed for Gaul". It is possible that the "heathen invasions" refer to Penda's rebellion against Oswald and to events following Oswald's death in battle in 642. Fursa was in Gaul by 644 or 645 [56]. It is interesting to note that he left his monastery in the hands of his brother Foillán and apparently most of the Irish missionaries remained in East Anglia. The possibility that Fursa was in greater personal danger than the rest of his mission may suggest that he had to leave because of his ties to Oswald. In c. 650, the entire Irish mission to East Anglia was abandoned and relocated to Gaul to assume Fursa's mission after his death in c. 649 (McClure & Collins 1994:392-393). Interestingly, the relocation to France shows further independence from Lindisfarne since they did not return north or maintain contact with Lindisfarne as far as we know, although Fursa's Vita had apparently made it north by Bede's time [57]. The choice of Gaul for the relocation of first Fursa and then the entire mission may reflect the influence of Bishop Felix, a Burgundian. Several East Anglian princesses also entered Frankish convents around this time.


The Last Years of Oswald and Domnall Brecc

It is possible that, as Kirby (1991:90) suggests, the Scots of Dalriada and the Northumbrians acted in alliance against the northern Britons. In c. 638 the Annals of Tigernach and the Annals of Ulster record that Domnall Brecc was defeated in the battle of Glend-Mairison and in the same entry records the siege of Dun Edin, the seat of the British kingdom of Gododdin (Lothian) [58]. The location of Glend-Mairison is not known conclusively but Murieston Water twelve miles from Edinburgh and Glen Moriston near Inverness have been suggested [59]. However, Jackson (1959:37) found them both to be "philologically impossible" and envisioned the Irish fighting against the Picts or the British of Strathclyde. It does seem possible that the battles are linked in some fashion, although Jackson finds this not necessarily so. One of Oswald's demands of Domnall may have been Dalriadan cooperation with the Bernician conquest of the British Gododdin and campaigns against Strathcldye, which may have been an ally of Gododdin. Its is possible that the Bernician's role in these battles occurred under the leadership of Oswald's younger brother Oswiu (Koch 1997: xxxviii, 187). Oswald was occupied with matters further south where the Mercians and their British allies were resisting Oswald's overlordship.

Oswald fell in the battle of Maserfelth on August 5, 642 against a Mercian-British alliance led by Penda of Mercia. The exact location of battle is unknown but Oswestry on the Mercian-Powys border is a possible site. It is unlikely that the Dalriadan army was with Oswald so far from home, although it cannot be ruled out. It does seem possible that there were still Irishmen in Oswald's retinue in his last battle. Most of them would have perished with him and his brothers (perhaps all but Oswiu, the youngest), before allowing Oswald to fall [60].

In December of 642, only a few months after the death of Oswald, Domnall was slain in battle against the Strathclyde British at Strathcarron [61]. Some urgent crisis may have provoked Domnall to lead an attack over the mountains of southern Scotland in the cold of December. It is possible that Domnall's objective was to gain territory in southern Scotland, which could be added to those parts of southern Pictland that have been associated with Cenél nGabrain [62] but the winter attack seems to argue against a typical boundary dispute. Kirby (1991:90) calls the Strathcarron region a key "central cross-roads of Scotland" and suggests that "the possible conjunction of the Northern Anglian princes and Domnall Brecc in the same area could imply that an alliance between Angles and Scots or at least concerted action between them was key to the Anglian success in north Britain in the reign of Oswald".

After the death of Oswald, his brother Oswiu came to the throne. The Annals of Tigernach and the Annals of Ulster record a battle between Oswiu and the Britons in the same entry as Domnall's defeat [63]. Marsden (1992:128-129) and Kirby (1974:7-8) suggest that this battle represents the Anglian advance toward Stirling in Manau Gododdin, where Oswiu was later besieged by Penda of Mercia in 655. Unfortunately, it is not quite so clear cut, we do not know if this battle was against the British of Strathclyde, of Powys or elsewhere [64], nor do we know if this was before or after Domnall's defeat at Strathcarron. The separate line for this battle in the annals implies that it was an event distinct from the battle of Strathcarron, although it is at least possible that the lines originate from different sources referring to the same battle.

Whether Oswiu's battle was in the north or south, he was in peril on his accession. There is a gap in the regnal list of Deira from Oswald's death in 642 to Oswine's accession in 644. It is unknown if Oswiu was able to retain Deira as a subordinate region to Bernicia.[65] >From 642/4 to 655, Oswiu's kingdom was limited to Bernicia and was continually under threat from Penda of Mercia. Domnall may have been answering a call for help from Oswiu who might have been under pressure from Owen of Strathclyde, the latter was perhaps sensing an opportunity for expansion and possibly the recapture of Lothian for the British. If Oswald had been a major factor in Domnall's remaining on the throne of Dalriada, it would be imperative for him to support Oswald's successor and preserve his most powerful ally.

Maintaining an open communication channel between Bernicia and Dalriada may have been threatened by a resurgence of British power between the Firth of Clyde and the Firth of Forth. (See Figure 3) Taylor (1999:43-52) has shown that there were two main routes between Iona and Lindisfarne. The northern route took the monks up Loch Awe, across Strath Fillan, down Glen Falloch to Loch Lomond where the route could have branched going overland to Stirling or down the river Kelvin near Glasgow with either route ending at the Firth of Forth. Then the monks could have sailed down the Firth to Aberlady from where they would have been able to travel overland to Lindisfarne. Two islands in the Firth of Forth, Inchcolm and Inchkeith, have strong associations with Ionan Christianity (Taylor 1999:49). The route between Aberlady and Lindisfarne is dotted with placenames commemorating St. Baíthéne [66], St. Columba's successor, along with numerous Gaelic Cill- placenames (Taylor 1999:43-52). These placenames are unlikely to have been established after the synod of Whitby in 664 and so must date from c. 635-664. Another more southern route took the monks by sea to the River Clyde. Following the River Clyde upstream would lead them to near the headwaters of the River Tweed which in turn could take them to Berwick near Lindisfarne. This route runs past the important early monastery of Old Melrose [67], believed by Taylor (1999:51) to have been founded during Aidan's episcopate. Overall, the Clyde-Tweed route looks the simplest and most direct. The prominence of Old Melrose along this route may not be a coincidence. One obvious implication of these routes is that cooperation with the kingdom of Strathclyde was necessary for both the Kelvin and Clyde-Tweed routes. If Strathclyde was hostile to Dalriada and Bernicia, the only remaining route was from Glen Falloch to Stirling from where they could sail to Aberlady in Lothian and overland to Lindisfarne. It is important to note that the British kingdom of Gododdin in Lothian could have blocked this route. The conquest of Lothian by Oswald in c. 638, significantly one year after Mag Rath and Oswald's possible rise as overlord of Dalriada, may have been necessary to keep at least one route securely open. Given the conflict in Lothian in 638, the Clyde-Tweed route must have been open in 635-7 allowing Oswald or Abbot Ségéne to travel to the other.

Domnall's plan to aid Oswiu and keep the communication route open failed. Ill luck continued to plague the allies and Domnall was slain at Strathcarron by Owen of Strathclyde, an event commemorated in a celebratory stanza of Y Gododdin (B1.1, Koch 1997:27) and the Irish Annals (Anderson 1922: 166-167). The fact that Owen of Strathclyde was able to repel Domnall Brecc at Strathcarron in 642 suggests that the situation of 635-7 had changed possibly due to the fall of the British kingdom of Gododdin in 638. Owen may have seen a need to close the routes of direct contact between Domnall and Oswiu. He succeeded, at least for a while, until Oswiu completed the conquest of former British territory in Lothian and Stirlingshire. By 655, Oswiu was able to take refuge from Penda of Mercia in the fortress at Stirling on the northern shore of the Firth of Forth.

After Domnall's death his co-ruler, and probable rival, Ferchar son of Connad Cerr secured the kingdom of Dalriada. Domnall's sons and other candidates from Cenél nGabrain were temporarily excluded from the throne. If the rule of Dalriada had been divided between Ferchar and Domnall under Oswald's overlordship, it is possible that Ferchar was dependent on Oswald and his perhaps his successor Oswiu but it is equally plausible that Ferchar represented those Scots who remained independent of Oswald's influence. Oswiu's dominance of Dalriada may not have been secure until after Penda' s death in 655.

The lines of communication, however, may have been reopened by 651. On the death of Bishop Aidan in 651, Iona sent Finan as a replacement. There is no indication of a delay so at least one of the routes must have been safely open. Ferchar died in c. 651 and was succeeded by Conall Crandromna (r. c. 650/1-660), son of Eochaid Bude and brother of Domnall Brecc (Bannerman 1974:103-104). Ferchar's death would have coincided with the execution of king Oswine of Deira by Oswiu on August 19, 651. It is possible that Oswiu felt safe in beginning to expand against Deira, possibly a dependent state of Merica, because Domnall's brother Conall had regained the throne of Dalriada and may have continued his brother's alliance with Bernicia. This might provide a context for the reestablishment of the lines of communication. Oswiu's position in the north was further strengthened by his nephew Talorcan son of Eanfrith coming to power in Pictland.

Further interaction between Domnall's kindred and Oswiu is suggested by later events. Two Pictish kings, who ruled in succession of Oswald's brother Eanfrith's son Talorcan, King of Picts from 654-657 (see Figure 3), may have been the sons of Domnall Brecc (Anderson 1922:178, Anderson 1980:167,175) and a sister of Oswald [68]. (See Figure 2) If this is correct, it would mean that three successive Pictish kings (Talorcan son of Eanfrith, Gartnait and Drest sons of Donuel) who reigned from c. 653/6 to 671/3 were all nephews of Oswiu of Bernicia. Domnall's son Domangart succeeded his uncle Conall and reigned as king of Dalriada from c. 660 to 673. The expulsion of Drest in 672 when the Picts rebelled against Oswiu's son and successor Ecgfrith [69] and the slaying of Domangart in 673 [70] suggests that both were closely tied to Oswiu or may have fallen in a wide revolt against the hegemony of Ecgfrith, Oswiu's son and successor. This period fits closely with Oswiu's period of dominance after the death of Penda of Mercia in 655 to his own death in 670. The claims of Talorcan, Gartnait and Drest to the Pictish throne would have been enhanced, if as suggested here, they were the nephews of Oswiu, who we should probably perceive as overlord of Pictland from the 650s to 670. It should also be recalled that Bede considered Dalriada to have been under Northumbrian overlordship until the battle of Dunnichen in 685. After 685, the Picts, Scots and Northern Britons all regained their independence from Northumbria and Bede records that Ecgfrith's successor, his brother Aldfrith (Flann Fina) restored the kingdom within narrower bounds (Bede 4.26, McClure & Collins 1994: 222).


Oswald's relationship with Dalriada was based on an extensive set of personal obligations and kinship ties between kings and ruling kindreds. Among the Anglo-Saxons, kinship determined friends and enemies (Charles-Edwards 1997:171-173). Oswald's relationships were very complex and it is possible that we will never be able to satisfactorily understand them. What does seem clear is that any overkingship that Oswald held over Dalriada must have been minimal and voluntary, perhaps even protectionary. At most, he was the dominant partner in an alliance but such influence may be all that is implied by hegemony. It does, however, appear that Oswald had grown very powerful and exerted considerable influence over his former hosts. It is the events following Oswald's death that suggest Dalriada's voluntary role in the alliance.

The establishment of Lindisfarne as a daughter house to Iona and the overall Irish nature of northern Anglian Christianity was Oswald's greatest and longest-lasting contribution to the politics of northern Britain. Until the Synod of Whitby in 664, religious colonialism played a major role in establishing Northumbrian hegemony (Higham 1997). Although at Whitby the church of Lindisfarne was forced to renounce allegiance to Iona and accept the overlordship of Rome, Irish influence continued to remain an important aspect of the Northern Anglian Church.

The year 642 was a political watershed in both Britain and Ireland. No less than five kings died that year. The year began with the peaceful death of Domnall mac Aed, King of the Northern Ui Neill and High King of Ireland, in January, to be followed in August by the death of Oswald, King of Bernicia and as much a High King of Britain as Domnall was High King of Ireland. The year ended with the death of Domnall Brecc at the battle of Strathcarron in December. At other times during this year, kings Cynegils of Wessex and Bridei son of Wid of Pictland died, to which we can add the disappearance of Eormenred of Kent from the political scene in 640-642. Neither Domnall mac Aed nor Oswald were able to pass their extensive hegemonies onto their kinsmen. This is a characteristic of the personal nature of overkingships during this period (Dumville 1997). The dominant king of Britain to arise on Oswald's death was his slayer, Penda of Mercia.

Oswald's reign provides a good example of the influence a host kingdom could have on an exile even after he returned to his native land. Oswiu, who was about eight years younger than Oswald, must have even felt the Irish influence even more deeply. This is implied by Bede's claim that "Oswiu, who had been educated and baptized by the Irish and was well versed in their language, considered that nothing was better than what they taught" (Bede 3.25, McClure & Collins 1994:154). This kind of influence must have been common but it is only apparent in those cases where we might expect to find differences between Scots and Angles. It is reasonable that Deira experienced similar influences, from southern Britain, that can be traced to Edwin's exile in East Anglia and Oswine's exile among the Gewisse. Frankish influence in East Anglia after Sigebehrt's exile is another possible example.

While I have focused on the effects of the Irish on Oswald and his kingdom, Oswald himself had an impact on Ireland outside of Dalriada. As referred to earlier, Oswald made his way into a mythical Irish tale about Conaire King of Tara (Moisl 1983:110-111). His reputation as a warrior during his early years may have facilitated the memory of his later deeds but his pious reputation was even greater than the tales of his martial prowess. In an era where information spread by word of mouth, Oswald's saintly reputation was well known in Ireland very early. During his pilgrimage of the 680s, the young Anglian Willibrord (later Archbishop of Frisia [71]) reported that "Oswald's sanctity had spread far and wide in that island [Ireland] too"[72]. Willibrord then reported that an Irish scholar had been cured of the plague by a piece of the wooden stake upon which Oswald's head had been displayed by his pagan slayer. Since Oswald was the first Anglo-Saxon saint with more than a local family cult, it is possible that Angles traveling in Ireland spread his fame far and wide in an effort to reciprocate the tales of Irish saints regaled to them during their studies. In c. 700, Irish Abbot Adomnan of Iona also recorded Oswald's baptism and exile, his vision of St. Columba and the battle of Denisesburn, and provided a generous assessment of Oswald's secular domain by claiming that he was "ordained by God" (Adomnan 1.1, Sharpe 1995:110-111). Indeed, Adomnan recorded Oswald's deeds and reputations more than thirty years before Bede. The key events of Oswald's reign were well recorded in the Irish annals, while the Martyrology of Oengus the Culdee (c. 804), one of the oldest Irish martyrologies, remembered Oswald as "the noble overking of the Saxons" (Stokes 1905: xxvi, 174).

We may conclude by suggesting that Oswald's overlordship of Dalriada was subtle and tribal with an increased emphasis on kinship and a willingness to accept a Celtic style of overlordship. Oswald's only model for creating a large overkingship based out of the far North was that of his father Æthelfrith, who similarly stumbled while attempting to control the midlands. Throughout the seventh century, the power and authority of overkings were evolving and increasing (Dumville 1997:356-359). Oswald belongs to the earliest period of overkingship where dependent kings still retained complete authority within their own kingdoms or even over smaller overkingdoms (Dumville 1997:358). He gained his hegemony in the North by obtaining the submission of key overkings like Domnall Brecc of Dalriada and the sons of Wid in Pictland and by individual negotiations with the British of Rheged and possibly Strathclyde [73]. It is possible that after the death of Cadwallon there was no serious opposition to Oswald in the North and goodwill generated during his exile among the Scots and Picts may have served him well diplomatically. When the north is viewed as a whole we have evidence, if only slight in some cases, of diplomatic ties between Oswald and all the northern kingdoms except Gododdin. Significantly, the conquest of Gododdin is usually dated to Oswald's reign.


Addendum added in proof:

After this article was completed, new information became available from the interview in this issue with Graeme Young on recent excavations at the cemetery at Bamburgh (Ziegler 2001). Young reported finding the remains of a male age 40 or older buried clothed (with a buckle and knife), in a crouched postion in a reused British cyst grave in the high status cemetery at Bamburgh. The carbon dating places this man in AD 560-670 (within two standard deviations). Strontium and oxygen isotope analysis of the remains show that this man spent his childhood in either western Scotland around Iona or northern Ireland. The style of the knife has been dated to the mid to late seventh century. Although the skeleton did not reveal battle wounds, the presence of the knife and the burial arrangements suggest that he was not a churchman. Taken together, this data is consistent with either an Irishman who accompanied Oswald on his return to Bernicia or an Angle born in exile who returned with Oswald. This supports the proposed composition of Oswald's warband suggested in this article.




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Copyright © Michelle Ziegler, 2001. All rights reserved.

This edition copyright © The Heroic Age, 2001. All rights reserved.