The Heroic Age

A Journal of Early Medieval Northwestern Europe

Issue 9 (Oct 2006)

Oswald, King and Saint: His Britain and Beyond   |   Issue Editor: Michelle Ziegler

Founded 1998   |   ISSN 1526-1867

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Holy Kingship

Locating Maserfelth

The King's Fragmented Body

Exogamous Marriages

Enemy's Eyes

St. Oswald's Martyrdom

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Forum—Refusing the Gaze

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Through His Enemy's Eyes: St. Oswald in the Historia Brittonum

Michelle Ziegler  
Independent Scholar

2006 by Michelle Ziegler. All rights reserved. This edition copyright 2006 by The Heroic Age. All rights reserved.

§1.  The Britons were an important factor in the life of the historical King Oswald. It was Oswald's defeat and slaying of the British king Cadwallon—the most militarily successful early British king in the surviving historical record—at the battle of Denisesburna during the summer of 634 that instantly made Oswald the most powerful English king in Britain. Within the previous two years, Cadwallon had slain three northern English kings: Edwin the powerful overlord, and his successors Eanfrith and Osric in Bernicia and Deira respectively.

§2.  First, Adomnan of Iona in his Life of Columba and, later, Bede in his Historia Ecclesiastica implied a direct connection between Oswald's victory over the Briton Cadwallon and the development of his extensive imperium. In 634, it could be argued that the Britons still held an equal amount of territory as the English including territory immediately to the north and west of Oswald's heartland of Bernicia.

§3.  The ninth-century Historia Brittonum (HB) is a unique witness to the attitudes of the Britons toward King Oswald of Northumbria. It is the only text prior to the eleventh century that provides any significant statements on the British attitude toward Oswald.1 By the time the HB was written in 829/830, the Britons had been reduced to modern Wales, Cornwall, and the Dumbarton-Glasgow area. In the decade surrounding the composition of the HB, Mercian aggression was the greatest threat to Welsh independence and the prosperity of its kings. By featuring seventh century Northumbrian resistance and eventual domination to Mercia, the HB provides a model for British resistance to Mercia in the ninth century. In the process, King Oswald was held up as a model king and saint for his martyrdom at the hands of the stereotypical demonic Mercian king, Penda. This is unexpected given that Oswald had slain the greatest warrior king in the Welsh historical record, Cadwallon of Gywnedd. How and why Oswald's contemporary enemies came to see him as a hero is the topic of this paper.

§4.  Dumville previously observed that the Historia Brittonum shows a uniquely anglophilic attitude to some of the English, especially Hengest.2 As we shall see, Oswald's portrait could be called anglophilic as well. In the HB, Hengest is portrayed as strong and clever, while Oswald is portrayed as a divine king for slaying Cadwallon, King of Gwynedd—the very region where the HB was written—and for being slain by Cadwallon's former ally Penda of Mercia, who this text claims was supported by British kings. This anglophilic attitude does not mean that the author or his patron supported the English. British behavior toward both Hengest and Oswald provides many morals for the HB's ninth century British defiance against English expansion.

Text and Context

§5.  The Historia Brittonum is a synchronizing history that uses a variety of sources of differing reliabilities. It is a perilous source for seventh century history unless the origins and context of its sources can be understood. The text is most conservatively considered to be anonymous and without a title,3 but its date and location are fairly well set—it was written in 829/830, the fourth year of King Merfyn of Gwynedd in whose kingdom it was probably written. It does not have an obvious monastic focus that would suggest a clerical author. This text is most valuable for understanding the context of the first third of the ninth century when it was written.

§6.  King Merfyn was the founder of the Second Dynasty of Gwynedd, an outsider from the Isle of Man who appears to have captured Gwynedd in c. 825. The oldest pedigree of Merfyn claimed that he was the son of Essyllt daughter of King Cynan from the First Dynasty of Gwynedd.4 Whether or not this was true, it is not a legal form of succession. There was no way to disguise it or legitimize it: Merfyn was an outsider with no legal claim to the throne. That the only surviving narrative history by the Britons was written early in his reign is probably not a coincidence. Merfyn's interests and vulnerabilities may account for some of the structure and content of the HB, particularly the last major section of the narrative history, called the 'northern history' that deals with some members of the First Dynasty of Gwynedd.

§7.  The outsider Merfyn came to power in Gwynedd during a period of political instability possibly not matched since 633-658, nearly exactly 200 years earlier. After this first unstable period, the major English kingdoms stabilized and maintained relatively stable borders until the death of Offa of Mercia. In the intervening years, the relationship between Mercia and Gwynedd had been complex: allied in the seventh century, perhaps at the expense of Powys (Maund 2000, 32) but increasingly hostile in the eighth century.

§8.  Always volatile, politics within British territory were particularly unstable in the first quarter of the ninth century. The last years of the first dynasty of Gwynedd were consumed with dynastic struggle between King Cynan ap Rhodri (Merfyn's reputed maternal grandfather) and his brother and successor Hywel. At the same time, Powys was fractured by similar dynastic conflict: King Elise ap Cyngen killed his brother Griffi in 814 (Maund 2000, 38). Meanwhile, the Mercian king Cenwulf took advantage, penetrating Wales deeply enough to ravage Gwynedd itself and annex its neighboring territory of Rhufoniog in about 816. Two years later Cenwulf was secure enough to turn and attack Dyfed in southern Wales, which suggests that he maintained his previous gains (Maund 2000, 38). Following Cenwulf's death in 821, his successor Ceolwulf tried to secure the kingdom with a victory over the Britons in 822, succeeding at "taking direct control" of Powys and destroying Degannwy fortress in Gwynedd. Despite Ceolwulf's success, he was forced from the throne in 823 and the Powysian dynasty recovered their kingdom (Walker 2000, 30-31). Hywel ap Rhodri, King of Gwynedd, died in 825 leaving the way open for Merfyn of Man to seize control of Gwynedd. The same year the new Mercian king Beornwulf was defeated at Ellendun by King Ecgbert of Wessex, who quickly seized Kent from Beornwulf's control, and Beornwulf was slain trying to put down an East Anglian revolt in 826 (Walker 2000, 33-34).

§9.  Extreme dynastic instability continued in Mercia until King Ecgbert of Wessex invaded Mercia in 829, driving King Wiglaf into exile and taking direct control of Mercia himself. That same year Ecgbert's army pushed north to the River Dore and obtained the submission of the Northumbrians there. Wiglaf returned to Mercia by 830 and managed to maintain control for another decade, passing the throne to his son Wigmund in 839, but by 840 his son was replaced by their rival Beorhtwulf (Walker 2000, 35-37).

§10.  The Historia Brittonum was composed in 829/830, the fourth year of King Merfyn of Gwynedd, while Egbert and Wiglaf were actively fighting over Mercia. Northumbria, which figures strongly in the Historia Brittonum, was not a major political player in Wales or southern England in 829/30, perhaps making northern history a safe topic within which to make contemporary political points. Merfyn's two most immediate foes were Mercia and Powys. The Mercians represented a loss of control for the entire British system, while the Powysian dynasty represented an alternative native dynasty for the Britons to rally around against the English. Indeed, the native Powysian dynasty had more right to rule in Wales than a Manx invader. Dynastic instability abounded in just about every major kingdom, but such instability brought opportunity. Merfyn's new dynasty was able to maintain control over Gwynedd and more from 825 to 1283 (Maund 2000, 38).

§11.  The content of the Historia Brittonum addresses Merfyn's concerns by reshaping history to fit his agenda. Merfyn's concerns over Powys are addressed in the central section of the work, from section 31-49, by attacking the memory of Vortigern whom the Powysian dynasty claimed as a founding ancestor. Vortigern, and Powys by extension, became the scapegoats for the entire English conquest of Britain. Merfyn's Mercian concerns are addressed in the last section of HB routinely called the 'northern history', sections 57-65. In the years this section covers, 547 to 685, Northumbria represented the main opposition to Mercia, perhaps explaining the stress placed on Northumbria, instead of Gwynedd which was the seventh century ally of Mercia. By featuring the seventh century Northumbrian resistance and eventual domination of Mercia the author provided a model for contemporary British resistance to Mercia while steering clear of inflammatory contemporary Welsh politics.

§12.  Since the three passages that mention Oswald are all located in the 'northern history,' the sources and construction of this section are worthwhile for this discussion. In brief, the primary structure is that of an annotated Northumbrian regnal list from Ida to Ecgfrith. Penda's entry, probably from a similar Mercian annotated regnal list, is tacked on to the end of the Northumbrian list out of order. It also includes genealogies of seven major English kingdoms and a miscellany of scattered British references that supplement or correlate with the English material.

§13.  The dates for the English kings in the Mercian and Northumbrian genealogies suggest that the English materials were compiled no earlier than 787 and perhaps as late as c. 800 for the Northumbrian genealogy of Oslaf.5 Thus, the English material was in a relatively recent work when it arrived in Gwynedd and perhaps only a generation or less older than the Historia Brittonum itself.

§14.  Oswald is mentioned in Bernician genealogy I (Sec. 57), his own regnal list entry (Sec. 64), and Penda's regnal list entry (Sec. 65). The genealogy adds nothing new on Oswald in particular and will be omitted from this discussion. Oswald's own regnal list entry in sec. 64 and his use in Penda's regnal entry are very illuminating on the British attitude toward Oswald and his veneration.

Oswald White-blade

Oswald son of Æthelfrith, reigned 9 years; he is Oswald White Blade (Lamnguin). He slew Cadwallon, king of the region of Gwynedd, in the battle of Catscaul with great slaughter of his army.6

§15.  First let us discuss the technical aspects of this passage. The regnal years match the amended allotment given by Bede and listed in the Moore memoranda, an addendum to the oldest surviving copy of Bede's History dated to 737 (Hunter-Blair 1950). The place name Ca(n)tscaul7 is a Welsh translation of the Old English place name Hagustaldesham, Hexham, meaning 'enclosure of the young warrior' (Jackson 1963, 34). This strongly suggests that the author of the HB could read Old English. This is the only source I know of that refers to this event as "the battle of Hexham," perhaps reflecting the measure of control Hexham had over Heavenfield and the battle site in the late eighth century.

§16.  Oswald's epithet Lamnguin is Welsh and, although translated by Kenneth Jackson as Bright-blade, a more literal translation is White-blade. While the difference between white and bright may seem like semantics, it is relevant for the symbolic meaning that such names usually represent. In Welsh legend the color white (guion, gwyn, gwen) can mean "pure, sacred, holy" and it is a special color signifying the Otherworld in Celtic tradition (Ford 1983, 270).

§17.  Examples are plentiful for the use of the word element gwyn/gwen in names for objects in British folklore. The owner of most of these examples is Arthur in his most Otherworldly guise.8 The most comparable example to Oswald White Blade can be found in the late Thirteen Treasures of the Isle of Britain (F text):

Dyr(n)wyn ['white-hilt'], the sword of Rhydderch the Generous. If anyone except himself drew it from the scabbard, it would burst into a flame of fire from the hilt to the point; and everybody who asked for it would get it from Rhydderch, but when its properties were known it would be sent back again to Rhydderch (Bartrum 1963, 462).

Although the flaming blade draws our attention, it is the hilt (of white-hilt) with the real magical property in that it can distinguish Rhydderch from anyone else. Likewise, we would expect that Oswald's epithet would have referred to the blade of his sword since the blade is stressed in the name.

§18.  Although this is the only use of this epithet for Oswald in British tradition, it does indicate that he was a figure of contemporary folklore. The author expected his audience to know Oswald White-blade and therefore made the specific equation with Oswald son of Æthelfrith. It is clear from the symbolism invested in the name White-blade that it means divine blade, sacred blade or perhaps blessed blade. Just as the sword is the ultimate symbol of a king's power, a divine sword represents divine power. The epithet suggests an acceptance by the British that God was on Oswald's side against Cadwallon, their own king.

§19.  The White Blade epithet continues the pregnant symbolism invested in Oswald's right hand. In the Heavenfield account, "Oswald's hands are (quite literally) in touch with God, ardently seizing the wooden representation of the cross onto which the body of Christ was nailed. While ... Bede observes that the British war leader carries out his deed with 'impia manu'", an unrightous hand (Malo Chenard 2005, 37). A king's actions, for good or ill, are extensions of his hand and Oswald's hands permeate most of Bede's major vignettes of the king. Oswald's hands, particularly the right hand, become symbolic for his kingship, unity with the church, and personal holiness (Malo Chenard 2005). It is appropriate for the British who felt Oswald's presence through the edge of his blade to have focused on the blade as an extension of the divine hand.

§20.  There is some evidence beyond this epithet that Oswald was a figure of saga material among the English as well. Bede tells us that Acca of Hexham was collecting stories of Oswald, two of which were used in Bede's History. Klaeber believed that Oswald's proverb, given in HE 3.13, fell easily into Old English verse in translation. 9 Wilson (1952, 32-33) believed that Henry of Huntington had an extensive Old English poem listing the battles of Oswald and his kin. Reginald of Durham also included a detailed description of Oswald found nowhere else (Wilson 1952, 96).10

§21.  The existence of similar epithets for Oswald's father (Æthelfrith the Twister), brother (Oswiu White Brow11), nephew (Ecgfrith White Brow), grandfather or uncle (?) (the Flamebearer,12), great grandfather (Ida Great Knee13) and legendary ancestor (Osa/Osla Great Knife) in Welsh literature suggest that a significant saga was transmitted to or developed in Wales. With this single lineage accounting for all the known epithets for Englishmen in early Welsh literature, it makes the most sense for them all to have been mentioned in a single work. The Historia Brittonum is the earliest source for any of these epithets, mentioning Æthelfrith Twister, Oswald White Blade, Ecgfrith White Brow, and mistakenly giving the epithet "Great Knee" to Eata, father of Ecgbert and Eadbert.14 The other epithets come from late sources such as the Bonedd y Sant, 'Triads of Britain' and the Welsh translation of Geoffrey of Monmouth's History.

§22.  Alcuin's near-contemporary work, The Bishops, Kings, and Saints of York (c. 800) does not provide Oswald with a divine weapon, but does portray him as a mighty warrior.

... they marched directly at the enemy,
bursting in bloody slaughter upon his camp, ...
so king Oswald laid low the barbarian hosts on every side.
Advancing in triumph through the armed battalions of the foe,
cutting and trampling, he crushed their fleeting ranks.
So Oswald's army overpowered and annihilated its enemy,
leaving the battlefield behind it in rivers of blood
until the wicked Cadwallon himself fell, paying the price
for his treachery, dying amid a massacre of his men,
and yielding a brilliant victory to the splendid king. 15

We should expect that among the monastic and secular feast halls of the North in particular, Oswald was a common figure of saga material, as were probably most of his kinsmen. Ingeld may not have had anything to do with Christ, but Oswald White-blade did and would have been a suitable subject for bardic composition at Lindisfarne and elsewhere. Bede's distaste for describing battles should not deceive us into believing that military saints such as Oswald would not have been sung about in a very heroic manner. Further, despite Bede's best efforts to portray Oswald's incorrupt arm as a symbol of his generosity,16 many would have thought of it as the hand that grasped his sword. The incorrupt hand, not his head, became the most valued relic of the Bernician kings. Clearly, when Bernician nobles swore oaths or made pledges upon this holy relic in the church at Bamburgh, they had thoughts of war, feud, and Oswald's vast imperium on their minds, rather than generosity.

St. Oswald, Rex Nordorum

§23.  The third and final reference to Oswald in the Historia Brittonum in found in the last passage of the narrative history (Sec. 65), just prior to the chronological summary. The passage probably comes from an annotated Mercian regnal list compiled for Offa (r.757-796) like that of the Northumbrians earlier in the same portion of the manuscript. In this case, Penda's entry in the regnal list appears to be the only information used by the author of the HB. It is placed out of chronological order, tacked on the end of the Northumbrian regnal list.17 The placement of this passage is not a mistake by a befuddled author, but intentional. The image of a demonic Mercian tyrant is the mental image with which the author wants to end his narrative (Higham 2002). The source is not primarily Bede's History—the regnal year assessment conflicts with Bede, Eowa is not mentioned by Bede, and Bede lists more kings killed by Penda.

Penda son of Pybba, reigned 10 years. He first separated the kingdom of Mercia [Merciorum] from the kingdom of the North [Nordorum], and Anna, King of East Anglia [Easteranglorum], and Saint Oswald, King of the North [Nordorum], were slain with cunning. He fought the battle of Cocboy [Maserfelth], where fell Eowa son of Pybba, his brother, King of Mercia, and Oswald, King of the North [Nordorum]. He was victorious by the diabolical arts. He was never baptized and died not believing in God (Morris 1980, with emendation by the author).

§24.  Easteranglorum, Merciorum, and Nordorum, Old English-Latin hybrids, betray the Old English source for this passage rather than descriptive names or the vaguer Welsh name Lloegr applied to the English kingdoms indiscriminately in later British literature. Since we know that the author could read Old English, his choice in not translating these titles, particularly Nordorum, is a conscious one indicating that these were the accepted names for these kingdoms in his time. Northumbria is usually referred to in the HB by its constituent parts, Bernicia and Deira, rather than as a unit. Mercia and East Anglia are easily interpreted as kingdoms in this passage, but for some reason translators have resisted translating Nordorum as simply "North", with the understanding that "North" is a polity.

§25.  Bede's contemporaries used multiple terms to refer to Northumbria in addition to his Northanhymbri. Other terms include Aquilonales (people of the North), Septentrionales Angli (northern English), Ultrahumbrenses (people beyond the Humber), Transhymbrana gens (people across the Humber) and Humbrenses (people of the Humber) (Rollason 2003, 107).

§26.  The multiple uses of the word nordorum in this passage suggest that to Mercia and perhaps the Britons, 'King(dom) of the North' was a suitable reference to Northumbria and its king. There is an analogous Welsh term in Gwyr y Gogledd, meaning 'Men of the North', a reference to heroes of the British Old North, which covers the territory of Northumbria, plus Strathclyde. The fact remains that if nordorum were simply a geographic description there is no reason why the author would not have translated the phrase into Latin or Welsh. I have been able to find only one other similar use of the term nordorum,18 that is, in the Annales Cambriae entry for the deaths of "Oswald Rex Nordorum et Eoba Rex Merciorum" (Morris 1980, 86).

§27.  David Howlett (1998) has asserted that the Historia Brittonum was written in what he terms 'biblical style'. Although he has not published on this particular passage, it too appears to conform to biblical style when the phrasing is examined.

A: Penda, filius Pybba, regnavit X annis.
B: Ipse primus separavit regnum Merciorum a regno Nordorum
C: et Onna, regnem Easteranglorum, et sanctum Oswaldum, regem Nordorum, occidit per dolum.
D: Ipse fecit bellum Cocboy
C': in quo cecidit Eoua, filius Pippa, frater ejus, rex Merciorum, et Oswald, rex Nordorum.
B': et ipse victor fuit per diabolicam artem.
A': Non erat baptizatus et nunquam Deo Credidit.

§28.  The battle of Cocboy, Bede's Maserfelth, was the most important achievement of Penda's reign and it is given pride of place at the center of the passage. Kings slain by Penda emphasize this point and flank the battle reference.

C: et Onna, regnem Easteranglorum, et sanctum Oswaldum, regem Nordorum, occidit per dolum.
D: Ipse fecit bellum Cocboy
C': in quo cecidit Eoua, filius Pippa, frater ejus, rex Merciorum, et Oswald, rex Nordorum.

§29.  Immediately, we see an oddity. Oswald is mentioned twice in C and C', even though we (and the author of the HB) know that Bede credits Penda with slaying enough kings that this would not be necessary. The kings of C both represent holy kings; Sigibert of East Anglia who—it could be argued—was martyred by Penda would have fit here nicely. The author is taking care to ensure that Penda's slaying of the holy king Oswald is driven home. The duplication of Oswald's name does enhance the symmetry, made all the more obvious by Oswald's listing last in both phrases. The entire structure of Penda's paragraph seems to lay stress on the importance of his slaying Oswald, and thereby making Mercia an independent kingdom. This event is a critical point in the history of Mercia that eventually gives rise to Mercian dominance in the eighth century. Yet, at the same time, it stresses Oswald's sainthood. The other two kings mentioned—Eowa son of Pybba, Penda's brother, and Anna of East Anglia—are also critical to the political agenda of the Mercian record keeper and the HB's author respectively.

§30.  The last Mercian kings to profit by the mention of Eowa were Offa and his son Ecgfrith, who jointly ruled with him from 787-796. Coenwulf (r. 796-821), who claimed descent from Cenwealh son of Pybba, succeeded Ecgfrith and ended the dynasties of both Penda and Eowa.19 Therefore, the reference to Eowa was almost certainly in the material compiled for Offa that was included in the Northumbrian source or transmitted along with the Northumbrian material.

§31.  It served Offa's dynasty to have his great-grandfather recorded not only as Penda's brother and a son of Pybba, but also as king of Mercia. The vagueness of the reference makes it impossible to tell if Eowa was a co-king of Mercia20 or a king raised in opposition to Cadwallon's ally Penda. Brooks (1989, 166) notes that "Eowa's reign may have been one of those periods in Bede's twenty-two years when Penda's fortunes were low". He concludes that:

"the author of the Historia Brittonum would seem to have believed that before the battle of Cocboy/Maserfelth the Mercians and their king Eowa had indeed been subject to control by the Northumbrian king Oswald. We should therefore beware assuming that Eowa was killed fighting alongside his brother Penda. If Eowa had indeed been a Northumbrian puppet, it is more probable that he fought alongside his overlord to maintain his throne against his brother" (Brooks 1989, 166).

The vagueness serves Offa's purpose to show his ancestor as a king, associated with St. Oswald and the great pivotal battle, but it does not spell out Eowa's potentially problematic role.

§32.  Returning to the author's selection of holy kings in the C passage, these choices were carefully made. Anna and Oswald are not only holy kings, but also particularly martial kings who were role models of resistance to Mercian aggression.

§33.  Anna and the East Angles also represented the main theme of this passage—steadfast resistance to Mercia. The East Angles maintained a resistance to Mercian ambitions, sometimes described as suicidal, as earnestly as the ninth-century Britons themselves.21 Anna was the most heroic of the East Anglian kings slain by Mercian aggressors. In the seventh century Additametum Nivialense de Fuliano of the Vita Fursei,22 Anna was called a "most Christian king" and the "Divine Right Arm [of God]" when he came to the rescue of St. Follian, whose monastery was under attack by Penda's army (Fouracre and Gerberding 1996, 301). Like Oswald, Anna was also an evangelist. When he gave refuge to Penda's exiled enemy King Coenwalh of the Gewisse for three years, he also successfully encouraged Coenwalh's baptism (probably with Anna as his godfather, as Oswald had been for Coenwalh's father Cyngils23 ) (HE 3.7).

§34.  The East Anglian slaying of the Mercian King Beornwulf in 825, the year Merfyn came to the throne of Gwynedd and only four years before the HB was completed, would have been on the mind of the author. As Higham (2002, 117) has noted, there may be a direct or indirect link between Merfyn's successful conquest of Gwynedd and his optimistic foreign policy agenda insinuated in the HB and the temporary weakness in Mercia on Beornwulf's death—thanks to East Anglia. Higham (2002, 163-5) directly links Beornwulf's death to the inclusion of Anna, "father of a troop of saintly daughters and patron of the Irish saint Fursa, as well as a royal saint in this own right", as a Mercian victim in this passage. However, the author of the HB does not acknowledge Anna as a royal saint, as he does for Oswald, and there is no mention of his daughters or St. Fursa in the HB. Rather, Anna's strong military reputation against Penda and the association with St. Æthelberht,24 king and martyr of East Anglia,25 linked him with a particularly righteous and pious royal tradition whose militaristic resistance to Mercian domination was a model to the British.

§35.  Oswald was an even more deliberate choice for this passage, which calls him directly "Sanctum Oswaldum". For the HB's author, Oswestry in Shropshire may have represented a much closer focal point for the cult than Oswald's primary southern cult site at Bardney in Lindsey. Oswestry is still considered the best location for the battle of Maserfelth/Cocboy (Stancliffe 1991), although there has been some dissent in recent years (Clarkson 2006). However, rather than being at the specific location of Oswestry, the battle may have been associated with an entire conflict zone between Shropshire and Chester. Oswestry just became a focal point of the cult within the zone. The larger this zone became the more opportunity for Oswald's cult to disseminate. The earliest evidence of a cult of Oswald in the northern Welsh march conflict zone is a tenth-century wheel cross at Winwick26 that depicts Oswald's dismembered body on one face with a reference to a nearby St. Oswald's well on another arm (Rees 2000, 167). The cult at Oswestry is unfortunately not recorded until the works of Gerald of Wales and Reginald.27

§36.  It is possible that Oswald's sanctity was mentioned in the Offa-era Mercian source28 that was rewritten by the HB's author. Alcuin's poem The Bishops, Kings and Saints of York tells us that "blessed king Offa adorned the tomb [of Oswald at Bardney] with silver, gold, gems, and much finery, making of it a splendid and enduring monument, and winning great rewards for such a small effort."29 Offa's patronage of Oswald's tomb could have something to do with contemporary politics. Offa's daughter Alfflæd married King Æthelred of Northumbria in 792 (Briggs 2004, 75). Even so, it stands out in contrast to Offa's other ecclesiastical donations.30 Yorke (2003, 55) notes that, with the exception of Repton,31 nunneries associated with the family of Penda were not patronized by Æthelbald and Offa. Yet, Bardney was strongly associated with the Pending line.32 We should also not dismiss the possibility that Eowa's association with Oswald's death, as ally or enemy, was a factor in Offa's patronage.

§37.  Compared to the legends of Anna and Oswald, it is easy to see why Sigibert was not regarded as one of the holy kings. Sigibert was a pacifist who died unarmed in battle, while Oswald and Anna could be described as defenders of the faith. Slaying particularly martial, holy kings highlights Penda's use of the diabolical arts, bringing us to the outer flanking passages.

B: Ipse primus separavit regnum Merciorum a regno Nordorum [but]
B': et ipse victor fuit per diabolicam artem

A: Penda, filius Pybba, regnavit X annis. [but]
A': Non erat baptizatus et nunquam Deo Credidit.

§38.  When rearranged in this manner, according to the theory of 'biblical style', it forms a very damning elegy of Penda. This appears to be a type of rebutting symmetry where the end flanking passages reiterate the claims of the first portion of the passage. The HB's author has added the B' and A' lines to end the chronological narrative of his work on a proper demonic Mercian note.

§39.  What are we to make of the claim that Penda first separated Mercia from the kingdom of the North? King Ceorl of Mercia who gave Edwin refuge from Æthelfrith of Bernicia/Northumbria does not appear to be a subordinate of a northern king. However, it is difficult to see why record keepers in Offa's Mercia would record it if it were not true from some point of view. This simply underscores the huge importance of the battle in Mercian history. Supporting evidence comes from the 'Anglian Collection' of regnal lists, which all start Mercia's king list with Penda, not Ceorl, Eowa or Pybba33 (Dumville 1990, V: 32-36). Note that the British author has conveniently forgotten to make any mention of Penda's British allies at the battle of Cocboy/Maserfelth, preferring to portray St. Oswald's death as a purely Anglo-Saxon battle. Had Penda's British allies been mentioned it would have diluted Penda's responsibility in Oswald's death.

Oswald, Cadwallon and Merfyn's Gwynedd

§40.  In Merfyn's Gwynedd the threat from Mercia had grown so great and persistent that it inspired a radical revisionist history to mold public opinion. This is nowhere so obvious as in the HB's treatment of Oswald and Cadwallon. Merfyn sat on Cadwallon's throne, but he now embraced Cadwallon's slayer.

§41.  Considering Cadwallon's importance in Gywnedd, several oddities about his treatment in the HB stand out.

  1. There is less information in the HB on Cadwallon than in Bede's History, a known source for the HB.
  2. The destruction of Edwin's lineage is credited to the army of Gwynedd, deflecting credit away from Cadwallon.
  3. His death is mentioned as a credit to his slayer.
  4. There is no effort to counter Bede's demonization of Cadwallon in the HB.

All four of these oddities can be explained by the anti-Mercian tone of the text. The one significant addition that the HB makes on Cadwallon is to claim that he was the king of Gywnedd. It is the first text to do so; all previous texts call him simply 'king of Britons' with no patronymic or locality, as Alex Woolf (2004) has recently stressed. All later sources do support the HB's localization of Cadwallon and the oldest genealogies of Gwynedd list him as the son of Cadfan and father of Cadwaladr of the first dynasty. Cadwallon was probably too well entrenched in the very identity of Gwynedd for the author not to claim him.

§42.  Woolf (2004) has recently made a worthwhile challenge to Cadwallon's localization in Gwynedd. He suggests that the author of the HB simply tacked 'of the region of Gwynedd' onto Northumbrian references to Cadwallon to increase the prestige of Gywnedd. Of his five points of contention, only the pedigree point has any real resonance. The trouble with the Gwynedd pedigree is interesting but it does not mean that Cadwallon was not of Gwynedd. We must ask ourselves, if Cadwallon had been credited to Gwynedd to increase its prestige, why does the HB not stress Cadwallon's positive qualities? As mentioned above, credit for the destruction of the Deiran royal family is deflected away from Cadwallon to the army of Gwynedd. Everywhere else, kings are personally credited with victories. Cadwallon's death and the slaughter of his army are given as a credit to his slayer, Oswald. There is no effort to counter Bede's demonization of Cadwallon, as it attempts to deflect Bede's charge that the Britons refused to evangelize the English. This seems an odd way for the author to treat a king who he is, in Woolf's view, appropriating for Gwynedd.

§43.  The lack of British patronymics and pedigrees in the HB may simply indicate that a king-list was the primary recording format. The fact that no Welsh king lists survive does not mean that there never were any. Fictionally constructed pedigrees linking together the kings may have superseded the lists once the main dynasties were established.34 The king lists in the Moore memoranda and the 'Anglian Collection' are also without patronymics. The extended king-list format—which this text uses for the Northumbrians—could easily account for all of the information on Gwynedd's kings in the HB. As has been suggested before, annals could also account for the relatively little British information in the 'northern history' section of the HB (Dumville 1990, II: 348-9). The lack of British genealogies in the HB may be attributed to King Merfyn's status as an outsider.35 The author could not include Merfyn's pedigree without illustrating his status as a foreigner with no right to the throne. Likewise, he could not list the pedigrees of neighboring major kingdoms or heroes without highlighting Merfyn's rivals.36 Therefore, there is no sufficient reason to question Cadwallon's link to Gwynedd, even though the pedigree is suspect.

§44.  Another oddity in this 'northern' section of the text is the unbalanced treatment of the Britons and English. We should consider Dumville's suggestion that this text has been misnamed. He suggests that it should be considered a 'History of Britain", not a "History of the Britons" (Dumville 1994). It is, of course, told from a British point of view, but Dumville's hypothesis neatly explains why the focus changes to the English after the 540s.

§45.  Merfyn of Gwynedd's court probably had a very international feel. If his Manx origins are accurate, then he probably maintained ties with all of the cultures of the Irish Sea—British, Manx, English, Pictish/Dalriadan, and Irish. Although Merfyn's dynasty claimed British ancestry, it is likely that any dynasty that maintained itself on Man would have been good at navigating in a multi-cultural atmosphere. In Merfyn's court, a history of the Isle of Britain seems more appropriate.

§46.  If the author was writing a history of the island then he is essentially conceding the east to the English, although he holds out hope in the central prophecy of Emrys to Vortigern that the English can be driven from the island. While this is good politics in the court of Gwynedd, the author shows his concessions in the form of his narrative and the English dominance of the last section. He ends with the repeated moral that the Mercians were evil and that collaborators are fated to destruction, but he does not offer any real hope of the prophecy's fulfillment.

§47.  Viewing the HB as a history of the island makes its 'anglophilic' views more understandable. Opinions on Cadwallon must have ebbed and flowed over the years since 634, just as they do for politicians today. Cadwallon's victories and alliances served the Britons into the mid-eighth century, but the HB was written after many years of recent aggression by the Mercians that obliterated all evidence of the once mutually beneficial ties (Higham 2002, 162). Penda has now become an icon of the evil Mercian, intended to be reinforced by Bede's History. Higham (2002, 163) stresses that the author is purposefully opposing the demonic Mercians with the Northumbrians, with whom he "attempts to make connections ... and even recognize them as fellow Christians: hence his claims for their primary baptism by Britons, the Irish-converted Oswald's military prowess and sanctity, Oswiu's British marriage and destruction of the diabolical Penda, and Cuthbert's holiness". It may be better to say that the author was selectively but not entirely pro-Northumbrian. For example, the HB depicts Ida of Bernicia leading the wave of English invaders who wash over Britain after Arthur's fall. It celebrates the destruction of Edwin's dynasty at Hatfield and that of Ecgfrith at Dunnichen, makes Oswald's prowess at the expense of Cadwallon and his army, and shows Oswiu destroying the British kings who fought beside Penda. The author's feelings about Northumbria are clearly complex. Most of these references are present to serve a particular point in the text, while a few others—like the reference to Cuthbert—are simply passed on neutrally. The inclusion of Oswald's slaying of Cadwallon and Oswiu's destruction of the British kings at Winwead are both examples of the fates that occur to those who ally themselves with Gwynedd's contemporary enemy Mercia. The anti-Mercian parables are more important than the author's opinion toward Northumbria as a whole, or his attitudes toward Cadwallon, the most militarily successful king of Gwynedd.37

§48.  So where does this all leave memories of Oswald in Merfyn's Gwynedd? There is the obvious recognition of his sainthood, possibly fueled by a growing cult of St. Oswald at Oswestry near the British border.38 The fact that Oswald's death site was commemorated so close to the border would have been a constant reminder of British participation in his death, in alliance with a pagan. Bede's inclusion of a miracle attributed to Oswald on behalf of a Briton probably did not hurt British acceptance of his sainthood either. One of the remarkable features of Oswald's cult was that it transcended ethnic boundaries fairly early and was celebrated throughout the British Isles among friends and foes39 alike by the time the HB was written. Oswald's inclusive proverb—'May God have mercy on their souls, as Oswald said when he fell to the earth'40—may have much to do with that. 41 Oswald is one of only two English saints commemorated in the Welsh Bonedd y Sant (pedigrees of the saints), the other being St. Chad of Lichfield (Bartrum 1966). 42 The eleventh century Bonedd y Sant also reinforces the HB's suggestion that Oswald and his family were figures of British folklore.

§49.  The use of Oswald's epithet "White Blade" suggests that he was a figure of British folklore, probably initially focusing on the battle of Denisesburna and the fall of Cadwallon. This folklore was common enough for the author to make the equation in the text as an aid to the reader. Judging by the creative folkloric pedigree provided in the Bonedd y Sant, there is good reason why the reader might have a hard time recognizing the real history of Oswald. In the HB, we have a rare instance when an author can still make a connection between a folklore-appropriated figure and his true history. Our author made such an attempt for several Northumbrians with varying success. It is charming to note that Oswald made a similar folkloric leap in Ireland where he is listed among the heroes of the prehistoric Irish king Conaire of Tara in the Togial Bruidne Da Derga (Moisl 1983, 110-112).

§50.  Last but not least, by placing these segments of the HB in their proper context, we can extract valuable information from Penda's regnal assessment in section 65. By understanding that the ultimate source for this information is probably Mercian compiled under Offa and that it was heavily modified by the HB's author, its information becomes interpretable. Offa is unlikely to have allowed Mercia to be described in a submissive fashion unless it was undeniably true. Even Penda's rivals acknowledged that he was the first truly independent Mercian king. Eowa's importance also shines through for Offa in the ninth century, the Historia Brittonum being the oldest source for Eowa's existence.

§51.  The HB's author turns Penda into an iconic image of a demonic Mercian (Higham 2002) and uses St. Oswald to support this portrait. First, Oswald kills Cadwallon who supported Penda,43 who in turn martyrs St. Oswald with guile. Here we can again draw the parallel between Offa and St. Æthelbert of East Anglia, who was treacherously slain by Offa and enshrined on the Welsh border. The author may have left Eowa's position in the battle vague so that it did not taint St. Oswald with a Mercian ally. The more saintly Penda's victim, the more demonic Penda himself becomes. When Penda is finally slain by Oswald's brother Oswiu, the HB's author claims that all the British kings who marched with Penda, except the shamed Cadafael, are slain with him. If Penda is the icon of Mercian evil, then St. Oswald is the martyred icon of piety and holiness. It is not difficult to see in this context how Oswald White Blade became the patron of the Welsh march, eventually flourishing along the northern Welsh march conflict zone and at Gloucester.


1.   After the Historia Brittonum, there are only a few brief statements in the mid-tenth century Annals Cambriae and then he does not resurface until the eleventh- to twelfth-century folkloric sources of the Bonedd y Sant (Pedigrees of the Saints) and Canu Tysilio (Song of (St.) Tysilio), and then the highly political portrayal of Oswald in Geoffrey of Monmouth's History of the Kings of Britain.  [Back]

2.   David Dumville (1994) has discussed the anglophilic attitude of the author toward Hengest.  [Back]

3.   A recension of the text credits it to the famous Gildas, while another recension credits it to Nennius. The recension that is considered to be closest to the original, the Harlien 3859, is without title or attribution. Only some of the recensions give it the title Historia Brittonum that has been accepted by scholars, but it is not found on most versions of the text. See Dumville 1990: X, and Field 1996 for the authorship, and for the title see Dumville 1994.  [Back]

4.   See Sims-Williams 1994 for a discussion of Merfyn's origins.  [Back]

5.   Dumville (1990, II: 349) has noted that the English genealogies and regnal list material are "interdependent" and "to divide them is to introduce unnecessary confusion". He has further concluded that the HB's author obtained "probably a single English document containing both regnal list(s) and royal genealogies, produced a synthesis of British history, synchronizing as best he could his Celtic and English sources" (Dumville 1990, II: 352).  [Back]

6.   The translation is that of Morris 1980 with slight emendation by the author.  [Back]

7.   The Annals Cambriae spell the place name Cantscaul, and this has been accepted as the most likely intended or original spelling. See Jackson 1963, p. 34.  [Back]

8.   In the Welsh tales Culhwch and Olwen and the Dream of Rhonabwy, Arthur is the owner of such objects as Gwenn ('white') his cloak of invisibility, Prydwen (white shape/face) his ship, Carnwennen ('white-hilt, -hoof, or -mound') his knife, Ehangwen ('broad-white') his hall, and last but not least Gwenhwyfar ('white-sprite') his wife (Ford 1983). [Back]

9.   Klaeber in Wilson, 105.  [Back]

10.   I would like to thank Kent Hare for suggesting the Wilson and Klaeber references to me.  [Back]

11.   Oswiu is called White Brow in the Brut y Brenhinedd and Bonedd y Sant, both date to about the 12th century.  [Back]

12.   The unnamed 'Flamebearer' is the opponent of Urien Rheged in the Taliesin poetry. The predicted chronology of Urien suggests that one of the sons of Ida—Adda, Æthelric or Theodoric—is implied. Since Theodoric is mentioned as an opponent of Urien in the HB, it is often assumed that he was the flamebearer, but I personally favor Æthelric.  [Back]

13.   Eda Great Knee, father of Ecgbert and Eadbert, is probably a mistaken transfer from Ida to Eda by the author of the HB (Jackson 1963, 44). See Jackson for all of these translations.  [Back]

14.   Ecgfrith White Brow may also be a mistake, since this is usually the epithet given to his father Oswiu and is probably a reference to Oswiu's decision at the Synod of Whitby. The mistaken application of these epithets to Eata and perhaps Ecgfrith suggest that the author the HB applied them from a Welsh source that was either already becoming confused or with which he was inexperienced. Alternatively, the 'great knee' epithet could have been genuinely recycled for Eata who was the father of a generational king and the first Northumbrian archbishop. Sometimes epithets are recycled in Welsh legend particularly in the same kin group; for example, multiple Strathclyde kings used the hael epithet.  [Back]

15.   Alcuin, The Bishops, Kings and Saints of York, ll. 253-254, 257-265; Godman trans. p. 25-27.  [Back]

16.   Bede's account of Aidan's blessing of Oswald's arm (HE 3.6) probably have derived from Lindisfarne were stories of Aidan were focused. The Irish would have been uncomfortable about Oswald's arm relic and therefore may have stressed a peaceful reason for its sanctity that deflected the miracle away from Oswald to Aidan. The Irish favored bishops as saints over kings.  [Back]

17.   The latest event mentioned in the Northern history section of the HB is the death of Ecgfrith at the battle of Dunnichen in 685, where English expansion against the Britons/Picts was finally checked. Ecgfrith's entry in the regnal list should have been the end of the narrative history section.  [Back]

18.   The 'Anglian Collection' uses the word/abbreviation norðan to introduce the second Bernician genealogy in the Vespasian B mss. Dumville 1990, V, p. 30.  [Back]

19.   Alex Woolf (1998) has shown that Cenwealh son of Pybba is probably a reference to Penda's brother-in-law Cenwealh of Wessex and therefore probably an artificial linkage to the Mercian dynasty. It is not impossible that Coenwulf was descended from a disinherited nephew of Penda. If so, they would have owed their success in Mercia to a good relationship with the Pendings. The Pendings may have also thrown their support behind Coenwulf because they had a common enemy in the Eowings. Feud loyalties had long rippling effects.  [Back]

20.   Wendy Davis in Brooks 1989, p. 165.  [Back]

21.   Higham 2005, 89; Higham 2002, 116-118; Sharp 2005.  [Back]

22.   Although short, the Additamentum Nivalense de Fuilano is an important source for seventh century Britian. It is believed to have been composed between 650 and 657 (Fouracre and Gerberding 1996, 307). It may include one of the earliest reliable named evidence of an Anglo-Saxon king, Anna of East Anglia. Anna's opponent is an unnamed pagan king. The Vita Fursei, featuring Follian's brother Fursey, was composed on the continent in early 650s, and this addendum was attached to it.  [Back]

23.   Bede does not mention who was Coenwalh's godfather or who baptized Coenwalh but Anna is the most likely choice for his godfather.  [Back]

24.   King Offa had Æthelberht of East Anglia murdered in 794. A cult soon flourished at Hereford, south of Oswestry along the Welsh march. It is interesting to note that the last East Anglian king in the Historia Brittonum genealogy is "Elric" son of "Aldul", probably Ælfwald son of Aldwulf, who commissioned the Life of Guthlac during Æthelbald's reign, or an otherwise unknown son of Aldwulf. After Ælfwald there was a long period of joint rulers, after which Æthelberht succeeded a king named Æthelred. The similarity in their name suggests they were probably related.  [Back]

25.   Hereford was a place of frequent Mercian and British contact. It lay on the Merican-British border for centuries and was near the southern end of Offa's dyke. The establishment of the cult here may have been an attempt by Merica to help control the border (and the potentially rebellious Mægonsæte region), which partially worked but St. Æthelberht also garnered support as a Mercian victim. See Sharp 2005 for a further discussion of the cult of St. Æthelberht at Hereford.  [Back]

26.   Rees (167) suggests that Winwick Quay, the lowest point fording point of the River Mersey, may have been along Oswald's route.  [Back]

27.   It is also worth noting that Oswald is one of only two English saints in the twelfth century Bonedd y Sant (ByS), although by the time it was compiled Oswald's relics from Bardney had been relocated to Gloucester. Yet, St. Oswald and St. Chad's inclusion in the ByS may owe more to earlier contact. Mercian saints like St. Mildburgh of Much Wenlock and other saints that were relocated to Gloucester with Oswald are omitted. Further, like the stories associated with Oswestry, Oswald's pedigree in the Bonedd y Sant is clearly entirely folkloric and does not resemble the genealogies in the Historia Brittonum or Bede's History.  [Back]

28.   The genealogy and Eowa's importance in Penda's section inform us that the ultimate source for the information was Offa's Mercia, by what ever route that material came to Wales.  [Back]

29.   Godman, p. 34-35, lines 388-391.  [Back]

30.   Yorke (2003, 53-56) notes that Offa used nunneries founded and controlled by females in his dynasty (and those of supportive clients) to great effect as a measure of control over his enlarging kingdom. Offa's patronage of Oswald's cult at Bardney may have been part of a scheme to use the church to help manage his kingdom, as Penda's lineage has used it. Although Alcuin dwells on Offa's precious gifts, grants of land may have accompanied the donation.  [Back]

31.   Repton is usual given that the burial of Merewealh the reputed son of Penda is the only member of Penda's family associated with the house. St. Guthlac's association with Repton may have brought favor on this house from King Æthelbald and other later kings. In other words, it remained in the favor of the Mercian kings but did not become the house of one dynasty exclusively. See Yorke 2003, 55. [Back]

32.   Not only did Queen Osthryth establish her uncle Oswald's cult here, King Æthelred retired to Bardney and became its abbot. Æthelred and Osthryth were even accorded founding saint status in some sources.  [Back]

33.   The Anglian Collection gives Penda 21 years (xxi) rather than Bede's 22 years. This could be a scribal error, or one of Penda's years could have been granted to his son Peada, who was allotted a one year reign. Bede claims Peada only ruled South Mercia from his father's death (November) to Easter (Dumville 1990, V).  [Back]

34.   See Miller 1980, Dumville 1990b, and Woolf 1998 for the methods of fictional early pedigree construction.  [Back]

35.   Merfyn is reputed (and believed) to be from a Manx British dynasty. See Sims-Williams 1994.  [Back]

36.   The inclusion of one pedigree that claimed descent from Voritigern was for such a petty kingdom, it could even be construed as an insult to Powys.  [Back]

37.   Although the HB does not mention Cadwallon's alliance with Penda, it would have been well known and it is possible that Penda wasn't present at Denisesburn. Bede does not place him there either. Penda may have been preoccupied securing Mercia after Edwin's death, while Cadwallon and the British ravaged Northumbria. [Back]

38.   It should be noted that not all scholars accept that Oswestry was really the site of Oswald's death (See Clarkson 2006). However, this is the only site to have a medieval tradition as Oswald's death site, even if that tradition is recorded late. It is clear that his death site was somewhere within Mercia during Æthelred's time, before Queen Osthryth's death in 697. [Back]

39.   The HB is the only evidence of acceptance of Oswald's sanctity among the British, but Bede records ample evidence of Mercian acceptance of his cult within living memory of Oswald's death.  [Back]

40.   Bede 3.12, Colgrave translation in McClure and Collins 1994, 129.  [Back]

41.   See John E. Damon, "The King's Fragmented Body", in this issue. The ninth century Old English Martyrology interprets the proverb to indicate that he is praying for the Mercians, rather than Bede's interpretation that he is praying for the Northumbrians.  [Back]

42.   Note that by the time the Bonedd y Sant was written, Oswald's cult was established at Gloucester giving Oswald two significant cult sites on the British border. The HB was written significantly earlier than the relocation of Oswald's relics to Gloucester.  [Back]

43.   The HB's author does not actually mention Cadwallon's support of Penda, but it would have been well known from Bede's History. The importance of Cadwallon's support of Penda in 632-633 really cannot be underestimated. The British were to Penda what East Anglia was to Edwin and Dalriada was to Oswald.  [Back]

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