This blog is situated at the Church of St Aidan in Bamburgh village, just up the road from the famous castle.
But the reason why Bamburgh is so important to Northumbrian history is not just about the castle. While the castle is of huge importance, that importance would be lesser if it wasn’t for St Aidan and St Aidan’s Church.
In my previous blog I talked about story of the Northumbrian Kings. Ida expanded his control by taking Bamburgh and eventually the whole of Northumbria. His son was Æthelfrith and his grandson was Oswald.
It is Oswald, and his friendship with Aidan, which we are focusing on in this blog. Let’s find out more.
The life of Oswald
Oswald’s father Æthelfrith, died in battle when Oswald was just 13 years old. As a result, Oswald and his family had to flee the area for safety. They fled to Iona on the west coast of Scotland. Some theorise that Oswald’s maternal grandfather is the King of Dalriada, or when Æthelfrith fought against the kings of Dalriada, he replaced their leaders and they looked favourably on his family. Dalriada was the kingdom which runs down the west coast of Scotland where modern-day Argyll and Bute and Ayrshire and parts of Northern Ireland are today.
Oswald grew up around the Irish monks on Iona and he learned about Celtic Christianity. He fought amongst the Irish as a warlord and has a large Warband of his own. He probably would have remained as a migratory warlord had his Uncle Edwin not died in battle at the hands of Cadwallon ap Cadfan, a Welsh warlord.
As a result of his Uncle being killed, Oswald came back to Northumbria to retake his kingdom at the Battle of Heavensfield, where he killed Cadwallon. On his return to his childhood home, Oswald sent word to the monks of Iona to send a mission trip to Northumbria to help convert its people to Christianity. The first monk travelled to the kingdom but faced language barriers when he got there; the people of the kingdom spoke Anglo-Saxon while he spoke Irish. The mission didn’t go well and the monk returned to Iona to report back that Northumbrian people were ‘fully of the devil’ and should be left alone.
While the monk was telling the monks of Iona how evil the English were, Aidan told the monk that he should have shown the English the milk of human kindness rather than the meat of complex theology, and they would have converted to Christianity. As a result of this outburst, Aidan was chosen to travel to Northumbria to pick up the conversion of the English people to Christianity.
Aidan came to Northumbria
Aidan would have been a peer of Oswald during his time in Iona so travelled to join his friend in Bamburgh. In 635AD he built a wooden church on the site of the current stone-built church. Close enough to Bamburgh to be important but far enough away to build his mission trip. He requested Lindisfarne as the site for his monastery which he established soon after. From his new base, Aidan preached and delivered the Gospel to the Northumbrians.
The people of Northumbria took to Christianity under Aidan’s lead and he started working with the normal folk of the kingdom, alongside his friend Oswald. Oswald would regularly translate for Aidan before he could speak German Anglo-Saxon. He would preach alongside Aidan, lending strength and credibility to their mission.
The Death of Oswald
The mission went from strength to strength with new churches being built and the people of Northumbria taking to Christianity. After eight years of Oswald’s rule, he travelled to fight against King Penda, the ferocious Pagan King of Mercia. Penda killed Oswald in battle leaving the future of the mission trips in doubt. There followed a period of instability but Aidan worked hard to hold together the Christian mission in Northumbria. Oswald’s brother Oswiu acceded to the throne to take over where his brother left off.
However, another royal candidate came to the fore. Oswin was descended from another rival branch of Northumbrian Kings. He was a very Godly man and a very good friend of Aidan’s. Oswin looked to Aidan as a spiritual mentor and gave Aidan a fantastic horse to ride around on. At the time, monks were not seen to ride on horseback – a mode of transport generally reserved for noble people, warlords or powerful individuals. However, Oswin wanted to honour Aidan. While Aidan was riding around his Kingdom, he came across a beggar. He gave the man his horse and all of its gold bridle, saddle and accessories. This caused an argument between Aidan and Oswin. Aidan explained that God loved that man more than any horse. Oswin finally admitted he had been wrong, arrogant and proud. At that moment, Aidan received a message from God telling him that Oswin would soon die – he was too good to be a king in these times!
Oswiu, Oswald’s brother and king of the northern half of Northumbria invaded Oswin’s kingdom in Yorkshire, causing Oswin to disband his men and go into exile. Unfortunately, Oswin was betrayed by one of his closest men and was murdered by Oswiu’s men. This broke Aidan’s heart. Ten days later, Aidan felt unwell and took shelter against one of the posts of the church. His men built a protective barrier around him to allow him to rest but he passed away shortly after, resting upright against a beam.
After his death, the beam he rested against is said to have been miraculously preserved and avoided burning in a later fire.
Legend has it that a young shepherd boy in Scotland saw a soul being taken up to Heaven by angels. That boy was said to be St Cuthbert who, later on, came down to Lindisfarne and became a very important Anglo-Saxon saint here in the North East.