In August, we remember two leaders of English Christianity whose stories are entwined. On August 5, we remember King Oswald of Northumbria, and at the very end of the month we remember Aidan, first bishop of Lindisfarne and the key evangelist of the the north of England. Their stories are worth a look.
We’re dealing with the middle of the 7th century, roughly 630-650 AD.The thing to remember about England at that time is that there was no such thing. What there was, was a confusion of small kingdoms engaged in constant war and intrigue with each other. The “Anglo-Saxon” conquest (if there was such a thing, in fact) was about a century old, and was still bitterly contested by the (more or less) Celtic and (more or less) Christian British population, which had been pushed into Wales and Cornwall. Ireland was a Christian dynamo by then, but Anglo-Saxon England was largely pagan. In the south, Augustine of Canterbury had begun his mission in 597, but that work was very slow.
Oswald was born to one of the pagan kinglets, the first to unify two small kingdoms into a larger kingdom of Northumbria. As usual, his father died in battle, in 616, and his young son took refuge among the Irish monks of Iona, off the west coast of Scotland. There he learned Irish and also became a passionate Christian. In 634 he led a very small army to reclaim his father’s throne and scored, we might say, an upset victory over a much more powerful army. He immediately sent to the monks of Iona for a missionary bishop to convert his kingdom. The first choice, one Corman or Coorman, was not very good at the missionary thing, and he was soon replaced by Aidan. At the outset of his mission, Aidan could not speak the local “English” dialect, so when he preached, Oswald stood by his side to translate.
Oswald seems to have been an effective king, as far as the measure of the time went. That was chiefly, was he a good war leader? And it seems he was. The various kinglets and princelings of England recognized no overlord, but they did sort of recognize a paramount. That wasn’t such a good thing to be. It was like being Number 1 on the FBI’s Most Wanted list. Being recognized as the top king meant, “let’s attack him first,” and so it was for Oswald. He reigned only 8 years, dying in battle in 642. He seems to have been trying to make a preemptive strike against the aggressive and pagan king Penda of Mercia, but he lost, and his head was cut off and his body dismembered, maybe as a sacrifice to Odin (I don’t watch Game of Thrones, but from the publicity I don’t think the princelings of Westeros have an edge on the pagan kings of England. In addition to beheadings and dismemberings, we have betrayal, constant warfare, and poisoning – one king seems to have been poisoned by his wife at Easter. The real ones weren’t as pretty, though).
Aidan continued his mission for another decade. His missionary technique was to walk everywhere, conversing with all he met on the way. He would be friendly and open with them, and only after establishing rapport would he gently introduce the Gospel. That he was effective is undeniable. Oswald had given him the tidal island of Lindisfarne as the seat of his bishopric, and Lindisfarne became a center of learning and evangelism in the north of England that had immense influence. It certainly influenced Bede, best known today as a historian of his time, but in his life an extremely influential scholar and teacher in Northumbria. His pupil Alcuin of York was so renowned throughout northern Europe as a scholar that Charlemagne asked him to found, well, sort of a pilot school for Charlemagne’s empire.
So Oswald and Aidan brought Christianity to the north of England as Augustine and his successors did to the south. There were differences of opinion between the “Irish” and “Roman” schools of Christianity, resolved in 664 at the Synod of Whitby, where Oswald’s brother and successor, Oswiu, decided in favor of the Roman way. More or less. “More or less,” and “maybe” have to be attached to almost any statement about the time.
What is as sure as it’s possible to say is that Oswald and Aidan were essential to bringing Christianity to the north of England, and that their partnership had influences well past their lifetimes.