Wednesday, 1 June 2011

The Sacred Arm of St Oswald

In 635 Northumbria faced a threat to its independence when the pagan King Cadwalla of Mercia led an army to invade and conquer. Northumbria was, at the time, in the hands of a young and untried prince named Oswald. Just before the two armies clashed, Oswald erected a wooden cross and ordered his entire army to kneel and pray for victory over the pagan. The battle was won and the site quickly renamed Heavenfield. The cross has since been replaced by a small chapel, open to the public most days.

Oswald soon became an ideal Christian ruler. One day he was sitting down to lunch with Bishop Aidan of Lindisfarne when the steward interrupted to say that a crowd of beggars was outside asking for food. He asked permission to send out the unwanted kitchen scraps. Oswald refused and instead ordered the steward to take the royal meal outside for the beggars, then added that the silver platter on which it was being served should be cut up and distributed as well. Aidan, later to be made a saint himself, was astonished at the generosity. He flung himself down on his knees, grabbed Oswald’s right hand and declared “May this hand never perish.”

Some years later Oswald had to face Cadwalla’s son and successor in battle at Oswestry, Shropshire. This time the victory went to the pagans. As he fought, Oswald was surrounded by his enemies. He lifted his arms to pray, but a savage blow from a pagan sword severed Oswald’s right arm at the shoulder. Another sliced off his head. When the Northumbrians got their dead king’s body back for burial they kept the head and arm to serve as religious relics. The head was put into the tomb of the great northern saint, St Cuthbert, while the arm was put in a silver casket and sent to Lindisfarne.

When the Viking wars began, the silver casket was opened and the holy arm of Oswald found to be as fresh and soft as it had been on the day it was interred. This was widely held to be a miracle and the arm was carried by monks away from Lindisfarne for safe keeping. It ended up at Bamburgh where it became the focus for pilgrimage. When King Henry VIII closed down the monasteries during the Protestant reformation of the 16th century, he also ordered the closure of chapels and reliquaries maintained by monasteries. The small chapel of Oswald’s arm was one of these. But when Henry’s soldiers came to take possession of the silver casket and the arm inside it, they found that both had gone missing along with the monk who looked after them. The monk had, it was said, taken the relic to a safe hiding place. Where that was nobody ever knew and neither monk nor sacred arm have ever been found. They are thought to remain still somewhere near Bamburgh.

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