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James IV Memorial Lecture, October 2016

Written by Maureen Charlton


On Sunday, 11th October in Etal Village Hall, Max Adams, author, historian and archaeologist, gave the TillVAS “James IV Memorial Lecture” to a capacity audience.

By way of introduction, Max described Britain as it was in the 5thc, with a number of “kingdoms” ruled by self-styled “kings” – in the north, Goddodin, Strathclyde, Deira and Bernicia, with Rheged to the west. Although boundaries have changed, geographical features can still be easily identified. Britain at that time was a brutal place of kill or be killed; the many battles, if not due to petty rivalries were for the acquisition of land and a way to reward warriors with plunder to keep a battle-force in the King’s pocket. In 604, Aethelfrith defeated Dal Riata, the finale of a long-running war, causing that kingdom to become another tributary to Bernicia, and consolidating his position as overlord of North Britain.

Oswald Iding, born 604, eldest son of Aethelfrith, King of Bernicia and Deira, was overlord of North Britain. His wife Acha was the daughter of Aelle, King of Deira, who was deposed either by Aethelric (Oswald’s grandfather) or Aethelfrith himself. Acha had two brothers, Edwin, the eldest, therefore became an atheling without a homeland, a free-lance warrior and of great interest to Aethelfrith, who attempted to have him killed on several occasions. The tables turned however when in 616 Aethelfrith was killed at Bawtry in East Anglia by Raedwald, with whom Edwin had taken refuge. Edwin therefore reclaimed the two northern kingdoms for himself, but Acha, fearing for herself and young family, fled to Dunadd, in Dal Riata for safety.

King Edwin brought Christianity to the North and he and his family were baptised by Bishop Paulinus, followed by a mass baptism in Yorkshire and at Edwin’s new palace of Yeavering in Glendale. This is described in detail by the Venerable Bede in his Ecclesiastical History and excavations by Brian Hope-Taylor in 1950/60s confirmed the existence of the “palace”. Bede also wrote “There was a great peace in Britain wherever the dominion of King Edwin reached….” However, in 632, Edwin was killed in battle near present day Hatfield, along with his son, by the combined forces of Gwynedd and Mercia, led by Cadwallon and Penda, who during the following two years ravaged Bernicia and the northern kingdoms. Edwin’s family and Paulinus were forced to flee to Kent for safety.

Oswald and his brother Oswiu had been growing up in Dal Riata where they had kin, training to be warriors, and being a sea-board kingdom, they would have become familiar with the use of boats. They had also been tutored by the community headed by Columba on Iona, who had a great influence in the area, had been baptised and become thoroughly Irish. It may be that the monks thought to send Oswald home to set up a “daughter house” in Northumberland at Lindisfarne. By 632 Oswald would have become a skilled warrior and had already earned himself the nick-name “Flashing Blade”.

No doubt fully aware of the situation in his homeland, Oswald sought assistance from Dal Riata to recover his kingdom of Bernicia and it was likely that he used the Solway as the easiest route south, there obtaining horses and moving east along the Tyne Valley to where Cadwallon had set up camp near Corbridge. Arriving at a place near to present day Heavenfield just north of Corbridge, Oswald had a vision of St. Columba and interpreted this as an omen of success. As a result, according to Bede, a cross was set up and the whole war-band promised, after the battle, to accept the faith and be baptised. Cadwallon was apparently ignorant of the impending clash, possibly due to local sympathies lying with Oswald. The battle supposedly took place at Denisesburn, now identified as Devils Water near Corbridge where Cadwallon was killed. Oswald had no difficulty regaining control of his kingdom of Bernicia, so in the following year, 635, he sent for Aidan, an Irish monk from Iona to convert Northumbria to Celtic Christianity, and established a monastery on Lindisfarne, followed by others at Melrose, Hartlepool and Coldingham. During the following years, Oswald embarked on a capital revolution. Funded by tribute, he began to gift lands and treasure to churches and his warriors; cemeteries and townships appeared and trade links were established across to Ireland.

In 642, Oswald, a battle-hardened commander of repute at the height of his powers, and with a following of elite warriors, died on a battlefield somewhere near Oswestry, in a campaign against Penda of Mercia and a King of Powys. Such was the slaughter, none of his close companions survived to retrieve his body, which “on the orders of the king who slew him” was dismembered and displayed on stakes, thereby depriving the Bernicians of the accustomed funeral rites. Oswald was succeeded by his brother Oswiu who in 643 went back to Oswestry to bring back the body parts presumed to be those of Oswald. Several unexplained mystical events were associated with the area around the battlefield, including visions and healing. Oswiu collected “arms”, which were interred at Bamburgh and a “head” was given to Lindisfarne. A skull, reputed to be that of Oswald was found in St. Cuthbert’s coffin. The last time this was opened by Canon Greenwell in 1899, the fragments of the skull were examined in detail, and showed clear signs that its owner had been felled by an edged weapon, leaving a huge gash across the brow. Such was his renown, various other “pieces” of Oswald can be found in many places on the continent. Oswiu followed in his brother’s footsteps and despite several incursions by Penda and others, survived until 670, aged 58.

Much of the history of the time was recorded by the Venerable Bede, one of the greatest of early historians, who wrote “the stability of a kingdom depended on land, warriors and defence, but most importantly, knowledge.”

As a bonus to a most successful afternoon, it was with great pleasure that we welcomed our President, Dr. Chris Burgess, and Nevenka, “on leave” from hospital where he has been recovering after taking ill earlier this year. He spoke for a short while, expressing his appreciation of the multitude of cards and messages of goodwill he had received during this time. We look forward to seeing him again in the near future.

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