Hadrian’s Wall, St Oswald and the Forgotten Triumph of Heavenfield13-min read (inc. footnotes)

“The Lord knows that we have undertaken a just war for the safety of our nation.”

In June 2019 I walked 84-miles across England following the route of Hadrian’s Wall; these are my reflections on one of the important historical sites, encountered along the route. This is an edited version of an article first published in September 2019 in the magazine Calx Mariae.

English History

The Lives of the Early English Saints
Prelude, with the Life of St Alban, Proto-Martyr of Britain


The Whig Interpretation of History – Its Lasting Influence
Suffering Under Persecution – the Example of Robert Southwell and the English Martyrs
The heroic and moving life of L’Abbé Henry Essex Edgeworth, Louis XVI’s Anglo-Irish confessor
A Forgotten Triumph – Hadrian’s Wall, St Oswald and the Battle of Heavenfield

The 84-mile Hadrian’s Wall route follows the whole length of the Roman which was constructed between 122-128 AD on the orders of the Emperor Hadrian to defend the northern frontier of the Roman Empire. The wall runs from Wallsend on the east coast of England to Bowness-on-Solway in the west.

The walk is a good way to explore the archaeology of the Roman wall, but it can be a much richer experience than that. As well as the extraordinary natural beauty of the route, it also cuts across many sites of great historical importance, from every period of British history.

For example, not long after I left Newcastle, on the first day of the walk, I unexpectedly came across the site of the battle of Newburn Ford.

This was a battle fought on 28 August 1640 between the forces of King Charles I and the Scottish Covenanters. It was the only battle of the Second Bishops’ War, in which Scottish Presbyterians resisted the establishment of an episcopal hierarchy in Scotland and the introduction of a liturgy closely modelled on that of the Church of England. The king’s forces were defeated and Charles I was forced to recall Parliament after his eleven years of personal rule, triggering the events that would lead to the Civil War two years later.

Image: Hadrian’s Wall, taken by the author, June 2019

However, there was one battle site I was looking forward to seeing, more than anything else on the route. This was the site of the Battle of Heavenfield.

In 634, St Oswald, King of Northumbria, defeated King Cadwallon of the Welsh kingdom of Gwynedd. This victory secured the future of Northumbria as a Catholic kingdom: and in this kingdom, an English civilisation developed that matched anything known in contemporary Europe. It was at Heavenfield that the future of St Bede’s Northumbria was secured.

This is one of the most important events in English history and, as it now almost entirely unknown, I want to make it the subject of this article.

Before looking at the battle itself it will be helpful to establish some context.

The missionaries and our ancestors

From the mid-fifth century Germanic peoples had migrated into post-Roman Britain, carving out new kingdoms. Around the year 550 an Angle warlord named Ida established a foothold in the modern English county of Northumberland, and over the next few decades his successors established Bernicia, a new kingdom, between the rivers Tyne and Tweed.

Around the year 604, his grandson Aethelfrith forcibly united Bernicia with its southern neighbour Deira, creating a united kingdom of all the English north of the Humber – the kingdom of Northumbria. Aethelfrith was a mighty warlord, successful in battle against most of the peoples of northern and central Britain, but he never succeeded in eliminating his great rival – Edwin, a prince of the Deiran royal house.

In 616 Edwin defeated Aethelfrith in battle and took control of both Bernicia and Deira. Aethelfrith’s wife, Queen Acha, fled with her sons Oswald and Oswiu and her daughter Aebbe. Both of her sons – each of would become in turn great Christian kings of Northumbria.

Acha and her children sought sanctuary at the court of Eochaid Bruide, the king of the Scottish (Ulster Irish) kingdom of Dal Riata. She probably fled here because of ties of intermarriage between the two royal houses. Her choice was to be of profound importance not only for the history of England but for the whole western world. It was to ensure that whatever political rivalry might separate Edwin and the heirs of Aethelfrith, a much deeper unity would be found.

Acha, Oswald, Oswiu and Aebbe were English pagans, arriving in a Christian kingdom. Oswald and Oswiu were educated at the monastery of Iona, founded a generation earlier by St Columba, where they were baptised and instructed in the Catholic faith. Their sister Aebbe would become a nun – one of the first in English history. 

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Meanwhile in Northumbria, King Edwin too was receiving the Gospel of Jesus Christ. In 601, St Gregory the Great had sent a second group of missionaries to support those first sent to England, under the leadership of St Augustine of Canterbury in 597. In 625 St Paulinus, one of these missionaries, was consecrated a bishop. He travelled north to Northumbria, accompanying King Eadbald of Kent’s sister, who was to marry Edwin.

St Paulinus’s preaching was to have long-lasting effects. St Bede’s account of Edwin’s conversion in 627 is one of the most beautiful passages of his Ecclesiastical History of the English People, (UK link: here) and gives us a profound glimpse into the character of our English ancestors:

“[T]he king… holding a council with the wise men, he asked of every one in particular what he thought of the new doctrine, and the new worship that was preached. […]

“[One] of the king’s chief men [said]: ‘The present life of man, O king, seems to me, in comparison of that time which is unknown to us, like to the swift flight of a sparrow through the room wherein you sit at supper in winter, with your commanders and ministers, and a good fire in the midst, whilst the storms of rain and snow prevail abroad; the sparrow, I say, flying in at one door, and immediately out at another, whilst he within, is safe from the wintry storm; but after a short space of fair weather, he immediately vanishes out of your sight, into the dark winter from which he had emerged. So this life of man appears for a short space, but of what went before, or what is to follow, we are utterly ignorant. If, therefore, this new doctrine contains something more certain, it seems justly to deserve to be followed.’

“The other elders and king’s councillors, by Divine inspiration, spoke to the same effect.

“But Coifi [the chief pagan priest] added, that he wished more attentively to hear Paulinus discourse concerning the God whom he preached; which he having by the king’s command performed, Coifi, hearing his words, cried out, ‘I have long since been sensible that there was nothing in that which we worshipped; because the more diligently I sought after truth in that worship, the less I found it. But now I freely confess, that such truth evidently appears in this preaching as can confer on us the gifts of life, of salvation, and of eternal happiness. For which reason I advise, O king, that we instantly abjure and set fire to those temples and altars which we have consecrated without reaping any benefit from them.’ 

“In short, the king publicly gave his licence to Paulinus to preach the Gospel, and renouncing idolatry, declared that he received the faith of Christ: and then he inquired of [Coifi] the high priest who should first profane the altars and temples of their idols, with the enclosures that were about them. [Coifi] answered, “I; for who can more properly than myself destroy those things which I worshipped through ignorance, for an example to all others, through the wisdom which has been given me by the true God?’

“Then immediately, in contempt of his former superstitions, he desired the king to furnish him with arms and a stallion; and mounting the same, he set out to destroy the idols; for it was not lawful before for the high priest either to carry arms, or to ride on any but a mare. Having, therefore, girt a sword about him, with a spear in his hand, he mounted the king’s stallion and proceeded to the idols. The multitude, beholding it, concluded he was distracted; but he lost no time, for as soon as he drew near the temple he profaned the same, casting into it the spear which he held; and rejoicing in the knowledge of the worship of the true God, he commanded his companions to destroy the temple, with all its enclosures, by fire. This place where the idols were is still shown, not far from York, to the eastward, beyond the river Derwent, and is now called Godmundinghan, where the high priest, by the inspiration of the true God, profaned and destroyed the altars which he had himself consecrated.

“King Edwin, therefore, with all the nobility of the nation, and a large number of the common sort, received the faith, and the washing of regeneration, in the eleventh year of his reign, which is the year of the incarnation of our Lord 627, and about one hundred and eighty after the coming of the English into Britain. He was baptized at York, on the holy day of Easter, being the 12th of April, in the church of St. Peter the Apostle, which he himself had built of timber, whilst he was catechising and instructing In order to receive baptism. In that city also he appointed the see of the bishopric of his instructor and bishop, Paulinus.”

Edwin was thus baptised in the first York Minster, and St Paulinus became the first Archbishop of York.

The alliance between pagans and Welsh Christians against the English

For six years the faith flourished and took root in Northumbria. Then, on 12 October 633, King Edwin was killed, along with his son and heir, in battle against a powerful alliance of King Penda of Mercia, a rising English kingdom, still pagan, and the Welsh prince Cadwallon of Gwynedd, who was a Christian.

The presence of the English in Britain was still resented by the Welsh. Bede tells us that Cadwallon’s armies ravaged Northumbria:

“With bestial cruelty he put all to death by torture and for a long time raged through all their land, meaning to wipe out the whole English nation from the land of Britain. Nor did he pay any respect to the Christian religion which had sprung up among them.”

The armies burned churches and killing Christians, while St Paulinus escorted the Queen back to safety in Kent.

Edwin’s successors in Northumbria were pagan and commenced a persecution of the Church. They were unable to defend the land from Cadwallon’s depredations, and both were killed in turn.

What was to be the fate of Christianity in the kingdom?

St Oswald’s return

It was now that Oswald, the son of King Aethelfrith and Queen Acha, after his long exile among the Scots, took the opportunity not only to restore his family to the throne of Northumbria, but also to restore Northumbria to the kingdom of Christ.

Returning from exile he had to raise an army quickly, for Cadwallon’s forces were occupying much of Northumbria. Cadwallon marched north from York to confront Oswald, who took up a defensive position by Hadrian’s wall, a short distance north of Hexham.

Abbot Adomnan of Iona, the biographer of St Columba, recorded St Oswald’s vision the night before the battle:

“[As] King Oswald, after pitching his camp, in readiness for the battle, was sleeping one day on a pillow in his tent, he saw St Columba in a vision, beaming with angelic brightness, and of figure so majestic that his head seemed to touch the clouds. The blessed man having announced his name to the king, stood in the midst of the camp, and covered it all with his brilliant garment, except at one small distant point; and at the same time he uttered those cheering words which the Lord spoke to Joshua Ben Nun before the passage of the Jordan, after Moses’ death, saying, ‘Be strong and of good courage; behold, I shall be with thee,’ etc. Then St Columba having said these words to the King in the vision, added, ‘March out this following night from your camp to battle, for on this occasion the Lord has granted to me that your foes shall be put to flight, that your enemy Cadwallon shall be delivered into your hands, and that after the battle you shall return in triumph, and have a happy reign.’

“The King, awaking at these words, assembled his council and related the vision, at which they were all encouraged; and so the whole people promised that, after their return from the war, they would believe and be baptised, for up to that time all that Saxon land had been wrapped in the darkness of paganism and ignorance, with the exception of King Oswald and the twelve men who had been baptised with him during his exile among the Scots.

“What more need I say? On the very next night, King Oswald, as he had been directed in this vision, went forth from his camp to battle, and had a much smaller army than the numerous hosts opposed to him, yet he obtained from the Lord, according to His promise, an easy and decisive victory for King Cadwallon was slain, and the conqueror, on his return after the battle, was ever established by God as the Bretwalda of all Britain.”

St Oswald Before the Cross – Wiki Commons

Once again, nobody tells the story better than the Venerable Bede:

“The place is shown to this day, and held in much veneration, where Oswald, being about to engage, erected the sign of the holy cross, and on his knees prayed to God that he would assist his worshipers in their great distress. It is further reported, that the cross being made in haste, and the hole dug in which it was to be fixed, the king himself, full of faith, laid hold of it and held it with both his hands, till it was set fast by throwing in the earth and this done, raising his voice, he cried to his army, ‘Let us all kneel, and jointly beseech the true and living God Almighty, in his mercy, to defend us from the haughty and fierce enemy; for He knows that we have undertaken a just war for the safety of our nation.’

“All did as he had commanded, and accordingly advancing towards the enemy with the first dawn of day, they obtained the victory, as their faith deserved. In that place of prayer very many miraculous cures are known to have been performed, as a token and memorial of the king’s faith; for even to this day, many are wont to cut off small chips from the wood of the holy cross, which being put into water, men or cattle drinking thereof, or sprinkled with that water, are immediately restored to health.

“The place in the English tongue is called Heavenfield, or the Heavenly Field, which name it formerly received as a presage of what was afterwards to happen, denoting, that there the heavenly trophy would be erected, the heavenly victory begun, and heavenly miracles be wrought to this day. The same place is near the wall with which the Romans formerly enclosed the island from sea to sea, to restrain the fury of the barbarous nations, as has been said before.”

Today

It was in this place, near the wall with which the Romans formerly enclosed the island from sea to sea, that I knelt in prayer in June 2019. Today there is still a church on the site, and though the current building dates only from the eighteenth century, its site in a circular enclosure in the midst of a field gives a sense of its antiquity.

The victory of Heavenfield assured not only the re-establishment of the Catholic faith in Northumbria but led to a golden age of piety and scholarship, which reached its culmination in Bede and Alcuin, and during which Northumbria (and England) took a leading place in the world.

It was Oswald’s victory which led to the establishment of the monastery and see of Lindisfarne, and to the introduction of Irish learning and spirituality into England alongside that brought from Rome. It was an English Church, energised by the Northumbrian golden age, that sent missionaries throughout western and central Europe, carrying with them the works of St Bede. 

The Battle of Heavenfield was only the beginning of the great achievements of King St Oswald and his brother and successor King Oswiu. Their names, and the story of their reigns, ought to be known by every English man, woman and child. 

St Oswald’s feast day is 5 August.

For more, see: The Venerable Bede – Ecclesiastical History of the English People (UK link: here)

English History

The Lives of the Early English Saints
Prelude, with the Life of St Alban, Proto-Martyr of Britain


The Whig Interpretation of History – Its Lasting Influence
Suffering Under Persecution – the Example of Robert Southwell and the English Martyrs
The heroic and moving life of L’Abbé Henry Essex Edgeworth, Louis XVI’s Anglo-Irish confessor
A Forgotten Triumph – Hadrian’s Wall, St Oswald and the Battle of Heavenfield

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