St Aidan story #9: King Oswald and the Island
King Oswald of Northumbria
photo from http://www.britannia.com
Oswald wanted to know about their journey. He asked for news about Iona and Abbot Segene. He mentioned other names, only some of which were familiar. Soon they were offered a place to rest and a meal to refresh them. This king was in no way barbaric, although he was obviously a mighty warrior. All around were battle-shields and spears, great swords and bows. There were animal skins on the floor and a great fire burning. The meal was more than they would normally eat but today was special. For a while Aidan felt nervous, but he realized Oswald was personally determined to make them feel at home.
Soon they were talking over a campaign of teaching. Oswald was anxious that his closest subjects should be educated. If the kingdom was to grow it had to be built on more than a foundation of conquest. A school was of the utmost importance. He knew they would need a church. He understood that they would want to deal with the British also. In all this he was willing to give them whatever resources they needed. He kept emphasizing the importance of getting started. Never once did he mention Corman. Oswald insisted that the brothers remained in the most comfortable part of his palace and that they allowed themselves to be looked after by his servants. Aidan was about to object, then realized that this could be a good way of making contact with these Angles, and beginning to learn how to communicate with them.
There was certainly some interest shown when they said their prayers at night and again in the early morning. The monks did not make a show of their devotions, but they made sure that their hosts knew what they were doing.
Over the next few days Oswald proved that he was true to his word. His generosity knew no bounds. If Aidan or his men needed anything Oswald supplied it. In fact they had to be careful in stating their needs, for Oswald seemed to be able to produce most things almost immediately. He made sure they had space for their worship, giving them a room to be set aside as sacred for the purpose. He offered them the full use of the palace. More than this, he gave them much of his time. He was also ready to worship with them. Sometimes they would find he had been the first to enter their little sanctuary and was sitting with his hands open and upturned and resting on his knees, his eyes closed, and praying. They were to discover that this was the posture that Oswald most often took up for his prayers. In the early days Oswald himself acted as an interpreter for them when he was able. When other duties prevented him, he delegated the task to one of the thanes who had been with him in Dalraida. Aidan was thrilled to discover that a few of the leading men at the palace could speak his language and were willing to help him learn their native tongue.
Oswald would have liked the school to have been in Bamburgh. He waved his arms and said, “You can have any land you like to build your monastery on.” At this Aidan was silent, and could not answer. He knew that if he was in the shadow of the royal residence, many of the British would find this offensive, or would be afraid to come. Another difficulty was all the activity that was going on around the palace. It was far too busy a place for them to establish themselves. Aidan said he would talk it over with his brothers. He knew that they would have to decide quickly, or Oswald might think that they did not appreciate his offer. Not one of them wanted the protection of the palace. They realized that it would not be good either for their mission or their development. They needed to distance themselves a little from the king.
When Oswald was told this, he frowned a little but was his usual generous self. They could have anywhere in his kingdom. They could go to one of the great towns, they could have some of the wonderful rolling hill country, they could have a settlement by one of the rivers. The kingdom was large and it was at their disposal.
What Aidan did next Oswald found hard to understand. He looked out to sea and pointed to some islands not far from the fortress. “How large are those?” Some of his companions, missing their island home, thrilled to the question.
“Not large enough nor productive enough for you to do your work on them,” came a rather blunt reply.
“What, none of them?” Aidan asked in disappointment.
View of Lindisfarne, from Bamburgh beach.
Photo from http://jayzspaze.blogspot.ca/
“Well there is one, if you can call it an island,” said Oswald as he turned northwards and pointed. “It is the farthest one away from here. It is larger than the rest. It has its own water supply, which the others do not have. There is much hazel growing there that could be used in building. But it is not a proper island.”
Those listening to Oswald wondered how an island could not be an island. Seeing their look of puzzlement, he explained. “The land is not so far from the shore as the other islands. In fact when the tide recedes it is not an island but part of the mainland. Each day it is cut off by the tides, and each day it becomes open again. You can cross to the mainland when the tide is out, on horseback or on foot. But when the tide is high you can only get off the island by boat, and there are some very strange sea currents that run about the island.”
“What is its name?” asked Aidan.
“I believe it is called Inis Metcaud” replied Oswald, “and I have been told it means the ‘Island of the strong winds’.”
“It sounds as if we may have found our new home,” replied Aidan. Then to Oswald, “If you do not mind, it seems it could be just the sort of place we are looking for. It is not far from your royal dwelling and yet it will give us the silence and the separation we feel we need.”
Oswald still seemed doubtful, but thinking that maybe these island monks would be more at home with the sea around them, he agreed, and said, “The island is your.”
Aidan turned to his monks: “It appears we are on the road again. We will move off in the morning.”
From A Flame in my Heart by David Adam, pgs. 40 – 44.