Read KING OSWALD OF NORTHUMBRIA, OR THE BRITON’S REVENGE of Legends of the Saxon Saints , free online book, by Aubrey de Vere, on

Northumbria having been subdued by Pagan Mercia, Oswald raises there again the Christian standard. Penda wages war against him, in alliance with Cadwallon, a Cambrian prince who hates the Saxon conquerors the more bitterly when become Christians. Encouraged by St. Columba in a vision, Oswald with a small force vanquishes the hosts of Cadwallon, who is slain. He sends to Iona for monks of St. Columba’s order, converts his country to the Faith, and dies for her. The earlier British race expiates its evil revenge.

The agony was over which but late
Had shook to death Northumbrian realm new-raised
By Edwin, dear to God. The agony
At last was over; but the tear flowed on:
The Faith of Christ had fallen once more to dust,
That Faith which spoused with golden marriage ring
The land to God, when Coiffi, horsed and mailed,
Chief Priest himself, hurled at the Temple’s wall
His lance, and quivering left it lodged therein.
The agony had ceased; yet Rachael’s cry
Still pierced the childless region. Penda’s sword
Had swept it, Mercia’s Christian-hating King;
Fiercelier Cadwallon’s, Cambria’s Christian Prince,
Christian in vain. The British wrong like fire
Burned in his heart. Well-nigh two hundred years
That British race, they only of the tribes
By Rome subdued, sustained unceasing war
’Gainst those barbaric hordes that, nursed long since
’Mid Teuton woods, when Rome her death-wound felt,
And ‘Habet’ shrilled from every trampled realm,
Rushed forth in ruin oer her old domain:
That race against the Saxon still made head;
Large remnant yet survived. The Western coast
Was theirs; old sea-beat Cornwall’s granite cliffs,
And purple hills of Cambria; northward thence
Strathclyde, from towered Carnegia’s winding Dee
To Morecombe’s shining sands, and those fair vales,
Since loved by every muse, where silver mères
Slept in the embrace of yew-clad mountain walls;
With tracts of midland Britain and the East.
Remained the memory of the greatness lost;
The Druid circles of the olden age;
The ash-strewn cities radiant late with arts
Extinct this day; bath, circus, theatre
Mosaic-paved; the Roman halls defaced;
The Christian altars crushed. That last of wrongs
The vanquished punished with malign revenge:
Never had British priest to Saxon preached;
And when that cry was heard, ’The Saxon King
Edwin hath bowed to Christ,’ on Cambrian hills
Nor man nor woman smiled.
They had not lacked
The timely warning. From his Kentish shores
Augustine stretched to them paternal hands:
Later, he sought them out in synod met,
Their custom, under open roof of heaven.
‘The Mother of the Churches,’ thus he spake,
’Commands implores you! Seek from her, and win
The Sacrament of Unity Divine!
Thus strengthened, be her strength! With her conjoined,
Subdue your foe to Christ!’ He sued in vain.
The British bishops hurled defiance stern
Against his head, while Cambrian peaks far off
Darkened, and thunder muttered. From his seat,
Slowly and sadly as the sun declined
At last, though late, that Roman rose and stretched
A lean hand t’ward that circle, speaking thus:
’Hear then the sentence of your God on sin!
Because ye willed not peace, behold the sword!
Because ye grudged your foe the Faith of Christ,
Nor holp to lead him on the ways of life,
For that cause from you by the Saxon hand
Your country shall be taken!’
Edwin slain,
Far off in exile dwelt his nephews long,
Oswald and Oswy. Alba gave them rest,
Alba, not yet called Scotland. Ireland’s sons,
Then Scoti named, had warred on Alba’s Picts:
Columba’s Gospel vanquished either race;
Won both to God. It won not less those youths,
In boyhood Oswald, Oswy still a child.
That child was wild and hot, and had his moods,
Despotic now, now mirthful. Mild as Spring
Was Oswald’s soul, majestic and benign;
Thoughtful his azure eyes, serene his front;
He of his ravished sceptre little recked;
The shepherds were his friends; the mountain deer
Would pluck the ivy fearless from his hand:
In gladness walked he till Northumbria’s cry
Smote on his heart. ‘Why rest I here in peace,’
Thus mused he, ‘while my brethren groan afar?’
By night he fled with twelve companion youths,
Christians like him, and reached his native land.
Too fallen it seemed to aid him. On he passed;
The ways were desolate, yet evermore
A slender band around his footsteps drew,
Less seeking victory than an honest death.
Oft gazed their King upon them; murmured oft,
‘Few hands true hearts!’ Sudden aloud he cried,
’Plant here the royal Standard, friends, and hence
Let sound the royal trumpet.’
Stern response
Reached him ere long: not Mercia’s realm alone;
Cambria that heard the challenge joined the war:
Cambria, upon whose heart the ancestral woe,
For ever with the years, like letters graved
On growing pines, grew larger and more large;
To Penda forth she stretched a hand blood-red;
Christian with Pagan joined, an unblest bond,
A league accursed. The indomitable hate
Compelled that league. Still from his cave the Seer
Admonished, ’Set the foe against the foe;
Slay last the conqueror!’ and from rock and hill
The Bard cried, ‘Vengeance!’ In the bardic clan
That hatred of their country’s ancient bane
Lived like a faith. One night it chanced a tarn,
Secreted high ’mid cold and moonless hills,
Bursting its bank down burst. That valley’s Bard
Clomb to the church-roof from his buried house:
Thence rang his song, ’twas ‘Vengeance! Vengeance’ still!
That torrent reached the roof: he clomb the tower:
The torrent mounted: on the bleak hill-side
All night the dalesmen, wailing o’er their drowned,
Amid the roar of winds and downward rocks,
Still heard that war-song, ‘Vengeance! Blood for blood!’
At last the tower fell flat, and winter morn
Shone on the waters only.
Three short weeks
Dinned with alarums passed; in Mercia still
Lay Penda, sickness-struck, when, face to face,
The Cambrian host and Oswald’s little band
Exulting met at sunset near a height
Then ‘Heaven-Field’ named, but later ‘Oswald’s Field,’
Backed by that Wall the Roman built of old
His fence from sea to sea. There Oswald stood:
There raised with hands outstretched a mighty Cross,
Strong-based, and deep in earth: his comrades twelve
Around it heaped the soil, while priests white-stoled
Chanted ‘Vexilla Regis.’ Work and rite
Complete, the King knelt down and made his prayer:
’True God Eternal, look upon this Cross,
The sole now standing on Northumbria’s breast,
And help Thine own, though few, who trust in Thee!’

That night before his tent the wanderer sate
Listening the circling sentinel, or bay
Of wakeful hound remote, or downward course
Of streams from moorland hills. Before his view
His whole life rose: his father’s angry brow;
The eyes all-wondrous, and all-tender hand
Of her, his mother, striving evermore
To keep betwixt her husband and her sire
Unbroken bond: his exiled days returned,
The kind that pitied them, the rude that jeered;
Lastly, that monk whose boast was evermore
Columba of Iona, Columkille;
That monk who made him Christian. ‘Come what may,’
Thus Oswald mused, ’I have not lived in vain:
Lose I or win, a kingdom there remains;
Though not on earth!’ A tear the vision dimmed
As thus he closed, ‘My mother will be there!’
Then sank his lids in slumber.
On his sleep
Was this indeed but dream? a glory brake:
Columba, dear to Oswald from his youth,
Columba, clad in glory as the sun,
Beside him stood, and spake: ’Be strong! On earth
There lives not who can guess the might of prayer:
What then is prayer on high?’ The saintly Shape
Heavenward his hands upraised, while rose to heaven
His stature, towering ever high and higher,
Warlike and priestly both. As morning cloud
Blown by a mighty wind his robe ran forth,
Then stood, a golden wall that severance made
’Twixt Oswald’s band and that unnumbered host.
Again he spake, ’Put on thee heart of man
And fight: though few, thy warriors shall not die
In darkness of an unbelieving land,
But live, and live to God.’ The vision passed:
By Oswald’s seat his warriors stood and cried,
‘The Bull-horn! Hark!’ The monarch told them all:
They answered, Let thy God sustain thy throne:
Thenceforth our God is He.’
The sun uprose:
Ere long the battle joined. Three dreadful hours
Doubtful the issue hung. Fierce Cambria’s sons
With chief and clan, with harper and with harp,
Though terrible yet mirthful in their mood,
Rushed to their sport. Who mocked their hope that day?
Did Angels help the just? Their falling blood,
Say, leaped it up once more, each drop a man
Their phalanx to replenish? Backward driven,
Again that multitudinous foe returned
With clangour dire; futile, again fell back
Down dashed, like hailstone showers from palace halls
Where princes feast secure. Astonishment
Smote them at last. Through all those serried ranks,
Compact so late, sudden confusions ran
Like lines divergent through a film of ice
Stamped on by armed heel, or rifts on plains
Prescient of earthquake underground. Their chiefs
Sounded the charge; in vain: Distrust, Dismay,
Ill Gods, the darkness lorded of that hour:
Panic to madness turned. Cadwallon sole
From squadron on to squadron speeding still
As on a winged steed his snow-white hair
Behind him blown a mace in either hand
Stayed while he might the inevitable rout;
Then sought his death, and found. Some fated Power
Mightier than man’s that hour dragged back his hosts
Against their will and his; as when the moon,
Shrouded herself, drags back the great sea-tides
That needs must follow her receding wheels
Though wind and wave gainsay them, breakers wan
Thundering indignant down nocturnal shores,
And city-brimming floods against their will
Down drawn to river-mouths.
In after days
Who scaped made oath that in the midmost fight
The green earth sickened with a brazen glare
While darkness held the skies. They saw besides
On Heaven-Field height a Cross, and, at its foot,
A sworded warrior vested like a priest,
Who still in stature high and higher towered
As raged the battle. Higher far that Cross
Above him rose, barring with black the stars
That bickered through the éclipse’s noonday night,
And ever from its bleeding arms sent forth
Thick-volleyed lightnings, azure fork and flame,
Through all that headlong host.
At eventide,
Where thickest fight had mingled, Oswald stood
With raiment red as his who treads alone
The wine-vat when the grapes are all pressed out,
Yet scathless and untouched. His mother’s smile
Was radiant on his pure and youthful face,
Joyous, but not exulting. At his foot
Cadwallon lay, with four-score winters white,
A threatening corse: not death itself could shake
The mace from either rigid hand close-clenched,
Or smooth his brow. Above him Oswald bent,
Then spake: ’He also loved his native land:
Bear him with honour hence to hills of Wales,
And lay him with his Fathers.’
Thus was raised
In righteousness King Oswald’s throne. But he,
Mindful in victory of Columba’s word,
Thus mused, ’The Master is as he that serves:
How shall I serve this people?’ O’er the waves
Then sent he of his Twelve the eldest three:
They to Iona sailed, and standing there
In full assembly of Iona’s saints
Addressed them: ’To Columba Oswald thus:
Let him that propped the King on Heaven-Field’s height,
That held the battle-balance high that day,
Unite my realm to Christ!’ The monks replied,
‘Such mission should be Aidan’s.’ Aidan went.
With gladness Oswald met him, and with gifts:
But Aidan said, ’Entreat me not to dwell
There where Paulinus dwelt, the man of God,
In thy chief city, York. Thy race is fierce;
And meekness only can subdue the proud:
Thy people first I want; through them the great.
Grant me some island ’mid the raging main,
Humble and low, not cheered by smiling meads,
Where with my brethren I may watch with God,
Henceforth my only aid.’ Oswald replied,
’Let Lindisfarne be thine. That rock-based keep
Built by my grandsire Ida o’er it peers:
I shall be near thee though I see thee not.’

Then Aidan on the Isle of Lindisfarne
Upreared that monastery which ruled in Christ
So long the Northern realm. A plain rock-girt
Level it lies and low: nor flower nor fruit
Gladdens its margin: thin its sod, and bleak:
Twice, day by day, the salt sea hems it round:
And twice a day the melancholy sands,
O’er-wailed by sea-bird, and with sea-weed strewn,
Replace the lonely ocean. Sacred Isles
That westward, eastward, guard the imperial realm,
Iona! Lindisfarne! With you compared
How poor that lilied Delos of old Greece,
For all its laurel bowers and nightingales!
England’s great hands were ye to God forth stretched
Through adverse climes, beneath the Boreal star,
That took His Stigmata. In sanctity
Were her foundations laid. Her later crowns
Of Freedom first, of Science, and of Song
She owes them all to you!
In Lindisfarne
Aidan, and his, rejoicing dwelt with God:
Amid the winter storm their anthems rose;
And from their sanctuary lamp the gleam
Far shone from wave to wave. On starless nights
From Bamborough’s turret Oswald watched it long,
Before his casement kneeling first alone,
Companioned later. Kineburga there
Beside him knelt ere long, his tender bride,
Young, beauteous, modest, noble. ‘Not for them,’
Thus spake the newly wedded, ’not for them,
For man’s sake severed from the world of men,
In ceaseless vigil warring upon sin,
Ah, not for them the flower of life, the harp,
High feast, or bridal torch!’ Purer perchance
Their bridal torch burned on because from far
That sacred lamp had met its earliest beam!

There Aidan lived, and wafted, issuing thence,
O’er wilds Bernician and fierce battle-fields
The strength majestic of his still retreat,
The puissance of a soul whose home was God.
‘What man is this,’ the warriors asked, ’that moves
Unarmed among us; lifts his crucifix,
And says, “Ye swords, lie prone"?’ The revelling crew
Rose from their cups: ’He preaches abstinence:
Behold, the man is mortified himself:
The moonlight of his watchings and his fasts
He carries on his face.’ When Princes forced
Largess upon him, he replied, ’I want
Not yours but you;’ and with their gifts redeemed
The orphan slave. The poor were as his children:
He to the beggar stinted not his hand
Nor, giving, said Be brief. Such seed bare fruit:
God in the dark, primeval woods had reared
A race whose fierceness had its touch of ruth;
Brave, cordial, chaste, and simple. Reverence
That race preserved: Reverence advanced to Love:
The ties of life it honoured: lit from heaven
They wore a meaning new. The Faith of Christ
Banished the bestial from the heart of man;
Restored the Hope divine.
In all his toils
Oswald with Aidan walked. Impartial law,
Not licence, not despotic favour, stands
To Truth auxiliar true. Such laws were his:
Yet not through such alone he worked for Truth;
Function he claimed more high. When Aidan preached;
In forest depths when thousands girt him round;
When countless eyes, a clinging weight, were bent
Upon his lips all knew they spake from God,
The King, with monks from Ireland knit of old,
Beside the Bishop stood; each word he spake
Changed to the Saxon tongue.
Earth were not earth,
If reign like Oswald’s lasted. Penda lived;
Nor e’er from Oswald turned for eight long years
An eye like some swart planet feared of man,
Omen of wars or plague. Cadwallon’s fate,
Ally ill-starred, that fought without his aid,
O’er-flushed old hatred with a fiery shame:
Cadwallon nightly frowned above his dreams.
The tyrant watched his time. At Maserfield
The armies met. There on Northumbria’s day
Settled what seemed, yet was not, endless night
There Faith and Virtue, deathless, seemed to die:
There holy Oswald fell. For God he fought,
Fought for his country. Walled with lances round,
A sheaf of arrows quivering in his breast,
One moment yet he stood. ‘Preserve,’ he cried,
‘My country, God!’ then added, gazing round,
‘And these my soldiers: make their spirits thine!’
Thus perished good King Oswald, King and Saint;
Saint by acclaim of nations canonised
Ere yet the Church had spoken. Year by year
The Hexham monks to Heaven-Field, where of old
Had stood that ‘Cross which conquered,’ made repair,
With chanted psalm; and pilgrims daily prayed
Where died the just and true. Not vain their vows:
In righteousness foundations had been laid:
The earthquake reached them not. The Dane passed by
High up the Norman glittered: but beneath,
On Faith profounder based, and gentler Law
The Saxon realm lived on.
But never more
From Heaven-Field’s wreck the Briton raised his head
Britain thenceforth was England. His the right;
The land was his of old; and in God’s House
His of the island races stood first-born:
Not less he sinned through hate, esteeming more
Memories of wrong than forward-looking hopes
And triumphs of the Truth. For that cause God
His face in blessing to the younger turned,
More honouring Pagans who in ignorance erred,
Than those who, taught of God, concealed their gift,
Divorcing Faith from Love. Natheless they clung,
That remnant spared, to rocky hills of Wales
With eagle clutch, whoe’er in England ruled,
From Horsa’s day to Edward’s. Centuries eight
In gorge or vale sea-lulled they held their own,
By native monarchs swayed, while native harps
Rang out from native cliffs defiant song
Wild as their singing pines. Heroic Land!
Freedom was thine; the torrent’s plunge; the peak;
The pale mist past it borne! Heroic Race!
Caractacus was thine, and Galgacus,
And Boadicea, greater by her wrongs
Than by her lineage. Battle-axe of thine
Rang loud and long on Roman helms ere yet
Hengist had trod the island. Thine that King
World-famed, who led to fifty war-fields forth
’Gainst Saxon hosts his sinewy, long-haired race
Unmailed, yet victory-crowned; that King who left
Tintagel, Camelot, and Lyonnesse,
Immortal names, though wild as elfin notes
From phantom rocks echoed in fairy land
Great Arthur! Year by year his deeds were sung,
While he in Glastonbury’s cloister slept,
First by the race he died for, next by those
Their children, exiles in Armoric Gaul,
By Europe’s minstrels then, from age to age;
But ne’er by ampler voice, or richlier toned
Than England lists to-day. Race once of Saints!
Thine were they, Ninian thine and Kentigern,
Iltud and Beino, yea and David’s self,
Thy crown of Saints, and Winifred, their flower,
Who fills her well with healing virtue still.
Cadoc was thine, who to his Cambrian throne
Preferred that western convent at Lismore,
Yet taught the British Princes thus to sing:
’None loveth Song that loves not Light and Truth:
None loveth Light and Truth that loves not Justice:
None loveth Justice if he loves not God:
None loveth God that lives not blest and great.’