Saints for Our Times: St. Oswald helped reform the Church of England
By Mary Lou Gibson
St. Oswald is often described as a major reformer of the Church of England in the 10th century. So what exactly did this scholarly monk do that made him such a renowned figure during his priestly career and for years thereafter?
Oswald was of Danish descent, born into a Danish military family and was the nephew of the archbishops of Canterbury and York. He received his early education in England. His early association with the church began when he became a canon of Winchester cathedral. After several years, he began to think about becoming a monk. Editor Basil Watkins writes in “The Book of Saints” that Oswald had to go to France to study because the monastic life did not exist in England.
He studied at Fleury-sur-Loire, the monastery that claims to have the relics of St. Benedict. Paul Burns writes in “Butler’s Lives of the Saints” that when Oswald returned to England, he was a Benedictine monk and ordained priest. King Edgar appointed him bishop of Worcester in 961 on the recommendation of Dunstan, the archbishop of Canterbury. With Dunstan’s help, Oswald began his work to reform the church by bringing religious communities such as the Benedictines into many parishes and re-establishing Ripon as a diocese.
Oswald turned his attention to founding new monasteries such as the monastery at Westbury. Burns writes that he built a church next to the cathedral there and replaced the secular canons with monks. Their services became so popular that the faithful came to that church and not to the cathedral. Eventually, the new church, St. Mary’s, became the cathedral.
At Worcester, Oswald established a great musical tradition, which continues today as the Three Choirs Festival, drawing on the talents of Worcester, Gloucester and Hereford Cathedrals and held annually at the end of July. (For more information, visit www.3choirs.org.)
In addition to music, Oswald encouraged learning of all sorts. According to Burns, he brought learned masters over from the continent, including Abbo of Fleury, a noted mathematician and astronomer. He introduced these scholars to his largest and most famous Benedictine monastery at Ramsey which he founded in 971.
In 972, Oswald was promoted as archbishop of York. At the king’s request, and with Pope John XIII’s permission, he became archbishop while remaining bishop of Worcester. Burns explains that this arrangement may have been done to share the resources between the rich and powerful see of Worcester and the poorer see of York. It was abolished in 1061.
Many biographers agree that Oswald was not heavy handed in his reforms, but relied instead on prayer, fasting, dialogue and fatherly admonitions. He gained a great reputation for his love of the poor. Sean Kelly and Rosemary Rogers describe him in “Saints Preserve Us!” as a man of political savvy as well as personal piety.
David Farmer writes in the “Oxford Dictionary of Saints” that he remained an influential diocesan bishop until his death, administering his two dioceses, building churches and acting as judge. His lasting achievement was the founding of the great Benedictine abbey at Ramsey.
He died on Leap Year Day, Feb. 29, 992 while washing the feet of 12 poor men near his monastery. According to Burns, this was his daily custom every day throughout Lent. Prior to the 1930s, his feast day was celebrated only in leap years. His feast is not on the General Roman Calendar. His relics are in the priory Church of St. Mary in Worcester.