29 February 2024

St Oswald, Bishop of Worcester and Archbishop of York

From Fr Alban Butler's Lives of the Saints:

ST. OSWALD was nephew of St. Odo, archbishop of Canterbury, and to Oskitell, bishop first of Dorcester, afterwards of York. He was educated by St. Odo, and made dean of Winchester; but passing into France, took the monastic habit at Fleury. Being recalled to serve the church, he succeeded St. Dunstan in the see of Worcester about the year 959. He shone as a bright star in this dignity, and established a monastery of monks at Westberry, a village in his diocess. He was employed by duke Aylwin in superintending his foundation of the great monastery of Ramsey, in an island formed by marshes and the River Ouse in Huntingdonshire, in 972. St. Oswald was made archbishop of York in 974, and he dedicated the church of Ramsey under the names of the Blessed Virgin, St. Benedict, and all holy virgins. Nothing of this rich mitered abbey remains standing except an old gate-house, and a neglected statue of the founder, Aylwin, with keys and a ragged staff in his hand to denote his office; for he was cousin to the glorious king Edgar, the valiant general of his armies, and the chief judge and magistrate of the kingdom, with the title of alderman of England, and half king, as the historian of Ramsey usually styles him. 1 St. Oswald was almost always occupied in visiting his diocess, preaching without intermission, and reforming abuses. He was a great encourager of learning and learned men. St. Dunstan obliged him to retain the see of Worcester with that of York. Whatever intermission his function allowed him he spent at St. Mary’s, a church and monastery of Benedictins, which he had built at Worcester, where he joined with the monks in their monastic exercises. This church from that time became the cathedral. The saint, to nourish in his heart the sentiments of humility and charity, had everywhere twelve poor persons at his table, whom he served, and also washed and kissed their feet. After having sat thirty-three years he fell sick at St. Mary’s in Worcester, and having received the Extreme-unction and Viaticum, continued in prayer, repeating often, “Glory be to the Father,” &c., with which words he expired amidst his monks, on the 29th of February, 992. His body was taken up ten years after and enshrined by Adulph his successor, and was illustrated by miracles. It was afterwards translated to York on the 15th of October, which day was appointed his principal festival. 1

St. Oswald made quick progress in the path of perfect virtue, because he studied with the utmost earnestness to deny himself and his own will, listening attentively to that fundamental maxim of the Eternal Truth which St. Bennet, of whose holy order he became a bright light, repeats with great energy. This holy founder declares in the close of his rule, that, He who desires to give himself up to God, must trample all earthly things under his feet, renounce everything that is not God, and die to all earthly affections, so as to attain to a perfect disengagement and nakedness of heart, that God may fill and entirely possess it, in order to establish therein the kingdom of his grace and pure love for ever. And in his prologue he cries out aloud, that he addresses himself only to him who is firmly resolved in all things to deny his own will, and to hasten with all diligence to arrive at his heavenly kingdom.

Note 1. The titles of honour amongst our Saxon ancestors were, Etheling, prince of the blood: chancellor, assistant to the king in giving judgments: alderman, or ealderman, (not earldorman, as Rapin Thoyras writes this word in his first edition,) governor or viceroy. It is derived from the word Ald or old, like senator in Latin. Provinces, cities, and sometimes wapentakes, had their alderman to govern them, determine law-suits, judge criminals, &c. This office gave place to the title of earl, which was merely Danish, and introduced by Canute. Sheriffe or she-reeve, was the deputy of the alderman, chosen by him, sat judge in some courts, and saw sentence executed; hence he was called vicecomes. Heartoghan signified, among our Saxon ancestors, generals of armies, or dukes. Hengist, in the Saxon chronicle, is heartogh, such were the dukes appointed by Constantine the Great, to command the forces in the different provinces of the Roman Empire. These titles began to become hereditary with the offices or command annexed under Pepin and Charlemagne, and grew more frequent by the successors of these princes granting many hereditary fiefs to noblemen, to which they annexed titular dignities. Fiefs were an establishment of the Lombards, from whom the emperors of Germany, and the kings of France, borrowed this custom, and with it the feodal laws, of which no mention is found in the Roman code. Titles began frequently to become merely honorary about the time of Otho I. in Germany.
Reeve among the English Saxons was a steward. The bishop’s reeve was a bishop’s steward for secular affairs, attending in his court. Thanes, i. e. servants, were officers of the crown whom the king recompensed with lands, sometimes to descend to their posterity, but always to be held of him with some obligation of service, homage, or acknowledgment. There were other lords of lands and vassals, who enjoyed the title of thanes, and were distinguished from the king’s thanes. The ealdermen and dukes were all king’s thanes, and all others who held lands of the king by knight’s service in chief, and were immediate great tenants of the king’s estates. These were the greater thanes, and were succeeded by the barons, which title was brought in by the Normans, and is rarely found before the Conqueror. Mass thanes were those who held lands in fee of the church. Middle thanes were such as held very small estates of the king, or parcels of lands of the king’s greater thanes. They were called by the Normans vavassors, and their lands vavassories. They who held lands of these, were thanes of the lowest class, and did not rank as gentlemen. All thanes disposed of the lands which they held (and which were called Blockland) to their heirs, but with the obligations due to those of whom they were held. Ceorle (whence our word churl) was a countryman or artizan, who was a freeman. Those ceorles who held lands in leases, were called sockmen, and their lands sockland, of which they could not dispose, being barely tenants. Those ceorles who acquired possession of five hides of land with a large house, court, and bell to call together their servants, were raised to the rank of thanes of the lowest class. An hide of land was as much as one plough could till. The villains or slaves in the country were labourers, bound to the service of particular persons; were all capable of possessing money in property, consequently were not strictly slaves in the sense of the Roman law.
Witan or Wites, (i. e. wisemen,) were the magistrates and lawyers. Burghwitten signified the magistrates of cities. Some shires (or counties) are mentioned before king Alfred; and Asserius speaks of earls (or counts) of Somerset, and Devonshire, in the reign of Ethelwolph. But Alfred first divided the whole kingdom into shires, the shires into tithings, lathes, or wapentacks, the tithings into hundreds, and the hundreds into tenths. Each division had a court subordinate to those that were superior, the highest in each shire being the shire-gemot, or folck-mote, which was held twice a year, and in which the bishop or his deputy, and the ealderman, or his vicegerent the sheriff, presided. See Seldon on the Titles of Honour; Spelman’s Glossary, ed noviss. Squires on the Government of the English Saxons. Dr. William Howel, in his learned General History, t. 5. p. 273, &c. N. B. The titles of earle and hersen were first given by Ifwar Widfame, king of Sweden, to two ministers of state, in 824; on which see many remarks of Olof Delin, in his excellent new history of Sweden, c. 5. t. 1. p. 334. [back]

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