Exploring the links between Northumbria and Ireland through the holy islands of Iona and Lindisfarne and the Saxon prince who founded Mayo. Also looking at St Oswald – a military man who became a deeply religious convert to Irish Christianity on Iona, the HQ of St Colm Cille (aka Columba) and how the cult of Oswald, centred at Regensburg, became a core part of the Crusader culture of later times.
From the head of Mr Michael Brabazon, with the occasional assistance of Mr Turtle Bunbury.
The multi-faceted story of the forgotten cult of John the Baptist in Ireland is covered in much detail on this website here.
One strand of this remarkable cult connects with St Oswald, arguably the most important English saint. It was Saint Oswald, aka King Oswald of Northumbria, who converted to Irish Christianity and whose relic, the Holy Rood on which his head was impaled, was taken to what became Ballinrobe, County Mayo, Ireland.
St Oswald was a ‘noble youth’, a prince, who vowed to bring Christianity to Northumbria. A military man, he was also deeply religious, a convert to Irish Christianity whilst in exile on the holy island of Iona, the HQ of St Colm Cille (aka Columba) and his mission to Scotland and the north of England. This potent mix of militarism with religiosity made the cult of Oswald, centred at Regensburg in Germany, a core part of the Crusader culture of later times. He was, indeed, the patron saint of Crusaders.
There are two famous high crosses in what was the Kingdom of Northumbria, Christianised by the Columban Church at Iona. It was St and King Oswald (r.634-642) of Northumbria who converted to Irish Christianity and whose relic, the Holy Rood on which his head was impaled, was taken to what became Ballinrobe, as Michael contends in his History Ireland article:
Like the cult of John the Baptist, there was also one that venerated the head of St Oswald. And like the head of the Baptist, many churches claim its possession. The head-reliquary of Hildesheim Cathedral of the Assumption of Mary, one of the oldest episcopal churches in Germany, features an octagonal central building design known as the Head Reliquary of St. Oswald – its inscription indicates that it contains the head of St. Oswald.
Oswald was regarded as the English Christ and the stake (rood) on which his head was impaled, the equivalent of the True Cross of Christ. Although Oswald was of the Irish Church, he was nevertheless the sacred authority for those coming after him, even post 664. It was essentially Oswald who made Lindisfarne.
St Colmán of Lindisfarne
Said to have been born in the west of Ireland, St Colmán of Lindisfarne (c. 605– 675) was educated in the Columban monastery at Iona. In 661, he succeeded the Iona-trained Saint Finan to become bishop of the island monastery at Lindisfarne, just off the coast from the Kingdom of Northumbria. This important centre of Celtic Christianity had been founded by the Iona-trained Saint Aidan, whom Finan had succeeded in 651. It became something of a hub for monks from Iona, most of whom seem to have been Irish.
Colmán resigned as Bishop of Lindisfarne after the Irish Church in England was coerced into submission to Canterbury-Rome at the Synod of Whitby in 664. Shortly afterwards, he brought the Oswald Holy Rood relic to Ireland from Lindisfarne, He was accompanied by five monastic members of the Northumbrian royal family, St Gerald and his sister and three brothers. who founded the monastic settlement of “Magh Eó” – the Plain of Yew Trees, which would become known as “Mayo of the Saxons”.
Colmán died on the island of Inishbofin in 674.
According to the great Scottish toponymist, William J. Watson, the earliest recorded names for Iona indicates that it meant “yew-place,” derived from Ioua, the Pictish word for yew. The same word origin for ‘yew’ may be the basis of the early Gaelic name Eógan. In mythology, Fer hÍ mac Eogabail, the foster-son of Manannan, means “man of the yew”. County Mayo in Ireland derives its name from “Maigh Eo”, translated as ‘the plain of yew trees’ or ‘yew forest,’ described by one account here as ‘the largest yew tree forest in the known world.’ Did the Saxon monks under St Colman and St Gerald / Geralt choose the site for their settlement due to it being a sacred forest? The Irish yew has long been one of the most important of sacred trees, associated with the Tuatha queen Banbha and carried over into Christianity, signifying death and rebirth. Being the ‘son’ of a particular tree was not unknown in mythological lore when heroes were semi-divine and close to the gods, just as saints were close to God. Mac Cuill of the Tuatha Dé Danann was a son of Coll, the hazel.
King Oswiu, King of Bernicia (642-670) and of Northumbria (654-670)
As a child, Oswiu spent time in exile in Dál Riata (i.e. the kingdom that encompassed north-east Ireland and western Scotland), learned to speak Irish and apparently married Fín, daughter or granddaughter of Colmán Rímid of Cenél nEógain who ruled as King of Ailech from 578 until 602. Colmán Rímid may have been High King ciurca 598.
Oswiu and Fín had a son Aldfrith (Flann Fína mac Ossu in Irish) who reigned as king of Northumbria from 685 until his death on 14 December 704 or 705. Aldfrith may well have studied at the monastery of Mayo.
Oswiu then married the British princess Rieinmelth of Rheged by whom he had a son, Alhfrith or Ealhfrith (c. 630 – c. 664), who ruled as King of Deira under his father from 655 until sometime after 664, see below. By Queen Eanflæd, Oswiu also had two sons Ecgfrith (644/645–685) and Ælfwine (c. 660–679), and two daughters Osthryth (died 697) and Ælfflæd (c. 654–714).
In 664 Oswiu’s son Ecgfrith became King of Deira. After Oswiu’s death in 670, Ecgfrith also became King of Northumbria, reigning until he was killed in the calamitous battle of Dun Nechtain (or Nechtansmere) in 685. A year before his death, Ecgfrith sent an army under his general, Berht, to Ireland, which ravaged the kingdom of Brega, north of Dublin, destroying churches and taking hostages. The raid was condemned by the Venerable Bede and other churchmen.
St Gerald’s Parents
Gerald of Mayo (died 732 AD)  was one of the English monks at Lindisfarne who accompanied Colmán from Lindisfarne to Ireland via Iona. Born in Northumbria, he is said to have been a son of Cusperius, a Saxon prince, and his wife Benicia. Sometimes they are described as King Cusperius and Queen Benicia. The latter is obviously the kingdom of Bernicia (the northern part of Northumbria). We believe the name Cusperius was shortened to Cusper and became Cuthbert. [1a]
Another key member of this story is St Cuthbert (c. 634– 687) who was brought in as prior of Lindisfarne circa 665, i.e. just after Saints Colman and Gerald left, to bring in the Roman customs imposed by the Synod of Whitby. In 685, more than forty years after Oswald’s death, Cuthbert was elected Bishop of Lindisfarne – he retained the see until his own death two years later in 687. Cuthbert was regarded as something of a second Oswald.
Believed to have been created at Monkwearmouth–Jarrow Abbey in Northumbria, the palm-sized, late 7th-century Anglo-Saxon manuscript St Cuthbert Gospel is the oldest intact book in Europe and, by extension, the oldest surviving example of Coptic binding in Europe; its tooled leather binding represents a carpet page in another medium. The Jesuits sold it in 2012 for $14.7 million. Alf mentioned that an early Irish gospel, now in Germany, has similar bindings and suggests that the original binding on the Book of Kells and other such works may also have been in the Coptic style.
The Inspiration for High Crosses?
The Bewcastle Cross is believed to have been made by Syrian stonemasons. Its interlace patterns are very similar to the khachkar, or Armenian cross-stone, as well as to the high crosses of Ireland. Could the crosses at Bewcastle and Ruthwell provide an origin for the Irish high crosses?
Bewcastle and Ruthwell could, in turn, be stone versions of the previous Anglo-Saxon wooden variety, especially the one supposedly erected by St Oswald at Heavenfield.
It is not clear whether Oswald’s cross was actually a cross or a traditional Saxon sacred post that represented the world tree, the axis mundi. The Anglo-Saxon crosses incorporate leafy designs which an academic colleague of Michael’s connects to tree worship.
On the Bewcastle Cross, a relic hole by the man with bird is believed to have contained a fragment of the True Cross. However, Michael’s thesis considers whether the piece might have been from either the Heavenfield Cross / Post or from the pole on which Oswald’s head was impaled.
King Alhfrith of Deira
Where do St Gerald and his siblings fit into the Northumbrian family tree, as they are not officially recorded? This is where we believe Oswald’s nephew Alhfrith comes in.
Alhfrith or Ealhfrith (c. 630 – c. 664), the son of Oswiu, King of Bernicia, had a double sacred lineage. Not only was he a member of St Oswald’s family, but through his mother Princess Rhieinmelth of Rheged he was of royal descent from one of the oldest Celtic Christian kingdoms – the Brythonic kingdom of Rheged. Indeed, Rhianmellt’s marriage to Oswiu is the last mention of Rheged in the historical record. See below.
Alhfrith served as sub-king of Deira under his father from 655 until sometime after 664 when he successfully tried to seize control of Northumbria. His failed coup was almost certainly connected to the circumstances of 664 when King Oswiu convened the Synod of Whitby to determine whether the Northumbrian church would be run by Iona or Canterbury. One of the two critical outcomes of the Synod of Whitby was a ban on the Coptic-style tonsure of the Irish monks at Iona and its satellite institutions, as it symbolised independence from Rome. (The second big issue was about dating Easter).
Alhfrith was one of the key supporters of Wilfrid and the Roman / Canterbury system, which ultimately succeeded at Whitby. However, Alhfrith and his wife Cyneburh disappear from the record soon afterwards – possibly slain in a rebellion of some form against his father, or perhaps a victim of the Yellow Plague that killed both Eorcenberht, king of Kent, and Deusdedit, Archbishop of Canterbury, in the summer of 664. That said, the fact there is no record of his fate has led Michael Brabazon to postulate that Alhfrith was sent into internal exile at Bewcastle (in present day Cumbria) and that he is the unknown person (with bird on arm) depicted on the Bewcastle Cross. Bewcastle was an old Roman military fort and there may well have been Roman remains there when the Saxons moved in. Could the Bewcastle Cross be a memorial for Alhfrith? Perhaps it was erected by his half-sister, Abbess Ælfflæd of Whitby, who died in 714?
Michael’s theory goes on to suggest that St Gerald (Geralt) and his siblings were Alhfrith’s children? The claim is that they were royal Northumbrians but no lineage has yet been identified. Perhaps, while Alhfrith lay low in Bewcastle, his children went to County Mayo?
NB: Regarding the calculation of Easter, it seems like the official Western church changed its method at least three times while the Celtic church maintained the Original Alexandrian method. As George Knight observed, if they had simply left it to correspond with the Feast of the Passover, it would have saved a lot of trouble.
The Yellow Plague of 664
The Yellow Plague (known as the Buidhe Connail) ripped through Ireland and killed a bunch of saints, right on the eve of the Synod of Whitby, so that according to the Annals of the Four Masters entry for 664:
A great mortality prevailed in Ireland this year, which was called the Buidhe Connail, and the following number of the saints of Ireland died of it: St. Feichin, Abbot of Fobhar, on the 14th of February; St. Ronan, son of Bearach; St. Aileran the Wise; St. Cronan, son of Silne; St. Manchan, of Liath; St. Ultan Mac hUi Cunga, Abbot of Cluain Iraird Clonard; Colman Cas, Abbot of Cluain Mic Nois; and Cummine, Abbot of Cluain Mic Nois.
After Diarmaid and Blathmac, the two sons of Aedh Slaine, had been eight years in the sovereignty of Ireland, they died of the same plague.
There died also Maelbreasail, son of Maelduin, and Cu Gan Mathair, King of Munster; Aenghus Uladh.There died very many ecclesiastics and laics in Ireland of this mortality besides these.
Percentage-wise of a small population, it must have seemed like the end times. Maybe living in monastic communities didn’t help?
Eorcenberht, king of Kent, and Deusdedit, Archbishop of Canterbury, also died, probably of the same plague (although Deusdedit’s death may have been 28 July). As Deusdedit is not mentioned at the Synod of Whitby, this is assumed to have taken place after his death. By the time of Whitby, its participants must have seen the plague – and the solar eclipse that appeared on 1 May 664 – as some kind of divine warning.
The Brythonic Kingdom of Rheged
The Brythonic kingdom of Rheged was Christian before Iona. It was also the last of the Celtic Christian kingdoms.
Many academics believe it to be the origin of much of the Arthurian legends. King Urien (r.570-590), the most famous of the Rheged kings, inspired the character of King Urien of either Garlot (Garloth) or Gore (Gorre) in Arthurian legend.
Urien was succeeded by his son King Owain mab Urien (r.590-c.595/7) who provided the basis for the character of Ywain. Indeed, Owain may even have been a more popular hero-king than Arthur in the distant past. Variants of the name Owain include Ougein, Eugein, Euguen, Iguein, Ewein, Iguein, Owein, Ouein, Ywen, Ywein, Ywain, Yuein, and Yvain. Should we add Eoghan or Eoin to that list!?
Owain’s Burial Place
A thought provoker: Did the ‘Arthurian’ lineage continue in Mayo?
Or, perhaps, Capel Moule in Donegal!! The enigmatic Capel Moule, the church of the tomb, appears to be a forgotten fragment of that Anglo-Irish cultural milieu, its name a clue, a key, to something of prime historical significance. Even that name has been replaced with an Irishised Templemoyle, further covering up what lies beneath!
King Owain was said to have been buried in a place called Llan-Forfael, which has never been identified. ‘Llan’ denotes a place where there is a church. Ffyll is ‘overgrown, gloomy’.
The townland where Capel Moule is situated was formerly known as ‘tighearna Fordroma’ (1167) or ‘teach Fordroma’ (1260).
An alternative name given for King Owain’s burial place is Llan-Heledd, meaning ‘salt-pit’ or ‘brine-pit’. Such pits were used for the production and harvesting of salt from the sea, such as at Salthill, County Galway, or Saltpans Rock, just south of Greencastle. Indeed, there are six townlands in Donegal with salt in the name https
Why would they have taken Owain elsewhere for burial? Basically, his death marked the end of Rheged’s power, and thereafter it slowly fades from history. The victor was Morcant Bulc and he would doubtless have desecrated Owain’s body if he could, a standard practice.
Morcant’s kingdom was in the north and could have been Gododdin (Lothian), Alt Clud (Strathclyde) or Bryneich (Northumberland). Whichever, his power would have been increasingly extensive, hence the need for the removal of Owain’s corpse, and where better to take it for safety, but not too far away, than St Colmcille’s mainland O’Neill fiefdom?
And the location would have been very accessible for pilgrims from the Scottish mainland.
That leaves the 12th century church at Capel Moule, and the tale of the Templar presence hanging. Whoever built the church and retained the name Capel Moule must have been very aware of what they were doing. There is also the oral tradition that a tunnel led from the church to the castle. As the present de Burgh castle wasn’t built until the early 1300s, there must have been a previous structure, especially at such an important location, the pinch-point of Lough Foyle. Could this be another case of the famed tunneling skills of the Templars being used in search for Arthurian artifacts/relics?
The Holy Rood of Ballinrobe
So, at Ballinrobe the cult relic, the Holy Rood, of the head of St Oswald became a pilgrimage site and later in the 12th century, the Priory-Hospital of John the Baptist was founded on the opposite side of the river Robe from the Church of the Holy Rood. The Holy Rood Abbey was founded in the early 1300s. (For more, see here).
What did happen to the actual head of St Oswald? The answer may lie in Durham Cathedral which is dedicated to St Cuthbert (634-687), who became Bishop of Lindisfarne in 684.
Cuthbert’s remains are said to be still in the original coffin. The story runs that in 698 the monks of Lindisfarne reopened his tomb and found that his body had not decomposed in any way. His tomb quickly became a massive draw for pilgrims.
Also in the same coffin was reportedly the skull of St Oswald, placed there when St Cuthbert’s coffin and other relics were removed from Lindisfarne in the face of Viking assaults.
Besides the remains of both saints there was also a small cross that has been classified as Cuthbert’s pectoral cross, but there is no proof (plus the fact it is more in the style of small reliquaries possessed and worn by women).
The Cross of St Cuthbert, as it is now known, could just as easily be attributed to Oswald, and interestingly it has a rock crystal centrepiece which academics agree most likely covered a piece of the Holy Rood (there being a small cavity behind the crystal):
We could, then, be looking at a reliquary similar to that at Ballinrobe. If so, could it have inspired the Cross of Cong which has a piece of the True Cross at its centre covered by a rock crystal?
Addendum: St Beretchert & the Columban Pushback in Ireland
St Oswald’s three brothers were named as Beretchert, Balan and Hubritan. They may have missionised the Columban church beyond the County Mayo area.
If Michael is correct that Ss Colmán and Gerald et al were spearheading a Columban pushback down the west coast (having been defeated at the Synod of Whitby), it would make sense to take it all the way down to Munster, which had been moving into the Canterbury-Rome sphere of influence.
Oswald – Nothumbrian King to European Saint, C Stancliffe & E Cambridge (Eds), 1995
The King in the North, Max Adams, 2013
The Lost Dark Age – Kingdom of Rheged, Ronan Toolis & Christopher Bowles, 2017
1a. Re: Cusper/ius – even without the Latin ‘ius’, it was still not a Saxon name. Many of the Saxon aristocracy/royalty would have ‘os’ in the name (hence Oswald). In the old Pagan tradition, ‘os’ signified divinity (a bit like ‘el’ in Biblical names, e.g. Samuel, Michael etc).