Oswestry market town’s murderous dark past

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The gory murder and possible crucifixion of a defeated king is behind the name – Oswestry – a Shropshire village and well, says PHILIP DAVIES

On the Welsh border marches sits a small market town called Oswestry.  The place itself is steeped in history as there have been people living here since around 800BC which is clearly evidenced by the impressive Iron Age hillfort which can still be seen looming over the northern part of the town.  History is one thing, but this being the Spooky Isles, it’s the darker side of things we’re interested in! And things were certainly a lot darker in the Saxon times…

Oswestry

Might Makes Right – Let’s Fight!

In the early 7th Century, rather than being united under one single monarch, England was ruled by several kings.  This was a time when ‘Might makes Right’ were indeed the watch words of the day and if somebody saw something they wanted, chances are they would simply go and take it.  Turmoil and bloodshed where indeed common place.

It was into this tinderbox that King Oswald of Northumbria and King Penda of Mercia were thrown.  The Northumbria which Oswald ruled over was a little different to that which we see today. It stretched across the eastern half of the country from Lothian in Scotland, to the Humber Estuary where Northumbrian expansion was kept in check by the Mercian’s who held the majority of the Midlands.

Whereas Penda was pagan, Oswald was a Christian and with Christianity gaining a firm foothold in the country at the time, this may have lead to some of the history surrounding Oswald’s exploits being slightly smoothed over and embellished. However, there is good reason to believe that he was a somewhat aggressive character who certainly didn’t like having the Mercian’s on his doorstep.  It was whilst he was looking to expand his provinces yet further still, that Oswald set himself to doing something about this.  

Land borders were ever changeable at this time, but the fact that Maserfield would have most likely been in what was enemy territory to Oswald adds some weight to the idea that Oswald was on the offensive, but whatever it was that brought him to the area, it was at Maserfield that Oswald and Penda came together.

Sax-on Sax-offed

The battle was intense and ended in defeat for the Northumbrians.  As was customary for the time, the opposing king was summarily executed and in Oswald’s case quite possibly crucified.  This is commemorated with the Welsh name for the town being Croes Oswallt, or Oswald’s Cross.  There is another theory that Oswald was crucified on a tree or at least had his body parts hung from one and it’s this which gives Oswestry it’s English name- Oswald’s Tree. Whatever the truth is, it was following Oswald’s death that things become even more interesting.

Flying Without Limbs

Having been dispatched (crucified or otherwise!) Oswald’s remains were duly hacked apart and impaled on spikes.  That was all except his arm which was picked up and carried off by an eagle. The bird clearly pleased with its prize promptly flew away but, in its efforts to escape, duly dropped the arm.  Most remarkable about the whole incident was the fact that a spring of water bubbled forth at the location where the limb landed! 

The spring indeed became the basis of many local legends.  With Oswald being a Christian King, he was made a saint by the church and his spring was soon seen as a place of miracles.  

As news of the miraculous site spread, so people would come and bathe and drink in the water claiming that it’s healing properties cured a variety of ailments.  The waters were even said to cure blindness if it was rubbed into the eyes of those afflicted (Spooky Isles in no way encourages anyone to try this of course!)

King Oswald's Well in Oswestery

The Spring’s the Thing

With the spring proving to be quite the attraction, it was transformed into something more permanent and the founding of Oswestry Grammar School saw its legend increasing further. Students attending the school started to use the place as a wishing well, but rather than simply throwing a penny into it, a set of rituals soon grew up around the well such as cupping the spring water in one hand, sipping some and then throwing the rest over a particular stone which was said to be the holding place of King Oswald’s head.  If you managed to do all this without spilling any water, or it hitting any other part of the well then your wish would be duly granted (and having gone through all that I would hope so too!)

What is probably most remarkable is the fact the spring survived all the attention it received over the years and in 1985 Oswestry Town Council undertook a series of improvements and renovations to the area, making it into the permanent fixture it is now.  And they completed their works with a cast statue of the eagle that created the well in the first place. Thankfully, they didn’t include a replica of Oswald’s wayward limb too!

Church Street, Oswestry

Whether it’s Oswald’s Tree or Oswald’s Cross, it’s certainly Saxon King Oswald who gives this sleepy market town its name.  With his well being easily accessible, it’s very much worth a visit and being free at least you know it won’t cost you an arm or a leg – unlike poor Oswald!

Do you live in Oswestry? Did you know about it’s dark past?

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