Roseberry Topping – Odin vs Saint Oswald

Roseberry Topping Hill

  A previous post noted that the impressive peak of Roseberry Topping seems to have been regarded as a holy hill in the past.

  Anciently known as Othenesberg or Odin’s Hill, this dedication, along with the possible lost shrine altars at Airy Holme, and a nearby placename suggesting a Danelaw Thing gathering location, could point to the hill being one of the main Anglo-Scandinavian religious sites in the region. The hill’s dedication to Odin and the old religion, might also explain the later reference to a hermitage being located on the hill top. Perhaps the past history of the hill warranted the presence and prayers of a holy man, and yet a hermitage could also be seen as providing a continuity of religious practice on the hill.

  The hermitage is mentioned in a letter written to the lord of Guisborough – Sir Thomas Chaloner, around the year 1600. Describing Roseberry Topping, the letter notes ……

  “it hath somtymes had an hermitage on it, and a small smith’s forge cut out of the rocke, together with a clefte or cut in the rocke called St. Winifrid’s Needle, whither blind devotion led many a silly soul, not without hazard of a breaknecke tumblinge caste, while they attempted to put themselves to a needless pain creeping through that needle’s eye.”  (Nichols, 1853)

  The lack of details in the letter is frustrating, but there seems a real possibility that Roseberry Topping was actually a pilgrimage site before the Reformation. The reference to numerous visitors (“many a silly soul”) performing an odd ritual in “blind devotion” at a rock dedicated to a saint, all taking place alongside a hermitage and a cave, on a hilltop with a healing spring, could not really be anything else. later writers may have had more local information as they described the hermitage as being in a cave, which at some point had also been used as a blacksmiths forge (?). They also noted that the cleft in the rock near the cave was dedicated to Saint Wilfrid rather than Saint Winifrid. These discrepancies might be explained by the fact that the Chaloner letter was written by a visitor to the area who took a guided tour around some of the local sites of interest, so writing the letter afterwards would rely on correctly recalling the guides information – possibly given in a local accent.

  That the “Needles Eye” crevice on top of Roseberry was dedicated to Saint Wilfrid is interesting because there is another ‘Saint Wilfrid’s Needle’ in the crypt below Ripon cathedral (30 miles to the south west). Saint Wilfrid established an early church on the site of the cathedral, and the crypt is part of his original church, so the Wilfrid dedication is long standing. Pilgrims used to visit the crypt to squeeze through an opening in the stonework as a test to show that they were living a holy and devout life. The Saint Wilfrid’s Needle near the hermitage on top of Roseberry might suggest that pilgrims climbed the hill to perform a similar activity there.

Saint Wilfrid’s Needle – Ripon
Saint Oswald (artist – Michael Alevizakis)
note Odin’s Raven?

  Saint Wilfrid’s presence on Roseberry may be connected with the story of the Anglo Saxon prince Oswy having drowned in a well on the hill top. History records that saint Wilfrid was closely connected with this royal family, and he promoted the cult of saint Oswald, who was Oswy’s brother. The only holy well dedicated to Saint Oswald in this region just happens to be located at the foot of Roseberry Topping, alongside a track leading up to the summit. This holy well adds some weight to the suggestion that Roseberry was a pilgrimage site before the Reformation, with pilgrims visiting Saint Oswald’s Well before climbing the hill to the hermitage and Saint Wilfrid’s Needle.

  With the church at Newton under Roseberry also dedicated to Saint Oswald, along with the holy well (and chapel) below the hill, it is tempting to suggests that the hill top hermitage was also dedicated to him. This begins to point to the hill itself being linked with Oswald rather than his brother Oswy, and it is worth noting that one version of the drowned prince legend recorded by William Grainge, actually has the prince named Oswald rather than Oswy (Grainge, 1859). It is also worth noting that the Chaloner letter does not mention the legend at all, which seems unlikely if it involved such an historical royal figure. This suggests that the story may have originated some time later in the 17th or 18th century.

  The spring where the prince drowned is said to be Roseberry Well, just below the summit, on the north side of the hill. The Chaloner letter does actually mention this as a healing spring, and that it “cureth sore eyes”. This ‘good for sore eyes’ phrase seems to have been attached to springs that were regarded as holy wells before the Reformation banned their use for religious purposes, and if the hill top hermitage had been dedicated to saint Oswald then it is likely that this nearby healing spring would also be dedicated to him. If in later years this was remembered as Oswald’s well, then the local dialect would soon have this mini tongue twister sounding like ‘Oswy’s well’. Such a name could have been the inspiration for a tale of the prince drowning there, and being buried with his mother at Osmotherley ( Os-mother-lay). Whoever came up with the story did not seem to have access to any history books, as it is known that prince Oswy did not die on the hill, but instead became king after his brother Oswald was killed in battle.

Roseberry Well – early 1900’s and in 2016 (Oswy’s / Oswald’s Well?)

So how did Oswald /Oswy become linked with this hill?
  That the hill had been dedicated to the Norse god Odin (Othenesberg), and was still called Osenbergh and Osenbury in medieval times, it is possible that pre-Christian beliefs still lingered around the hill itself, and its cave, rock cleft, and healing springs. If enough people were still visiting the hill in connection with these superstitions, then this may have prompted the church to adopt the site and give it a Christian ‘makeover’. The Osenbergh name may have been enough to suggest a link with the northern saint Oswald, and so the cave became a hermitage dedicated to him. The activities associated with the cleft in the rock led to it being called Saint Wilfrid’s Needle, like the Needle’s Eye in the crypt below Ripon cathedral, along with Wilfrid’s historical links to Saint Oswald. While the healing springs on and around the hill became holy wells, also dedicated to Saint Oswald. This Os – Oswald link may seem rather tenuous, but at a deeper level Odin, Os, and Oswald are intimately tied together.

The Oss Rune

  Oswald was an Anglo Saxon king whose family traced their royal lineage back to the Germanic god Woden/Odin. Even Oswald’s name alluded to this, as Os or óss was a character in the Anglo Saxon runic alphabet, with the meaning ‘god or divine’, which in a pre-Christian context referred to their chief god Woden / Odin. This would give Os-wald’s name the meaning ‘Woden’s Ruler’, ie ruling in Woden’s name. Oswald’s father, King Aethelfrith, named five of his sons in this way including Oswald, Oswy, and Oslac, each linked to Woden by name.

  An old Icelandic Rune Poem also confirms the link between óss, and Odin, ……

 Óss er algingautr
ok ásgarðs jöfurr,
ok valhallar vísi.
Óss is aged Gautr
and prince of Asgard
and lord of Valhalla.

  King Oswald died in a battle against the Anglo Saxon king Penda, who beheaded Oswald and placed his head and arms on raised wooden stakes. Penda still followed the pre-Christian religion of the Anglo-Saxons, and it is thought that this treatment of the slain king was an offering to Woden/Odin. Although Oswald’s birth name was supposed to mark him out as a great king ruling with Woden’s authority, circumstances led to him being raised as a Christian. In Penda’s religion it was Woden who influenced the outcome of any conflict, and so the battle between the two kings would also be seen as a battle between the old and new religions. On that occasion Penda’s victory over the Christian king would be remembered as a victory for Woden/Odin. This historical event could be another reason why Saint Oswald later became connected with Roseberry (Oseberry) – Oswald’s final triumph over the pagan god, with a Christian hermitage built upon Odin’s hill.

  In those far off days it perhaps did not matter to many ordinary folk if a hill top shrine was Christian or pre-Christian, as long as it served their needs. Even today people are still drawn to the hill, making the steep and often exhausting accent to the summit, but then what? These modern ‘pilgrim’s reach the top, rest for a while, look at the view, and then leave. There is no hermitage for prayer and contemplation, or Wilfrid’s Needle to crawl through, even the healing spring has dried up. It is hard not to think that the experience would have been much richer and significant in the past.

  But hold on – it seem today’s ‘pilgrims’ are still performing an odd ritual on the hill top. When they reach the summit, a precious object is brought out and held aloft, they stand before it in an adoring pose, and then click – the ‘selfie’.

After thoughts
  It is interesting to note that the Chaloner letter actually called the Roseberry rock cleft “Saint Winifrid’s Needle”, as this saint was beheaded by a Welsh Prince. Saint Oswald was also beheaded during a battle in Wales. In both cases a healing spring arose where their heads fell to the ground.

 The folklore practice of passing through a hole or cleft in a rock was usually done for fertility or healing purposes. It is perhaps ironic that passing through the Wilfrid’s Needle hole at Ripon was said to be a proof of chastity – unless this was a cover for its real purpose? What ever the reason, the wear on the stonework around the hole suggests that a lot of people have squeezed through it over the years, and the demand was great enough for steps to be built to make access easier. While visiting the crypt in 2022, another visitor mentioned that her friend had squeezed through the hole when she was a young woman at the college in Ripon about 30 years ago.

Grainge, W. 1859. The Vale of Mowbray
Nichols, J.G. 1853. The Topographer and Genealogist Vol 2

The Lay of the Land


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