Oswestry is thought to derive its name from Oswald, king of Northumbria, who was killed by Penda, king of Mercia, in 642 at the Battle of Maserfield. The battlefield is thought to be on the playing fields of Oswestry School. According to legend, Oswald was dismembered; one of his arms was carried to an ash tree by a ‘Great Bird’, and miracles were subsequently attributed to the tree – ‘Oswald’s Tree’ (as Oswald was considered a saint). The spring, Oswald’s Well, is supposed to have originated where the bird dropped the arm from the tree.
The seal of Oswestry shows King Oswald sitting in his robes on a chair, holding a sword in his right hand, and an oak branch in his left, with the words around, “De Oswaldestre sigillum commune” meaning “The Common Seal of Oswestry”. An example can be seen on the front of The Guildhall.
The town changed hands between the English and the Welsh a number of times during the Middle Ages but finally fell under English rule in 1535. ‘Dual nationality’ has left its mark on the town which still boasts streets named ‘English Walls’ and ‘Welsh Walls’. The town’s name in Welsh is ‘Croesoswallt’, meaning “Oswald’s Cross”. It eventually became known as Oswald’s Tree in English, from which its current English name is probably derived. Occasionally in the 13th century, Oswestry is referred to in official records as Blancmuster (1233) or Blancmostre (1272), meaning “White Minster”. Other names have also been used including Tre’r Cadeiriau, literally the Town of Chairs.
Later, Oswestry was attacked by the forces of Welsh rebel leader Owain Glyndŵr during the early years of his rebellion against the English King Henry IV. In 1400 it became temporarily known as Pentrepoeth or “hot village” as it was burned and nearly destroyed by the Welsh.
Today the town has an eclectic mix of architecture, with Victorian and Georgian buildings alongside modern shops. Stunning examples of earlier times such as Llwyd Mansion and St Oswald’s Church are dotted through the town. Many of Oswestry’s oldest building are pubs, a reminder that there were once over 100 – not bad for a small Shropshire town! The legend of King Oswald and his grisly end is remembered at Oswald’s Well but more of his legacy can be seen in the beautiful Church dedicated to his memory.
Oswestry’s railway heritage is fascinating. Thomas Savin, who built much of it, was one of Oswestry’s most eccentric characters. Mayor and gun powder enthusiast, his story lives on at Cambrian Heritage Railways and the Oswestry Town Museum.
Wilfred Owen the war poet was born in Oswestry. He spent his early childhood here and his family were long time Oswestry residents with two mayors of the town amongst his relatives. There are many reminders of the Victorian Oswestry his family would have known.