image taken from orthodoxengland; not attributed there, but it looks like an Aidan Hart icon to me and… indeed it is on his workshop’s page as well.
Today (12 October) we commemorate St. Wilfrid (Wilfrith, Walfridus, Willferder), archbishop of York (709). Here is a story that takes us to the heart of the early medieval furore over computus, the calculations of the date of Easter, or rather Pascha. This one is verrry long. From Baring-Gould:
S. WILFRID, BP. OF YORK (a.d. 709.)
[Roman Martyrology. The Translation of S. Wilfrid on April 24, the Deposition on Oct. 12. York and Hereford Kalendars, not Sarum. Lives by Eddius and Eadmer; Bede, “Eccl. Hist.” ii. iii. iv. v. ; MS. Offices of S. Wilfrid for parish of Ripon, a.d. 1418 ; “Fasti Eboracenses,” i. 55-83, and authorities there cited.]
The life of S. Wilfrid possesses special interest and importance as that of one of the greatest men of his day, who lived through one of the greatest crises that the Church in England has experienced, and who, by his character and conduct, influenced public affairs as few men could have done. His thoughts, his energies, his singular abilities, his earnest prayers, were, from the time of his arriving at early manhood, all directed to that great revival of religion which was ushered in by the mission of S. Augustine. The strong Roman sympathies which he formed in early life increased as years rolled on, and he visited the holy city no less than three times. He was the first English prelate to appeal to the Roman pontiff against the powers that thwarted him at home. Of his eventful life we have very full particulars preserved by his friend and chaplain, Stephen Eddi, whose account, though to be received with caution as that of an ardent partisan, is nevertheless of great value as that of a contemporary writer.
S. Wilfrid was born a.d. 634, of noble parents, somewhere in Northumbria. None of the early biographers mention their name or residence, and the local tradition that Ripon was his birthplace, and Allhallowgate the precise locality, is probably a pleasing fiction of comparatively recent origin. His birth, Uke that of S. Cuthbert and others, is said to have been signalized by a miraculous light from heaven, filling the whole house, so that the neighbours, thinking it was on fire, ran for water to put out the flames. The midwives, however, told them that a man-child was born, and that it was no common fire which they saw, but a sign from heaven betokening the favour of God. The old writers are very eloquent on this light, as being like that in the burning bush, indicating that the new-born child was truly a child of light, destined by God to lighten the whole land of Britain. Wilfrid is described as having been a grave and holy child, of remarkable beauty, fond of the society of older people, and, when in the presence of those who visited his father, “swift to hear, and slow to speak.” His first great trial was the loss of his mother, his next the harshness of a stepmother. This led to his early departure from his father’s house, which took place when he was in his thirteenth year, at his own desire. He set his mind on going to court, like other noble youths, and was accordingly provided by his father with arms, and horses, and servants, all equipped as befitted one who was to stand before kings. Being moved by the example of the patriarchs, he asked for his father’s blessing, and, having obtained it, he left the home of his childhood for the court of Oswi, King of Northumbria. We have already seen that Wilfrid was ” a proper child,” and are not surprised therefore to find that when he appeared at court as a handsome boy of noble bearing, introduced by courtiers on whom he had attended in the home he was leaving, he met with a kindly reception from Eanfled, the queen. He speedily won all hearts by his bright and happy face and disposition, tempered by a serenity which is described as angelic. He appears soon to have found a second mother in the queen, to whom he confided his desire to serve God more perfectly. She accordingly prevailed on the king to excuse him from military training, and appointed him to attend on a noble named Cudda, an old friend and counsellor of the royal house, who, being now palsied and weary of the world, was longing to end his days as a monk at Lindisfarne. And when Cudda decided to go, Wilfrid must needs go too; he also yearned for a holier life ; the boy’s heart was drawn to the heart of the man, and they two together, the one in the morning of life the other at the eventide, turned their backs upon the world to devote themselves entirely to the service of God. As we are so beautifully taught by our own poet :
” He loves when age and youth are met,
Fervent old age and youth serene,
Their high and low in concord set
For sacred song, joy’s golden mean.” ‘
At Lindisfarne he soon became as great a favourite as he had been at Court, and he applied himself earnestly to study and devotion. He soon learned the whole of the psalter by heart, as monks were accustomed to do, and his constant companions were the Holy Scriptures, the writings of the Fathers, and such other books as the monastic library contained. Here he remained for about four years, during which, as his mind became more formed and his judgment matured, he grew less and less satisfied with the Scottish usages, and was convinced that there was a more excellent way, and that this was to be learned at Rome, and Rome alone. It is not hard to divine how he was led to this conviction. Queen Eanfled had been brought up under her mother’s care and under Paulinus’s direction in a monastery in Kent, and was thoroughly Roman. With her was her chaplain Romanus. Oswi and his clergy were of the Scottish school. There was a constant controversy at court between Rome and lona, and thus the seed of strife was sown in Wilfrid’s heart. His connection with the court and with Lindisfarne would naturally lead to his forming the acquaintance of some of the Roman missionaries, whose teaching and conversation would be to him as the opening out of a new world. We are not to think of him at Lindisfarne as a mediaeval recluse. The Saxon monasteries were schools of learning for young nobles and clerics as well as retreats for ascetic devotion, and Wilfrid appears to have resided as a scholar, being allowed at times to leave the place. Accordingly we find him consulting not only his brethren in the monastery, but his father at home, and his friends in the royal palace, respecting his future course. The road to Rome is spoken of as having been up to that time untrodden by our people, but this made no difference to Wilfrid when once he had set his heart on journeying thither. He had resolved to learn the way of God more perfectly, under the very shadow of S. Peter, and to behold for himself the glories of the Eternal City. And as he had quitted the court for Lindisfame, so now he was restless till he could quit Lindisfarne for Rome. The brethren bade him God speed, and the queen, with his father’s concurrence, did all in her power to favour his project. She gave him letters of introduction to her cousin Erconbert, King of Kent, asking him to provide her young friend with safe and honourable conduct to Rome. The king received him kindly, and both he and Honorius, the archbishop, a disciple of S. Gregory, may well have been charmed by Wilfrid’s devotion to religion and his thirst for knowledge. He would be no less pleased to become acquainted with such men as he would meet at Canterbury. But his patience was sorely tried by his having to stay there a whole year, and he employed himself partly in committing to memory the Roman psalter (the earliest version of S. Jerome) and unlearning the Galilean (a later Hieronymian version), which he had learned at Lindisfarne. This was much as if one who had acquired our Bible version should set to work and master the Prayer Book version in the same way. At last it happened that another young English noble, who, like Wilfrid, had been attached to Oswi’s court, one Baducing, better known as Benedict Biscop, the founder of Jarrow and Monk Wearmouth, was also desirous to visit Rome. Wilfrid was allowed to go under his protection, he being probably the older of the two. On their arrival at Lyons they were honourably received by Delphinus, the archbishop. Benedict continued his journey almost immediately, but Wilfrid, notwithstanding his impatience to see Rome, was induced to remain at Lyons for a whole year. It seems not unlikely that the youth was in love, however much he might strive against such tender emotions. Delphinus, who appears to have been a sort of ” prince-bishop,” offered to make him his heir, to give him his niece in marriage, and to appoint him governor over a great part of the country. But none of these inducements availed to turn him from his great purpose, whatever they may have had to do with his tarrying so long on the way. He courteously and gratefully declined the honours that were offered to him, stranger as he was, answering that the vows of the Lord were upon him, that like Abraham he had left home and kindred in obedience to a call from God, and that to this call alone he could now give ear. Delphinus could not but admire him all the more for such pious determination, and having furnished him with a guide and all things needful, sent him on his journey, earnestly desiring him again to stay at Lyons as he returned to the north.
As soon as he arrived in Rome he went to the oratory of S. Andrew, probably at the monastery of S. Andrew on the Coelian Hill, which S. Gregory had founded. Prostrating himself before the altar, over which was placed a large Book of the Gospels, he besought with tears that he might have understanding given him, and power to teach those gospels to others. While engaged in his daily work of seeking out and praying at the tombs of the martyrs, and other holy places, he became acquainted with Boniface the archdeacon, secretary to Pope Martin I. The archdeacon’s house was the school of the clergy; candidates for holy orders came to be instructed by him, and were ordained, as at present, on his certifying to their fitness. And so Wilfrid, aspiring to the priesthood, would be likely to come in his way.
From this new friend he received instruction in the Gospels, in the Roman rule for Easter, and in the many other matters of ecclesiatical discipline respecting which he had been desirous of information. (fn: An interesting relic of Boniface has recently been found in a rubbish-heap at Whitby, namely, a leaden bulla, with the words BONIFATII ARCHIDIAC, which was possibly once attached to a document brought to England by Wilfrid himself. ) Having received the Pope’s blessing, and taken leave of his kind instructor, he returned to Lyons, where he was again most hospitably entertained. Doubtless he had much to tell of what he had seen and heard during his first visit to Rome. At Lyons he sojourned for three years, and received the Roman tonsure from Delphinus, thus casting off the last outward mark of his early religious life.
It is impossible to say how much longer he might have stayed in Lyons had not Bathild, Queen of France, begun to persecute the Church. Delphinus suffered martyrdom, and Wilfrid wished to suffer with him. The persecutors, however, would not touch him when they found that he was an Englishman, but allowed him to bury Delphinus in peace and return to his own land.
On his arrival he found, to his great joy, Alcfrid, the son of King Oswi, associated with his father in the government of Northumbria, and both of them ardent supporters of the Church. Alcfrid had been on the point of going to Rome with Biscop in 653, but was detained by his father. Like many of the rising youth of the country, he avowed his preference for Roman usages; his father, on the other hand, remained strongly attached to the national customs. Wilfrid had landed somewhere in the kingdom of the West Saxons, and begun to preach. King Canwalch sent a report of him to Alcfrid, how he had come home full of what he had learned at Canterbury, and Lyons, and Rome. This occasioned a summons for him to return speedily to his native Northumbria. They must have known each other, one would suppose, as boys together in the palace of Oswi. However this may have been, Wilfrid was received as an angel of God, he was regarded as a hero, having been at Rome and witnessed martyrdom. Alcfrid prostrated himself before him and besought his blessing. Then they had much religious converse on the Roman discipline, and doubtless on the wonderful Rule of S. Benedict, which in all probability excited in the prince that great munificence which he so soon displayed. As their mutual love increased day by day, they soon became, as Eddi says, like David and Jonathan. The prince bestowed on the ecclesiastic an estate at Stamford, and another at Ripon, which included a monastery he had previously founded there for Scottish monks, where Eata and S. Cuthbert were now resident. These, however, had to choose between accepting the Roman traditions, which Wilfrid was determined to introduce, and leaving the place. They could not give up their national usages, and so had to make way for others who were willing to be ruled by Wilfrid. He had not, however, as yet obtained priest’s orders, but as this seemed now desirable, he was at Alcfrid’s request ordained by Agilbert, Bishop of the West Saxons.
The Roman movement had by this time made such progress in the north that the Church was fairly split up into two parties. The controversy which had begun in the monastery at Ripon spread through the whole of Northumbria, and nowhere were men less of one mind in a house than in the King’s court. Oswi, as we have seen, adhered to the traditions of his father; Eanfled his wife, and Alcfrid his son, to the Roman innovations, so that the Easter of the one party in some years coincided with the Passion-tide of the other.
Under these circumstances, Oswi summoned a council at Streanshalch, now Whitby. On the Scottish side were Colman, the Northumbrian bishop, with his clergy ; Hilda, Abbess of Whitby; Cedd, Bishop of the East Saxons, a Yorkshireman by birth, and King Oswi. On the Roman, Agilbert, Bishop of the West Saxons ; the priests Agatho and Wilfrid ; James, the deacon of S. Paulinus ; Romanus, the queen’s chaplain, and Alcfrid. The chief points in dispute were, the time of keeping Easter and the mode of making the tonsure. It may be well here to say a little about the famous ” Paschal Controversy,” and the tonsure. The Churches of Asia, professedly on the authority of S. John the Evangelist and S. Philip, kept Easter Day not of necessity on a Sunday, but always on the same day as the Jewish Passover, viz., the 14th day of Nisan or Abib, which month began with the new moon next to the vernal equinox, so that the ” Paschal full moon ” appeared on the 14th day. Hence those who kept Easter on this day were called ” Quartodecimans.” The other Churches, especially those of the West, kept Easter Day on the Sunday after the Jewish Passover, as we do now, claiming the authority of S. Peter and S. Paul, and this rule was confirmed by the Nicene Council. But the time of the vernal equinox was a matter of astronomical calculation, and the British and Scottish churches, although always keeping Easter Day on a Sunday, and so not being Quartodecimans, as has sometimes been supposed, differed from the Romans as to the calculation adopted, and so as to the particular Sunday kept as Easter Day, much as we now differ from the Greek Church. Then as to the tonsure, the Romans shaved the top of the head, leaving a circle of hair like the crown of thorns ; the Britons and Scots shaved the front part of the head from ear to ear. On these and on other ceremonial differences, not so particularly handed down to us, the controversy was carried on with a vehemence that we can now scarcely understand. Colman grounded the Scottish traditions on the authority of S. John the beloved disciple, and of S. Columba. Wilfrid, who was the chief speaker on the other side, and much the more able man of the two, defended the Roman usages by an appeal to the Chair of St. Peter, the rock on which Christ had built His Church, and to whom He had given the keys of the kingdom of heaven. A long discussion took place, which is reported at length by Bede (H. E., iii. 25). King Oswi seems to have been convinced by Wilfrid’s learning and eloquence, and said, perhaps in a half jesting way, that he dare not now gainsay the authority of S. Peter, lest when he came to heaven’s gate the keeper of the keys should refuse to let him in. It has, indeed, been suggested that he may have been actuated by the more sublunary motive of desiring to stand well with the supposed representative of S. Peter on earth. Wilfrid certainly gained the day, and Colman, unconvinced, retired with his adherents to lona, leaving Wilfrid and Alcfrid masters of the situation. Cedd and Hilda were induced to adopt the Roman view, by which, with respect to Easter, we have been regulated ever since.
One Tuda was appointed to succeed Colman, but he soon afterwards died in a pestilence, and now all eyes were turned on Wilfrid as the fittest person to take his place. On his nomination by the two kings, Oswi and Alcfrid, he at first excused himself as unworthy, but soon consented. He would, however, on no account receive consecration from any Scottish bishops, or from any who had been consecrated by them. He begged to be sent to France, where he might be consecrated by prelates who were in full communion with the Apostolic See. Alcfrid sent him to his old friend Agilbert, who had ordained him priest, who had supported him at the Council of Whitby, and who at that time was Bishop of Paris. Eleven other bishops assisted at the consecration, which took place at Compiegne, with all the pomp that Wilfrid so dearly loved. The bishops themselves carried him in a golden chair, which no one of lower rank was allowed to touch, in fair procession, with music and singing. And he was consecrated to the see of York, which the great Paulinus had held as Archbishop of Northumbria — a position, doubtless, for which his royal friends thought no one could be better fitted, than which none could have been more congenial to his own ambition. Little did he think what troubles awaited him, now that he seemed at the very height of prosperity. On the voyage home he and his companions were cast ashore by a storm on the coast of Sussex, which left their ship high on the sands at the ebb of the tide. The natives attacked it, and a conflict ensued, in which five of Wilfrid’s men were lost, but the attacking party were driven back. With the flood they got away to sea, and landed at Sandwich in Kent.
Meanwhile, even Wilfrid’s own friends became impatient at his long absence, and the Scottish party were not idle. They now saw their opportunity, and Oswi, perhaps but half convinced at the Council of Whitby, was so influenced by them as now to forward their views. Alcfrid had perhaps died of the plague that carried off Tuda. Neither Eanfled nor Wilfrid’s other friends had power enough to keep the see vacant for him. The humble-minded presbyter Chad was induced to leave his quiet retreat at Lastingham to be consecrated by Wina, Bishop of Winchester, and two British bishops, as Bishop of York, with jurisdiction over the whole of Northumbria, so as entirely to exclude Wilfrid. It must have been a severe disappointment to him when he did return to find the see occupied. But he acquiesced in what had been done so far as to retire peaceably to his monasteries at Stamford and Ripon, invited occasionally by Egbert, King of Kent, and Wulfhere, King of Mercia, to exercise episcopal functions in their dominions, for they were without bishops. This state of things continued for about three years, but was put an end to at last by the arrival of Theodore of Tarsus in England as metropolitan, a.d. 669.
Wilfrid’s acquaintance with Eddi, and his attachment to the Benedictine rule, began in the interval. Theodore succeeded in bringing about an amicable arrangement, whereby Chad willingly retired to Lastingham, and Wilfrid was established at York as bishop of all Northumbria. At the request of Wulfhere, Chad was soon appointed by Theodore to be Bishop of Mercia. But he had to undergo re-consecration, because his former consecration was deemed uncanonical. Of the three consecrating bishops on that occasion, Wina was the only one in Roman orders, and the only one, according to Bede, then to be found in the whole of Britain. Wilfrid probably had something to do with Chad’s going to Lichfield: he would possibly be glad to show him a kindness, and would certainly not be sorry to get rid of one whom some might consider as the rightful bishop of York. And when Chad submitted to re-consecration, his satisfaction would be complete.
King Oswi appears to have been a person of easy-going disposition, and to have fallen in with all this as readily as he had done with the former appointment of Chad. Wilfrid now set his whole mind on advancing the interests of Rome in his vast diocese, which included the district of Galloway, and other parts of Scotland, as well as our present northern province, together with the parts of Lindsey. He employed Eddi to teach the Gregorian tones, he had skilful masons to build in England as they built in Rome, and he strove to recover the holy places of the British Church. Oswi soon after died, and was succeeded by his son Egfrid, who at first helped Wilfrid by liberal contributions to his great works at Ripon and elsewhere, — thank-offerings for his successes against the Picts and the Mercians, attributed to the merits and prayers of the man of God. It is the delight of the chroniclers to relate how, where Wilfrid found mean structures of wood and thatch, he left noble buildings of stone, with lead roofs and wondrous vaults. The church at York being in a deplorable condition, he thoroughly repaired, cleansed, and whitewashed it, as Eddi says, supra nivem dealbavit ; and the windows were now apparently for the first time filled with glass, instead of perforated wood or stone, or oiled linen. At Ripon he built an entirely new basilica of wrought stone, with goodly columns and marvellous porches, on which Eddi descants in a most interesting way, and gives an account of a magnificent Book of the Gospels, probably such a one as Wilfrid had seen in S. Andrew’s oratory at Rome, most likely brought by him from Rome or Lyons, and preserved in the minster till the Reformation as the Textus Sandi Wilfridi. The crypt, commonly called S. Wilfrid’s needle, which still exists, probably belonged to this church, and its curious little niches may possibly be reminiscences of the columbaria in the catacombs. The dedication, characteristically in honour of S. Peter, was celebrated on a sumptuous scale of magnificent ritual and hospitality, with a fitting oration, amid a great concourse of kings, abbots, nobles, and persons of all ranks, the walls resounding with the Gregorian chants, then the last new music from Italy. At Hexham he built, on land given by S. Etheldreda, a church dedicated to S. Andrew, on a corresponding scale of grandeur, doubtless in memory of S. Andrew’s in Rome (see p. 297), and where a crypt still remains, similar to that at Ripon, these two being the only known examples of the same kind in England, and both, perhaps, imitations of sepulchral chambers in Rome.
He is said to have wrought miracles at this period of his life. On one occasion, as he was riding about in the exercise of his episcopal office, a woman brought her dead child to him to be raised to life and baptized, which, through her faith and the prayers and touch of the saint, at once came to pass. The child afterwards lived and died in God’s service at Ripon, and was called the bishop’s son. Then at Hexham a youth engaged in building fell from a great height, and was taken up with broken arms and legs, and at the point of death. At the prayers of the saint and the brethren — the “medici” having bound up the broken bones — he recovered from day to day, and long lived to praise God. But Wilfrid was never tested by too long a course of worldly prosperity and success. Fresh trials now awaited him. S. Etheldreda, Egfrid’s queen, refused on religious grounds to live as a wife with her husband, and the bishop, on being appealed to, supported her views, and so incurred the displeasure ol the king. Some think he acted a double part at this time, telling Egfrid he would do the best he could to persuade her, knowing all the time he could not, having himself consecrated her as a nun. But we do not know all the circumstances, and perhaps Etheldreda ought not to have married at all. Anyhow a divorce took place, and Egfrid married Ermenburg, who proved to be a bitter enemy to Wilfrid. He was reproached and envied on account of his wealth and splendour as the second man in the kingdom, and accused of neglecting the spiritual concerns of the see. Something of the kind may have come to the ear of Theodore, and may partly account for his extraordinary treatment of Wilfrid at this time, during, as is believed, one of his long absences from his see. Wilfrid had never received the pall as archbishop, and so Theodore took upon himself to subdivide the kingdom of Northumbria into four sees — York, Lindisfarne, Hexham, and Whitherne in Galloway. Wilfrid was simply ignored in all this, though some say Lindisfarne was offered to him. It was not likely that he would submit to such treatment. He remonstrated with Theodore and Egfrid face to face, but without success, and now he saw but one course open to him. He made the appeal to Rome, then, for the first time, against an English sovereign, and was met by reproaches, contumely, and derision on the part of the king and his courtiers, probably in Witenagemote assembled. “Ah !” said Wilfrid, “ye who now laugh at me shall a year hence bitterly weep.”
His enemies, not venturing to prevent his going to Rome, endeavoured to intercept his appeal by subtilty. They sent a message to Theodoric, King of Neustria, to detain him on his journey, and he, with the help of Ebroin, mayor of the palace, sought to arrest the traveller. But they managed to secure Winfrid, Bishop of Mercia, by mistake, he too being on his way to Rome. Wilfrid landed in Friesland, and so escaped their hands. During the winter he instructed the rude Frisians, and Adalgis, their king, in the Christian faith. The Frisians and Saxons being the same race, and speaking the same tongue, he had no difficulty in making himself understood. In the spring he proceeded towards Rome, having gained for himself the title of “Apostle of Friesland.”
On his way he met with a most hearty welcome from Dagobert, a French prince, who having vainly tried to detain him by the offer of the see of Strasburg, sent him on with one Bishop Deodatus for a companion, and with rich presents and an introduction to the King of the Lombards, from whose Court he passed on to Rome. Five-and-twenty years before he had come as the humble scholar from Lindisfarne, now he came as one of the greatest of English prelates. Pope Agatho, who appears to have been the very Agatho who as a priest had assisted at the Council of Whitby, rejoicing in this first appeal from England to Rome, called a synod. Theodore had sent messengers with his version of the story, and they had arrived before Wilfrid. Both sides were heard, and Wilfrid triumphed at the Court of Rome as he had done before at the little provincial convention at Whitby. He was supplied with letters containing the synodical decision, with penalties of suspension and excommunication for all who should oppose it. He was to be restored to his see, but with coadjutor bishops. Having gained this point, he waited to sit in a council against the Monothelites, where he represented the English Church, though he does not appear to have been sent for that purpose. Then he returned to the Northumbrian Court, armed with the papal missive. But Egfrid and Ermenburg cared little for foreign decrees, which moreover they accused him of having obtained by bribery. The queen, we are told, tore his reliquary from his neck, to wear as a toy or a charm, and Wilfrid was cast into prison. Here it is pretended that he was able to heal the governor’s wife of a terrible disease, by the application of holy water. Her husband would now no longer act as jailer to the holy man, whereupon the king sent him to another prison at Dunbar. There his fetters and manacles dropped off as fast as they were put on. Meanwhile, the queen was afflicted with madness, wherefore the king, advised by the abbess Ebba, restored the relics, and set Wilfrid at liberty. Thereupon the queen recovered. Wilfrid, however, was not permitted to return to his see ; he had made himself many enemies, and was obliged to flee, first to Mercia and then to Sussex. There he met with a royal patron in Ethelwalch, King of the South Saxons, who was a Christian, though most of his people were heathens. There was, however, a little monastery at Bosham, with five or six inmates, which one Dicul, a Scot, had founded. When Wilfrid came there, in time of terrible drought and famine, the people were throwing themselves off the cliffs into the sea to escape death by starvation. By his prayers he obtained rain, and by teaching the rude men of Sussex how to use their eel-nets in the sea, he obtained draughts of fishes which were regarded as miraculous. The king converted his own palace into a residence for Wilfrid, and gave him an estate at Selsea. There he freed two hundred and fifty serfs, and founded a monastery, over which he presided for five years. He also converted Cadwalla, King of Wessex, who gave him the fourth part of the Isle of Wight, and the bishopric of Wessex. Wilfrid was thus driven from the North only to do a great work in the South. This success could not remain long unknown to Theodore, who now, being nearly ninety years old, sought and obtained a happy reconciliation with him who was supported by Rome. He had, moreover, received a rescript from Pope Sergius which induced him to effect this without delay. He wrote letters, expressing the pope’s and his own decision in favour of Wilfrid, to the kings of Mercia and Northumbria. The former, Ethelred, gave him lands, monasteries, and episcopal jurisdiction in his kingdom. Egfrid was killed in battle about this time, and Ermenburg, if still alive, was in no position to oppose Wilfrid. Indeed, she is said to have been converted by the Roman faction, and to have ended her days in a monastery. Aldfrid, an illegitimate son of Oswi, succeeded Egfrid, and one of his first acts was to send for Wilfrid, and re-instate him at York and Ripon. There, however, his unsubdued pride, greed of power, and wealth, brought him into collision with the great men of his diocese and all who had peace at heart. Aldfrid, for the sake of peace, asked him to resign Ripon, which he refused to do, whereupon a serious disruption occurred, and about five years after his restoration he had to flee to Mercia from the resentment of those whose hostility he had provoked. There he induced Ethelred, the king, to become a monk, and effected the foundation of many churches and monasteries. Theodore meanwhile had died, and was succeeded by Berthwald in the southern primacy. This prelate, in conjunction with Aldfrid, called a great synod of English bishops at Austerfield Plain, near Bawtry, about nine years after the above quarrel, and Wilfrid was present, either by invitation or summons. Being asked whether he would abide by the decision of the metropolitan, he warily avoided binding himself too far, by saying he would, provided it were conformable to the decrees of the Apostolic See.
Aldfrid was exasperated, and great clamour and confusion ensued. Wilfrid broke out into indignant expostulations. Some would have thrown him into prison, others were prepared to offer him the monastery of Ripon provided he would confine himself within its precincts, and resign all episcopal authority. This was too much. Would they degrade him from his bishopric, after all that he had done for the North of England from his youth up until that hour, and on false accusations too? Let them come with him to Rome, and prove before the sovereign pontiff the charges they brought against him. Whereupon the king and archbishop pronounced him self-condemned, in preferring the judgment of Rome to that of themselves. Being now above sixty years old, he set off on his third and last journey to Rome, attended by his faithful Eddi and other friends. On his arrival he again found his accusers there before him, but their stories were not listened to until he appeared. The points in dispute were then debated in a series of meetings held under Pope John VI., during a space of about four months. The previous appeal to Pope Agatho and its results were recalled, when the minutes of the former synod were read. Wilfrid was again acquitted of all blame, and was to be restored to his see. Papal letters to this effect were written to Ethelred, King of Mercia, as well as to Aldfrid, and Archbishop Berthwald was directed to call a council for the adjustment of difficulties. Wilfrid, however, seems to have lost heart about England ; he stayed in Rome many months, and wished to end his days there. But Pope John and others counselled him to return to his native land, and die, if so he might, at his post, combating the liberties of the national Church. Accordingly, with the letters just mentioned, and with another supply of relics, he turned homeward. On his way he fell sick, and was borne on a litter as far as Meaux, where for four days he lay as in a trance, and apparently at the point of death. At the dawning of the fifth day his biographer pretends that S. Michael appeared to him, and told him he was sent by the Blessed Virgin to say that his life should be prolonged four years, and that as he had built churches in honour of S. Peter and S. Andrew, so he ought to have dedicated one to the Blessed Mother of God, promising moreover to visit him again at the end of four years. He told the heavenly vision to Acca the priest, then rose like a second Hezekiah, washed and took food, and made haste on his way. The wind was favourable, they soon crossed the sea, and landed in Kent, where they found Berthwald, and had a friendly interview. Thence they proceeded to the Mercian Court, where they were kindly received by Coenred, the nephew of Ethelred, the former king. Thence they sent messengers to Aldfrid, who appointed a day for meeting them, but showed himself as ill disposed as before to receive Wilfrid and bear with his imperiousness. Soon after Aldfrid lay on his death-bed, probably at Driffield, in the East Riding of Yorkshire. Eadulf, his successor, was still more hostile, threatening to slay Wilfrid and his friends if they did not leave the kingdom within six days. He, however, was deposed as a usurper, and Osred, the son of Aldfrid, and adopted son of Wilfrid, became king when but eight years old, with Berchtfrid, the confidential minister of Aldfrid, as protector. Wilfrid was thus again in the ascendant, and the synod for which Pope John had provided was held on the banks of the Nidd, under Archbishop Berthwald, with the three northern bishops of York, Lindisfarne, and Whitherne. Elfleda, the sainted abbess of Whitby, and Berchtfrid, were also there. Berthwald gave a summary of the letters of the Pope for the benefit of the British bishops and others who could not well follow the Latin, not improbably, also, softening down some expressions in his desire for peace. But the bishops were not at first willing to make way for Wilfrid against the interests of the Northumbrian Church, even at the risk of papal excommunication. They appealed to Berthwald’s own previous policy, to the example of Theodore, to the decisions of Egfrid and Aldfrid. Elfleda then asserted that Aldfrid on his death-bed had promised that, if his life were spared, he would restore Wilfrid. Berchtfrid told of a similar vow, urging moreover his present master’s wish to the same eflfect, and at last a compromise was arrived at. Wilfrid had the monasteries of Ripon and Hexham restored to him, and was apparently satisfied : for now the old spirit was broken by trouble and infirmity, and he was no longer the man he had been. He was only too thankful that they could all part, as they did, with the kiss of peace, and walk in the house of God as friends. As Eddi beautifully writes : “Ilia die omnes episcopi se invicem osculantes et amplexantes, panemque frangentes, communicaverunt, et gratias agentes Deo omnis hujus beatitudinis, in pace Christi ad sua loca remearunt.” But Wilfrid was not to know much more happiness here on earth. He brooded over the troubled and divided state of the Church, and the desolate condition of the monasteries he had founded. He felt almost certified how long he had to live, that his work was well-nigh done, and it was with feelings of resignation rather than of triumph that he received his own again at Hexham and Ripon. He was once more attacked by the sickness which had overtaken him at Meaux — probably low fever, brought on by over-exertion and want of rest telling on an enfeebled frame. But at the earnest prayers of the brethren, this was again removed. At Ripon he disposed of his worldly goods, which he divided into four portions — one for Rome, one for the poor, one for Ripon and Hexham, and one for his friends : Tatbercht, his kinsman, he made president of the monastery at Ripon. Then he thought he felt well enough to go and die at Rome, taking Mercia on his way, whither he had been invited by Coenred, the king, to inspect the monasteries. Looking forward to ending his days at Rome, he could thank God and take courage. Instinct told him, perhaps, that it was hardly well for him to end his career in the midst of a Church which he had filled with bitterness and discord by his pride and partizanship. He must die with his face set towards Rome, to which he had turned through life.
Having passed through Yorkshire, he reached the Humber, and crossed that ” broad sea stream ;” then, landing at Winteringham, he passed along the Roman road by Lincoln and Stamford to the monastery he had dedicated to S. Andrew at Oundle. There the old sickness again overtook him, and he felt that the time spoken of by S. Michael was now at hand. Having given his blessing to the weeping brethren, he calmly turned his head to the pillow, and, as he lay, listened to the voices in the adjacent choir. Just as they were singing “Emittes Spiritum Tuum, et creabuntur, et renovabis faciem terrae,” the man of strife quietly fell asleep, in the seventy-fifth year of his age and the forty-sixth of his pontificate, October 12, a.d. 709. His office says “that death by which he entered into the joy of his Lord was not death, but sleep, the gate of death was to him but the gate of life immortal. Nor did death conquer him ; rather was it swallowed up in victory — ‘ Abiit ergo, non obiit.’ Nor was his light quenched : it still lightens all that are of the household of God. Therefore was death to him but a short sleep, that he might pass into the inheritance of the sons of God, as it is written, ‘So He giveth His beloved sleep.’ “
Wonderful singing of unseen birds was heard as his spirit passed away, and there were some who thought it was the welcome of the angels. When they had washed the body over the sindon of an abbot, they clothed it in pontifical garments, laid it on a bier, and carried it to Ripon with psalms and canticles. Here, amid a great concourse of people, they buried it in the church which he had built, on the south side of the altar, with a long epitaph over him, which is preserved by Bede. The sindon, somewhat soiled by the feet of those who had washed the body, was sent to a certain abbess, who reverently cleansed it, and a nun who was paralytic begged that she might wash in the water, trusting in the Lord that she should receive health. No sooner had she dipped her hand into the water, and touched the sheet, than her fingers, which had been like dry sticks, recovered their suppleness and life. Robbers tried to fire the holy house at Oundle where he had died, but the fire forgot its own nature, say the chroniclers, and leaped back from the thatched roof. Nor would it burn any nearer to the house than a wooden cross which had been erected where they poured out the water at the washing of the body. The robbers were terrified by a vision of an angel in white holding a cross, and some were struck with blindness. At the anniversary of his death, a light was seen over Ripon minster, about the time of compline, in form like a rainbow, but all of pearly white, and like the rainbow accepted as a sign that God would not forsake His people. Miracles were supposed to have been wrought at his reputed tombs, but not nearly so many as were attributed to some later saints. There is the same uncertainty as to where his bones actually rest as there has been with respect to those of S. Cuthbert and S. Bede at Durham, and bodies of distinguished persons in other places. One set of chroniclers, at the head of whom stands Eadmer the monk of Canterbury, say that S. Wilfrid’s bones were translated thither. According to his account, this was done by Archbishop Odo, who visiting Ripon in the l0th century and finding the church desolated by the Danes, forsaken by men and defiled by beasts, opened the grave of S. Wilfrid, and taking away his bones, placed them within the high altar at Canterbury, considerately leaving the dust for Ripon. An anonymous chronicler of Jervaux, quoted by Leland (Coll. i. 216), gives Dunstan the credit of this translation. It is stated by Eadmer that Lanfranc afterwards enshrined the relics on the north side of the altar ; and some think they rest at Canterbury still. The North-country tradition is that the remains of Wilfrid the Second were removed by mistake, and that those of the saint remained in the grave on the south side of the altar until translated by Archbishop Oswald to the north side, and there enshrined. That they were placed in a richer shrine by Archbishop Gray in 1224, the head being kept separately in a case of gold. Be this as it may, the Ripon people firmly believed all through the Middle Ages that their saint’s bones were still in their midst, while the Canterbury folk maintained that Wilfrid’s bones were as surely there as were those of their own S. Thomas. The acts of archbishops Oswald and Walter Gray just mentioned formed subjects of lections for the feast of the Translation.
The known connection of the saint with the church of Ripon during life, and the belief that most of his bones were there, proved a source of fame and wealth in the Middle Ages. It was one of the four mother churches of the Northern Province, the others being York, Beverley, and Southwell. Special privileges of sanctuary, and the right of using the ordeal, were supposed to have been granted by Athelstane. ” S. Wilfrid’s burning iron ” and the ” Pokstane” are constantly mentioned in the fabric-rolls as sources of income, being used against murrain and other diseases of cattle on payment of a fee. The proceeds diminished greatly during the few years preceding the Reformation, as was the case with S. Cuthbert’s shrine at Durham, and doubtless with others. The Ripon roll of 1540 records the abolition of the burning iron, which was perhaps the identical instrument which had been previously used in the ordeal by fire, and which may have been supposed to retain supernatural efficacy of a different kind. S. Wilfrid’s banner, like that of S. Cuthbert and others, was carried to the wars. The chroniclers Richard and John of Hexham mention its being hung on the ” standard ” at the battle of Northallerton, a.d. 1158, with those of S. Peter and S. John of Beverley. Twysden (‘Decem Scriptores,’ p. 339) gives representations of the standard copied from a MS. in Corpus Christi College Library at Cambridge, but they do not show any characteristic devices. The ” arms ” attributed to S. Wilfrid in the Middle Ages were, Az. three estoils or.
Many churches were dedicated to him, but, strange to say, none in Sussex, where his labours have not been thus recognized until our own day. His name is written in letters of gold in the Durham Liber Vitce. Some writings have been ascribed to him, but on very doubtful authority. He was of too restless a disposition to sit down and write books, or to give himself to study after he had once become involved in the hurry and excitement of such a life as his was.
If we now briefly review the history of his career in reference to his character, tastes, and disposition, we may observe that from his very boyhood he showed a strange power of fascination over the hearts of men, making friends wherever he went. But when he had attained to manhood, his independence and force of character, his haughtiness and violence of temper, generally brought him into collision sooner or later with those whose friendship he had gained. He seems to have been easily turned for a time from any project he had in hand, if he saw an immediate opportunity of work for Rome, and though impetuous and undaunted by nature, he knew when to bide his time, and when he had gained a point was not always impatient to establish it. He lived in stormy times, and had to adapt himself to circumstances of which we can form no true conception. He was, no doubt, a courtier, ever managing to keep right, if possible, with kings and popes and other great people. The Church was often reminded of this on his festivals by the antiphon ‘Magnificavit eum in conspectu regum, et dedit illi coronam gloriae.’ Some have accused him of duplicity and of unworthy ambition, possibly unfairly. There are such things as moral statecraft and sectarian ambition. These as a rule seem to have characterized Wilfrid’s proceedings. He certainly had an active and at the same time orderly frame of mind, which could find satisfaction in nothing short of the discipline of Rome, which to the best informed minds of that day seemed, as it probably was, the nearest approach to earthly perfection. He was energetic and persevering in all that he undertook, and ” everything he took in hand was attuned to the lofty tone of a dignified and philosophical mind, far in advance of the age in which he lived.” Blame certainly attaches to him for having stood out so long against the division of his enormous see, caring only for his own interests, and utterly disregarding in the matter the welfare of religion in the vast diocese which he could not possibly govern single handed. His remarkable love of official pomp and splendour was combined, as has so often been the case, with the practice of the strictest personal austerities. While affecting an exaggerated austerity, he delighted in lavish and even royal pomp, dazzling the nobles whom he dehghted in browbeating. His tastes were unquestionably refined and enlarged by his visits to Rome and Lyons and elsewhere, and we have seen how he delighted to introduce into the rude North-country of his birth such glorious buildings, such sumptuous ornaments and books, such august and solemn ritual and music, and may we not add, such sweetly sounding bells, as he had become acquainted with in Southern Europe. As a young man, he is described by his friend Eddi as “courteous to everybody, physically active, a quick walker, ready for every good work, never of a sad countenance,” and of his earliest years we have already spoken on the same authority. Beautiful in childhood, comely in youth, doubtless he was noble-looking in manhood, and venerable in old age. In art, he is represented as a bishop or archbishop, sometimes holding a book, sometimes with a ruined tower in the distance, or with a ship, or with no distinguishing emblem at all. The tower may refer to his restorations of ruined minsters, the ship to his adventure on the Sussex coast (p. 308). In the Galilee at Durham was “the picture of Wilfridus, Bishop, in fyne couloured glasse, as he was accustomed to say masse, with his myter on his head and his crosier staffe in his lefte hand, under whose feet is [was] written ‘ Sanctus Wilfridus, prima Lindisfarnensis Monachus, post Abbas Ripensis, ultimo Archiepiscopus Eboracensis, uno anno rexit episcopatum Lindisfarnensem” (“Rites of Durham”). In York Minster, Methley Church, and doubtless in many other places, he appeared associated with SS. Gregory, Augustine, and Paulinus. The feast of his translation was observed in the northern province on the 24th of April, and that of his “deposition,” or burial, on the 12th of October, both of which days occur in the York Calendar. Within the parish of Ripon, the feast of his nativity was kept in addition to these, as a Double of the first-class, on the Sunday next after S. Peter ad Vincula, or Lammas Day, still known as Wilfrid Sunday. The eve of this day, once ushered in by the antiphon, ‘Laudes vespertinas, bone Jesu, suscipe, et boni festum celebrantes Wilfridi, ab omni noxa custodi,’ is at present marked by a rude pageant, in which low buffoonery is the most harmless feature. The name of S. Wilfrid occurs in the Hereford Calendar on the 12th of October, but not at all in Sarum or Aberdeen. In the modern Officia Propria for Roman Catholics in England and Ireland, the 12th of October, on which day he is mentioned in the Roman Martyrology, is provided for as a Double, with the old York Collect and three proper lections.’
Baring-Gould adds, ‘This biography is from the pen of the Rev. J. T. Fowler, Vice-Principal of Bishop Hatfield’s Hall, Durham. I have not, however, scrupled to make some alterations, as I could not assent to the favourable view he maintains of the character of the Saint.’
a more palatably sized Life from celt-saints
a nice article about SS Wilfrid and William of York and their heraldry in York Minster, from St Wilfrid’s RC church in Bognor Regis.
from St Wilfrid’s in York
Holy St Wilfrid, pray to God for us.