Wilfrid

Wilfrid
Bishop of York
Image of a full page medieval manuscript without any illustrations
Page from an 11th-century manuscript of the Vita Sancti Wilfrithi describing the foundation of Hexham Abbey
Appointed664
Term ended678
PredecessorChad
SuccessorBosa of York
Orders
Consecration664
Personal details
Bornc. 633
Northumbria
Died709 or 710
Oundle, Northamptonshire
Sainthood
Feast day12 October or 24 April
Venerated in
Attributes
  1. baptising
  2. preaching
  3. landing from a ship and received by the king; or
  4. engaged in theological disputation with his crozier near him and a lectern before him
Patronage
ShrinesRipon, Sompting (Sussex), and Frisia (Roeder).

Wilfrid[a] (c. 633 – 709 or 710) was an English bishop and saint. Born a Northumbrian noble, he entered religious life as a teenager and studied at Lindisfarne, at Canterbury, in Gaul, and at Rome; he returned to Northumbria in about 660, and became the abbot of a newly founded monastery at Ripon. In 664 Wilfrid acted as spokesman for the Roman position at the Synod of Whitby, and became famous for his speech advocating that the Roman method for calculating the date of Easter should be adopted. His success prompted the king's son, Alhfrith, to appoint him Bishop of Northumbria. Wilfrid chose to be consecrated in Gaul because of the lack of what he considered to be validly consecrated bishops in England at that time. During Wilfrid's absence Alhfrith seems to have led an unsuccessful revolt against his father, Oswiu, leaving a question mark over Wilfrid's appointment as bishop. Before Wilfrid's return Oswiu had appointed Ceadda in his place, resulting in Wilfrid's retirement to Ripon for a few years following his arrival back in Northumbria.

After becoming Archbishop of Canterbury in 668, Theodore of Tarsus resolved the situation by deposing Ceadda and restoring Wilfrid as the Bishop of Northumbria. For the next nine years Wilfrid discharged his episcopal duties, founded monasteries, built churches, and improved the liturgy. However his diocese was very large, and Theodore wished to reform the English Church, a process which included breaking up some of the larger dioceses into smaller ones. When Wilfrid quarrelled with Ecgfrith, the Northumbrian king, Theodore took the opportunity to implement his reforms despite Wilfrid's objections. After Ecgfrith expelled him from York, Wilfrid travelled to Rome to appeal to the papacy. Pope Agatho ruled in Wilfrid's favour, but Ecgfrith refused to honour the papal decree and instead imprisoned Wilfrid on his return to Northumbria before exiling him.

Wilfrid spent the next few years in Selsey, now in West Sussex, where he founded an episcopal see and converted the pagan inhabitants of the Kingdom of Sussex to Christianity. Theodore and Wilfrid settled their differences, and Theodore urged the new Northumbrian king, Aldfrith, to allow Wilfrid's return. Aldfrith agreed to do so, but in 691 he expelled Wilfrid again. Wilfrid went to Mercia, where he helped missionaries and acted as bishop for the Mercian king. Wilfrid appealed to the papacy about his expulsion in 700, and the pope ordered that an English council should be held to decide the issue. This council, held at Austerfield in South Yorkshire in 702, attempted to confiscate all of Wilfrid's possessions, and so Wilfrid travelled to Rome to appeal against the decision. His opponents in Northumbria excommunicated him, but the papacy upheld Wilfrid's side, and he regained possession of Ripon and Hexham, his Northumbrian monasteries. Wilfrid died in 709 or 710. After his death, he was venerated as a saint.

Historians then and now have been divided over Wilfrid. His followers commissioned Stephen of Ripon to write a Vita Sancti Wilfrithi (or Life of Saint Wilfrid) shortly after his death, and the medieval historian Bede also wrote extensively about him. Wilfrid lived ostentatiously, and travelled with a large retinue. He ruled a large number of monasteries, and claimed to be the first Englishman to introduce the Rule of Saint Benedict into English monasteries. Some modern historians see him mainly as a champion of Roman customs against the customs of the British and Irish churches, others as an advocate for monasticism.

Background

Map of the island of Great Britain. At the far north are the Picts, then below them Strathclyde and Northumbria. In the middle western section are Gwynedd, Powys, Dyfedd, and Gwent. Along the southern shore are Dumnonia, the West and South Saxons, and Kent, running from west to east. In the center of the island is Mercia. Along the eastern central coast are the East Angles and Lindsey.
Anglo-Saxon kingdoms in the late 7th century

During Wilfrid's lifetime Britain and Ireland consisted of a number of small kingdoms. Traditionally the English people were thought to have been divided into seven kingdoms, but modern historiography has shown that this is a simplification of a much more confused situation.[5] A late 7th-century source, the Tribal Hidage, lists the peoples south of the Humber river; among the largest groups of peoples are the West Saxons (later Wessex), the East Angles and Mercians (later the Kingdom of Mercia), and the Kingdom of Kent. Smaller groups who at that time had their own royalty but were later absorbed into larger kingdoms include the peoples of Magonsæte, Lindsey, Hwicce, the East Saxons, the South Saxons,[6] the Isle of Wight, and the Middle Angles.[7] Other even smaller groups had their own rulers, but their size means that they do not often appear in the histories.[6] There were also native Britons in the west, in modern-day Wales and Cornwall, who formed kingdoms including those of Dumnonia, Dyfed, and Gwynedd.[8]

Between the Humber and Forth the English had formed into two main kingdoms, Deira and Bernicia, often united as the Kingdom of Northumbria.[9] A number of Celtic kingdoms also existed in this region, including Craven, Elmet, Rheged, and Gododdin. A native British kingdom, later called the Kingdom of Strathclyde, survived as an independent power into the 10th century in the area which became modern-day Dunbartonshire and Clydesdale.[10] To the north-west of Strathclyde lay the Gaelic kingdom of Dál Riata, and to the north-east a small number of Pictish kingdoms.[11] Further north still lay the great Pictish kingdom of Fortriu, which after the Battle of Dun Nechtain in 685 came to be the strongest power in the northern half of Britain.[12][13][14] The Irish had always had contacts with the rest of the British Isles, and during the early 6th century they immigrated from the island of Ireland to form the kingdom of Dál Riata, although exactly how much conquest took place is a matter of dispute with historians. It also appears likely that the Irish settled in parts of Wales, and even after the period of Irish settlement, Irish missionaries were active in Britain.[15]

Christianity had only recently arrived in some of these kingdoms.[16] Some had been converted by the Gregorian mission, a group of Roman missionaries who arrived in Kent in 597 and who mainly influenced southern Britain. Others had been converted by the Hiberno-Scottish mission, chiefly Irish missionaries working in Northumbria and neighbouring kingdoms.[17] A few kingdoms, such as Dál Riata, became Christian but how they did so is unknown.[18] The native Picts, according to the medieval writer Bede, were converted in two stages, initially by native Britons under Ninian, and subsequently by Irish missionaries.[19]

Sources

The main sources for knowledge of Wilfrid are the medieval Vita Sancti Wilfrithi, written by Stephen of Ripon soon after Wilfrid's death, and the works of the medieval historian Bede, who knew Wilfrid during the bishop's lifetime.[20][21] Stephen's Vita is a hagiography, intended to show Wilfrid as a saintly man, and to buttress claims that he was a saint.[22][23] The Vita is selective in its coverage, and gives short shrift to Wilfrid's activities outside of Northumbria. Two-thirds of the work deals with Wilfrid's attempts to return to Northumbria, and is a defence and vindication of his Northumbrian career.[22] Stephen's work is flattering and highly favourable to Wilfrid, making its use as a source problematic;[24] despite its shortcomings however, the Vita is the main source of information on Wilfrid's life.[25][26] It views the events in Northumbria in the light of Wilfrid's reputation and from his point of view, and is highly partisan.[27] Another concern is that hagiographies were usually full of conventional material, often repeated from earlier saints' lives,[28] as was the case with Stephen's work.[29] It appears that the Vita Sancti Wilfrithi was not well known in the Middle Ages, as only two manuscripts of the work survive.[30]

Bede also covers Wilfrid's life in his Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum, but this account is more measured and restrained than the Vita.[24] In the Historia, Bede used Stephen's Vita as a source, reworking the information and adding new material when possible. Other, more minor, sources for Wilfrid's life include a mention of Wilfrid in one of Bede's letters.[31] A poetical Vita Sancti Wilfrithi by Frithegod written in the 10th century is essentially a rewrite of Stephen's Vita, produced in celebration of the movement of Wilfrid's relics to Canterbury.[20] Wilfrid is also mentioned in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle,[32] but as the Chronicle was probably a 9th-century compilation, the material on Wilfrid may ultimately have derived either from Stephen's Vita or from Bede.[33] Another, later, source is the Vita Sancti Wilfrithi written by Eadmer, a 12th-century Anglo-Norman writer and monk from Canterbury. This source is highly influenced by the contemporary concerns of its writer, but does attempt to provide some new material besides reworking Bede.[34]

Many historians, including the editor of Bede's works, Charles Plummer, have seen in Bede's writings a dislike of Wilfrid. The historian Walter Goffart goes further, suggesting that Bede wrote his Historia as a reaction to Stephen's Vita Sancti Wilfrithi, and that Stephen's work was written as part of a propaganda campaign to defend a "Wilfridian" party in Northumbrian politics.[35] Some historians, including James Fraser, find that a credible view,[27] but others such as Nick Higham are less convinced of Bede's hostility to Wilfrid.[35]