One of the really interesting people in 7th century Anglo-Saxon England is Wilfrid (AD 633 – AD 709/10), abbot of the monastery of Ripon, and Bishop of Northumbria. Wilfrid has been on my list of people to write about from the very beginning of this blog, but I haven’t had the gumption to tackle him until now.
Wilfrid is a very complicated figure. He has a huge part to play in the story of Anglo-Saxon England, and there is quite a lot written about him. But his story is interwoven with the political and ecclesiastical landscape of Northumbria, and there are a lot of details to get straight. I was never sure if I could do his story justice in the limited space I have here. But I just couldn’t avoid him any longer! However, to avoid swamping you with too many details all at once, I have broken it down into two posts. Part II coming in the New Year, so watch this space!
One of the things that is rather unusual about Wilfrid is that both of the main sources of information about him were written by people who actually knew him. The first was a hagiography written by a monk named Stephen, who lived at the Ripon monastery founded by Wilfrid. He wrote his Vita Sancti Wilfrithi (Life of Saint Wilfrid) shortly after Wilfrid died. It was a promo piece, to bolster Wilfrid’s reputation as a saint and attract attention to the monastery he founded. This is typical of the usual hagiographies (biographies of saints), but most of those are written many years, sometimes even centuries, after the person had died.* The second account of Wilfrid’s life comes from Bede, who includes a lot of information about Wilfrid in his Ecclesiastical History of Britain. Bede, of course, was a contemporary of Wilfrid and knew him personally.
Bede’s account drew on Stephen’s, but it has a different tone than the first one, much less rah-rah Wilfrid. In fact, some scholars suggest that Bede disliked Wilfrid, and that his negative feelings about him come through in his account. I will come back to that speculation in the second part of this account of Wilfrid, once we have delved a little deeper into who Wilfrid was and his impact on the 7th century Northumbrian landscape, both political and ecclesiastical.
Wilfrid was the son of a Northumbrian nobleman, and as a youth went to the royal court at Bamburgh to be noticed and to make a mark for himself. Luckily he found a patron in Queen Eanflead, Oswy’s wife, and she sent him to be trained under Aidan in the religious life at Lindisfarne, and from there to the court of her kinsman, King Earconberht, in Kent.*
Somewhere in the 650s, when he was a young man, Wilfrid went to Rome. He went with Benedict Biscop, another of Eanflead’s charges, who also was studying at Lindisfarne.** This was the first recorded English pilgrimage to Rome, but it certainly wasn’t the last. After Wilfrid, many of the subsequent ecclesiastics and even Anglo-Saxon royalty would try make this journey at least once. To visit the places so intertwined with the Christian faith, the touchstone of the church, was highly desired, leaving great impressions on those who went there. And so it was for Wilfrid, but in his case even more so. The time in Rome left an indelible impression on Wilfrid, and set in motion a chain of events that led to the church in England taking a final decision on the conflicts that had arisen between the Irish monks and the church of Rome.
Biscop and Wilfrid parted ways in Lyon, then a part of Gaul. Wilfrid stayed behind, while his companion continued to Rome. Wilfrid stayed as the guest of the archbishop of Lyon, Annemund, and it seems that they developed quite a friendship. He eventually went on to Rome, where he stayed for a time, did some studying, and had an audience with the pope. He then went back to Lyon, staying there for a few years. Tragically, Annemund was beheaded by the King as part of a treacherous plot against him. Wilfrid offered to be killed alongside his bishop and friend, but the king refused and sent him back to England.
It is quite clear, from both Bede’s account as well as Stephen’s, that Wilfrid was an ambitious man. It seems as if the pomp and circumstance of Rome appealed to him. Seeing as his patron, Queen Eanflead, followed the Roman Christian practices as opposed to the Irish Church practices of Lindisfarne (and of Eanflead’s husband, King Oswy), it is perhaps not surprising that Wilfrid was predisposed to be open to the Roman methods for dating Easter, and the Roman tonsure. But the differences were deeper than that. The organization of the church of Rome was a much more hierarchal one, and more organized, than the Irish church had evolved to be during the years after Rome’s legions withdrew from Britain and contact from mother church was diminished.
Stephen tells us that Wilfrid was tonsured during his time away, which would normally mean that he became a monk. However the tonsure could also signify that he merely entered the clergy, but didn’t join the monks. Bede does not say that Wilfrid was ever a monk. So it is not certain if Wilfrid ever took this step. I could believe that the asceticism and humility required of the monks was not something that suited Wilfrid’s nature.
When Wilfrid returned to Northumbria, somewhere around AD 658, he joined the court of Ahlfrith, who was the son of King Oswy of Bernicia, and sub-king of Deira under the direction of his father. There was some resistance to Oswy’s overlordship in Deira, and Ahlfrith may have played on this to gain some independence of his own. Certainly, once Wilfrid arrived, he began to rebel against his father and to champion the Roman ways of the church over the Irish Celtic practices that his father preferred. One can only assume that Wilfrid had a great part in this, for by this time he was certainly convinced that the Celtic Church practices were bordering on the heretical, especially as it concerned the dating of Easter. He was convinced that the English church needed to cast them aside and join in with the Roman ways.
Ahfrith had given land near Ripon, North Yorkshire to a group of Irish monks from Melrose Abbey. The monks, headed by their abbot, Eata, established a monastery there. But sometime before AD 664 Eata, along with Cuthbert (who would become a great saint in his own right) were bustled out of Ripon so that Ahlfrith could install his protege, Wilfrid, as abbot instead. Bede says, tactfully,
…when given the choice, they preferred to leave the place rather than change their practices.
I can just imagine that this one little sentence covered a lot of conflict!
This conflict was about to spill over into the wider church. In AD 663, Wilfrid was ordained as a priest. Soon after, in AD 664, Ahlfrith persuaded his father, Oswy, to host a synod of church leaders, where they would settle on the matter of the Roman vs Irish practices one way or another. The Synod was held at the double-monastery of Whitby, presided over by the Abbess Hild.
The English Church had come to a crossroads, and Wilfrid was poised to make his mark. The Frankish Bishop Agilbert had been appointed as the spokesperson for the Roman side but he deferred that task to Wilfrid, whom he had recently ordained as a priest. He explained to the King that Wilfrid was better suited to it, as Wilfrid spoke English fluently, whereas he, Agilbert, would have to work through a translator.
There is much to say about the Synod of Whitby, and it warrants a separate post. For now I will just say that Wilfrid’s arguments won the day, and King Oswy decided to abandon the Irish Church methods and to adopt the practices of the Roman Church, both personally and in Northumbria.
Wilfrid had won, but in doing so, he made enemies. The echoes of this conflict would haunt him for the rest of his life.
To be continued in Part 2, coming in the New Year!
*One of the side-trails in searching out information on Wilfrid is discovering his close association with many women in Anglo-Saxon England. For more info on this, see this fascinating blog post by Michelle Ziegler
**Interesting note – Stephen’s Life of Saint Wilfrid is one of the earliest hagiographies we have. Stephen’s Life was used by Bede as one of his sources when he wrote his Ecclesiastical History.
*** Biscop later became the founder of the Monkwearmouth-Jarrow Abbey, where Bede lived. Bede studied under Biscop and would have had lots of first-hand information about Wilfrid from him, as well. It is speculated that Biscop and Wilfrid parted in Lyon due to a conflict of some sort. It is odd that they didn’t go on to Rome together.
Featured image is an icon of St. Wilfrid, by Aidan Hart. I’m sure that Wilfrid would be pleased to be depicted with his Roman tonsure firmly in place!