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St. Wilfrid of Ripon, Part 3.

Wilfrid had an eventful life, and there was just too much to put into one post. I started with two, but have ended up with three. Click the links to find Part 1 and Part 2.


At the end of the last post, it was AD 678 and Wilfrid had just come back from Rome, with a papal decree that he should be given back his post as Bishop of York. But King Ecgfrith was singularly unmoved by this decree. Instead of acquiesing,  Ecgfrith threw Wilfrid into prison for a time, and then exiled him. Perhaps Wilfrid should have thought twice back in AD 670, when he allowed Ecgfrith’s virgin Queen, Æthelthryth, to become a nun instead of urging her to fulfill her marital duties

Wilfrid ended up taking refuge with Æthelwealh, a Christian king of the South Saxons (Sussex, which at the time was a pagan kingdom). He spent his time preaching, with some great success, resulting in many converts. He founded Selsey Abbey on land given to him by Æthelwealh.  But it was all put in danger when Cædwalla of Wessex invaded and killed Æthelwealh. Cædwalla was not unknown to Wilfrid, he may have acted as his spiritual director prior to the invasion (and one wonders about that, doesn’t one! How much part did Wilfrid pay in encouraging this invasion?). At any rate, Wilfrid lands on his feet again. He ends up as one of the new king’s advisors and Cædwalla becomes a Christian. On another positive note, during this time Wilfrid was also reconciled to Theodore, the Archbishop of Canterbury, with whom he had previously clashed.

In AD 686, King Ecgfrith of Northumbria dies, clearing the way for Wilfrid to return.  Theodore consults with Aldfrith, the new Northumbrian king, Æthelred, King of Mercia, and Æfflæd, Abbess of Whitby to broker a way for Wilfrid to come back to Northumbria. Theodore’s efforts were successful, and Wilfrid returned to York as Bishop.

However, lasting peace was not to be for Wilfrid. He soon began to clash with Aldrith over matters secular and ecclesiastical, mainly regarding the distribution of lands held by Lindisfarne after the death of Cuthbert, Lindisfarne’s abbot. The Archbishop (and by extension, the King) was trying to curtail the size of territory that the Bishops controlled, Wilfrid was trying to expand it. In AD 691 Wilfrid found himself once again expelled from York and in exile in Mercia.

Wilfrid kept busy in Mercia with missionary efforts and the administration of church affairs, as he was made Bishop of Leicester and then Hexham. But his expulsion from York gnawed at him, and around AD 700 Wilfrid once again appealed to the Pope in Rome.

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The interior of Hexham Abbey today. Wilfrid would definitely approve, I’m sure! That “box” in the front is the entrance to the 7th century crypt. Image from greatenglishchurches.co.uk 

A council held in England in AD 702, presided over by the new Archbishop of Canterbury, Berthwald, upheld the expulsion. The decision was made that all of Wilfrid’s monasteries except Ripon should be taken away from him and that he should stop performing any episcopal function.

Not one to take that lying down, Wilfrid once again appealed to the Pope, and began a journey to Rome to plead his case in person. Before he got there, his opponents had he and his supporters excommunicated. 

But, at last, when Wilfrid finally got to Rome, he found some success once again with the Pope. Berthwald was ordered to reconvene another synod in which Wilfrid and the bishops of York and Hexham would attend. Wilfrid headed back to England, but on the way suffered a stroke, which seems to have affected his health for the rest of his life.

In AD 705 he reconciled with Berthwald, and King Aldfrith of Northumbria died shortly thereafter. The way was now forward for Wilfrid to have at least a partial victory. In AD 706 Hexham was restored to him, so that he regained control of his two most important monasteries.

Wilfrid lived for four more years, but suffered another stroke in the middle of that time and began to depose of his considerable possessions (which seemed rather extensive, seeing as he was a Benedictine abbot). He gave some to his most trusted and faithful followers, some to the poor, and the bulk of it to two basilicas in Rome. He also gave large sums to his two monastic foundations of Ripon and Hexham, and appointed his successors there.  In AD 709 (or perhaps 710) he died at the age of 75 at Oundle, where he had gone for a visit. He was buried by the altar of his church in Ripon.

In Hexham abby you will find a 7th century cathedra, or bishop’s seat. This possibly could have been used by Wilfrid himself! Image from greatenglishchurches.co.uk

Phew. As I said in the first part of this account, Wilfrid’s life was an important one in 7th century England. He was deeply involved in the important  political and ecclesiastical events of his day. I mentioned in the first post that there is speculation that Bede, who wrote one of the accounts of his life, did not particularly like Wilfrid. It seems from all accounts that Wilfrid was ambitious and overbearing at times, and certainly dogged in his pursuit of prominence for himself and his views. Of course we don’t know exactly what Bede thought, but it certainly is true that Bede writes with much more warmth and admiration for some of the Irish clergy such as Aidan than he ever does of Wilfrid. Which is odd, considering that Aidan followed the Irish Celtic Church practices that Bede found so distasteful, and Wilfrid was the Roman’s church greatest champion in England at the time. So one does wonder what Bede really thought of him.

He left a complicated legacy, that’s for sure. I will admit that my own views of him are mixed. You have to admire his pursuit of what he thought was right, as well as his efforts to build the church. But I can’t help but feel sadness for the demise of the Celtic practices in England, which Wilfrid so doggedly worked to erase. There is something so very appealing about their ways. Thinking about the Synod of Whitby makes me sad. Who knows what might have happened if things had gone the other way? The truth be told, however, even if the Irish had prevailed, it is likely it wouldn’t have been for long. The sheer force and power of the Roman Church would eventually have prevailed over the smaller Irish church.

At some point I’ll have a deeper look at the Synod of Whitby, what exactly happened there, and how that changed everything. But for now, we’ll say goodbye to Wilfrid, using the epitaph Bede records as being on his tomb in Ripon:

Here lies great Wilfrid’s bones. In loving zeal he built this church, and gave it Peter’s name, who bears the keys by gift of Christ the King; clothed in gold and purple, and set high in gleaming ore the trophy of the cross; golden Gospels four he made for it, lodged in a shrine of gold, as is their due. To the high Paschal feast its order just he gave, by doctrine true and catholic, as our forefathers held; drove error far, and showed his folk sound law and liturgy. Within these walls a swarm of monks he hived, and in their statues carefully laid down all the Fathers by their rule command. At home, abroad, long time in tempests tossed, thrice fifteen years he bare a bishop’s charge, passed to rest, and gained the joys of heaven. Grant, Lord, his flock may tread their shepherd’s path!


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