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St. Wilfrid of Ripon, pt. 2

When we left Wilfrid at the end of the first post about him here on the blog, he had successfully argued in favour of the Roman Church practices in front of an important synod (meeting) of English church leaders. King Oswy had ruled in favour of the Roman ways, leaving the Irish Celtic Church without their most important champion.

It surely was a highlight of Wilfrid’s life. He had triumphed; the English Church would now follow the Roman ways and leave the Irish practices behind. And although this is how it eventually worked out, in practice the imposition of the Roman Church practices and structure upon England’s church would take many years, even decades, to be complete. It was a disaster for the Irish Church, and the ramifications would continue to ripple outward for a long time.

Flush with success, King Oswy’s son, Aldfrith, ruler of Deira, urged his father to appoint Wilfrid as Bishop of Northumbria. Oswy agreed, which was a bit odd. Alhfrith was a sub-king under his father Oswy’s overlordship. But having made the decision that the Northumbrian church had to follow the Roman ways, Oswy’s hands were tied, I think. Several of the most prominent Irish churchmen left Northumbria in protest of the Whitby decision and went back to Iona. There were few senior Irish candidates left, and someone had to fill the role. Plus, I spoke of simmering tensions between father and son in the last post, and this is just another example of Alhfrith trying to exert dominance over his father.

Wilfrid gladly accepted the post, of course, but decided that he would not be consecrated in England, because in his mind, the senior churchmen there, all who followed the Celtic Church customs, would not be suitable. He decided to go back to Gaul and be consecrated there, by a “proper” superior, one who had no taint of the Celtic practices. Plus, he got a grand ceremony, with all the pomp and circumstance he would have remembered from his time in Rome.

In the end, though, this may not have been his best idea. In his absence, the tensions between Ahlfrith and Oswy broke out into open revolt. Father and son clashed. There is no historical records of exactly what happened, but we do know that after this point Alhfrith disappears from the record, and Oswy appoints another son, Ecgfrith, as ruler of Deira, instead. It is likely that there was some kind of armed conflict where Alhfrith died.

In Wilfrid’s absence (he was gone for about two years), Oswy appoints another as Bishop of Northumbria: Cædda (also known as Chad). When Wilfrid returns, newly consecrated as Bishop, he finds the job already taken by Cædda and is forced to  retreat back to Ripon and contemplate his next move. He acts as  Bishop in Mercia and Kent and makes friends in all the right places, including that of Theodore, the newly appointed Archbishop of Canterbury. In AD 668 the Archbishop deposes Cædda and reinstates Wilfrid as Bishop of Northumbria. Round 1 to Oswy, Round 2 to Wilfrid.

For the next nine years, all was well in Wilfrid’s world. When he was first appointed Bishop of Northumbria, he moved the see (seat of power) to York, and now at last he had the chance to rebuild the cathedral that had orginally been built by Paulinus, during the first missionary journey of Roman priests to England back in AD 601. He built up many monasteries, notably the one in Ripon as well as the newly established one in Hexham, endowed on him by the Northumbrian Queen, Æthelthryth (wife of Ecgfrith, who was now King after Oswy’s death in AD 670).*

Wilfrid began to do his part to overhaul the Northumbrian church to reflect the Roman ways. He introduced relics from Rome into the churches along with some bling: beautiful gospel books, vestments, shrines and ornaments. He also established elaborate liturgical observances and Roman style church music. He claimed to have brought the Rule of St. Benedict to Northumbria, although this is uncertain. Wilfrid himself, according to his biographer Stephen, lived a fairly lavish lifestyle, including a large retinue of armed followers.


Part of the original 7th century crypt at Hexham Cathedral. Wilfrid used stones from nearby Roman ruins to build his cathedral, and some of the stones still have Roman inscriptions on them. It is said he stored some of the relics brought back from Rome in the crypt. Wilfrid himself stood and looked at these walls. Amazing! Image from Wikipedia.

Truth be told, he likely needed those armed men, as he had made some enemies. For one thing, his King, Ecgfrith, was none too happy with him because of the part the Bishop had played in encouraging and allowing his wife to become a nun (see note, below). Also, the Abbess Hild, who was in charge of the large double monastery at Whitby, had opposed Wilfrid in quest to subjugate the Celtic Church under Rome’s thumb, and continued to make life difficult for him, by seeking to take over the see of York.

As it happens, Wilfrid’s erstwhile benefactor, the Archbishop Theodore, was a close relation of Hild’s, which didn’t bode well for Wilfrid. Theodore perhaps was also uneasy with continuing to allow Wilfrid to have control over such a large of diocese as Northumbria. He wanted to subdivide it into smaller areas; possibly he recognized that it was not a good idea for his ambitious Bishop to have control over so large an area.  So, when Ecgfrith asked Theodore to dispose Wilfrid in AD 678, Theodore agreed and Wilfrid was driven from his position. Other bishops were appointed in Ripon, Hexham, and in York. These included Eata, who had been ejected by Wilfrid from Ripon all those many years ago. All of the new bishops, in fact, had either practiced the Celtic ways or were sympathetic to them.

Wilfrid appealed to the Pope in Rome, with limited results. The pope said Wilfrid should be restored and the other bishops expelled (poor Eata, out the door again!), but he was to choose new bishops whom Theodore would consecrate (and who would presumably be ones that Theodore would agree to). Wilfrid’s monasteries were to be directly controlled by the Holy See in Rome. This would prevent any other non-Roman bishops being appointed in those monasteries again.

It was only a partial victory, but even that was not to be. Ecgfrith was unmoved by the ruling from Rome. In fact, he imprisoned Wilfrid on his return from Rome and then forced the erstwhile Bishop into exile.

There’s still more to come in the life of Wilfrid! But I don’t want to overwhelm you. Part 3 will be coming up next month!


The Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of late 7th century England. Wilfrid was certainly well-travelled for his time. Besides his trips to Rome, he spent time in Northumbria, Mercia, and in the kingdom of the South Saxons. It’s possible he also spent visited some of the other kingdoms as well as part of the diplomatic work he did as Bishop. Image from Wikipedia.

*Æthelthryth is another one of the powerful women that were part of Wilfrid’s story.  Ecgfrith was her second husband. Her first was an ealdorman, Tondberht of South Gyrwas (Jarrow). She was wed to him for three years, and five years after he died, she wed Ecgfrith, who at the time was only fifteen. Apparently Æthelthryth remained a virgin throughout both her marriages. When Ecgfrith became king and gaining an heir became vastly more important, he insisted she consummate their union. In response she left the marriage with the blessing of Bishop Wilfrid and he allowed her to become a nun. She eventually founded a double monastery of her own at Ely. You can’t help but feel sorry for Ecgfrith in this scenario, no? No doubt the prestige of being married to a high-born and well-placed older woman soon wore off. Certainly Wilfrid’s part in this saga soured the King on his Bishop.


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