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St. Wilfred, Bishop of York & Selsey -  Nash Ford PublishingSt. Wilfred the Elder,
Bishop of York

(AD 634-709): Part 1

It was in the year AD 634, that is "the hateful year" after the death of King Edwin of Northumbria and the flight of St. Paulinus, that St. Wilfred was born. He was but a child when he lost his mother and, when only a boy of thirteen, he parted from his father to enter the monastery at Lindisfarne, under the patronage of Queen Enflaed of Northumbria. There, he made rapid progress in his studies, but there was evidently something that failed to satisfy him in the discipline of the Celtic monks and he was fired with the desire of visiting Rome, thinking that there, and there alone, could he learn a more regular mode of life.

The Queen, daughter of the great Edwin & wife of King Oswiu, encouraged Wilfred in his purpose and in AD 653, upon her advice, he made his way to the court of Canterbury. Here, he was well received and forwarded on his way by the lady's kinsman, Erconbert, and, thence in company with another high-born Northumbrian youth, he passed on, crossed the Channel and journeyed on through France till he came to Lyons. The Archbishop of that see took an instant liking to him, being charmed with his beautiful countenance, his prudence in speech, his quickness in action, his steadiness and maturity of thought. He offered to adopt him as his son, to give him his niece in marriage and, it is said, to make him governor of an entire province. It was a great temptation to a youth of nineteen, but Wilfred had the courage to resist it. "I have made a vow," he said, "I have left, like Abraham, my kindred and my father's house in order to visit the Apostolic See, and there to study the rules of ecclesiastical discipline, that my nation may profit thereby. If, however, God gives me life, I will return this way and see you again." And so he journeyed onward and reached the eternal city, almost the first of a long line of pilgrims from the shores of England to the Mother city of the West.

It is not difficult to picture the delight and enthusiasm with which he would visit the various sanctuaries that must have had so deep an interest for him, as they have to this day for all Christians. However, Wilfred had come there to learn rather than to see, and accordingly made good use of his time, and gained all the instruction he could in the rules of ecclesiastical discipline and the true calculation of Easter from the Archdeacon Boniface. Having knelt to receive the blessing of the Pope he took his journey homeward, stopping, according to promise, at Lyons, where he narrowly escaped martyrdom. For the Archbishop was seized by his persecutors and dragged to execution, entreating Wilfred to save himself by flight. Wilfred, however, refused to leave one to whom he owed so much. "What is better," he cried, "than for father and son to die together and be with Christ?" He too was seized and, after the murder of the Archbishop, was stripped for execution, when it suddenly occurred to one of the judges to raise the question, "Who is yon fair youth preparing for death?" "An Englishman from beyond the sea," was the answer. No charge had been raised against him and therefore the judge could not but order his release. "Touch him not, but let him go." And thus unexpectedly set free, Wilfred lost no time, in escaping from the country and returning to his own land.

In England, his advance was rapid. There must have been something singularly bright and arresting about him, as in his early years we find him winning the hearts of all with whom he came in contact. When still a boy he had completely captivated Queen Enflaed. In the same way, the Archbishop of Lyons was won by him; and now the young Alcfrith, King of Deira under the overlordship of his father, Oswiu. The two struck up a firm friendship which so increased in fervour that Wilfred's biographer could only compare it to that between David and Jonathan. Lands and honours were showered upon the young churchman and he was soon granted the monastery of Ripon, which the monks of Melrose found themselves obliged to vacate. Thus began his connection with the place with which his name is inseparably associated, a place which he loved better than any other and within which, at length, he found a grave.

For three years, Wilfred ruled the monastery, happily and wisely, as abbot. His charities endeared him to the poor, whose needs at all times moved his generous heart. He won the respect and affection of all classes and men spoke of the Abbot of Ripon as humble and tranquil, occupied in devotion and in almsgiving, benignant, sober, modest and merciful. But there was one thing that disturbed the quiet of his time there.

It seemed to Wilfred that in the customs he had learned at Rome and the calculation of Easter he had received there, he had found a more excellent way than that known to those about him, the members of the Celtic Church to whom he owed his first lessons in the rudiments of Christianity. There were others who agreed with him on these subjects, notably the Queen Enflaed and James the Deacon, the sole survivor of the mission of Paulinus. Also Agilbert, the exiled Bishop of Wessex, who had travelled north to visit King Alchfrith and from whose hands Wilfred himself received the priesthood. However, the majority of the churchmen of the North had received their traditions from Lindisfarne and Iona and knew nothing of nor cared anything for Rome and Canterbury. The question between the two parties nearly rent the Church asunder, so keen was the struggle and the interest it excited. Of course it was highly unseemly that Easter should be kept twice in every year at the Royal court, the king and his party keeping high festival, while the queen and her chaplains were still undergoing the discipline of the Lenten fast.

Wilfred was somewhat hasty and overbearing in his actions towards this controversy. He had a real mountain to climb with converting the ways of his countrymen, but he rushed in, exhibiting the two faults of imperiousness and egotism. It seemed as if his stay in Rome had infected him with the Roman love of domination; and with all his high qualities and many virtues was blended a self-complacent consciousness, not only of abilities and force of character, but of exertions and sacrifices for religion and the Church.

To settle the questions at issue, in AD 664, King Oswiu summoned a great council to meet in the hall of St. Hilda's Abbey at Whitby. To this, now famous, 'Synod of Whitby' came Colman, St. Aidan's successor in the see of Lindisfarne; Cedd, the holy Bishop of the East Saxons; James the Deacon, grown old in the service of God; and many others. The discussion which followed was lengthy. Bishop Colman showed the indomitable pride and tenacity of the Celtic race, and Wilfred the eloquence, vehement and persuasive, which distinguished him. The arguments on either side would now be considered poor enough and the controversy ended with St. Columba being put forward, on the one hand, and St. Peter, on the other, as the authority for the two lines of action. When Wilfred quoted the text, "Thou art Peter and upon this rock I will build my Church.....and I will give thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven". Oswiu turned to Colman and asked whether it was true that our Lord had said that to St. Peter. Colman could not but confirm this. So the monarch went on,
"Can you show that any authority was given to Columba?" This of course he
could not do. "Then you both agree," resumed Oswiu," that it was St. Peter who received the keys from our Lord." Both disputants assented. "If it be so," said the King, "I cannot gainsay the power of him who keeps the keys, lest, haply, coming to heaven's gate, St. Peter should deny me the help of his office and refuse to let me into bliss." And so the King, with the assent of all present, agreed that the changes advocated by Wilfred should be adopted.

Upon this decision, Bishop Colman, "perceiving," as Bede says, "that his doctrine was rejected and his sect despised, took with him such as were willing to follow him, and would not comply with the Catholic Easter and the tonsure of the crown (for there was much controversy about that also), and went back into Scotland." The see, thus vacated, was filled by the appointment of a good man, named Tuda, who, however, governed the Church but a very short time, as apparently in the autumn of this same year, he was carried off by a pestilence that raged throughout the country. Thus the bishopric of the Northumbrians was once more left vacant.

This time the "Roman" party succeeded in gaining the appointment for their champion and Wilfred was nominated by the King to the bishopric. However, the first Northern bishop, Paulinus, had fixed his episcopal chair not at Lindisfarne, to which the later Scottish mission under Aidan had transferred it, but at York; and it was to this city that Wilfred immediately removed his new see. His conduct further appears in a peculiarly ungracious light, for, not content with merely breaking with this old Scottish tradition, Wilfred offered what seems to be a deliberate insult to all the English bishops. He refused consecration at their hands and sought it instead from French bishops beyond the sea, travelling to Compiegne for enthronement by the Archbishop of Paris. No objection seems to have been raised at the time but, when it was found that he lingered in France and left his see for some time uncared for, the Ionian party, headed by Alchfrith, persuaded King Oswiu to fill his place by the appointment of St. Chad, the Abbot of Lastingham. Chad still recognised the Scottish teaching, but he was, rather dubiously, consecrated by Bishop Wine of Winchester and two unrecognised Welsh prelates. 

At length, Wilfred returned to England (AD 666) but was, unfortunately, shipwrecked in Sussex by a fearsome storm. The Saxon pirates thereabouts had become merciless wreckers and considered everything cast by the winds and the sea on their coasts their undoubted property, the crew and passengers of vessels driven on shore their lawful slaves. They therefore attacked the stranded ship with the utmost ferocity. Wilfred's crew made a gallant resistance. It was a strange scene. On one side, the Christian prelate and his clergy were kneeling aloof in prayer; on the other, a pagan priest was encouraging the attack, by what both parties supposed were powerful enchantments. A fortunate stone from a sling struck the pagan priest on the forehead and put an end to his life and his magic. But his fall only exasperated the barbarians. Thrice, they renewed the attack and thrice were beaten off. Wilfred's prayers became more urgent, more needed and, fortunately, more successful. The tide came in, the wind shifted, the vessel got to sea and eventually reached Sandwich.

When he finally reached Northumbria, he, of course, found a bishop already installed in his see at York. Whatever his feelings were, he seems to have submitted quietly and to have retired to his monastery at Ripon, which he governed as wisely and carefully as before; only leaving it occasionally, notably on a mission through Mercia, but also when called upon to exercise episcopal functions in other parts of England: wherever a diocese happened to be left vacant by the death of its bishop. 

And so time rolled on, until the arrival, in Canterbury, of Archbishop Theodore in AD 669. Finding fault with Bishop Chad's election and consecration, he persuaded the latter to voluntarily resign his bishopric in favour of Wilfred. Chad retired to Lastingham, his former monastery, and was shortly afterwards appointed by Theodore to the vacant See of Mercia. Wilfred, meanwhile, gained possession of his long awaited see and set to work in good earnest in it's administration.

At York, Wilfred shuddered to see the neglected state of his cathedral. "The foundations had settled and so the walls had cracked. The rain oozed through the yawning roof, the windows were unglazed and birds' nests hung in an unsightly way about the bare mullions, while the pillars ran down with green slime, or were covered with dripping moss." To repair all this ruin was the first care; and then Wilfred returned to his dearly loved monastery at Ripon, where he reared from the foundations an entirely new church of wrought stone that was the wonder of all Yorkshire, built as it was by workmen from Italy "after the Roman manner." The church, including the tiny crypt still to be seen today, was finished in AD 672 and a bright day it must have been for Wilfred when it was consecrated. "Oswiu was no more. He had died in the preceding year, after a complete reconciliation with Wilfred, but his son and successor, Egfrith, was present, together with his Royal brother, Aelfwin, and all the princes and nobles of Northumbria and the principal officers of Church and State. In the presence of this great concourse, Wilfred dedicated the church and the altar, vesting it with precious coverings of purple and gold. Then, after the celebration of the Eucharist, the consecrator turned to the worshippers and, like the mighty eastern potentate, rehearsed to them the great things which had been done for God. All the gifts which princes and holy men had made on that day to the Church did he recite and then he enumerated, as far as possible, the possessions of the early British Church which had passed into secular hands when the Saxons came in: as if to remind the nation how greatly it was in debt to the Church. The magnificent ceremony over, Wilfred feasted the two monarchs, their attendants and the whole concourse of people with noble hospitality, the banquet lasting three whole days."

Around the same time, Wilfred became a good friend of Egfrith's queen, St. Etheldreda of Ely. She had formed "a resolution the reverse of wife-like" and determined to retire into a nunnery. Wilfred, instead of dissuading her from thus forsaking the plain duties to which God had called her, encouraged her in her resolution and himself placed the monastic veil upon her head. He was, thus, not the most popular person at court when she eventually fled her husband to become a nun at Coldingham Priory. Two years later, however, Wilfred was rewarded for his support when the lady gave him a large estate on which to found the abbey of St. Andrew in Hexham. Thus from Yorkshire, Wilfred's band of Italian workmen moved on to Northumberland, where a still more stately church was built upon his orders. "And at this day, the visitor who looks round the exquisite Minster of Hexham will find nothing worthier of his attention than the small crypt of Roman masonry, with two Roman inscriptions built up in its walls, on the western side of the transept; descending into it, he enters the only remaining part of Wilfred's church, the building deep underground formed of admirably carved stone; of which an early writer tells us, adding that, so far as he knew, the church had no equal on this side of the Alps."

Yet if Wilfred was great as a church-builder, he was no less great as chief pastor of his diocese. His care for building up the spiritual temple was even more earnest than that for the material fabric. We read of him as indefatigable in his journeys over the country to baptize and to confirm, as holding ordinations, forming new parishes and preaching incessantly, even in the smallest hamlets. Honoured and trusted by all the great men of the realm from the king downwards, loved and followed enthusiastically by the common people, it was the most active period of his life and forms a strange contrast to the years of incessant struggles and wanderings which were soon to fall to his lot.

Click for: Part 2


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