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St. Wilfred the Elder, Bishop of York
(AD 634-709): Part 2

The last thirty years of Wilfred's life were strangely chequered and darkened with shadows. Nevertheless, he rose above his misfortune, greater in adversity than in prosperity, chastened and softened by the repeated troubles and banishments and in the quaint words of an old church writer, "as it is observed of nightingales, that they sing the sweetest when farthest from their nests; so this Wilfred was most diligent in God's service, when at the greatest distance from his own home."

Wilfred's wealth and magnificence was beginning to appear greater than became a subject, and King Egfrith, still Unhappy at the bishop's interference in his marriage was glad of any opportunity of humbling the latter's pride. In AD 678, he thus persuaded Archbishop Theodore of Canterbury that Wilfred's northern diocese was too large for the supervision of one man. The Archbishop therefore called an assembly in which, during Wilfred's absence, a division was effected and a large part of the diocese taken out of his control. Indignant at this high-handed treatment, Wilfred first complained to the King, but in vain. Upon which he took a step, unprecedented at the time, but one that was to become fatally common in after ages, and appealed to the Pope. His resolution was no sooner taken than he set out on his travels.

Wilfred's journey, however, led him through Friesland (the Netherlands), a country that had not yet received the faith of Christ. The opportunity for missionary work was not to be lost and Wilfred at once began to preach to the country folk with no little success. He won converts among the chieftains and gained influence over the King himself who rejected, with horror, a bribe offered for the saint's head by the ruler of a neighbouring country, who was one of Wilfred's enemies. The letter in which the proposal was made was read out to the King as he sat at a feast, in the presence of Wilfred and his companions. He listened quietly to the end and then, taking the scroll, he tore it to pieces and flung it into the fire that blazed before him, exclaiming to the messengers who had brought it, "Tell your lord what I now say; so may the Maker of all things tear in pieces and utterly consume the life and kingdom of one who is forsworn to his God, and keeps not the covenant into which he has entered!" Being thus freed from this peril, and having spent the winter happily with his new converts, he set out again on his way to Rome, where his cause was tried before Pope Agatho and many bishops, and he was, by their unanimous sentence, fully acquitted of that which had been laid to his charge, and declared worthy of his bishopric. However, it was one thing to be acquitted by the Pope and Council and quite another to regain his see, as Wilfred was soon to discover.

In AD 680, he hastened back to Northumbria, armed with the Papal bull of acquittal, But, to his great astonishment he found that Englishmen had too much regard for their national independence to receive it quietly. It was rudely put, aside, and Wilfred, instead of being restored to his episcopal throne, was flung into prison. Here he remained for some months and, even when, at the intercession of some of his friends, he regained his liberty, he was not allowed to remain in the Northumbrian Kingdom. Southward he wandered, and at last settled in Sussex, the only kingdom in England into which Christianity had not yet penetrated.

The men of Sussex and the adjoining Meonware (of south-east Hampshire), Bede tells us, were ignorant of the name and faith of God. There was a small Irish community of Christians living at Bosham, under Abbot Dicul, but their attempts at converting the natives have been quite unsuccessful. Wilfred, however, was more than up to the job. He saw a fair field of labour once more opened to him and nobly he occupied it.

Just before his arrival there a terrible famine had wasted the country. So sore was the distress that often "forty or fifty, being spent with want, would go together to some cliff, or to the seashore, and there, hand-in-hand, miserably perish by the fall or be swallowed by the waves." The sea and the rivers abounded with fish, but the poor country folk were too simple to take them and could only fish for eels. Wilfred set himself at once to supply their temporal needs and borrowed a quantity of eel-nets, which his followers cast into the sea and "by the blessing of God immediately took three hundred fishes of different kinds, which they divided into three parts, giving a hundred to the poor, a hundred to those who had lent them the nets and keeping a hundred for their own use. By this act of kindness the Bishop gained the affections of them all and they began more readily, at his preaching, to hope for heavenly goods; seeing that, by his help, they had received those which are temporal." And so, Wilfred led the people of Sussex from lower to higher things, from the wants of the body to the needs of the soul. In AD 681, King Aethelwalh of Sussex gave him a parcel of land at Selsey, upon which to found a cathedral, and for another four years, lovingly and patiently, Wilfred laboured amongst them. He only ended his work in Sussex to turn to a fresh sphere of labour. For, after becoming the spiritual teacher of King Caedwalla of Wessex, he travelled to the Isle of Wight, an area which he became the first to evangelize.

Wilfred's devotion was not to go unrewarded, even in this World. By AD 686, Archbishop Theodore, was growing old and feeble. He had been touched by Wilfred's efforts and longed to be reconciled to the man whom he had formerly treated in so cavalier a manner. The two good men met in London and Theodore expressed his regret for Wilfred's sufferings and his desire to promote his restoration to his see; a desire which he was happily able to carry out due to the death of St. Eata, Bishop of Hexham. Wilfred was once more enabled to return, as a bishop, to his dearly-beloved Northumbria. The following year, he was even restored to the see of York, after the removal of Bishop Bosa, though the diocese over which he presided was of smaller extent than that which he had formerly ruled. The monks of his own monasteries at Ripon and elsewhere had been true to his cause, throughout his long exile, and never wavered in their allegiance. Great, therefore, was the rejoicing over his restoration, particularly when he replaced Edhaed of Ripon as Abbot of Ripon. They went out in crowds to meet him and led him back in triumph to the churches in which they had prayed, day by day, for his return. Not long afterward, Bishop Cuthbert of Lindisfarne resigned his office and retired to his hermitage on Inner Farne. Wilfred thus became acting Bishop of Lindisfarne too. Egfrith, the king who had been so bitter against him before, was now dead and with his successor, Aldfrith, Wilfred lived on good terms for some years. "Peace and quietness abounded between the two, with the enjoyment of nearly every form of good."

By degrees, however, fresh troubles arose and, after five years, those who had caused the former enmity succeeded in re-kindling the torch of dissension. It is hard to make out who was in the right and who was in the wrong in the dispute that now began. Probably, there were faults on both sides. The bishop may have been wanting in tolerance and gentleness, but the King seems certainly to have been unjust. Amongst other things, Wilfred appears to have attempted to make himself Bishop of all Northumbria as before. In return, King Aldfrith established a plan to take Ripon from the Bishop and establish a lesser diocese there. This was, of course, the minster of Wilfred's own creation, the minster that he loved more passionately than any other spot on earth. Thus, he steadily resisted. A situation which resulted once more in his banishment or, at least, a strong compulsion to leave the country.

This time, AD 691, he found a resting place nearer home than formerly and was warmly received by the King Aethelred I of Mercia, in whose kingdom episcopal work was soon found for him. In those days, Leicester had a bishop of its own. The see, at that time, happened to be vacant and Wilfred was, at once, asked to occupy it. Accordingly, Wilfred lived, for eleven years, in obscurity, labouring earnestly among the Mercians, though scarcely any details of this part of his life have come down to us. It was a sad time for England and the perpetual disputes between the kings and bishops must have done much harm to the Church; but at length, King Aldfrith determined to put an end to them and, with the design of restoring peace and promoting some satisfactory settlements, he summoned a council to meet at a place that is probably to be identified as Austerfield.

Here, Wilfred appeared among the other bishops, having been assured that his case should meet with due consideration. However, there was a long and stormy debate and, after overpowering Wilfred with accusations and recriminations, the synod determined to confirm all the regulations of Archbishop Theodore, including those against which Wilfred had made appeal to Rome. To this Wilfred demurred, for he considered these last statutes annulled by the decrees of Rome and Theodore's subsequent action. His enemies tried to extort from him a written declaration of absolute submission to the Archbishop; but warned beforehand by a friend that his signature would be misused and made the handle for depriving him of everything he possessed, Wilfred persistently refused. His enemies could extort nothing from him beyond a promise to obey his Archbishop in everything which was not contrary to the statutes of the Fathers, the Canons or the Council of Pope Agatho. General confusion ensued, amid which the King proposed that all Wilfred's preferments and property should be confiscated; but the members of the council thought this too severe and proposed to leave him the monastery at Ripon, on condition that he never left it without the Royal permission, and that he gave up the exercise of his episcopal functions. This was a harsh measure indeed and no wonder that Wilfred met the proposal with a burst of indignation. "By what right," he exclaimed, "do you dare to abuse my weakness and force me to turn the murderer's sword against myself, and sign my own condemnation? How shall I, accused of no fault, make myself a scandal in the sight of all who know that, during nearly forty years, I have borne, however unworthily, the name of Bishop?" Then followed a rapid recital of all the great things he had been privileged to do for the Northumbrian Church. Had he not been the first to root out the evil customs and win over the whole land to the true celebration of Easter? Was it not he who taught them the sweet harmonies of the primitive Church in the responses and chants of the two alternate choirs? And now, after all this, was he called to condemn himself with his own hand, and this with no crime resting on his conscience? "I appeal," he cried, "I appeal to the Holy See. Let those who desire my deposition go there with me to receive the decision. The sages of Rome shall learn the reasons for which you would have me degraded, ere I bend to your will alone." His appeal was met with indignant outcries and there were even voices raised in favour of a proposal that he should be flung into prison; but he was suffered to depart quietly.
"Let him go," was the cry of the majority, "without hindrance; and let us too go quietly to our own homes." In Northumbria, however, he and his partisans were treated as excommunicate and grievous was the persecution which his faithful monks, who clung to him through all reverses, had to undergo. He himself was safe in Mercia, whose King was resolute in the determination to add no new trouble to the great wrongs that he had already received; and at his court the indomitable old man, who now numbered more than three-score years, rested awhile, before bravely setting out for Rome.

Twice before, Wilfred had visited the Eternal City: once in the freshness and ardour of youth; a second time in the vigour of his manhood, when he had made his appeal from the decision of Theodore; and now, for the third time, with the snows of old age thick upon his head, he bent his steps towards Rome and made his second appeal to the Pope. Upon his arrival, he presented, in due form, a memorial stating his grievances and begged that the decision of the former Council in his favour might be confirmed: "or," said he, "if that should seem too much, let the see of York be disposed of as you will, only at least let me have Ripon and Hexham." For four months, the investigation lasted. Eventually, the discovery was made (it would seem accidentally) that a certain Bishop Wilfred had been present at an important Council held there twenty-four years before. The Bishops gazed at each other in astonishment and asked who could that Bishop Wilfred have been? The answer came from some of the older men, whose memories reached back to that earlier Council, "that he was the same Bishop who had lately come to Rome to be tried by the Apostolic See, being accused, by his own people, and who," said they, "having long since been there upon a similar accusation, was proved by Pope Agatho to have been wrongfully expelled from his bishopric, and was so much honoured by him that he commanded him to sit, in the Council of the Bishops which he had assembled, as a man of an untainted faith and an upright mind." Upon hearing this, the whole assembly, with one voice, exclaimed that a man who had been forty years a bishop, a man who had shown such zeal in the cause of God, ought not to be condemned, but should rather be sent back with honour to his own land.

Once more, therefore, Wilfred returned to England with Papal letters in his favour and, once more, he was destined to find them useless, for Aldfrith, the Northumbrian king, flatly refused to allow him to take possession of his bishopric again. His exile, however, on this occasion, was of no long duration, as Aldfrith died in AD 704, shortly after Wilfred's return to England. The throne was seized by a noble named Edwulf and the bishop, quite naturally, moved to support the new monarch; but his overtures of friendship were rejected and he quickly fell in with the camp of the late King's young son, Osred, and Dux Bertfrith. The choice proved fortuitous, for the allies soon defeated Edwulf at the Battle of Bamburgh.

In AD 706, Archbishop Bertwald of Canterbury was, therefore, obliged, through the Pope's insistence, to call the Synod of the River Nidd. Here, a compromise was effected and peace restored to the distracted Church. Both parties gave up something of their demands and, the once fiery and imperious spirit of Wilfred, bent and chastened by age and troubles, was content with the prospect of quiet and peace in exchange for the hope of triumphant ascendancy. He was thus officially recognised as Bishop of Hexham and Abbot of Ripon. So, writes his biographer, the ecclesiastical hierachy returned to their own homes in the peace of Christ. Wilfred's life on earth, however, was now drawing to an end and he was soon to enter into a more lasting and unruffled peace.

For three quiet years, the bishop laboured among his own people and then the end came. For some time, his health had been failing and, in the autumn of AD 709, he was on a visit to the monasteries of his own foundation in the neighbouring Kingdom of Mercia, when his last illness seized him. He reached the minster of St. Andrew, at Oundle, and, there, quietly lay down to die. A few parting admonitions were given to those around and then he leaned his head back upon the pillow and went to his rest without a groan or murmur, just as the monks in the choir, hard by, were chanting the verse "Thou shalt send forth thy spirit and they shall be created, and thou shalt renew the face of the earth." And so, on 12th October AD 709, passed away the foremost man of the day and one of the grandest pillars of the Anglo-Saxon Church, after an episcopate of forty-five years, and a life in which cloud and sunshine had been strangely blended. "His life," says Fuller, "had been like an April day, often interchangeably fair and foul, and after many alterations, he set fair in full lustre at last."

Edited from ECS Gibson's "Northumbrian Saints" (1884) and elsewhere.

Back to: Part 1

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