The historical sources on the life of St. Wilfrid (c. A.D. 634/709) are limited. They consist of Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of England (731) and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles. There is also a biography written by Eddius Stephanus; though historians are not sure who he was it seems likely that he had met Wilfrid. These primary texts can be supplemented by what is known about Wilfrid’s contemporary world from other sources; letters, charters, and genealogies. This account is based on a more detailed narrative, fully referenced, that will appear in the Society’s annual journal, Chichester History.
It is generally accepted that Wilfrid arrived in the kingdom of the South Saxons in 681 and converted its people to Christianity. Yes, he probably did, but rather than converting all it is more likely he gave a necessary impetus to the South Saxons’ adoption of Christianity. Their King, Æthelwealh, had been a Christian for at least six years. He had accepted the faith on the day he married, Eabe, the daughter of the king of the Hwicce (roughly Worcestershire) one of the sub-kingdoms of Mercia. At Æthelwealh’s baptism the Christian King of the Mercians, Wulfhere, who died in 675, was godfather and presented gifts of the Isle of Wight and the Meon Valley to the new convert. Maybe Æthelwealh was not particularly interested in the proselytization of his people. At the time there was also a small monastery of Irish priests at Bosham though focussed, apparently, more on the discipline of their faith rather than communicating its blessings to others.
Wilfrid and his companions gave energy and drive to Christian conversion with the support of Æthelwealh. The king presented Wilfrid with 87 hides, on the Selsey peninsula (a hide being an amount of land sufficient to support the needs of a family for one year) where Wilfrid founded a monastery, probably at Church Norton. There were already 250 men and women, recorded by Bede as ‘slaves’, working the land. These are probably peasants, or serfs, who had worked the land for generations without any formal ownership; continuous tenants whose lives had changed little as pre-Roman landlords were replaced by Roman and replaced again by Saxons.
Wilfrid’s visit to Æthelwealh, possibly to the royal household at Kingsham, (roughly where the South Downs Planetarium is now located) was not his first encounter with the South Saxons. Fifteen years earlier, in 666, returning across the channel from Gaul, Wilfrid’s ship sought refuge from a storm. The wind blew the vessel towards the shore of the South Saxons where the waves left it high and dry. The stranded ship attracted the attention of the local people who, led by their chief priest, approached with ill intent. Then in a passage that could be taken straight from the Old Testament, Wilfrid’s biographer describes how one of Wilfrid’s companions took a stone and hurled it from a sling to the effect that it pierced the forehead of the chief priest through to the brain. In the subsequent melee many local people were killed at a loss of only five of Wilfrid’s companions and as the sea returned, sooner than usual, Wilfrid and his companions were able to escape.
This is an embellished story whose import rests more on the evocation of the account in Mark’s Gospel of Jesus stilling the wind and the sea. A recognition of holiness that continues in Bede’s account of the conversion of the South Saxons where no rain had fallen for three years, there was terrible famine and the nets used only caught eels. There is no independent evidence to suggest that there was a drought in southern England in the latter part of the seventh century, nor is it likely that the nets used only caught eels. There may, however, have been extreme poverty causing famine but this the work of man not nature. It is interesting that only Bede gives this description of the state of the South Saxons and it is not mentioned in the biography by Eddius Stephanus. Bede, writing twenty years after the death of Wilfrid, may have used sources from the monastery at Selsey. We don’t know, but it is plausible that a narrative was being constructed that laid the foundation for Wilfrid’s eventual canonization.
Wilfrid had been born into a Northumbrian noble family in about 634. His mother died whilst he was a child and at the age of fourteen, described as “handsome, well-proportioned, gentle, modest, and controlled” he entered the monastery of Lindisfarne, under its founding abbot, Aidan, from Iona. He appears to have thrived as about age twenty he gained the support of the monastery to travel to Rome. In Rome he came under the influence of an archdeacon, Boniface, who made him “word-perfect in the four gospels” and taught him the rule for the designation of Easter Sunday.
Wilfrid returned home by 658 well versed in Christianity as interpreted by the Roman Church and also very familiar with its interpretation by the Celtic Church. It would appear Wilfrid was beginning to lean towards the former rather than the latter. This tension came to a head in 664, a year in which northern Europe, including the British Isles, was devastated by the yellow plague, now thought to be smallpox. Wilfrid was granted a monastery in Ripon by Alhfrith, eldest son of the King of Northumbria, Oswiu. A gift not without controversy as the monastery was home to a group of Celtic Christians, including a monk called Cuthbert, later St. Cuthbert. The tension between Celtic and Roman interpretations of Christianity focused on the date of Easter and the calculation of which day the moon was at its full following the vernal equinox. In the Northumbrian royal household, King Oswiu followed the Celtic tradition but his wife, Queen Eanflæd, the Roman. Hardly conducive to a good Easter lunch if one member was still committed to Lenten fasting. King Oswiu decided to resolve the matter and called a meeting of leaders of both traditions at Whitby Abbey in 664. At that meeting Wifrid spoke eloquently in support of the Roman tradition persuading Oswiu, who, it has been said, with a smile acknowledged the supremacy of St. Peter and Rome as, after all, St. Peter held the keys to heaven. Such was the impression made that Alhfrith offered Wilfrid the vacant bishopric of Northumberland and asked that its Cathedral be moved from Lindisfarne to York.
Wilfrid accepted and we gain an interesting glimpse into part of his character. So far as Wilfrid was concerned, there were no Bishops in Britain of the standing to pass on the tradition of St. Peter, the line of apostolic succession. He therefore travelled to Gaul, to Compiègne where he was consecrated by Agilbert, bishop of Paris, and “borne into the oratory aloft on a golden throne by the bishops alone.” It was on his return from Gaul that he encountered the storm that blew his ship onto the South Saxon shore. However, when he reached Northumbria, Wilfrid discovered that his patron, Alhfrith had lost power and influence, he may even have been killed, and another monk, Chad, had been installed as the Bishop of York by Alhfrith’s father, King Oswiu. Wilfrid returned to his monastery in Ripon. He does not appear to have been particularly aggrieved and set about establishing the discipline of St. Benedict as a guide to a monastic life and to build a new church is stone in Ripon. By 668 a new Archbishop of Canterbury was appointed, Theodore of Tarsus and Bishop Theodore reinstated Wilfrid to the see of York in 669.
Wilfrid continued to move in, and impress, the courtly circle of the kings of Northumberland including Ecgfrith, son of King Oswiu and his second wife Eanflæd. In particular Wilfrid gained the trust and patronage of Ecgfrith’s wife, Etheldreda who gave him extensive lands in Hexham where Wilfrid was able to establish a monastery and build a second great stone church, using stone from the former Roman settlement of Corbridge. However, there was a further, personal, element to Wilfrid’s relationship to Etheldreda that had serious implications for Wilfrid.
Etheldreda, daughter of the king of the East Angles, Anna, was born near Newmarket, she was a devout Christian who, in her teenage years, took a vow of perpetual chastity. When she was sixteen, her father gave her in marriage to King Tondbert of the neighbouring tribe of the Gyrwe. Tondbert appears to have respected Etheldreda’s vow though she became a widow within three years. In 660 she was again given in marriage, this time to Ecgfrith, son of Eanflæd and Oswiu. Ecgfrith was ten years younger than Etheldreda and again appears to have accepted her vows, that is, until the death of his father in 670 when the issue of succession began to dominate. Ecgfrith turned to his wife’s spiritual adviser, Bishop Wilfrid for support, and became angry as Wilfrid upheld Etheldreda’s chastity. It was this anger, amplified possibly by an awareness of the influence Wilfrid seemed also to have with the Mercians, enemies of the Northumbrians, that caused Ecgfrith to banish Wilfrid and that resulted in Wilfrid arriving in Selsey. As an aside, Etheldreda also left Northumbria to enter the religious life as a nun. She changed her name to Audrey and remained pure, other than a desire to wear the finest of fine lace. She became a saint, because of her incorruptible nature and on her Saint’s Day, 23rd June, peddlers would sell commemorative lace, but of poor quality, hence the word ‘tawdry’.
Wilfrid was assiduous in preaching, converting and strengthening Christianity amongst the South Saxons. During his ministry he encountered Cædwalla, an aetheling, (prince of the royal line), of the Gewisse, centred on Dorchester-on-Thames, and part of the kingdom of West Saxons, or Wessex. At the time Wessex had a number of competing sub-kings each attempting to establish his own over-lordship of the territory. It is unclear whether Cædwalla was a mercenary or acting under the orders of a more senior king, but in 685 he engaged and killed Æthelwealh, of the South Saxons, in battle thought to be just south-east of Stoughton.
In Chichester Cathedral there is a panel painting by Lambert Barnard probably executed in 1535/6 depicting King Cædwalla granting the See of Selsey to St. Wilfrid. As we have seen, that gift was originally that of King Æthelwealh, Barnard’s painting, complemented as it is by one showing Henry VIII’s affirmation of Bishop Sherburne, is probably more to do with acknowledging Henry’s supremacy over the Church in England.
Cædwalla eventually accepted the Christian religion and in 688 went on a pilgrimage to Rome where he was baptised on Easter Day 689. He had been ill for some time, possibly the result of wounds he had endured in his relentless military engagements, and died ten days after his baptism, still wearing the white clothes of the newly baptised.
The year 685 had seen several military engagements across the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms as well as incursions from the Scots and Picts. On 20th May 685 Ecgfrith led a Northumbrian army against the Picts and was killed at the Battle of Nechtansmere, (possibly Dunnichen, fifteen miles from Dundee). This enabled Wilfrid to return to Northumberland where he was restored to the monasteries of Ripon and Hexham and to the diocese of York. His influence in Mercia was also recognised and he became Bishop of Leicester. His extensive holdings, wealth and power brought him into conflict with the Archbishop of Canterbury, Berthwald and Wilfrid made another excursion to Rome to seek the protection of the Pope, John VIth. He gained that support but, on his return, suffered a stroke at Meaux (about 30 miles east of Paris). The Pope’s support did not carry the weight that Wilfrid had hoped as both Bishops and Kings challenged the claims that Wilfrid had made and, indirectly the authority of the Pope. Wilfrid died in Oundle, near Peterborough, in 709 and his body was brought back to Ripon for burial. He never returned to Selsey but left as a legacy, his cathedral at Church Norton.