St. Wulfhilda, Abbess of Barking

Continuing the series on monastic saints, compiled by Jason John Edwards, Obl.S.B.

[Taken from Celtic and Old English Saints.]

[The image is of the Curfew Tower that remains after the Dissolution.  It was constructed well after St. Wulfhilda’s day.  But I post it since it is an extant reminder of the importance of Barking Abbey in the Middle Ages. Br. John-Bede Pauley, O.S.B.]

[The following account of the life of St. Wulfhilda raises at least two problems.  The first has to do with the fact that Wulfhilda could be named abbess—and removed as abbess—not by the monastic community or by ecclesiastical procedures but by what we would now regard as politicians.  Though the Rule of St. Benedict says abbots and abbesses are to be elected by their communities, not appointed by outsiders, Barking abbey apparently did not become Benedictine until either the latter part of St. Wulfhilda’s life or after her death.  And in any case, monasteries in the Middle Ages were too wealthy and influential, alas, for secular rulers to stay away from direct control.  Barking Abbey was among the most influential of the abbeys in England.  Too, we have to bear in mind that the notion of “secular rulers” would have been a difficult one for many in the Middle Ages to grasp.  Therefore, challenging the right of rulers—thought to be divinely chosen—to regulate the affairs of religious houses would have been unusual.

The other problem has to do with the reference to King Edgar as a saint.  His conduct towards St. Wulfhilda was hardly saintly.  This site helps fill out the picture of this apparently exemplary ruler who was nonetheless not an exemplary Christian.  The closing comment suggests that King Edgar’s status as a “saint” should be taken with grains of salt: “King Edgar died on 8th July AD 975 and was buried in St. Dunstan’s abbey at Glastonbury (Somerset) where he was revered as a saint, presumably for his monastic reforms and the stability he brought to the country, rather than his sexual conquests!” Br. John-Bede Pauley, O.S.B.]

Died c. 980-1000; other feasts include that of her translation on September 2, c. 1030 (with the relics of Saints Hildelith and Ethelburga), as well as on March 7 and September 23 at Barking.

Saint Wulfhilda was raised in the abbey of Wilton. When she was a novice, King Saint Edgar sought her hand in marriage, but she had a vocation that was irrevocable. Her aunt, Abbess Wenfleda of Wherwell, invited the young novice to become her successor, but it was just a ploy to lure her from Wilton. When she arrived at Wherwell, she found the king waiting for her and her aunt willing to allow him to seduce her. Wulfhilda escaped through the drains despite the chaperones inside and the guards outside the convent. The king pursued her back to Wilton and caught her in the cloister, but she escaped his grasp and took refuge in the sanctuary among the altars and relics. Thereafter Edgar renounced his claim on her and took her cousin Saint Wilfrida as his mistress instead.

Wulfhilda went on to found and serve as the first abbess of the convent of Horton in Dorsetshire. Later she was appointed abbess of the convent of Barking, which had been restored by King Edgar and endowed with several churches in Wessex towns. During this period she was credited with several miracles, including the multiplication of drinks when King Edgar, Saint Ethelwold, and a naval officer from Sandwich visited the abbey.

After Edgar’s death, his widowed queen, Elfrida (Aelfthryth), conspired with some of Wulfhilda’s nuns, to drive her out of Barking. She retired to Horton for the next 20 years until she was recalled to Barking by King Ethelred. For the last seven years of her life, Wulfhilda served as abbess of both Horton and Barking. Goscelin wrote her vita within 60 years of her death.

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