Continuing the series on monastic saints, compiled by Jason John Edwards, Obl.S.B.
Saint Wilfrid of York, Bishop and Confessor
From Celtic & Old English Saints
Born in Ripon, Northumbria, 634; died at Oundle, in 709. Son of a thane, Saint Wilfrid joined the court of King Oswy of Northumbria when he was 13, and became a favourite of Queen Saint Eanfleda (f.d. November 24), who sent him to Lindisfarne for his education. There he become a monk during the Celtic regime. He studied in Canterbury under Saint Honorius (f.d. September 30) and became an adherent of Roman liturgical practices.
Then he left England for Rome in 653-654 in the company of Saint Benet Biscop (f,d, January 12). After a year at Lyons, where he refused an offer to marry Bishop Saint Annemund’s niece, he arrived in Rome, where he studied under Boniface, Pope Saint Martin’s secretary. Wilfrid’s studies here convinced him that his own Christian formation, rich in traditional learning and spirituality, was in some respects bereft of some important religious wealth.
He then spent three years at Lyons, where he received the tonsure, Roman instead of Celtic style, but escaped with his life when Annemund was murdered by Ebroin at Chalon-sur-Saone, because he was a foreigner.
He returned to England in about 660, he was appointed abbot of Ripon monastery where he introduced the Roman observance, and was asked by King Alcfrid of Deira to instruct his people in the Roman rite. When the monks at Ripon decided to return to their native Melrose rather than abandon their Celtic customs, Wilfrid was appointed abbot. He introduced the Roman usage and the rule of Saint Benedict (f.d. July 11) to the monastery, was ordained, and was a leader in replacing Celtic practices with Roman in northern England.
The Synod of Whitby was convened at Saint Hilda’s (f.d. November 17) monastery at Saint Streaneschalch (Whitby) to determine the practices of the Church in England. A primary question was the dating of Easter, which had troubled many humble Christians in Britain because the Celtic and Roman churches differed in how the date was determined. King Oswy opened the synod by saying that all who serve the one God ought to observe one rule of life.
Bishop Saint Colman of Lindisfarne (f.d. February 18) argued in favour of the Celtic way. He pointed out that they derived their method of calculating the date of Easter from Saint John the Beloved Apostle. Saint Wilfrid countered: “Far be it from me to charge Saint John with foolishness.” Then he added that the Roman method derived from Saint Peter.
When he concluded, King Oswy said, “I tell you, Peter is the guardian of the gates of heaven. Our Lord gave him the keys of the kingdom. I shall not contradict him. In everything I shall do my best to obey his commands. Otherwise, when I reach the gates of the kingdom of heaven, he who holds the keys may not agree to open up for me.”
When the Roman party triumphed at the council held in 664, largely through his efforts, Alcfrid named him bishop of York, but since Wilfrid regarded the northern bishops who had refused to accept the decrees of Whitby as schismatic, he went to Compiegne, France, to be ordained.
Delayed until 666 in his return, he found that Saint Chad (f.d. March 2) had been appointed bishop of York by King Oswy of Northumbria; rather than contest the election of Chad, Wilfrid returned to Ripon. But in 669 the new archbishop of Canterbury, Saint Theodore (f.d. September 19), ruled Chad’s election irregular, removed him, and restored Wilfrid as bishop of York. He made a visitation of his entire diocese, restored his cathedral, and instituted Roman liturgical chant in all his churches.
Oswy was succeeded by King Egfrid, whom Wilfrid had alienated by encouraging Egfrid’s wife, Saint Etheldreda (f.d. June 23), in refusing the king’s marital rights and becoming a nun at Coldingham. At Egfrid’s insistence, the metropolitan Theodore in 678 divided the see of York into four dioceses despite the objections of Wilfrid, who was deposed.
Wilfrid went to Rome to appeal the decision in 677—the first known appeal of an English bishop to Rome. He spent the winter in Friesland making converts, and when he arrived in Rome in 679 he was restored to his see by Pope Saint Agatho (f.d. January 10)..
When Wilfrid returned to England in 680, Egfrid refused to accept the pope’s order and imprisoned Wilfrid for nine months. When freed he went to Sussex. From Selsey he energetically evangelized the heathen South Saxons, converted practically all the inhabitants, and built a monastery at Selsey on land donated by King Ethelwalh.
On the death of Egfrid in battle in 685, Wilfrid met with Theodore, who asked his forgiveness for his actions in deposing him and ordaining the bishops of the newly formed dioceses in Wilfrid’s cathedral at York.
In 686 Egfrid’s successor, King Aldfrid, at Theodore’s request, recalled Wilfrid and restored him to Ripon, but the peace lasted only five years. Aldfrid quarrelled with Wilfrid and exiled him in 691. Wilfrid went to Mercia, where at the request of King Ethelred he administered the vacant see of Litchfield.
In 703 Theodore’s successor, Saint Berhtwald (f.d. January 9), at Aldfrid’s instigation, called a synod that ordered Wilfrid to resign his bishopric and retire to Ripon. When he still refused to accept the division of his see, he again went to Rome, where Pope John VI upheld him and ordered Berhtwald to call a synod clearing Wilfrid. Only when Aldfrid died in 705, repenting of his actions against Wilfrid, was a compromise worked out by which Wilfrid was appointed bishop of Hexham while Saint John of Beverly (f.d. May 7) remained as bishop of York.
Wilfrid died at Saint Andrew’s Monastery in Oundle, Northamptonshire, while on a visitation of monasteries he had founded in Mercia.
Saint Wilfrid was an outstanding figure of his time, a very able and courageous man, holding tenaciously to his convictions in spite of consequent embroilments with civil and ecclesiastical authorities. He was the first Englishman to carry a lawsuit to the Roman courts and was successful in helping to bring the discipline of the English church more into line with that of Rome and the continent. His vicissitudes and misfortunes have somewhat obscured his abilities as a missionary, not only among the South Saxons but also for a brief period in Friesland in 678-79; his preaching there may be taken as the starting point of the great English mission to the Germanic peoples on the European mainland (Attwater, Benedictines, Bentley, Colgrave, Delaney, Duckett, Encyclopaedia, Webb).
In art, Wilfrid is presented as a bishop either (1) baptizing; (2) preaching; (3) landing from a ship and received by the king; or (4) engaged in theological disputation with his crozier near him and a lectern before him. Venerated at Ripon, Sompting (Sussex), and Frisia.