Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Wilfrid
WILFRID or WILFRITH, Saint (634–709), bishop of York, the son of a Northumbrian thegn, is said to have been born in 634 (Eadmer, c. 1; he was thirty or ‘about thirty’ in 664, Eddius, c. 11; Hist. Eccles. v. 24). In his fourteenth year he was a handsome and well-mannered lad, fond of arms, horses, and fine clothes, but he was not happy, for he had an unkind stepmother, and he wished to enter a monastery. His father sent him to the court of Oswy [q. v.], where he pleased the queen, Eanflæd [q. v.], who sent him to Lindisfarne. Though he did not receive the tonsure there, he discharged all the duties of a novice, learning the psalter by heart in the Gallican version, and studying other books. Owing doubtless to the queen's influence, he desired to make a pilgrimage to Rome. Eanflæd sent him to her cousin, Earconbert of Kent, that he might find a companion for him. At Earconbert's court he continued his ascetic life and learnt the Roman psalter. After spending a year in Kent he left England in 653 in company with Benedict Biscop [see Benedict]. They parted at Lyons, where Wilfrid prolonged his stay with Annemund, the archbishop, who offered, if he would remain with him, to adopt him as his son and give him his niece, the daughter of Dalfinus, count of the city, in marriage; but he would not give up the life that he had chosen, and went on to Rome. There the pope's archdeacon Boniface instructed him in the Easter question and the Benedictine rule, and introduced him to Eugenius I. He returned to Lyons, received the tonsure from the archbishop, and stayed with him about three years. The party of Ebroin, mayor of the palace to Clothaire III, king of Neustria and Burgundy, beheaded the archbishop at Châlon-sur-Saône on 29 Sept. 658. Wilfrid nearly shared his fate; but when it was found that he was an Englishman, a fellow-countryman of Queen Bathild, he was set free [see under Bathilda]. He returned to Northumbria and found Alchfrith [q. v.], who was then ruling in Deira, already converted to the Roman side in ecclesiastical matters. Alchfrith gave him land for a monastery at Stanford, probably Stamford on the Derwent, and in or about 661 expelled Eata [q. v.], Cuthbert (d. 687) [q. v.], and the other Columbite monks from Ripon, and gave the monastery to Wilfrid, who, probably in 663, was ordained priest by Bishop Agilbert, then on a visit to Northumbria.
Early in 664 Oswy and Alchfrith held a conference at Streanæshalch, later called Whitby, to determine the dispute between the Roman and Columbite parties. Wilfrid was put forward by Agilbert as the spokesman on the Roman side in opposition to Bishop Colman. He argued ably, adopting a contemptuous tone towards his opponent. The conference ended in the victory of the Roman party. Colman left Northumbria, and Tuda, his successor, dying of the plague, Alchfrith obtained the election of Wilfrid as bishop ‘for himself and his people,’ which means that his see was to be at York. At his request Alchfrith sent him to Gaul for consecration, for he is said to have declared that he would not receive consecration from bishops who were quartodecimans (Eddius, c. 12), as the Celtic clergy were unfairly styled. As it seems probable that both Archbishop Deusdedit and Damian of Rochester were then dead, and as Wini was an intruder into Agilbert's bishopric, there would not be any bishop in England whose consecration would be held canonical by Wilfrid except Boniface of East-Anglia (Bright, p. 241, but cf. Eccles. Doc. iii. 106). Perhaps before the end of the year (Plummer, Bede, ii. 317) he was consecrated ‘bishop of York’ (Eddius, u.s.) by Agilbert and eleven other bishops at Compiègne, and was, according to a Gallican custom, borne aloft by his consecrators in a golden chair. He delayed his return to England, and meanwhile Oswy appointed Ceadda or Chad [q. v.] bishop in his place. In 666, not knowing that his see had been taken from him, he left Gaul with several clergy to return home. His ship was stranded on the coast of Sussex. The heathen South-Saxons threatened to kill the crew and passengers. Wilfrid's men beat them off, the tide rose, the ship floated again, and Wilfrid and his company escaped with the loss of five men, and landed at Sandwich. When Wilfrid found that his bishopric had been given to Ceadda, he retired to Ripon. On the invitation of Wulfhere of Mercia he discharged episcopal functions in that kingdom, and Wulfhere gave him lands on which he built monasteries, one being at Lichfield. Also at the request of Egbert of Kent he ordained priests and deacons in his kingdom during the vacancy of the metropolitan see. When visiting Canterbury he gathered round him several followers, Eddi or Eddius [q. v.], his future biographer, Æona, and Putta [q. v.], all skilled in the Roman method of chanting, and he also had in his retinue many masons and other artisans whom he employed in building churches and monasteries.
When archbishop Theodore [q. v.] deprived Ceadda in 669, Wilfrid regained his bishopric. Oswy, who fell sick soon afterwards, requested him to act as his guide to Rome, but the king's design of a pilgrimage was frustrated by his death. Wilfrid sent representatives to the synod held by Theodore at Hertford in September 673, and they no doubt opposed the archbishop's scheme for an increase of the episcopate (Bright). Wilfrid administered his diocese diligently and with magnificence, receiving the sons of nobles as his pupils and, though ascetic in his personal habits, keeping great state and spending much, specially on buildings, for gifts were showered upon him. For a time King Ecgfrid showed him favour, and he was the spiritual adviser of the queen, St. Etheldreda [q. v.] He and his followers completed the conversion of the Northumbrians from the Columbite to the Roman usages and services, and introduced the Benedictine rule into the monasteries. His cathedral church at York had become ruinous; he gave it a new roof which he covered with lead, filled the windows with glass, plastered the walls, furnished the altar with ornaments and vessels, and endowed the church with lands. At Ripon he built a basilican church of dressed stone with many columns and porches. To its dedication came Ecgfrid and his brother, the under-king Ælfwine, and abbots, princes, and ealdormen of the whole north, and Wilfrid made a great feast for all comers, which lasted three days. For this church he caused to be written a copy of the gospels in letters of gold on purple vellum, and placed it in a case of gold studded with jewels. At Hexham also he built a church, the like of which, men said, was not to be seen on this side of the Alps. His diocese extended over all Bernicia and Deira, and in 678 also over Lindsey.
After a while Wilfrid lost Ecgfrid's favour. He had encouraged Etheldreda in persisting to live as a virgin, and about 672 gave her the veil. In addition to this personal grievance, Ecgfrid became jealous of his power and wealth, and this feeling was encouraged by his second wife, Eormenburh or Irminburga, who disliked her predecessor's adviser. In 678 Ecgfrid invited Theodore to visit him, and the archbishop, in conjunction with the king, and without consulting Wilfrid, decreed that two new dioceses should be made in Deira and Bernicia, and that Lindsey should again be made a separate diocese, leaving Wilfrid at York as one of four bishops who were each to have a subdivision of his former bishopric. Wilfrid appeared before the king and Theodore at a gemot, and asked them why they had done him this injury. They replied that they had no charge against him, but would not alter their decree. Knowing that he could not hope for redress elsewhere, he declared that he would appeal to Rome. This was the first time that such an appeal had been made by an Englishman. His words were received with derision. When he had left England Theodore consecrated three bishops in Wilfrid's church at York, and divided his whole bishopric between them, one of them, Bosa [q. v.], having his see at York [see under Theodore].
Ecgfrid, anxious to prevent Wilfrid from reaching Rome, arranged with Theodoric III of Neustria and Ebroin to have him waylaid at Quentavic, or Etaples, the usual landing-place from England; but their men by mistake caught Winfrid, the deprived bishop of Mercia, and Wilfrid escaped them, for he had chosen to land in Frisia. There, with the king's leave, he preached to the heathen people and baptised many, remaining there engaged in this missionary work during the winter. Ebroin, who had a grudge against Wilfrid because in the days of his power the bishop had helped Dagobert II of Austrasia to return from exile in Ireland, tried to bribe the king to deliver him up, but the king refused. In the spring of 679 Wilfrid went to the court of Dagobert, who received him honourably and offered him the bishopric of Strasburg. Wilfrid would not remain with him. He was entertained by the Lombard king Perctarit, who told him that envoys had come to him from England offering him a bribe if he would keep him from going on to Rome, but that he had refused to accept it. He reached Rome in that year. A council was held by Agatho to decide on his appeal, at which Theodore was represented, and Wilfrid appeared in person. It was decided that he should be restored to his bishopric and the intruding bishops removed, and that he should, with the advice of a council, appoint others to be his coadjutors. At another council held in March 680 against the monophysites, Wilfrid was present as bishop of York, and spoke for the faith of the English Britons, Scots, and Picts. He set out for England, taking with him the decrees of the council to exhibit to Theodore and the king. Passing through Gaul, he found that Dagobert had been slain, and met with some danger on account of the help that he had previously given him.
On arriving in England Wilfrid showed the decrees to Ecgfrid, but the king and his councillors said that he had bought them, and put him in prison at a place called Bromnis. The queen appropriated his reliquary with its contents, kept it in her chamber when she was at home, and took it with her when she went out driving. It is said that while at Bromnis Wilfrid restored to health the wife of the king's reeve who had charge of him, and that the reeve refused to keep him any longer in prison. He was then more closely imprisoned at Dunbar. In 681, after an imprisonment of nine months, his release was procured by Ebba [q. v.], abbess of Coldingham.
On his release Wilfrid sought shelter in Mercia; but the king, anxious not to offend Ecgfrid, who was his brother-in-law, bade him depart. He went thence into Wessex, but there the queen of Centwine was Eormenburh's sister, so he was soon forced to quit the kingdom. He finally took refuge in Sussex, where the king Ethelwalch promised to keep him in safety. Ethelwalch and his queen had been baptised, but their people were heathen, and, though there was a small monastery at Bosham presided over by a Scot named Dicul, refused to listen to the monks. Wilfrid at once began to preach to the people, who were in great trouble, for a three years' drought had been followed by a terrible famine. They could not fish in the sea, being afraid probably to venture into deep water, and so only caught eels. Wilfrid had a number of their eel-nets joined together, and his men went out to fish with them, had a large catch, and so taught the people to fish. In return the South-Saxons listened to his teaching, and, as the drought broke up on a day on which he had baptised a large number, were convinced of its truth. Ethelwalch gave him the land of eighty-seven families in the peninsula of Selsey, his own estate and residence, and Wilfrid baptised all his new tenants. Among them were 250 bondmen and bondwomen, whom he set free on their baptism. He built a monastery at Selsey. While he was in Sussex he befriended an exiled member of the royal house of Wessex named Cædwalla (659?–689) [q. v.], who slew Ethelwalch, overran the country, and about 686 became king of the West-Saxons. Cædwalla gave him for God's service a fourth part of the Isle of Wight, which he conquered after he became king. Wilfrid placed over this new territory his nephew Bernwini, sending with him a priest to help him in mission work, and so the last of the English settlements that received the gospel was evangelised through his instrumentality.
In 686, when Ecgwin was dead, Theodore was reconciled to Wilfrid at London. He wrote letters on his behalf to Aldfrid, the new king of Northumbria, Ælflaed, abbess of Whitby, and Ethelred of Mercia [see under Theodore]. Aldfrid restored Wilfrid, not indeed to his former bishopric, for Lindsey, Lindisfarne, and Hexham had become separate dioceses, but only to the see of York, from which Bosa retired, and to the monastery of Ripon. For five years he retained his bishopric, but he was not content with his change of position. In 691 he was angered by the king's wish to make Ripon an episcopal see, and by a demand that he should acknowledge the validity of the decrees of Theodore for the subdivision of his old diocese. He quarrelled with the king, left York, and took shelter with Ethelred of Mercia, who gave him the bishopric of the Middle English, or of Leicester. While he was at Leicester in 692–3 Suidbert, one of the English missionaries in Friesland, came to him and received consecration from him, an evidence of the interest which he took in the mission carried on there under his old pupil Willibrord [q. v.] He sent an appeal to Pope Sergius, and, probably in consequence of a papal remonstrance, Aldfrid in 702 held a council at Estrefeld or Austerfield in the West Riding, which was attended by Archbishop Brihtwald [q. v.] and nearly all his suffragans. Wilfrid was required to give his assent to the decrees of Theodore. He answered that he would do so ‘according to the rule of the canons,’ a reservation which rendered his assent nugatory, for it meant that he would not give up his claims, which had been approved at Rome. He reproached the council with preferring the decrees of Theodore to the ordinances of three popes. It was at last decided that his monastery at Ripon only should be left him on condition that he would give a written promise to abide there quietly and not to fulfil any episcopal functions. He was thus to pronounce his own deprivation. He indignantly refused to comply with this demand, and appealed to the apostolic see. He returned to Mercia and thence set out for Rome, Ethelred promising not to disturb his monasteries in Mercia before he heard how his appeal was decided. In spite of his seventy years he performed the journey on foot, taking with him Acca [q. v.], then a priest, as his companion. Before his departure Aldhelm [q. v.], then abbot of Malmesbury, wrote a letter to Wilfrid's clergy, exhorting them to be faithful to him (Gesta Pontificum, p. 338). On his way he visited Willibrord, then archbishop of Utrecht, who was carrying on the evangelisation of the Frisians. He reached Rome in 704.
Soon after his arrival, Brihtwald's representatives also came to Rome to accuse him. John VI held a synod on his case, at which Wilfrid was present, and his petition was read. His opponents accused him of setting at nought the archbishop's decrees, but he was pronounced blameless. It is said that the proceedings in his case lasted during four months and through seventy sittings. Finally, the pope confirmed the decision of his predecessors, and wrote to Ethelred and Aldfrid that Brihtwald was to hold a synod and endeavour to come to a satisfactory settlement, and that if he failed to do so both parties were to appear at Rome. Wilfrid desired to end his days at Rome, but was bidden by the pope to return to England. On his way home he was seized with a severe illness and carried into Meaux in a state of unconsciousness. He afterwards told Acca that the archangel Michael had appeared to him, had promised that he should be spared for four years more, and directed him to build a church in honour of the Virgin. He landed in Kent in 705 and was reconciled with Brihtwald. He visited Ethelred, then abbot of Bardney in Lincolnshire, and Ethelred wrote to his successor Coenred [q. v.] on his behalf. Aldfrid, however, to whom Wilfrid sent messengers, refused to alter his decision. He died shortly afterwards and was succeeded by Eadwulf, to whom Wilfrid sent messengers from Ripon. Eadwulf bade them take back word that Wilfrid was to leave his kingdom within six days, but he was himself driven out after a reign of two months, and was succeeded in 705 by Aldfrid's son Osred (697?–716) [q. v.], who at once held a council on the banks of the Nidd to decide on Wilfrid's case. The abbess Ælflaed having announced that Aldfrid on his deathbed had declared that if he lived he would fulfil the pope's commands concerning Wilfrid, and that if he died she was to charge his son to do so, it was determined to carry out Aldfrid's wish. The king, bishops, and nobles made peace with Wilfrid and restored to him the see of Hexham and the monastery of Ripon. The dispute therefore ended in a compromise by which Wilfrid surrendered his claim to York, receiving instead the see of Hexham; while on the other hand the scheme of erecting Ripon into an episcopal see was dropped, and the possession of the church was secured to him. In spite of his appeals to Rome he was not in so good a position as that in which he was left by Theodore's subdivision in 678.
While Wilfrid was bishop of Hexham a foolish charge of heresy was made against Bede in his presence. This drew from Bede his ‘Letter to Plegwin,’ which he desired should be read before Wilfrid, for Jarrow was in the diocese of Hexham (Bright, p. 429; Plummer, Bede, i. Introd. App. i. p. cxlvi. In the article on Bede, as well as by Smith, Bede, App. p. 802, and Raine, Fasti, p. 93, this incident is erroneously connected with another Wilfrid, who was bishop of York from 718 to 732). Early in the spring of 708 he was seized with sickness. He recovered, and about a year and a half later, in 709, made his will by word of mouth at Ripon, dividing all his treasure into four parts, of which he assigned the most valuable to the churches of St. Mary and of St. Paul at Rome, and left the other three to the poor, to the provosts of Ripon and Hexham for the benefit of their monasteries, and to the companions of his exile. He announced to his monks that Ceolred of Mercia had sent to invite him to come to him about matters connected with his Mercian monasteries, arranged for the election of an abbot to succeed him at Ripon in case he should not live to return, and bade the monks farewell. He was again seized with sickness at his monastery at Oundle in Northamptonshire, and died while the monks were singing Psalm civ. 30, on a Thursday, probably 3 Oct., in his seventy-sixth year (on the date see Bright, p. 433 n. 1; Plummer, Bede, ii. 328). He was buried in his church at Ripon, and an epitaph, recorded by Bede, was set up on his tomb. Archbishop Odo is said to have removed his body to Canterbury (Preface to Frithegode's Vita S. Wilfridi ap. Historians of York, i. 106), where it was translated by Lanfranc, and moved a second time soon afterwards, on 12 Oct. (ib. pp. 225–6). St. Oswald, however, is said to have found his bones at Ripon (ib. p. 462). Eadmer alleges that the bones found at Ripon were those of the younger Wilfrid, and defends the Canterbury claim, which is said to have been supported by heavenly signs (ib. i. 235–7, ii. 31–2). Archbishop Walter de Grey [q. v.] translated the Ripon relics in 1226 (ib. ii. 480), and from that time the claim of Ripon was held to be established. An arm of Wilfrid was believed to be at York (Fabric Rolls, pp. 221–2; Chronicon de Abingdon, ii. 47).
Of brilliant intellect and vigorous and constructive genius, Wilfrid built up the Roman system in England in place of the usages of the Columbite church, in the overthrow of which he had so large a share. While he clung too much to power and wealth, he used them in God's service, and, though he refused to sacrifice them when their surrender was necessary for the well-being of the church, the unfair treatment which he received is a valid excuse for his refusal. His appeals to Rome were contrary to national sentiment; but he is not to be blamed for seeking justice at the only tribunal at which he could hope to obtain it. Courageous and firm of purpose, he was never daunted by danger or persecution. His temper was overbearing, and he was by no means conciliatory towards his opponents. Yet he was lovable; his monks and clergy were faithful to him in his troubles, and regarded him with filial affection. He was a holy as well as a magnificent prelate, and his missionary work in Frisia and in Sussex, carried on in the midst of his troubles, entitles him to a high place among the fathers of the church. The day of St. Wilfrid's deposition in the ‘Calendar’ is 12 Oct., which was not the day of his death, for in 709 it fell on a Saturday. His cult was widely spread and specially prevailed in the north; his banner was displayed at the battle of the standard in 1138 (John of Hexham), and his seal was held to cure murrain in cattle (Tres Scriptores, p. 440, Surtees Soc.).
[The prime authority is Eddi's Vita Wilfridi, the work of a strong partisan and not always accurate, but of great value, as Eddi knew Wilfrid well, and could learn about him from Acca [q. v.] and Tatbert, Wilfrid's kinsman, who had received from him a full account of his life. Eddi had access to documents, which were no doubt at Ripon, with reference to Wilfrid's appeals. Eddi's life has been printed by Mabillon (AA. SS. O.S.B. sæc. iv. i. 670 sqq.), by Gale in his Quindecim Scriptores, and by Raine in Historians of York, i. 1 sqq. (Rolls Ser.). It was used by Bede in his Hist. Eccles., which, besides scattered notices, has a brief life of Wilfrid (lib. v. c. 19), which gives some matters not mentioned by Eddi, and makes several important omissions. Bede evidently wrote in sympathy with Wilfrid's opponents. His account has been compared with the Life by Eddi, by Mr. Wells, in the Engl. Hist. Rev. vi. 535 sqq. The metrical life of Frithegode is merely a version of Eddi's work. Archbishop Odo is said by Eadmer to have put forth a Life of Wilfrid, but this probably refers to Frithegode's life written at Odo's request, and to which Odo probably supplied the preface (Hist. of York, vol. i. Pref. p. xl). Eadmer's Life, printed by Mabillon, Raine, and others, is not of original value. It is followed in Historians of York by a sermon for St. Wilfrid's day. William of Malmesbury's account of Wilfrid in his Gesta Pontificum (Rolls Ser.) is avowedly condensed from Eddi. Peter of Blois wrote a Life, preserved in Leland's time at Ripon (Collect. iii. 110), but not now known to exist; some extracts are given by Leland. The best modern authorities are Canon Bright's Early Engl. Church Hist. 3rd edit. 1897, Mr. Plummer's notes to his Bædæ Opp. Hist., and Raine's art. ‘Wilfrid’ in Dict. Christian Biogr. and his earlier biography in Fasti Ebor.]