Wilfrid 12 October 709

Wilfred was born around 634 in Northumbria, and was educated for a while at the island monastery of Lindisfarne, after which he went south to London, where he became an enthusiastic supporter of Roman liturgical customs, as contrasted with the traditional Celtic customs that were prevalent in the North and in other areas that had been evangelised by Celtic rather than Roman missionaries.

The two questions that were nominally in dispute were (1) the method of calculating the date of Easter, and (2) the method of tonsuring a monk (i.e. which areas of the head ought to be shaved). As often happens, these were probably stand-ins for other questions less easily articulated. I

n about 654, Wilfred left England for Rome (stopping for a year in Lyons, France) and then returned (stopping for three years in Lyons), arriving in England in about 660. He was made abbot of Ripon in Northumbria, and imposed the Roman rules there. In 664 a conference was held (the Synod of Whitby) to settle the usages controversy, and the Roman party triumphed, thanks in large part to the leadership of Wilfrid. He was appointed Bishop of York by Alcfrid, sub-king of Deira (a division of Northumbria), but was unwilling to be consecrated by bishops of the Celtic tradition, and so went over to France to be consecrated, and was gone for two years.

On his return, he found that King Oswy of Northumbria had appointed Chad (see 2 March 672) as bishop of York. Wilfrid returned quietly to Ripon. But in 669 the new Archbishop of Canterbury, Theodore (see 19 September 690), declared that Wilfrid was rightful bishop of York. Chad quietly withrew, and Wilfrid was installed at York.

For the next few years, Wilfrid enjoyed peace and prosperity, stood high in the favor of King Efrith of Northumbria, and was undisputed bishop of a diocese that included the entire kingdom of Northumbria, with his cathedral at York. But there was trouble ahead.

The queen wanted to leave her husband and become a nun, and Wilfrid encouraged her in this. After she had left (in 672), the king was not as cordial to Wilfrid as he had been, and in 678, Archbishop Theodore, acting in close concert with the king, divided the Diocese of York into four smaller dioceses, and appointed new bishops for three of them, leaving Wilfrid with the fourth, which did not include the city of York. Wilfrid decided to appeal to the pope.

On his way to Rome, he spent a year preaching in Frisia, and so was the beginning of the movement by Christian Anglo-Saxons in Britain to convert their relatives on the Continent. The pope eventually sided with Wilfrid, but the ruling was not accepted in England, and Wilfrid was banished from Northumbria. He went to Sussex, the last center of Anglo-Saxon paganism in England, and preached there. When he arrived, there had been no rain for many months, the crops were ruined, and the people were starving. Wilfrid showed them how to construct fishnets for ocean fishing, and so saved the lives of many. They listened to his preaching with favorable presuppositions, and soon a large number of them were ready for baptism. On the day that he baptized them, it rained. He remained in Sussex for five years, preaching with great success.

Eventually he was reconciled with Archbishop Theodore, and returned to Northumbria, where he was again given a bishopric. He served there a bishop for five peaceful years, but then a royal council found him unfit; he was deposed again, appealed to Rome again, and ended up bishop of the small diocese of Hexham, with jurisdiction over the various monasteries that he had founded. In his will, he bequeathed his money to four causes: (1) to various Roman congregations; (2) to the poor; (3) to the clergy who had followed him into exile; and (4) to the abbots of the various monasteries under his jurisdiction, "so that they could purchase the friendship of kings and bishops." He died 12 October 709.

written by James Kiefer


Heavenly Father, Shepherd of your people, we thank you for your servant Wilfrid, who was faithful in the care and nurture of your flock; and we pray that, following his example and the teaching of his holy life, we may by your grace grow into the stature of the fulness of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.