St. Wilfrid, Bishop and Confessor of York
(Wilfrith, Walfridus, Willferder)
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
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
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
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
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
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Page last updated: 16 October 2008
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