Once I was a clever boy learning the arts of Oxford... is a quotation from the verses written by Bishop Richard Fleming (c.1385-1431) for his tomb in Lincoln Cathedral. Fleming, the founder of Lincoln College in Oxford, is the subject of my research for a D. Phil., and, like me, a son of the West Riding. I have remarked in the past that I have a deeply meaningful on-going relationship with a dead fifteenth century bishop... it was Fleming who, in effect, enabled me to come to Oxford and to learn its arts, and for that I am immensely grateful.

Tuesday, 12 October 2010

St Wilfrid

The other week I posted some comments about St Wilfrid in connection with the proposed Society of St Wilfrid and St Hilda, and as to day is his Feast it seems suitable to say something more.

Apropos the Society of St Wilfrid and St Hilda, which certainly in the case of Wilfrid is most inappropriately named, I would point to Fr Hunwicke's comments which can be found here here; I agree with his choice of the word daft.

It is worth reflecting upon Fr Faber's choice of the patronage and, indeed, name of Wilfrid. Frederick William Faber took Wilfrid as his patron for his foundation at Cotton in Staffordshire and then at the Londoon Oratory, where there is both St Wilfrid's chapel - where the remains of Faber are now buried - and St Wilfrid's Hall. Faber himself chose the name Wilfrid as his name in religion. This was, I assume, not merely a tribute to a great Anglo-Saxon saint with a strong sene of the importance of the Roman obedience. but also a personal reminiscence of the historic parish church dedicated to St Wilfrid in Faber's birthplace, Calverley in the West Riding.


Image from St Wilfrid's Catholic Primary School, Ripon

St Wilfrid's medieval cult was extensive, and centred on Ripon, where some of these traditions have been revived during the twentieth century. At both Ripon and Hexham the crypts of the churches he built still survive. This site from Ripon has a series of articles about Wilfrid and his abbey church there and its archaeology and can be viewed here.


A view of the present Ripon Minster before the fall of the spire on the central tower in 1660 and the subsequent removal of those on the western towers - a reminder of what has been lost even from those churches which emerged still roofed from the disasters of the sixteenth century.

His relics appear to have been removed later in the Anglo-Saxon period to Canterbury, although this was disputed by the church at Ripon and York. If they were moved it is tribute to the perception of his status as a national figure.

Seen as a great patron of the see of York the arms ascribed to him - three suns (not stars as in the icon above) - are prominent in the medieval decoration of York Minster, although there his cult perhaps declined with the rise of that of St William in the twelfth century and devotion to Archbishop Scrope in the fifteenth century. Many churches were dedicated to him, a tradition which has been revived in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, notably in Yorkshire and Sussex. These include the spectacular Temple Moore designed church in Harrogate - the town's only Grade I building.

The Anglican church of St Wilfrid Bognor Regis has a very good site about pilgrimages parishioners made to places associated with their patron and other very useful information about him here.

To mark the feast I borrowed Bertram Colgrave's edition of Eddius Stephanus The Life of Bishop Wilfrid (Cambridge UP) from the Oxford Union Library. I recommended the book recently as a valuable source, and must admit that, apart from extracts, I had not read the text through before, though I have meant to for many years.

Eddius' text raises not a few textual questions which are discussed by Colgrave, but it is full of interest and unstinting admiration for its hero. Wilfrid emerges as a major figure by any standards - a courageous and holy bishop and missionary, a loyal son of the Roman church, and a significant political figure not only in England (if that term can be used for his era) but also on his travels to and through the Frankish kingdoms. He inspired love and respect as well as fear and antipathy from his contemporaries.

Wilfrid was a man of prayer and profound faith. His conception of the proper dignity of a bishop and of unswerving fidelity to Rome helped reinforce and develop the strong Anglo-Saxon link to the Holy See that floewd from St Augustine's mission. In his clashes with rulers of Northumbria, and indeed with Frankish rulers he anticipates the Church-State conflicts of later centuries.

Given his achievements it is perhaps sad that he is not better known nationally and venerated as a figure in the life of the Church in England.

Chichester Cathedral - photograph from St Wilfrid's Bognor Regis.

The fishing net recalls Bede's story of how Wilfrid taught the people of Sussex to fish with nets during a famine.
I think this modern image captures something of Wilfrid'determination and resolve and suggests his noble birth.

1 comment:

Michael said...

Just in case it's of any interest, there's a beautiful Pugin church in Cumbria (Warwick Bridge) dedicated to Our Lady and St Wilfrid - worth a visit if you're even in the area.

Can't find much on t'interweb, but this gives a brief glimpse - http://www.visitcumbria.com/car/warwick-bridge-our-lady-and-st-wilfrids-church.htm