St Wilfrid, Bishop Confessor

St Wilfred

Wilfrid was born in Northumbria in 634. As a boy he was educated in the monastery of Lindisfarne. Later he travelled to Rome in the company of Benet Biscop, spending a considerable time at Lyons on the way. This wider, continental experience had a profound effect upon the young man and, on his return, he showed himself to have become a keen supporter of the traditions of the Roman Church as against the prevailing ‘Celtic’ customs introduced by the Irish missionaries from Iona under St Aidan. Shortly afterwards he was appointed Abbot of Ripon, and sometime later he was ordained priest.

After the death of Aidan, the differing customs of the Romans and the Celts became the cause of bitter dispute. In 664 a Synod was held in Whitby, in the famous monastery of St Hilda, to settle the question and Wilfrid took a leading part in the debate, successfully arguing for the abolition of the Celtic traditions and the imposition of the church discipline of Rome.

Within twelve months he had been appointed Bishop of Lindisfarne. He chose to be consecrated in Paris, and was absent in France for so long that St Chad, one of Aidan’s pupils, was consecrated bishop in his place. Wilfrid had to appeal to St Theodore of Canterbury, his metropolitan, before he was able to take possession of his diocese. He established himself at York, but encountered much hostility being opposed at various times not only by some of the secular rulers of his day but even by men of great sanctity like St John of Beverley. A particular dispute arose in 678 when Theodore made an attempt to divide the large, unwieldy diocese of Lindisfarne/York into two parts. Wilfrid objected to the division and made an appeal to Rome against his archbishop. Not only was he successful, but in doing so he became the first Englishman to take a law suit to the Roman courts.

In spite of this, his return to Northumberland was much less successful. For a while he was imprisoned by the King of Northumbria and eventually escaped to Sussex. It is a tribute to his courage and dedication that he was able to use this time well, carrying on an energetic mission to the South Saxons and also for a brief period among the people of Friesland, so beginning the great English mission to the Germanic people that was to be continued by his pupil, St Willibrord.

Wilfrid returned to Northumbria in 686, but was not allowed to remain long in the area. Once again he appealed in person to Rome. But in the end he accepted a compromise solution under which he became Bishop of Hexham while retaining his monastery at Ripon. There he introduced many additional Roman customs and reorganised the monastery under the rule of St Benedict. He died in 709.

  • Share

Recent Blog Posts