A 16th century panel painting by Lambert Barnard showing Wilfrid being endowed land at Selsey in Sussex by King Cædwalla (Chichester Cathedral)
Today’s saint of the week is one you might not have heard of, but he is responsible – at least in part – for no-one actually knowing what date Easter is due to fall on from one year to the next! It is said that his speech at the Synod of Whitby in 664 was key to persuading the representatives there to vote in favour of the Northumbrian church following Roman rather than Ionian practices, one element of which was the calculation of the date of Easter.
Prior to his bravura performance at Whitby, Wilfrid was a bishop of the Northumbrian church, having previously studied at Lindisfarne and Canterbury, as well as spending periods of time in both Lyons and Rome. In 660, he returned from Rome to establish the foundation at Hexham where he was appointed abbot. His childhood was one of wealth and nobility, and by all accounts he was not one to sit on the sidelines and watch the world pass him by. He was one of the first bishops to bring relics back from Rome, against the express wishes of the Pope, and actively espoused Benedictine monasticism in Northumbria as a way of controlling the ‘poisonous’ Picts. One historian has said of Wilfrid that ‘he was not a humble man, nor was he greatly interested in learning’, while another states that he ‘came into conflict with almost every prominent secular and ecclesiastical figure of the age’.
The Whitby synod was one of the high points of his ecclesiastical career, and his success there led to his appointment as bishop of York, where he lived lavishly and surrounded himself with a large entourage, so not the normal monastic behaviour we’re used to. However, his career peaks were almost inevitably followed by very deep troughs, and while he was away in Gaul being consecrated as bishop (he had refused to be consecrated in Northumbria by Anglo-Saxon clergy, instead opting for the pomp and circumstance of a Gallic ceremony, where he was carried aloft on a throne supported by nine bishops – I know which one I’d choose!) he was deposed by the king and another bishop installed in his place. On his way back, his ship was blown off course and landed in Sussex, where his party was attacked by local pagans. Undeterred by these setbacks, over the coming years he established a network of monasteries in Wessex, Mercia and Northumbria, which just happen to correspond with the areas to which he was exiled as he fell in and out of favour with the king. Finally, by 706, Wilfrid was installed in Hexham after having set up foundations in places as diverse as Ripon, Selsey in Suffolk, the Isle of Wight, Evesham, and Oundle in Northamptonshire, which is where he died while on a visit in 709 or 710. The removal of his relics from Ripon to Canterbury in 948 was accompanied by reports of miracles at the tomb, as was their translation to their own shrine after a fire in 1067, the date of which has become his feast day, 24th April. It doesn’t look like Wilfrid is the patron saint of anything in particular, but his lifestyle, rebellious character and history of upsetting anyone in authority could make him the poster-saint of modern day Bohemians everywhere!