Wulfstan of Worcester

Saint & Survivor


Guy Points

Based on a paper published in Wiþowinde (the magazine of Ða Engliscan Gesiðas) Autumn 1999.

Wulfstan was Bishop of Worcester from 1062-95. He was born around 1008 during the reign of Æþelræd II (978-1016) and died at the age of eighty-seven in 1095 during the reign of William Rufus (1087-1100). Despite being confessor to King Harold he remained a bishop under the first two Norman kings.

We are fortunate in that Wulfstan had his life recorded, in English, by the monk Colman who was chaplain and chancellor to Wulfstan and had worked closely with him for fifteen years. Although there is no surviving edition of this work, an amended twelfth century Latin translation, "Vita Wilfstani" by William of Malmesbury does survive.

Undoubtedly, Wulfstan was a truly "holy" man and recognised as such during his lifetime, but this did not prevent him playing an effective role in the secular life of the country.

Mercian rule in the Worcester area was established by the Mercian king, Penda, around 628 with the support of a strong Northumbrian war-band led by the exiled Bernician princes, Oslaf and Oswudu. The government, of what became a buffer state against the West Saxons and the Welsh, was placed in the hands of Penda's Northumbrian allies. Their territory became the "Kingdom of the Hwicce" and the dynasty can be traced from the late seventh century to the end of the eighth century. Its members had personal names in common with Northumbrian dynasties and links between the two areas continued in various forms up until the end of the eleventh century. Oslaf is commemorated in the landmark formerly known as "Oslafeshlawe" (the mound of Oslaf). Later it was changed to "Oswaldslow", in honour of the tenth century Bishop Oswald of Worcester when the site became the meeting place of the new unit of Episcopal and local government known as the triple hundred of Oswaldslow. Winchcombe was the capital for the rulers of the Hwicce, and the surrounding district formed the basis of Winchcombshire. The shire was only incorporated into the modern county of Gloucestershire in the eleventh century.

The name of Worcester was first documented in 691 and the territory of the diocese of Worcester was nearly identical to the territory of the Hwicce, i.e., Worcestershire, modern Gloucestershire, apart from the Forest of Dean, and the south-west part of Warwickshire. The similarity in the tribal territory and the diocese was a deliberate policy of Archbishop Theodore of Canterbury (668-90). The early phases in the conversion of central England was undertaken by Northumbrian priests following the Celtic tradition. The first three bishops of the Hwicce were Northumbrians from the monastery of Whitby. A pastoral ministry prevailed based on a network of Minster churches, and the concept of the itinerant missionary cleric. The kalendars of both Worcester and Evesham reveal that cults of numerous Northumbrian saints continued to be observed in the diocese throughout the eleventh century.

In the ninth century a nation-wide defensive and administrative re-organisation followed the Danish invasions and the unification of England. The lands of the Hwicce were divided into shires based on Worcester, Warwick, Winchcombe and Gloucester. We are also reminded that Scandinavian settlers arrived in considerable numbers in Mercia in the eleventh century, and that between 1019 and 1026 Worcester had a Danish Jarl, Hakon Ericson, son of Erik of Hladir, earl of Northumbria.

Before becoming Archbishop of Canterbury in 959, the great monastic reformer Dunstan, was bishop of Worcester. The imposition of his reforms, and the strict adherence to the Benedictine rule, was possible in new monasteries, or those in remote places and away from powerful lay magnates. However, long established monasteries in areas where there were powerful lay interests, such as Worcester, did not so readily embrace the reforms because they contained married priests and secular clerks.

Tenurial re-organisation accompanying the tenth century monastic reforms resulted in the designation of the bishop, in place of the earldorman, as military commander of the tenants of the see. He remained and retained responsible for the military preparedness overlooking all military loans for his lands. The author discusses the Bishop's tenancy arrangements and reminds us that in the late tenth and early eleventh centuries the integrity of Worcester's endowments were threatened by the successive concurrent appointments of the bishop of Worcester to the archbishopric of York. One of the reasons for this pluralism may have been that the wealth of the Worcester estates was intended to provide economic support for the man who governed the devastated north. Although plausible, the more likely reason for the pluralism, was that the king wanted to ensure the loyalty of the north, to prevent the archbishop being instrumental in northern separatism as had been the case in the time of Archbishop Wulfstan of York (931-56).

Men reared in the monastic reforms of the tenth century venerated the king who had been anointed by God. Whatever the circumstances preceding the accession, once a king was consecrated obedience was due. God had permitted the change of dynasty, it was clearly His will to which mere mortals must submit. This helps explain why many churchmen willingly supported Knute and William once they were crowned.

Wulfstan's birthplace and early home was Itchington in Warwickshire. His father Æþelstan was a tenant of the Bishop of Worcester and his mother, Wulfgiva, was well-born and sister to Wulfstan, Bishop of Worcester 1002-16, Archbishop of York 1002-23. After elementary schooling at Evesham Abbey at the age of five, he was educated from the age of seven or eight at Peterborough Abbey. Peterborough Abbey (Medehamstede), had been re-founded in 966 and was what the tenth century reformers would call a "genuine monastery".

Wulfstan completed his schooling in 1024, after which there is an intriguing gap in his recorded life, what did he do? It was only during the episcopate of Bishop Brihtheah of Worcester (1033-38) he began his formal ecclesiastical career, to train as a clerk at Worcester. Wulfstan acquired a reputation for chastity and asceticism and was something of an exception among the monks. Bishop Brihtheah was so impressed with Wulfstan that he promoted him to the priesthood, despite some difficulty in persuading Wulfstan who had a strong sense of his own unworthiness.

Subsequently, Bishop Ealdred of Worcester (1046-62) fostered the interests of the Godwin family and as a result the Godwins were one of the few lay dynasties not to earn unfavourable notices in the writings of the monks of Worcester. Bishop Ealdred arranged the pardon of Swein Godwinson after his murder of his cousin Beorn in 1050. So committed were the monks of Worcester, that the only misdeed of Swein to earn their censure, was Swein's allegation that he was the son of Knute rather than Godwin! Bishop Ealdred was commissioned by King Edward to travel to the Continent and negotiate the return of Edward the Exile in 1055. Ealdred chose Wulfstan to act as prior at Worcester during his absence as a "safe pair of hands".

During Ealdred's absence Wulfstan set about retrieving the assets of the cathedral priory which his predecessors had wasted and appreciated the need for careful documentation. Wulfstan insisted on strict observance of the Benedictine Rule, he led by example. Not only did he continue with his monastic duties and his exemplary observance of the monastic rule, he increased his pastoral activities. He never turned away petitioners and adapted his preaching style to the age and understanding of his audience. Unlike some priests, he baptised children of the poor without charge, with the result that it became acknowledged that children were only properly baptised if Wulfstan had officiated. Wulfstan's holiness became an attraction in itself. Among the eminent attracted to Wulfstan was Harold Godwinson. The future king apparently thought nothing of going up to thirty miles out of his way to receive Wulfstan's spiritual guidance - Wulfstan became Harold's confessor.

As a condition of the Pope's confirmation of the appointment of Ealdred as Archbishop of York in 1061, Ealdred had to resign the see of Worcester and abandon the plurality. Wulfstan was in many ways the ideal candidate to fill the vacancy. His candidature was supported by both Archbishops Stigand and Ealdred, the papal legates in England to ensure Ealdred fulfilled the Pope's wishes, and Harold Godwinson and Earl Alfgar of Mercia, who were described as "equals in conspicuous courage, if not quite equals in piety"! Wulfstan was reluctant to take up the appointment, since he doubted his own ability to take on the major public responsibilities required of bishops in his day. The clinching argument introduced by the archbishops and the legates was that he had to obey the wishes of the Pope as manifest through the legates. On 29 August 1062 Wulfstan's election was canonically confirmed and King Edward invested Wulfstan with the bishopric. Under normal circumstances Wulfstan would have been consecrated by his own metropolitan archbishop of Canterbury, but because of Stigand's dubious position, Archbishop Ealdred of York consecrated him, just as he did King Harold four years later.

As a bishop he continued to observe the monastic rule. He responded to all petitioners, impartially with a quick decision, unlike after 1066 when senior Norman clerks restricted access to their bishops. No matter how urgent his business, stories abound of his insistence when travelling on entering every church or chapel on route to pray. Wulfstan was renowned for his preaching and great crowds came when he dedicated churches, he was particularly vigilant in making visitations in his diocese, which in effect amounted to tours of inspection. He attended regularly the shire court and formal gatherings of the itinerant royal court requiring him to journey distances. Wulfstan was concerned about what seemed to him the permissive lifestyle prevalent throughout England.

With Harold's accession to the throne Wulfstan became the spiritual adviser to the King of England. Wulfstan's detachment from secular power struggles ensured his advice was impartial. Had events in October 1066 turned out differently then he might have become Archbishop of Canterbury. Wulfstan supported Harold and encouraged Harold to impose a moral reform upon the people of England if the king was to avoid a major disaster. Harold accepted this and determined to make use of Wulfstan in the mould of the Northumbrian saints.

Early in 1066 when Harold went on a "hearts and minds" campaign to win over northern support, Wulfstan, whose holiness was known throughout the country, accompanied him. Wulfstan told them that rebellion against an anointed and consecrated king was a major sin. They returned south by 16 April 1066.

Details in the Worcester Chronicle about the coronation of William indicate Wulfstan might have been an eye-witness. Wulfstan was ordered to surrender his pastoral staff, his symbol of office. He responded by saying he would surrender it only to the King who had appointed him in his office. He then transfixed the staff in the masonry of King Edward's tomb and proved to be the only person who could dislodge it. William relented and confirmed Wulfstan in his office. King John (1199-1216) later used this legend to demonstrate Wulfstan's belief that the right to appoint bishops was the king’s alone, not the Papacy. John adopted Wulfstan as his patron saint and was buried at Worcester between Wulfstan and St Oswald (Bishop of Worcester 961-92 and Archbishop of York 971-92).

The fact that "Edric the Steersman", the former leader of the Bishop's military forces and the commander of the bishop's warship, and "Edric the Wild" were one of the same, has much academic support. The uprisings in 1069-70 resulted in many refugees inundating the Worcester locality. The rebellions of dissident Normans in 1075 (Roger of Hereford) and 1088 (William's eldest son, Robert Curthose) further exacerbated the refugee problem - Wulfstan provided a large fighting force in defence of Worcester during these times. It was Wulfstan, possibly with the assistance of Lanfranc (Archbishop of Canterbury 1070-89) who persuaded William to suppress trade in the dispossessed English being sold into slavery.

It was as a result of these uprisings, rather than as a direct consequence of the battle of Hastings, that the English lost their landholdings. Although the chronicler Orderic Vitalis alleged that certain of the "adventurers" brought over by William deliberately goaded Earl Edwin into rebellion in 1071 so that his estates would be forfeit and consequently redistributed amongst them. Another reason offered for the displacement of English landholders, is the inability of the English to provide the required "knights service" to support William in the maintenance of the Norman occupation. Being foot soldiers the English were not expert cavalrymen and so were unable to provide such service even if they had a mind to. Consequently, since they were unable to fulfil these obligations the English were classed as "rebels" and their lands were confiscated.

The church at the time was not immune to similar Norman tactics. An example is the removal from office of Abbot Godric of Winchcombe (1054-66) an outspoken patriot. There was also the events in 1083 at Glastonbury Abbey where the monks persisted in conducting the liturgy according to native traditions, whereupon the Norman Abbot, Thurstan of Caan, installed archers in the choir loft who shot down the disobedient brethren with fatal results.

Both Wulfstan and Abbot Æþelwig of Evesham (1058-77) organised relief work for the displaced English and kept alive the traditions of the golden age of Northumbrian monasticism. The feasts of the northern saints were commemorated both at Worcester and Evesham. The recovery in the 1070s of the Northumbrian religious houses was largely due to the inspiration of the monks under Æþelwig's rule. One of these monks, Reinfrid, formerly one of William's knights who took part in the Harrying of the North, followed the refugees to Evesham and became a monk. Inspired by Prior Aldwin of Winchcombe, a visitor to Evesham who had read Bede's "Ecclesiastical History of the English People", Reinfrid decided to return north. This time to help and to heal the people. With Aldwin and Elwy the Deacon from Winchcombe, Reinfrid set out on the mission, which revived the monasteries of Jarrow, Wearmouth and Whitby. Wulfstan approved the Northumbrian mission.

Abbot Æþelwig of Evesham was favoured by King William, who recognised his ability appointed him in effect governor of the whole of Mercia, apart from Cheshire. His knowledge of law rendered him an expert relied upon by both English and Normans alike. It is impossible to determine the extent to which Wulfstan and Æþelwig of Evesham were in contact with the leaders of the English resistance. Refugees came to the area and the Worcester chronicler describes Edric's activities in an informed and sympathetic way.

It was twenty years before Wulfstan conformed to Norman practice and re-built the cathedral in the Romanesque style. He reluctantly agreed to rebuild when it became clear that the expanding community necessitated a larger church. Work began in 1084, and the crypt, which survives to this day, was completed in 1089.

Wulfstan promoted the interests of the church in Worcester and defended the title to church lands. With the passage of time clerics looked to Wulfstan as the one surviving native prelate who could advise them as the heirs to their English predecessors. This prompted his foundation of a co-fraternity association, which drew together the surviving heads of English religious houses together with their French counterparts.

During Wulfstan's episcopate, the Worcester kalender (the indication of saint's days to be observed) included many insular saints, preserving English traditions and he also continued musical traditions. A substantial proportion of the manuscripts copied in the late eleventh century were written in English, English script was also used. Latin works were frequently annotated in the vernacular. After Wulfstan's death the English output virtually ceased.

"Hemming's Cartulary" is the best known eleventh century Worcester manuscript that kept alive the traditions of the monastery. Although it is a register of the charters granted to Worcester, a preservation of the title to their endowments, it does contain a narrative. Wulfstan urged his monks to document their privileges and their title deeds, their claims to properties, and a list of the lands wrongfully seized at various times by the magnates. The Cartulary was bound into the pages of the cathedral's great "Offa Bible", which has since been lost.

For the writers of the church of Worcester, the house of Godwin was pre-eminent. Harold's role in ensuring Wulfstan's election, and Wulfstan's support of Harold in the north, is clearly stated in the "Life" of Wulfstan. The chronicler, John of Worcester, was well informed about Harold's descendants. Harold's son "Ulf" was held hostage by King William and only released when the king died in 1087. Ulf was given the status of a knight by the new Norman king, William Rufus. His later fate is unknown, but it is thought that he went on crusade with William's eldest son, Robert Curthose. There is a recorded visit by Wulfstan to Gunhild, one of Harold's daughters, in Wilton nunnery to cure her of an eye impediment. Wulfstan said he visited her because he owed a great deal to her father's memory. It may be that he regularly visited her there. With Gunhild at Wilton was Edith, daughter of King Malcolm III Canmore and Queen Margaret, a great granddaughter of King Æþelræd Unræd. Edith later married William's youngest son, the English born Henry Beauclerc, thus giving the Norman rulers legitimacy at last.

Count Alan the Red, Lord of Richmond in Yorkshire, subsequently abducted King Harold's daughter, Gunhild. When he died, she stayed with his brother Alan the Black who inherited his brother's estate, despite two letters, which survive, from Anselm, Archbishop of Canterbury (1093-1109) to Gunhild trying to persuade her to return to the life of a nun. The reason for the abduction may well have been the fact that the land had, before the Conquest, belonged to Gunhild's mother, Harold's hand-fast wife Edith Swan Neck. Abducting Gunhild and making her their hand-fast wife would, in the eyes of the locals, have given legitimacy to their holding of the lands.

Wulfstan's reputation for humility and simplicity, his adherence to the Benedictine "Rule", his exemplary personal conduct, his ability to heal the sick and perform miracles, his "holiness" made it almost inevitable that he would become a saint. However, it was not until 21 April 1203 that Wulfstan was canonised.

The author freely acknowledges that much of the material in this article comes from the book,

St Wulfstan of Worcester c.1008-1095, written by Emma Mason and published by Basil Blackwell Ltd 1990. ISBN 0631 150412.


Recently, in addition to Wulfstan's crypt, more surviving masonry from Anglo-Saxon times has been identified in the present structure of Worcester Cathedral. This includes material demolished to make way for Wulfstan's new church - see the "Eastern Slype", between the chapter house and the southern wall of the south transept, now a "tea bar". Also in Worcester, the "Commandery Civil War Centre" is located on the site of the "hospital" founded by Wulfstan and known as "St Wulstan's Hospital" - the "f" is sometimes left out in the spelling of his name.

Geoff Boxell's page on 1066