Wilfrid of York Passed Beyond Disputes

Dan Graves, MSL

Wilfrid of York Passed Beyond Disputes

The leaves were red and gold, falling from the trees late in the year 709. Although old and unwell, Bishop Wilfrid of Hexham traveled southward through England to visit religious houses he had founded in Mercia. He had spent only a few days in Mercia when illness seized him. For many years, the monastery at Ripon, about twenty miles from York, had been his favorite resting place. He turned back toward Ripon. But he got only as far as a church at Oundle.

On this day, October 12, 709, Wilfrid leaned his head against some pillows. He knew he was dying and spoke a few words of admonition to the men who were with him. Then, as the monks in the nearby choir were chanting "You will send forth your spirit and they shall be created, and you will renew the face of the earth," his soul slipped from this world into another.

He had been a bishop of the Anglo-Saxons for forty-five years--troubled years in which he stamped the English church with the form it took during the Middle Ages.

Wilfrid had left home at thirteen. His mother had died and he did not get on well with his stepmother. Under the patronage of Northumbria's queen, he entered the monastery at Lindisfarne, learning the basics of the Christian faith from Celtic Christians. Wilfrid felt that something was lacking in Celtic Christianity. At eighteen, he set out for Rome. There he met the pope. He became fully persuaded that Roman ways, not Celtic, were the direction for true Christianity.

On his way home to England, he was seized along with the Archbishop of Lyons, France during an outbreak of persecution. The archbishop was executed and Wilfrid was stripped for the same fate. But one of the judges, discovering he was a Saxon, declared that Wilfrid was not under their jurisdiction and freed him.

Back in Northumbria, Wilfrid was made abbot of the newly-built monastery of Ripon. The Celtic Christians left as the Roman moved in. Wilfrid's rise was rapid after that. Disagreement between Christians who wanted to follow the Celtic tradition and those who favored the Roman divided England. Northumbria's king called a meeting at Whitby to decide the issue. Wilfrid argued so well for the Roman position that he won the day. From then on, England celebrated Easter by Rome's calendar and English priests cut their hair in the Roman style.

Wilfrid could not win such a battle without making enemies. Partly this was owing to his lack of tact. For example, when he was named bishop of York, he refused to be consecrated by English bishops but went to France. He stayed so long that the king gave York to another man. Later, after suffering shipwreck on the coast of Sussex, England, Wilfrid returned to claim his see. He had to settle for Ripon, however. But eventually he was restored to York. There he rebuilt the church--the first major stone building in England since the Romans left.

However, he angered the king by supporting the queen who had deserted the palace to become a nun. The king encouraged the Archbishop of Canterbury to split York into four smaller sees. Wilfrid protested. When this failed, he traveled to Rome and appealed directly to the pope. He was the first Englishman to do so, and set a long precedent of similar appeals. On his way back, he stopped to carry on mission work in the Netherlands.

Much of the rest of his life was spent in attempts to have the decision of Rome honored. Part of the time he was imprisoned. Part of it, he planted churches in southern and middle England. He even made a third long and dangerous trip to Rome to appeal to the pope again. Finally he got Roman authority established over the English church.


  1. Atherton, Catherine. "St. Wilfrid, Archbishop of York." http://saintgeorgeschurch.org/window_wilfred.htm
  2. Barnes, Arthur S. "St. Wilfrid." Catholic Encyclopedia.
  3. Bede. A History of the English Church and People [Ecclesiastical History of England]. Harmondsworth, Middlesex, England: Penguin, 1968; Book 4, Section 24.
  4. Keck, Karen Rae. "Wilfrid." Ecole Glossary.
  5. Yorkshire Television Ltd. Wilfrid. Memorable Leaders in Christian History. [Videorecording]
  6. Various internet articles.

Last updated June, 2007.

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