Saint of the Day – 19 January – Saint Wulfstan (c 1008–1095) Bishop of Worcester from 1062 to 1095, Monk, Prior, a man of extreme holiness and penitence who was admired by all, he was a he was a man of iron will, immense charm and unworldly humility and piety. and suffered no luxury, preferring always the poor to himself. Born in c 1008 at Long Itchington, Warwickshire and died in January 1095 at He was the last surviving pre-Norman Conquest Bishop and the only English-born Bishop after 1075. Patronages – Vegetarians and dieters.
Saint Wulfstan was an impressive character. As Bishop, he fought against the continuing of married Priests in his Diocese – announcing that they should either give up their women or their Priesthood! This was in accordance with the reform of the Church as promoted by the Papacy from the mid 11th century in which clerical marriage was censured. Wulfstan expected his Monks and congregation to adhere to Christianity in the strictest sense; it is recorded that he recited Psalms repeatedly when travelling on horseback anywhere as a sign of his unwavering faith and conviction, inviting all to follow his example.
Wulfstan was born at Itchington in Warwickshire on the eve of the Danish Conquest (c 1008 or a little later), into a well-connected family. His mother may have been the sister of Wulfstan, Archbishop of York, the prominent homilist and law-maker who was an influential adviser first to King Æthelred and then to the Danish conqueror Cnut. (So the elder Wulfstan was also a bishop adept at making himself acceptable to conquerors – clearly it ran in the family.) The younger Wulfstan was probably named for his famous uncle but Coleman’s life says, that Wulfstan’s parents named him from a combination of their own names: his father was called Æthelstan (‘noble stone’) and his mother was called Wulfgifu (‘wolf gift’), so they named their son ‘Wulfstan’, joining elements from the two names
Wulfstan was educated in the Monastery of Peterborough, where he was taught by a Monk named Earnwig, an expert scribe and illustrator. Coleman’s Vita of our Saint, tells how Earnwig gave young Wulfstan some books to look after – a Sacramentary and a Psalter, with letters illuminated in gold. The boy fell in love with these beautiful books, captivated by the rich decorations but his teacher, with an eye to winning royal favour, presented the books to Cnut and his queen, Emma. The child was heartbroken at the loss but the story has a happy ending for Wulfstan had a dream, in which an angel promised the books would be returned to him and much later in lif,e they were! Cnut sent the books to Cologne as a diplomatic gift to the Holy Roman Emperor and, in the reign of St King Edward the Confessor, they happened to be brought back to England and were given to Wulfstan as a gift by someone who did not know of his dream! The Lord indeed, works in strange and wondrous ways to the eyes of men!
Wulfstan became a Priest and then a Monk at Worcester. One night he was praying in the Church, when an old peasant came in and scolded him for being there so late and challenged him to a fight. Wulfstan – knowing, of course, that it was the Devil in disguise, wrestled with the peasant until he vanished in a puff of smoke.
“But so that [the Devil] should not seem to have failed altogether, he trod on the good man’s foot with all the force wickedness could muster and pierced it, as though with a red-hot iron. The damage penetrated to the bone, so Godric, a Monk of that house, bore witness; according to Coleman, he said he had often seen it, he said “I do not know whether to call it wound or ulcer.’ The same Coleman avows, that he knew the rustic whose shape the Devil took on, a man well suited from his superhuman strength, wicked character and grim ugliness, to be the one into whom that wicked bandit transformed himself. (SL, 29)”
Wulfstan was Consecrated Bishop of Worcester in 1062, late in the reign of St King Edward the Confessor. The tone of his time as Bishop was set, according to William of Malmesbury, by the Bible verse chosen at his Consecration (at random, as was customary, as a prognostication): ‘Behold an Israelite indeed in whom there is no guile’. The stories about Wulfstan’s career as Bisho, illustrate this idea of his guilelessness, his remarkable simplicity and humility, even when he was mixing with the most powerful people in the land. Wulfstan had been closely associated with Harold Godwineson but he nonetheless, managed, to retain his position after the Norman Conquest when many English Abbots and Bishops were deposed. Later legend said ,that when he was ordered to surrender his Episcopal Staff, he stuck it into the tomb of St King Edward, declaring that as Edward had appointed him, only Edward could take it from him. No-one could pull the staff out of the tomb except Wulfstan himself – his own sword-in-the-stone miracle. So he kept his position.
Typical of the stories about Wulfstan’s simplicity of life, is this witty exchange with a Norman Bishop who teased Wulfstan for dressing in humble lamb-skin, rather than grander clothes:
“When he was on one occasion told off for this by Geoffrey Bishop of Coutances, he retorted with some witty remarks. Geoffrey had asked why he had lamb-skins when he could and should wear sable, beaver or wolf. He replied neatly, that Geoffrey and other men well versed in the way of the world, should wear the skins of crafty animals but he, was conscious of no shiftiness in himself and was happy with lambskin. Geoffrey pressed the point and suggested he could at least wear cat. But ‘Believe me,’ answered Wulfstan, ‘the Agnus Dei is more often chanted than the Cattus Dei.’ That made Geoffrey laugh – he was pleased that he could be made fun of and that Wulfstan could not be moved (SL, 107-9).”
Many post-Conquest Bishops embarked on ambitious building projects at their Cathedrals, replacing the Anglo-Saxon Churches with larger, more impressive buildings in the new style. Wulfstan did the same at Worcester but he mourned the loss of the old cathedral:
“When the bigger church, which he had himself started from the foundations, had grown large enough for the Monks to move across to it, the word was given for the old church, the work of St Oswald, to be stripped of its roof and demolished. Wulfstan stood there in the open air to watch and could not keep back his tears. His friends mildly reproved him, saying that he should rather rejoice that in his lifetime, so much honour had accrued to the Church that the increased number of Monks made larger dwellings necessary. He replied: “My view is quite different. We unfortunates are destroying the works of Saints, in order to win praise for ourselves. In that happy age men were incapable of building for display; their way was to sacrifice themselves to God under any sort of roof and to encourage their subjects to follow their example. But we strive to pile up stones while neglecting souls.” He said more along these lines, undermining opposed views with his own assertions (GP, 429-31).”
Wulfstan can be regarded as a modern man through his efforts to decry and abolish the slave trade. The Diocese of Worcester extended as far down as Gloucestershire, which included the city of Bristol. Wulfstan made regular journeys to Bristol and would reside there for 2 to 3 months at a timEe, in order that his residence there, would make an impression upon the community. Bristol was one of the capitals of the slave trade in Britain and traded slaves native to England, Scotland and Wales. People resorted to slavery when they were severely impoverished, often families would sell their children into the trade. When a person was enslaved in Bristol, the process had to be undertaken in a public place with witnesses so that the slave could not deny their slavery at a later date. Thus, this measure reveals, that it would have been nigh impossible to work a way out of the slave trade as, during the public process, you had relinquished all personal rights to your master. Wulfstan succeeded in abolishing the slave trade in Bristol by converting the traders, this accomplishment initiated a reform of the slave trade elsewhere in Britain.
Wulfstan’s unworldliness was fondly remembered:
“If he was ever forced to go to the Shire Court, he started by pronouncing a curse on evil judges and a blessing on upright ones. Then he would sit down and if some religious matter was under consideration, he would concentrate hard but if it was secular, as more often happened, he would grow bored and go to sleep. But if anyone thought fit to speak against him, he soon found out that Wulfstan was no dullard when it came to replying (GP, 429).”
St Wulfstan died on 20 January 1095 after a protracted illness, the last surviving pre-Norman Conquest Bishop. After his death, an Altar was dedicated to him in Great Malvern Priory, next to those of St Thomas Cantilupe and St King Edward the Confessor.
At Easter of 1158, Henry II and his wife Eleanor of Aquitaine, visited Worcester Cathedral and placed their Crowns on the Shrine of Wulfstan, vowing not to wear them again. Their son King John is buried at Worcester Cathedral.
Soon after Wulfstan’s death, a hagiography, or saint’s life, was written about him in English by his former Chancellor Coleman. It was translated into Latin by the medieval chronicler and historian William of Malmesbury. One of the many miracles, which were granted through the intercession of St Wulfstan was the curing of King Harold’s daughter.
Wulfstan was Canonised on 14 May 1203 by Pope Innocent III and he was much venerated by later English Kings, including Henry II and John, who chose to be buried in Worcester Cathedral next to St Wulfstan’s tomb. John is still there, in pride of place, although Wulfstan’s tomb is gone, probably desecrated by the minions of Henry VIII.