Monday, 19 January 2015

St Wulfstan of Worcester, 'sole survivor of the old Fathers of the English people'

Wulfstan at Worcester Cathedral

19 January is the feast of St Wulfstan of Worcester, famous for being one of the few high-ranking English churchmen to keep his position after the Norman Conquest. When Wulfstan died in 1095 he was the only English-born bishop left in England, and the stories told about him claim he was respected by Normans and English alike, not just for his personal holiness but, in a way, as a relic of the Saxon church, which was so comprehensively taken over by Norman prelates after the Conquest. For the English historian Eadmer, describing why St Anselm, as Archbishop of Canterbury, consulted Wulfstan about pre-Conquest English customs, Wulfstan was 'the one sole survivor of the old Fathers of the English people'.

A detailed account of Wulfstan's life was written shortly after his death by his chaplain, Coleman. Coleman's text, which was in English, is now lost, but it was translated into Latin by William of Malmesbury in the 1120s or 1130s. William of Malmesbury also wrote about Wulfstan in his Gesta Pontificum Anglorum, written about thirty years after Wulfstan's death, and there he recounts stories he had heard about Wulfstan from people at Worcester who had known him - and they had a lot of stories to tell! The accumulation of anecdotes about Wulfstan give us a vivid picture of the man and how he was perceived by his contemporaries, so this post is a collection of my favourite stories about the saint.

Quotations are from William of Malmesbury, Saints' Lives: Lives of SS. Wulfstan, Dunstan, Patrick, Benignus and Indract, ed. and trans. M. Winterbottom and R. M. Thomson (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2002), and Gesta Pontificum Anglorum, ed. and trans. Winterbottom and Thomson (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2007), vol. I. Most of the pictures come from Worcester Cathedral, where Wulfstan's memory is still venerated; I wrote about memorials to Wulfstan at Worcester here.


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 - a nice insight into Anglo-Saxon naming practices.

Wulfstan was educated in the monastery of Peterborough, where he was taught by a monk named Earnwig, an expert scribe and illustrator. Coleman's life 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: Wulfstan had a dream in which an angel promised the books would be returned to him, and much later they were. Cnut sent the books to Cologne as a diplomatic gift to the Holy Roman Emperor, and in the reign of 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. All bibliophiles will sympathise with little Wulfstan here, and you can't blame him for falling in love with the books; high-status English manuscripts of the early eleventh century, decked in gold, are absolutely stunning. Earnwig's books would have looked something like the Bury Gospels, the Cnut Gospels, the Grimbald Gospels, or the Eadui Psalter - like this:


Coleman also tells a story about Wulfstan's adolescence, describing how the teenage Wulfstan, back home with his parents in Warwickshire, was tempted by a lustful local girl. One day a large group of young people had gathered in a field, competing in races and athletic games, and Wulfstan won all the honours of the game. The crowd shouted his praises, but Wulfstan, of course, remained humble despite all their flattery. So the Devil put it into the mind of the girl to tempt Wulfstan:

Nothing loath, she employed indecent gestures and movements to act the role of a dancing-girl in search of applause, all to play the slave to the eyes of her sweetheart. Though he had not yielded to her words and touch, he was so affected by her that he gave himself over wholly to love. But he immediately came to his right mind, shed tears, and bolted to a spot bristling with thorns and brambles. He lay there some way off while the others went on with their sport unheeding, and sleep crept over him as he pondered deeply and belaboured himself with reproaches. Then a portent was to be seen. Down from above came a bright cloud that played on the eyes of those watching with a pleasant glow; for a while it veiled the prostrate Wulfstan, and bemused the spectators. (SL, 19).
The onlookers came and asked Wulfstan to explain what it meant, and he said it was a sign of heavenly love, and that from henceforth he would always be free from sexual temptation. His biographer Coleman notes that as an old man he often told these stories about his own life to encourage others: he told the story about his childhood to boys, and this story to young men.

After thus confirming his vocation to celibacy, Wulfstan became a priest and then a monk at Worcester. One night he was praying in the church at night 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 - 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 made Bishop of Worcester in 1062, late in the reign of 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 bishop 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 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)
 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 off 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)

Such sleepiness, a trait Wulfstan shared with other saintly bishops including Anselm, is supposed to be a sign of holy indifference to earthly matters. This view of Wulfstan as an unworldly sign of contradiction, in opposition the worldliness of the Norman clerics, doubtless contributed a good deal to the nostalgic idea of him as "the one sole survivor of the old Fathers of the English people", a relic of a simpler, gentler time before the Conquest made everything complicated. Thus, for instance, William of Malmesbury claims:
Never out of respect for any person, not even when he was at the king’s court and sitting at his table, did he fail to say the blessings which the English used to utter over their drink. (GP, 429)
(Wouldn't you love to know what those blessings were, and what King William thought of them?) Wulfstan can't have been all that guileless or he would hardly have survived as bishop for thirty years after the Conquest, and he showed no support for political rebellion against the Normans: he actually helped to put down the revolt of Waltheof and the earls in 1075, the last gasp of English resistance. You get the sense that affection for Wulfstan provided a safe outlet for nostalgia about the Anglo-Saxon past, which by the time of William of Malmesbury, some sixty years after the Conquest, had lost any real political resonance. It's just a little bit patronising; the Anglo-Saxon past was not, of course, simpler or less sophisticated than the Anglo-Norman present, but you can understand why by the beginning of the twelfth century some people might have liked to think it was.

William of Malmesbury even credits Wulfstan with diagnosing one cause of the Norman Conquest. Wulfstan, you see, strongly disapproved of men with long hair:
Indeed if any of these offenders put his head within range, the bishop would personally snip a flowing lock. For this purpose he kept a small knife, which he used to tidy up his finger-nails or clean blots off books. With this he would take the first fruits of their tresses, enjoining them by their vow of obedience to return the rest of their hair to the same level plane. Anyone who thought it worth objecting he would openly charge with effeminacy, and openly threaten with ill: men who blushed to be what they had been born, and let their hair flow like women, would be no more use than women in the defence of their country against the foreigner. No one would deny that this was shown to be very true that same year when the Normans came. (SL, 59)
So that's why the English lost at Hastings! Elsewhere William of Malmesbury says exactly the opposite about the English defeat - it was the short hair that did it. Interesting theories, but I suspect neither would stand up to scrutiny...


One is inclined to be a bit suspicious of all the stories about Wulfstan's innocent simplicity, but he does seem to have been regarded with genuine affection by his pupils. There's a particularly sweet story about a monk named Nicholas:
Nicholas, his particular favourite among his pupils, later prior of Worcester, was once sitting at his feet. The bishop, in joyful mood, was gently stroking the young man’s head, coming near as it was to the reproach of baldness as the hair fled away. "I think," he said, "you will go bald." The youth was sad that he was growing old in that region while he was still so young, and he complained of departure of his locks. "Why can’t you keep them there?" he said. The bishop beamed. "Believe me," he said, "they will never disappear, the hairs that still remain, so long as I live." It turned out as he had said. But in the same week that Wulfstan bade farewell to this life, all Nicholas’s hair disappeared, who knows where, and left his pate bald. (GP, 437)
And yet fond of him as they were, Wulfstan's piety could sometimes grow tiresome to his pupils:

Wherever he went on horseback, he would go through the psalms again and again, repeating over and over any verses that came up containing prayers, until he who sang with him grew impatient. (GP, 429)

You can imagine them complaining: "Not another prayer, Wulfstan..."

Wulfstan offering his church to God

Many post-Conquest bishops embarked on ambitious building projects at their cathedrals, replacing the 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: 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)

I wonder how he would feel about being remembered to history as a representative of 'that happy age' from which he here distances himself.

The crypt at Worcester Cathedral, a survival of Wulfstan's buildings

William of Malmesbury concludes his account of Wulfstan by saying:

Surely, if the easy ways of the ancients lived on, Wulfstan would long ago have been raised on high and proclaimed a saint. But our age’s lack of belief, which decks itself under a cover of caution, refuses to give credence to miracles even when they are seen or touched.

As for myself, I was afraid that I should be accused of suppressing facts if I consigned to oblivion things known on excellent authority, and deprived eager students of what they had every right to know. (GP, 439)

We eager students thank you, William. But you can see the contrast William is trying to draw between the easy ways of the olden days, as embodied by Wulfstan, and the sceptical modern age (the twelfth century). Sceptical age or not, Wulfstan was canonised in 1203, about eighty years after William wrote these words; and he was much venerated by later English kings, including Henry II and John, who chose to be buried in Worcester Cathedral before St Wulfstan's tomb. John is still there, in pride of place, although Wulfstan's tomb is gone.

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

Many congratulations on your richly deserved Best History Blog award.

Clerk of Oxford said...

Thank you very much!