Tuesday, 17 January 2012

Wulfstan of Worcester, the Last Anglo-Saxon Saint

This time last year I posted several of my favourite stories about Wulfstan of Worcester, the eleventh-century saint who was the last English bishop to keep his position after the Norman Conquest. There are many more stories where those came from, and here are some of them, in commemoration of his feast on the 19th January.

These are all from William of Malmesbury's Gesta Pontificum Anglorum, which was written about thirty years after Wulfstan's death in 1095. William is relying on stories he had heard about Wulfstan from people at Worcester who knew him - and they had a lot of stories to tell! Like the Life of Wulfstan I quoted in the other post, they emphasise the bishop's personal piety and his commitment to simplicity of life, sometimes to the mockery or puzzlement of his fellow churchmen.

Let's begin with the most famous and in some ways the most telling tale (as it were) about Wulfstan. 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 clearly felt he had to do the same at his church, but he mourned the loss of the old cathedral:

When the bigger church [at Worcester], 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.

This is rather a moving story when we think about how much of the Saxon past was indeed in danger of being lost in that crucial period after 1066. At the same time, it illustrates how many of the stories about Wulfstan's life present his piety in opposition to the worldliness of the Norman clerics - doubtless this contributed a good deal to the nostalgic idea of him as "the one sole survivor of the old Fathers of the English people" (as Eadmer, who similarly lamented the loss of the Saxon cathedral at Canterbury, called him), a relic of a simpler, gentler time before the Conquest made everything complicated. Thus, for instance, William says:

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.
Wouldn't you love to know what those blessings were, and what King William thought of them? Wulfstan can't have been all that much of a reactionary 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). One gets the sense that affection for Wulfstan provided a safe outlet for nostalgia about the Anglo-Saxon past, which even by the time of William of Malmesbury had lost any real political resonance.

But 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.

This sleepiness, a trait Wulfstan shared with other saintly bishops including Anselm, is not a sign of apathy but a kind of holy indifference to worldly matters (and I have to link again to the story about the 'Cat of God', which falls into the same category!). Wulfstan seems to have been regarded with genuine affection by his pupils, as this charming story indicates:

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.

And yet fond of him as they were, his piety could sometimes grow tiresome:

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.

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

William 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.

Speaking as an ‘eager student’, thank you, William! The sceptical age in question was the early twelfth century, not usually thought of these days as a hotbed of rationalism. And Wulfstan was canonised in 1203, about eighty years after William wrote these words.

All quotations are from William of Malmesbury, Gesta Pontificum Anglorum, ed. and trans. Michael Winterbottom and R. M. Thomson, Oxford Medieval Texts (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2007), vol.1, pp.437-9. None of the photographs are of Wulfstan, but of anonymous medieval bishops - the stained glass is from the estate church at Goodnestone, Kent and the carving of an unidentified bishop (probably Thomas Becket) is from Godmersham. They're both Jane Austen churches, though that wasn't deliberate.

1 comment:

Steffen said...

Thanks for two wonderful posts on Wulfstan, a figure I'm becoming increasingly fascinated by. In the course of my MA thesis I had to engage in a brief encounter with him, as William of Malmesbury's vita is one of the sources to 12th-century views on Edward the Confessor. I hope, in not too long, I'll be able to read Emma Mason's book on the cult of the saint in its entirety.