Saturday 19 January 2013

Wulfstan's Worcester

For the past two years on this date I've written at some length about Wulfstan of Worcester, the Anglo-Saxon bishop who survived the Norman Conquest and whose feast is today.  He's an intriguing figure: there are lots of delightful stories about him, and I collected my favourites here.

I have no more stories to share right now, but I do have pictures, from a visit a few days ago to Wulfstan's cathedral at Worcester. Worcester is full of interesting things (it describes itself as "possibly the most interesting of all England's Cathedrals", a claim which made me raise an eyebrow before I went there - there's such a lot of competition! - but I may now have been convinced...) Not the least of its charms is that Wulfstan and its other Anglo-Saxon saints are highly honoured pretty much all over the cathedral - from the guidebooks to the stained glass. This always makes me happy - it makes a visit like a game of 'spot the Anglo-Saxon', and regular readers will know how much I enjoy that.

It was a misty day when I arrived at Worcester, but the sun was beginning to shine:

That brooding statue is Edward Elgar, and we'll get to him in a minute. Let's have a few more photographs of the cathedral in the morning mist:

By the time St Wulfstan came to Worcester there had already been a cathedral here for several centuries. The see was established in 679 or 680, in the days when Worcester was part of the kingdom of the Hwicce. This is a little less than a hundred years after the arrival of St Augustine in Kent, and about twenty years after the Synod of Whitby; from the first, both Canterbury and Whitby were involved in the new diocese at Worcester. The first man chosen as bishop, Tatfrith, had been a pupil of Abbess Hilda at Whitby, but he died before he could be consecrated; he was replaced by Bosel, who was bishop for ten years or so before ill-health forced him to step down, and he was replaced by Oftfor, another former pupil of Hilda's and of the learned Theodore of Tarsus, eighth Archbishop of Canterbury.

And after Oftfor, we get to Egwin - the one with the fish. (The fish story, short version: in penance Egwin shackled himself and threw the key in the river; then he walked in chains to Rome, and when he got there he was brought a fish which had been caught in the Tiber - with the key to his chains miraculously inside it. This makes Egwin particularly memorable, and I talked about him in my post about Evesham.)

After St Egwin, who died in 717, the next famous bishops of Worcester came along in the second half of the tenth century, beginning with St Dunstan. Dunstan was only Bishop of Worcester for two years (from 957-959); he became Archbishop of Canterbury in 960. But his successor, Oswald (the grandson of a Viking), held the see for thirty years, part of the time while also being Archbishop of York. Oswald and Dunstan, with Bishop Æthelwold of Winchester, were the three great churchmen of tenth-century England. They founded or reformed a large number of monasteries, including Worcester - under Oswald, Worcester became a community of Benedictine monks rather than secular clergy, and it remained so until the Reformation. (Wikipedia tells me the monks of Worcester were driven out on 18 January 1540 - the eve of St Wulfstan's day. What a day for it all to come to an end!)

Among other things, Oswald was famous for his custom of washing the feet of the poor every day during Lent (as is now done on Maundy Thursday). He died on February 29 in the year 992, having just arisen from this foot-washing. From the first he was regarded as a saint, and a number of early lives were written about him. That he was well-remembered at Worcester is suggested by Wulfstan's reaction when he was responsible for knocking down the church Oswald had built for his monks:
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."
William of Malmesbury, Gesta Pontificum Anglorum, ed. and trans. Michael Winterbottom and R. M. Thomson, Oxford Medieval Texts (Oxford, 2007), vol.1, pp.437-9.

St Oswald is almost as prominent at Worcester as Wulfstan is, and we'll see lots of him in this post.

Inside the cathedral:

Before I say anything else, I want to show you this window:

It's just the most wonderful thing, and I would love it even if it didn't contain so many of my favourite medieval people. It dates to 1937, and was designed by Geoffrey Webb and given by Frederick Goodman, 'a Worcester native and for many years Archdeacon of Arctic Alaska'. The design is based on the idea of Christ as the true vine, growing out of the Annunciation at the bottom, and with two 'garden' scenes on either side - the expulsion from Eden and Christ meeting Mary Magdalen after the Resurrection. It's worth looking at every part individually. Here are the three lowest scenes, beginning with the expulsion from Eden (look at the angel's wings!):

The Annunciation:

The text at the bottom is from the Song of Songs, 4:16: 'perfla hortum meum, et fluant aromata illius', '[Awake, O north wind, and come, thou south,] blow upon my garden, that the spices thereof may flow out'. The thick trunk of the vine emerges from the delicate lily, and there are little snowdrops too, and a trinity of purple flowers.

And Christ with Mary Magdalen (note the birds swooping around him):

Then in the centre of the window, Christ:

To his right:

In keeping with the tree theme, there are birds and squirrels and other things running all over this window, as here:

St Peter has a squirrel:

(Compare to the squirrel at Evesham!) Bosel's cathedral was dedicated to St Peter, and Oswald's to the Virgin, which is why the two saints are combined here.

The upper part of the window contains the saints who were particularly important in the medieval history of Worcester. Thus, the vine grows through St Benedict, for the sake of Oswald and his Benedictine monks:

Benedict's raven, though one of his regular attributes, fits well with the bird theme here.

That blue is just so beautiful.

Next to Benedict is Theodore of Tarsus (though he doesn't look very Greek!), holding a book to remind us of his famous learning, and determinedly ignoring whatever animal is gnawing at his part of the vine.

On the other side of Benedict is St Hilda, also with a book:

And a full-length shot so you can see how lovely her robes are:

Above Hilda is St Egwin, with two birds (but no fish!):

This very much reminded me of Evesham, with the rounded flowers and gold-trimmed mitre, though he looks so young here!

Oswald, with his church, and a squirrel:

And Dunstan, with his tongs and devil!:

(The story of Dunstan and the devil can be found here).

And finally, right at the top, in pride of place, is Wulfstan:

The glorious thing about this window is that it's so colourful that its lights flood all the space around.

Directly opposite the window is the chantry chapel where young Prince Arthur, the eldest son of Henry VII, was buried in 1502, after his death at the age of fifteen. If you are up on your English monarchs, you will know that Arthur's early death changed the whole course of British history; if he had not died, Henry VIII might never have become king, and the Reformation might never have happened (or at least, have happened differently). There's something very poignant about the figures of these Saxon saints casting their bright lights over Arthur's tomb, when it was his death which brought about the greatest gap between our world and theirs:

This is inside the chantry chapel, which is a miracle of carved stone:

But much of it is as battered as this altarpiece:

This is the window reflected in the top of Prince Arthur's tomb. Below, it is reflected even more brightly in the brasses atop the tomb of one of Arthur's household, who was buried near the prince:

Arthur's is not the only royal tomb in the cathedral. Here, in front of the high altar, is where King John is buried, because he wanted to be near to (what were then) the tombs of Wulfstan and Oswald:

The tombs of medieval kings survived where medieval saints did not; but after the destruction of their tombs at the Reformation Wulfstan and Oswald were buried nearby, so they may still be around here somewhere.

A longer view:

Apart from the Goodman window, there are numerous other depictions of Wulfstan within his cathedral. Here he is in a thirteenth-century carving, in the north choir aisle, presenting his church to God:

I can't resist also posting these two carvings which were in the same place - the Annunciation and a wonderful Nativity:

The animals are keeping the baby warm, not trying to eat him...

Not far away there's another window which depicts Oswald and Wulfstan - I'd guess a nineteenth-century one:

Each has one scene below to illustrate his life - or rather, in Oswald's case, his death, with the ewer on one side for washing the feet of the poor:

The people behind him go on eating, oblivious to his sudden fall.

Wulfstan's scene depicts a remarkable moment from his legend: that after the Norman Conquest, when he was asked to resign as bishop, he stuck his staff into the tomb of Edward the Confessor. No one else could remove it, and by this miracle Wulfstan, like King Arthur, proved that he was the only man for the job.

The stained-glass Wulfstan casting his colourful light on Prince Arthur's tomb seems almost like a gentler manifestation of this story.

The Worcester saints also appear in this window, which is a memorial to Edward Elgar:

It's based on Newman's 'Dream of Gerontius'; the angels at the top are singing 'Praise to the Holiest in the Height'. And below are Worcester's saints and some musical people, Cecilia and Gregory (holding a bit of Gregorian chant):

And Egwin has a fish!

Finally, elsewhere, these must also be our two Saxon bishops too, though without any really distinguishing features:

Much as I enjoy spotting Anglo-Saxons in stained glass, the real place to find Wulfstan at Worcester is in the crypt. This is the most evocative remnant of the cathedral he built; almost everything above ground is later than Wulfstan, but this was begun with his new building in 1084, and the columns and their capitals date to his time:

Here, you are standing in an eleventh-century monastery. It was here when John of Worcester was writing his history, when Orderic Vitalis and William of Malmesbury came to visit Worcester's great library, when King John came to venerate Wulfstan, when Prince Arthur was buried; and now.

Not much later is the chapter house, begun in the early twelfth century, with its central column like a sinuous palm-tree:

So this is Worcester, Wulfstan's work.

And I'll close with more little stained-glass scenes from the cloisters, which look like this:

Look away now if you don't care about 'medieval people in stained glass'! For there are many. These windows are full of people and scenes from the history of English Christianity, arranged chronologically and loosely themed; this for instance depicts Northumbrian Christianity:

I like Lindisfarne in the bottom left-hand corner. Among other highlights of Anglo-Saxon history, there's Bede:

Here are Bosel, Egwin, and the kings who supported them:

(The kings are Æthelred of Mercia and Osric, king of the Hwicce.) And Oftfor preaching to some Saxon children, I assume:

Click to enlarge and see the rather lovely crucifix...

In my second post on Evesham's stained glass we saw a variety of depictions of the vision of the swineherd Eof, which led to the founding of Evesham, and there was one here too:

A pleasingly ghostly vision, but not quite as nice as the version in St Lawrence's, Evesham.

There's a whole series about Alfred the Great, but I'll just show you the scene which depicts the Treaty of Wedmore, the peace-treaty Alfred made with the Danish army in 878. Thus, it shows a Viking (Guthrum), complete with horned helmet - always a fun thing to come across in a stained-glass window:

Guthrum appears to be signing the treaty, which is historically dubious, but then so are Vikings in horned helmets...

Dunstan and Oswald:

Scenes from the life of Oswald - first his early visit to Fleury, where he learned about monasticism, and with his supporter Æthelwine:

The architecture of Fleury is particularly nice in the background.

This is Oswald installing Winsin as first prior of Worcester, i.e. the establishment of the monastery, and the coronation of King Edgar:

Dunstan and King Edmund at Glastonbury (Dunstan's monastery), and Oswald building at Worcester:

And Oswald's death, while washing feet:

King Edgar and a rather scary-looking Bishop Æthelwold:

Oswald and Wulfstan, both holding their churches:

With this we move on the eleventh century - Edward the Confessor, looking unusually youthful, and William the Conqueror looking, well, like a conquering hero:

Wulfstan with Lanfranc (there was no sign of Anselm, which is a shame - he, not Lanfranc, was the one who respected Wulfstan and sought his opinion as "the one sole survivor of the old fathers of the English people", according to Eadmer):

Wulfstan building Worcester Cathedral, and the incident with Edward the Confessor's tomb:

(Turquoise vestments, Wulfstan?)

Wulfstan doing general saintly things:

Wulfstan with Harold Godwinson, who was a friend of his:

I don't know why Harold looks so cheerful; he didn't have much cause to be that happy at any time in his short reign!  Some time after Harold's death at Hastings, Wulfstan healed his (fascinatingly rebellious) daughter Gunnhild of a tumour, out of his old affection for her father.

And here's Wulfstan with Lady Godiva (Godgifu), a pious and perfectly respectable Saxon noblewoman, who was a benefactor of Evesham and another of Wulfstan's friends:

Moving on a little, we have the canonisation of Wulfstan in 1203 (William of Malmesbury thought his canonisation shockingly delayed) and King John at Wulfstan's tomb:

Henry II and Thomas Becket:

Thomas Becket's murder, and Henry II receiving his penance for it:

This doesn't have anything to do with Worcester as far as I know, but I'm always interested in depictions of Becket.

Edward I at Wulfstan's tomb:

And some literary figures, just for fun - Chaucer and Wycliffe:

I've never seen an image of Chaucer where he doesn't look vaguely sceptical, and so it is here...

Langland (who was a Worcestershire man, and so deserves his place):

William Caxton:

I liked this depiction of the cathedral:

And this tribute to the Book of Common Prayer:

Then there were various 17th- and 18th-century people, until we come to Reginald Heber:

He doesn't have any Worcestershire connections, as far as I know, but I like his hymns, so I took a photo.

The last window (we've now reached the third side of the cloisters) turns to the Victorians, with Queen Victoria and Prince Albert:

And Charles Dickens, who appears to be acting out a scene from Oliver Twist:

I didn't really mean to end with Charles Dickens, who again has nothing to do with Worcester.  So here's the last I saw of the cathedral, sunset over the town, from a train:


Anonymous said...

Great, supergreat post. Once more, thanks for sharing.

B.R. said...

Thanks so much for this glorious entry! I have been under the weather with flu and bronchitis - and this lifted my spirits in an amazing way. Bless you for being such a patient and superb docent!
The walk-through of the stained glass was spectacular.

Had never heard of Wulfstan before - checking out the links to the other entries.


Clerk of Oxford said...

Oh, thank you both! Just going through the pictures again to write the post made me happy - it was all so sunny and colourful! Such a wonderful place.

Jon said...

You made this displaced Mercian very homesick! Still, I'm pleased about the link with St Hild up here in the North East. I noticed her stained glass window last time I was down visiting my parents and wondered if there was a connection.

Bev said...


Unknown said...

Thank you! A great post, I visited Worcester in September and didn't see all that you've written about. I'll visit again with your blog as my guide.