On 19th January Wulfstan, an Anglo-Saxon bishop is remembered according to our lectionary. Wulfstan became a monk in Worcester, eventually becoming prior of the monastery, and would probably have been happy to stay that way but was persuaded to become Bishop of Worcester in 1062. He managed to combine the role of superior of the monastery and bishop very successfully. He was also successful in surviving in turbulent political times. In 1066 the Anglo-Saxons came under the rule of William of Normandy who placed his own Norman people in positions of power. Wulfstan was the only Anglo-Saxon bishop to keep his position. This may have been due to his holiness entirely or he may have had some extra help, as a legend about his suggests. Wulfstan was very much ahead of his times in preaching against the slave trade which was conducted through Bristol at that time. He was successful in stopping the trade for a long time. He died while washing the feet of the poor – a fitting example to us all.
The readings on Tuesday were Psalm 15, 1 Corinthians 4:1-5, Matthew 24:42-46. More about Wulfstan was given in my reflection which is reproduced below.
Wulfstan, who died on this day 1095, was born probably in 1008 at Long Itchington in Warwickshire, England to Anglo-Saxon parents Aethestan and Wulfgiva. He was probably named after his maternal uncle, Wulfstan who was Bishop of Worcester 1002-16 and Archbishop of York 1002-23. Wulfstan had early schooling from the age of five at the monastic school of Evesham Abbey and then from around the age of eight he continued his education at Peterborough Abbey school. He was known for his piety and his skill at sport during his time at school.
Wulfstan completed his schooling in 1024 after which nothing seems to be known of him until 1033 when he became part of the household of Bishop Brihtheah of Worcester. Here he began his ecclesiastical career, training as a clerk. He was noticed as being dedicated and chaste which impressed the bishop who eventually persuaded Wulfstan to become a priest although Wulfstan had a great sense of his own unworthiness. He was ordained in 1038 and was offered a richly endowed church. Instead he decided to become a Benedictine monk at Worcester cathedral priory. He became novice-master, cantor and sacristan before becoming prior of the monastery in 1050. The community comprised just twelve monks. Wulfstan worked hard to regain lands which had been taken, he reformed the finances and encouraged a strict following of the Rule of Benedict. In this he led by example. He was known as a good preacher who could adapt to the age and understanding of those who were listening to him. He was an able pastor who spent much time counselling. At the time some priests charged for baptism but he baptised the children of poor families without charge. As a result of this, it became acknowledged that only children baptised by Wulfstan were properly baptised.
Wulfstan’s reputation for holiness attracted many to seek him out for counsel. Among these was Harold Godwinson who later became king of England. Harold was prepared to travel around 30 miles in order to benefit from the spiritual guidance Wulfstan could give. Wulfstan eventually became Harold’s confessor, continuing to act in this role for Harold and his family when Harold became the last Anglo-Saxon king in 1066 on the death of Edward the Confessor.
Despite Wulfstan’s reputation as living a very strict life, there is a story told about him which suggests he may have been different at one point. It is said that he particularly like roast goose and on one occasion asked for one to be prepared for dinner. Being busy all morning, he did not have breakfast before going to officiate at the Mass. As he went into the chancel he could smell the roasting bird from the nearby kitchen. This distracted him during the Mass, causing him to think more of dinner than of God. His conscience accused him and so before the altar he vowed not to taste meat again. He became a vegetarian, only making the exception of eating fish on festivals. As a result he is the patron saint of vegetarians and of dieters.
In 1062 Aelred, bishop of Worcester, became Archbishop of York and recommended Wulfstan as his successor in Worcester. Wulfstan doubted his ability to be bishop but relented and was consecrated by Aelred in York on 8th September 1062. King Edward the Confessor and his council approved of Wulfstan’s appointment. He successfully combined the roles of superior of the monastery and bishop. He is credited with being the first English bishop to make a systematic visitation of his diocese. He encouraged churches to be built on his own lands and those of the lay lords. He insisted that all these churches have stone rather than wooden altars. During his time as bishop Worcester became an important cultural centre. When travelling, Wulfstan insisted on entering every church and chapel he came across to pray. When he preached at dedications of churches he was listened to by large crowds.
At the Battle of Hastings in October 1066, William of Normandy was victorious and became king of England. Wulfstan the first bishop to pay homage to William and was the only one to keep his post under William’s rule. A legend asserts that Wulfstan was indeed commanded to deliver his pastoral staff but refused to do so, saying that he would only give it to the King who had given it to him, that being Edward the Confessor. He laid the staff on Edward’s tomb which then opened to receive it. Another version of the legend says he fixed the staff in the masonry of the tomb. Either way, he was the only one who could get it back so William allowed him to remain as bishop. In 1074 and 1088 he remained loyal to the king and defended Worcester castle against insurgents.
Wulfstan had a great heart for the poor and worked hard to overcome the difficulties that the native Saxons suffered at the hands of the Normans. Many of the English became dispossessed of their lands. These were often kidnapped in the Diocese of Worcester and sold as slaves, being sent via Bristol to Ireland which was then under Viking rule. Wulfstan had a great ability to explain the Christian faith and it is said to be his preaching which brought an end to slavery by persuading the traders in Bristol of the sanctity of life and of the right of human beings to be free.
In 1084 Wulfstan reluctantly began to build a new cathedral to replace the Anglo-Saxon church and monastery of St Oswald as the community was expanding and needed more room. When Oswald’s church was being pulled down, Wulfstan burst into tears, stating that he was destroying the work of a much holier man than himself and a church where many saints had served God. The crypt of the new cathedral was completed in 1089 and still survives. Wulfstan lived to complete most of the rest of the building work on the cathedral.
Wulfstan died on this day in 1095, while performing the ritual of washing the feet of 12 poor people, a ritual he carried out daily. Wulfstan may not have lived to see Christ arrive again on earth but he was certainly a good example to us, still working at his appointed tasks until the moment of his death. He was buried beside the High Altar of the cathedral.
During his life, St Wulfstan had been famous for his prophetic abilities and for healing people. One of those he is said to have healed is Gunhild, one of King Harold’s daughters, who had an eye complaint. Soon after his death people began to visit his tomb and miracles were recorded. From 1200 onwards a careful record of the cures was kept in preparation for Wulfstan’s canonisation which happened on 21st April 1203 by Pope Innocent III.
Helene Milena – Lay Pastor