St. Wilfrid and the Makers of England

Based on a talk by Edmund Matyjaszek for the 1300th anniversary of the death of St. Wilfrid and local research by Peter Clarke

This year marks the 1300th anniversary of the death of a figure familiar to us on the Isle of Wight. That figure was St Wilfrid, (A.D. 634-709). Bishop, missionary, controversialist, and also son of a Northumbrian thegn, so, in the Anglo-Saxon world, of noble birth, an aristocrat; Wilfrid (634-709) is one of England’s greatest and most controversial Saints. He directly influenced the move away from Celtic to the more orderly Roman church practices and is best known for championing and winning the case for the Roman, as opposed to the Celtic method of calculating the date of Easter at the famous Synod of Whitby in 664. He became Bishop of York with a See covering the whole of Northumbria, built magnificent stone churches at Ripon and Hexham and completed and restored the stone church at York started by the newly converted king Edwin.

It was on the east and approachable side of the Isle of Wight that he would have landed, and the church in Brading – then a port – has always been given precedence as his foundation, Indeed, the spacious and roomy St Mary’s at Brading still breathes an innate dignity and presence within its pre-Reformation stones as of a mother church. Thus, Brading can claim to be “the Canterbury of the Isle of Wight”

This date of 686 has been taken as the point from which the island became Christian, although the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle recalls that in A.D 661, “Eoppa, the priest, at the command of Wilfred and king Wulfhere, was the first to bring Christianity to the inhabitants of the Isle of Wight”. No doubt also, in Roman times, and after there were Christians here, but it was the conquest of the island by Caedwalla, who may have had as his spiritual adviser Wilfrid, then disputed Bishop of York and so in temporary exile from his diocese, and Wilfrid’s work on the island that gave Christianity roots that have to this day not dried up.

But this man whose death in 709 we commemorate this year, 2009 – his feast day is October 12th – is not just a curious figure from a founding past, but a titan in his times, and one of the acknowledged makers of England. He was present at the two critical synods, either in person as at Whitby in 664, or by his proxies at Hertford in 673, that gave the cast to English Christianity as an organised entity, independent of state power, yet recognising a complete allegiance to Rome as the See of Peter and source of authentic teaching and doctrine, that marked it throughout its first thousand years.

What these men of that time did – Columba from Donegal who founded the monastery at Iona, his pupil Aidan who taught Wilfrid, Cuthbert who inspired the north after Aidan, and whose agreement with Wilfrid’s arguments at the synod of Whitby in 664 that the monastic church of Ireland should fold into the universal church linked to Rome gave the nascent English church its template for centuries until the abrupt rupture of the Reformation; Theodore of Tarsus who arrived as Archbishop of Canterbury to create the very shape and frame of England through his all encompassing diocesan system established at Hertford in 673 that stills governs us today and was the first English institution for the whole nation long before any political unity emerged 3 centuries later with the descendants of Alfred the Great, the great Boniface who evangelised Germany & Northern Europe (and who is reputed to have visited Bonchurch here on the Island) and of course Bede in the 720s and after at Jarrow who wrote this all down to convey to us the extraordinary vigour of these missionaries, saints, bishops and controversialists, for they were tough, sometimes bitter men, whose tongues lashed as hard as any reins on the horses they wore out, travelling incessantly backwards and forwards over the country – was to make and shape England itself, beating it into the form that was able to withstand the Viking invasions and not succumb, absorb the brutal Normans, and become the island that spread its language, its institutions, its love of liberty throughout the world in a mission whose extent and fruits are not yet exhausted.

Throughout this period, moved this vigorous, brilliant, difficult yet endlessly vindicated noble and bishop, Wilfrid of York. He was the confidant of kings and rulers across Europe but made many powerful enemies and was twice banished from Northumbria. He made three journeys on foot and horseback through Europe to Rome and was not afraid to seek papal jurisdiction over both crown and church where he felt badly treated. His life was threatened many times being shipwrecked and nearly killed by natives off the coast of Sussex, imprisoned in Northumbria by the king and twice nearly murdered whilst travelling abroad.

How they did what they did, and what they did it for, are critical to us in our time to study and indeed rediscover if the English Church is again to fulfil its historic mission as the soul of this country, its very continuity with its own past, and the source of its liberties and laws.

He is remember in a beautiful stained glass window in St. Mary’s, Ryde. Constructed in 1883 by the famous Victorian architect, Nathaniel Herbert Westlake, R.A., it is one of the finest depicting the Island’s patron saint. Wilfrid’s cope is decorated with seeds to emphasise the start of his mission here on the Island. Small seeds grow into blossoming flowers and plants. This is what St. Wilfrid wished for here on the Island. He is holding a bishop’s crozier. Within the curved top part is a depiction of the Annunciation, with the angel Gabriel asking Mary to become the mother of God’s Son, Jesus. This emphasises the Incarnation and it also reminds us of the birthday of the Countess of Clare (25th March 1793), the Feast of the Annunciation. She founded the first Catholic church here in Ryde and St. Wilfrid founded the first Christian church in Brading.