Born in Northumbria from a noble family around 633AD, the young Wilfrid entered the court of King Oswiu, where he found an enthusiastic patroness in the person of Queen Eanflæd. Eanflæd arranged for Wildred to study in the monastery of Lindisfarne, where he is supposed to have learned the entire Psalter by heart.
Armed with a letter of introduction from Eanflæd, he spent some time at the Kentish court in Canterbury, where he encountered the missionary Benedict Biscop (once again through Eanflæd’s good offices) with whom he traveled to Rome (between 653 and 658), becoming an enthusiast for all things Roman, including the practice of collecting relics.
He then spent some time in Gaul where he (probably) became a monk and where he developed a strong admiration for the Frankish church – especially with regards to its monasticism. Many of the monasteries had been founded by St Columbanus and followed a form of the Rule of St Benedict, and this experience of Benedictine monasticism seems to have been the inspiration for much of Wilfrid’s subsequent mission.
Back in Northumbria, he was given the monastery of Ripon by Alhfrith, the son of Oswiu, and, fired with enthusiasm for Roman customs and for a Benedictine style of monasticism, he dismissed those monks (including St Cuthbert) who were unwilling to adapt to Wilfrid’s way of doing things.
The Life of Wilfrid portrays him as the man who introduced Benedictine monasticism into England. It might be more accurate to say that he introduced a more (Frankish) Benedictine style of monasticism into England, but that Benedictine monasticism in the fullest sense was introduced in the 10th Century by St Dunstan.
At the Synod of Whitby in 664 Wilfrid argued passionately and forcefully on behalf of Roman church practices (particularly with regard to the calculation of the date of Easter) over against Celtic (i.e. Irish) practices. Eanflæd and her son Alhfrith both observed the Roman date of Easter, but much of the Northumbrian church was Celtic in observance (with the result that at time parts of the royal court would be fasting for Lent while others would be feasting for Easter). The Synod decided in favour of the Roman observance, though it would be another forty or fifty years before the Celtic churches and monasteries adopted the Roman date of Easter.
Elected to a bishopric in Northumbria (the exact location is unclear), Wilfrid went to Compiègne to be consecrated by Agilbert, bishop of Paris (he took a dim view of his fellow Anglo-Saxon bishops, none of whom he regarded as validly consecrated). On returning to England he found himself the victim of Northumbrian politics and was unable to take up his see.
From 665 to 668 he contented himself with ruling his monastery at Ripon, performing episcopal functions in Mercia (where he founded a number of monasteries) and Kent but never in Northumbria. Finally installed in York in 669, Wilfrid spent the best part of a decade building churches and running the monasteries at Ripon and Hexham.
In around 677 Wilfrid fell out with King Ecgfrith (he had helped Ecgfrith’s wife Æthelthryth to enter a nunnery, and his new queen sought the return of the lands give by Æthelthryth to Wilfrid) and was expelled from his see, losing control of his two Northumbrian monasteries at the same time.
At this point Theodore of Canterbury pressed forward with his plan for dividing up Wilfrid’s diocese, creating seats at York, Hexham, Lindisfarne and Lindsey. Wilfrid regarded the three new bishops – Celts who rejected the Roman dating of Easter – as not properly Catholic.
Wilfrid, inspired by the Frankish tradition of episcopal grandeur, believed that the division of England into just two metropolitan sees (now opposed by Theodore) served to emphasize the importance of the bishop (his concern with this was a matter of theological conviction rather than personal pride).
Indeed, Wilfrid’s habit of traveling around the country on horseback with a large retinue – much commented upon by critics who compare him unfavourably with the unassuming style of Celtic missionary-bishops – was likewise a question of making a theological and ecclesiological point about the hierarchical and sacramental dignity of the bishop.
Wilfrid went to Rome to appeal (more or less successfully) to the Pope, but on his return to England found himself exiled from Northumbria. He spent five years in Sussex converting the South Saxon pagans (ending a drought and teaching them how to fish proves a highly successful evangelistic tool), during which time he reconciled with Theodore.
In 686 Wilfrid returned to Northumbria (the death of Ecgfrith had changed the political situation), and occupied a reduced diocese of York. Further jurisdictional disputes under the new king Aldfrith resulted in his leaving Northumbria for Mercia, where he acted as bishop of Leicester until around 706.
He continued to appeal to Rome over his expulsion from York, but his political and ecclesiastical enemies conspired to secure his excommunication. Happily, the accession of Osred to the Northumbrian throne changed the political landscape, which saw John of Beverley transferred from Hexham to York and Wilfrid taking over at Hexham.
Wilfrid’s constant appeals to Rome have been criticised by historians as indicative of a litigious spirit and of a distinctly worldy personal ambition, but, if truth be told, what was at stake (at least from Wilfrid’s perspective) was nothing other than the Roman order and character of the Anglo-Saxon Church, together with an orthodox understanding of the rôle of the bishop.
Eventually he retired to his monastery in Ripon, dying at Oundle in Northamptonshire in 709 or 710, leaving behind him an impressive legacy of monastic foundations and church buildings – all built in a continental style designed to emphasize that, culturally and theologically, the Anglo-Saxon Church was truly “Roman”, with all that that implied.
Utilizing stones from Hadrian’s Wall, Wilfrid’s church at Hexham was the largest (outside Italy) in Western Europe – it seems to have been an aisled basilica built in the Roman style and equipped with a crypt modeled on the Roman catacombs – and could accommodate 2000 worshippers.
As with other churches built by Wilfrid in Northumbria, glass-makers and other craftsmen were brought in from the continent, enabling Wilfrid to make a bold ecclesiological statement – namely, that the English Church was no longer isolated, parochial and Celtic-British, but that it was, in every sense, fully Roman, fully part of the Universal Church, and fully integrated into Western Christendom.
Indeed, Wilfrid’s “faults” – his much-criticised love of magnificent consecrations, Italian-style churches, episcopal grandeur, and the exercise of artistic and political patronage – were not so much defects of character as reflections of his commitment to the Romanitas (albeit filtered through a Frankish lens) of the English church, and of his passionately-held belief that liturgy, churches and the very persons of bishops should inspire in the faithful an awed sense of the God who had graciously bestowed such gloriously visible signs of his presence in their midst.
Moreover, at a personal level, Wilfrid was a true ascetic, who, like other ascetics of the age, appears (judging by the account of his biographer Eddius) to have interpreted his vocation in terms of the Old Testament prophets and desert fathers, and to have been a man of such intense prayer that, praying in a darkened dungeon, he literally shone (like Symeon the New Theologian and others of the hesychast tradition) with the divine light.
See also Fr Brown’s post at Forest Murmurs.