Born c. 1008 at Long Itchington, Warwickshire, to Aethelstan and Wulfgifu (who later entered monasteries in Worcester, the young Wulstan (or Wulfstan) was sent to study at Evesham and Peterborough. On his return, as his 12th century biographer William of Malmsebury (drawing on an earlier biography by a monk called Coleman who was a contemporary of Wulstan) recounts, he found himself facing powerful temptations against the life of chastity to which he wished to devote himself.
A local woman who had set her cap at him “began to dance before Wulstan with lascivious movements”, and Wulstan, “whom touches and glances had not moved, yielded to her seductive gestures, and panted with desire”. However, “in a moment he came to a better mind, burst into tears, and took flight into rough thickets and thorny places”, thereby mortifying his flesh and doing battle with his own inherent concupiscence.
Thus liberated from the power of lust, Wulstan entered the household of Brihtheah, bishop of Worcester, but turned down the offer of preferment in favour of entering the monastery of Worcester. Wulstan’s monastic austerities were legendary (he spent his nights in vigils prostrated before the altar on the bare floor), but, even as Prior of Worcester, he seems to have been irresistible to women, for a well-to-do woman whose husband was traveling in distant places was so insistent in her attempts to seduce him that eventually Wulstan lost his patience and boxed her ears.
Having overcome his weakness for women, Wulstan addressed his fondness for fine food. On one occasion he gave orders for roast goose (his favourite dish) to be prepared for dinner, after which he went about his numerous administrative duties on behalf of the bishop. His duties prevented him from taking breakfast before celebrating Mass (there was no midnight fast in those days), and, while celebrating Mass, he was so distracted by the aroma of roast goose wafting across from the nearby kitchen that he found himself more focused on the forthcoming delights of the table than on his eucharistic devotion. Appalled at his lack of piety, he vowed never again to touch meat, and has become, accordingly, the patron saint of vegetarians.
Wulstan’s success in restoring the fortunes of his monastery and his gifts as a teacher and pastor resulted in his elevation to the see of Worcester in 1062. He was the first English bishop to make visitations of all parts of his diocese, and traveled with two clerks, one of whom bore alms for distribution to the poor, and the other of whom bore confirmation chrism – Wulstan’s packed-out confirmation services were day-long events. His ability to gather groups of people around him in village squares and church-porches earned him the sobriquet “Bishop of the Market-Place”, and his unaffected piety and devotion were an inspiration to all. Wulstan was also famed for his love of the penitent and the poor. He wept when hearing confessions, and on Maundy Thursday would dine with those whom he had shriven. During Lent he used wash, feed and clothe the poor.
In the political sphere, he was not afraid to rebuke King Harold, whom he served both as confessor and emissary, and, having welcomed William the Conqueror after the Norman Conquest in 1066, he was equally bold in standing up to Blessed Lanfranc, William’s appointment as Archbishop of Canterbury who was initially highly dismissive of Wulstan (whom he regarded as an uneducated and uncultivated Saxon).
Wulstan was critical of the heavy-handed cultural imperialism of the Normans (who sought, among other measures, to “Normanize” the abbeys, the bishoprics, and, indeed every aspect of the English church). He described the Normans as “the scourge of God”, and, actively resisting their policy of downplaying the cults of the Saxon saints, sought to promote the veneration of Bede, Oswald and Dunstan.
Wulstan finally won the acceptance of the Norman bishops and nobles by refusing their command that he should hand over his crozier and plunging it instead into the stone tomb of Edward the Confessor (who had ordered his consecration). No one but Wulstan was able to remove the sword, and this miraculous occurrence persuaded the Normans to permit him to remain in his see.
One of Wulstan’s major achievements was to put an end to the Irish slave trade. Huge numbers of slaves were imported from Ireland and sold throughout England, and Wulstan and Lanfranc worked together to abolish this barbaric practice, with Wulstan preaching a series of impassioned sermons in the Bristol slave-market.
Wulstan died in 1095, aged 87, and died while washing the feet of the poor – in literal obedience to Christ’s injunction, he used to wash the feet of twelve poor men every day. Miracles were soon reported at his tomb, and he was subsequently venerated by a number of English kings (including William Rufus, John and Edward I).