A 15th-century artist painted St Wilfrid for the canons of Hexham Priory. Since no-one knew what the long-dead Wilfrid looked like, he was shown simply as a richly-robed archbishop. The canons thus honoured their church’s founder, who for nearly half a century had led the struggle for Christianity in England.
Wilfrid was born just as the new faith arrived In Anglo-Saxon Northumbria; as he grew up, Bishop Aidan and Irish-trained monks from Iona were busily spreading the Word. WIlfrid, a pushful youth, persuaded the Northumbrian queen to send him for schooling to Aidan’s Holy Island monastery; but there he found that humble Irish monks and tiny wooden churches did not meet his grander vision
Seeking an alternative, Wilfrid set off on the long journey to Rome. staying on the way with the Bishop of Lyons to sample the Gaulish church. During six exciting years he saw richly decorated stone churches where he heard glorious music and liturgy; and he met political bishops who shared authority with French sovereigns. At Rome, he often prayed in the monastery church of St Andrew, whose prior Augustine had taken Christianity to Canterbury sixty years earlier.
When at last Wilfrid returned, he was soon in the midst of controversy. Disagreement over customs and calendar between the Celtic (Irish) churchmen and those who followed the Roman pattern were slight but annoying. While Oswiu of Northumbria, the most powerful ruler in Britain, rejoiced for the Celtic Easter festival, his Kentish-bred queen was still fasting for Lent. Oswiu called a synod of church leaders at Whitby, and there Wilfrid’s wide experience, his fluency in Latin and Northumbrian English, his faith and confidence, brought him forward as the main spokesman for Rome in opposition to Bishop Colman of Lindisfarne and his team. Oswiu decided to take his people over to the Roman camp; Wilfrid had helped settle the future of English worship.
Now acclaimed and respected, Wilfrid remained for forty-five tireless years a leader in the
English Church, as bishop, missionary, abbot, church-builder and adviser to kings. He faced many difficulties, for ambition and arrogance brought him into conflict with two successive
Northumbrian kings and two archbishops of Canterbury. He was for a time imprisoned, and spent many years journeying to and from Rome to seek help from the Pope. But on his travels he never paused in his mission, and Christianity flourished thanks to his efforts. As missionary or bishop he guided at various times the Northumbrians, the Mercians, the men of Sussex and Wight, and the people of Frisia. He made Anglo-Saxon rulers acknowledge the vital role of the Church alongside the state. The churches he built were places of beauty and awe, his monasteries centres of devotion, learning and culture. The great houses of St Peter at Ripon and St Andrew at Hexham were buildings the like of which had not been seen in Britain since Roman times. He brought from Italy the Benedictine Rule to order monkish lives, and he collected on his travels treasures and saints’ relics, books and ideas to enrich his monasteries.
Queen Etheldreda of Northumbria gave Wilfrid land on which he built the Benedictine monastery dedicated to St Andrew which became Hexham Abbey and Cathedral. Wilfrid’s biographer, Stephen, wrote in wonder of the depth of its foundations in the earth, and its crypts of wonderfully dressed stone, and the manifold building above ground, supported by various columns and many side aisles, and adorned with walls of notable length and height, surrounded by various winding passages with spiral stairs leading up and down; … nor have we heard of any other house on this side of the Alps built on such a scale.
Only the crypt survives, but that shows how St Wilfrid’s great church was built from stone quarried by the Romans four or five centuries before. It was also richly adorned: we know that Bishop Acca provided ornaments of gold, silver and precious stones, with hangings of purple and silk. Either Wilfrid or, more likely, his successors, added painted sculptures, relief panels and friezes, and many fragments of these survive built into the present nave walls and niches.
From the traces of its remaining foundations we can form some idea of the size and shape of Wilfrid’s church. The latest attempt to work out how it may have looked is Eric Cambridge’s suggestion of a long nave, slightly narrower than the present one, flanked by aisles or porticus chapels. The chancel was smaller, with the high altar immediately above the shrine in the crypt and somewhere near the present carpeted steps. East of the main church stood a separate chapel; the foundations of its apse remain below the present choir.
These awe-inspiring stone buildings brought to simple Northumbrians living on the fringe of the known world something of the sophisticated style of Rome and Gaul, and the full splendour of the Christian faith.
All these dates are probable but not certain. Wilfrid may have been born in 634, and perhaps died in 710, while Hexham was founded at some time during the years 670 to 674. All our knowledge of Wilfrid comes from two of his contemporaries: Stephen (sometimes confused with Eddlus) who wrote an admiring biography, and Bede. Both are partisan, and leave many gaps in the story.
633 Wilfrid born, the son of a Northiumbrian noble.
647-651 At the monastery of Lindisfarne.
652 Went to Canterbury, then on to reach Rome in 654. Stayed there, and also at Lyons with Bishop Aunemund on the way out and back, 655-8.
660 Given the monastery of Ripon.
664 Synod of Whitby; Wilfrid spoke for Roman practice, King Oswiu agreed, and the Celtic
bishop and monks submitted or returned to Ireland. Wilfrid became Bishop of the Northumbrians
with his seat at York, but went to Gaul for consecration and did not take up his see until 669.
672 Given lands by Queen Aethilthryth (Etheldreda), Wilfrid set about building the
Benedictine Abbey of Hexham.
678 Quarreled with King Aldfrith and Archbishop Theodore, who partitioned his diocese.
Wilfrid went to see the Pope and collect saints’ relics from Rome, on the way converting pagans in Frisia and Sussex. Returning, he still met hostility, and was briefly imprisoned.
686 Reconciled with the new King Aldfrith, Wilfrid was restored to some of his monasteries
and part of his diocese.
691 Another quarrel and exile. Wifrid worked in Mercia, East Anglia, Wessex and Kent,
advising kings and building churches.
703-5 To Rome once more to appeal to the Pope; while returning through Gaul Wilfrid fell ill,
and was told in a vision to build a church in honour of Our Lady. He may then have built the
church of St Mary in Hexham.
706 Wilfrid’s monasteries were at last restored to him, and he became Bishop of Hexham until his death in 709.
Text: Tom Corfe Illustration: CC Hodges, 1888