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Major anniversary for St Wilfrid

By Louise A Hampson
Development Officer, Christianity & Culture Project, University of York

St Wilfrid's crypt. Photo courtesy of Bernard J Muir, University of Melbourne
St Wilfrid's crypt still exists underneath Ripon Cathedral

2009 marked the 1300th anniversary of the death of Saint Wilfrid, one of the most important figures in the early Anglo-Saxon church and the north of England in the seventh century.

Most of what we know about him comes from the work of the Venerable Bede and an account of Wilfrid's life by Eddius Stephanus, a contemporary and friend of Wilfrid who was brought by him from Canterbury to Ripon in AD 669.

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.

Wilfrid left home for the royal court of Northumbria when he was fourteen, from where he went on to join the church at the monastery on Lindisfarne.

Icon of St Wilfrid. Image courtesy of aidanharticons.com
On his way back from Rome, Wilfrid adopted the Roman form of tonsure

Later he spent many months in Rome, during which time he was schooled by Boniface, the archdeacon, in the Roman church practices and traditions.

These differed considerably from the Celtic traditions of his homeland, causing a clash which was a feature of his relationships with his fellow bishops and which famously came to a head at the Synod of Whitby in 664.

One of the problems, strangely enough, revolved around a haircut!

On his way back from Rome, Wilfrid had decided to adopt the Roman form of tonsure.

That is the circle of hair with the shaved centre that nowadays we associate with monks. It was intended to imitate the Crown of Thorns and was claimed to have originated with St Peter.

The Celtic tonsure consisted of shaving the whole front of the head from ear to ear, the hair being allowed to hang down behind.

In a highly visual culture the way you cut your hair was a visible sign of which church tradition you followed.

There were heated debates during the 660s over these different haircuts, as well as over the way the date for Easter was decided.

The question of how to calculate the date of Easter, and therefore which church authority you subscribed to, was at the heart of the Synod of Whitby in 664.

The Celtic church favoured one system while the Roman church had a different view.

Whilst nowadays we might think "Who cares? Live and let live", in Wilfrid's day it was very different. He believed if the conflicting doctrines were allowed to flourish there could be no unity.

Ripon Cathedral
Eddius Stephanus, brought to Ripon by Wilfrid, wrote an account of his life

As far as Wilfrid was concerned there was only one right answer: the rule of Rome should bring the English into the fold and put an end once and for all to heretical, schismatic Celtic Christianity!

As well as his involvement in controversial issues, Wilfrid repaired and partially rebuilt the first Minster at York and built a stone church at Ripon, part of which can be seen in the crypt which still exists underneath the cathedral.

He also went on to build a church at Hexham, but his uncompromising style and bombastic approach continued to cause him problems.

Wilfrid was deposed from his bishopric, not for the first time, in 678 and did not return to England for another two years: on his return he was without a see and effectively in exile until he returned to Rome in 703 to plead his cause again.

A lengthy court case ensued in the papal court and, in 704, Wilfrid was ordered to return home, his case won and completely exonerated by Rome of the various complaints laid against him.

The Council of Nidd in 706 finally mended the fences and Wilfrid was reconciled with his fellow bishops.

He did not have long to enjoy his new-found peace, however, as he died in 709 at Oundle in Northamptonshire.

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