Wulfstan of Worcester: a great Anglo-Saxon

by frankbeswick

Saint Wulfstan of Worcester had the strong personality that we find in the saints. A genuinely holy man he was a great defender of the poor and oppressed

There were two Saint Wulfstans, uncle and nephew, but the Worcester one is the more famous. Wulstan of Worcester was a monk who believed passionately in the church's mission to the poor and the needy. He was personally responsible for the church's charity programme and he launched a powerful campaign of preaching against the evils of the slave trade, which was rife at the time. He must therefore rank among the great anti-slavers.He was also a peacemaker.

The image above shows Pershore Abbey church, near Worcester, a surviving prereformation monastic church still in use. Image courtesy of jamesdavidphoto

Early Life

The city of Worcester stands on the Avon, which flows down to the powerful Severn, surging southwards from the Welsh hills.Overlooking the river is Worcester Cathedral, an imposing edifice of stone. The cathedral as you see it now was a Norman construction, and Worcester's most famous son had a simpler building that was replaced after the Norman conquest. Bishop Wulfstan was less interested in stone buildings than he was in the true foundations of the church, its people, and he was committed to the church's mission to the poor and the needy.

The great-nephew of Archishop Wulfstan of York, [also a saint]  who was dead before Wulstan became a bishop, the young Wulfstan, who was born in 1008, studied at the abbeys of Evesham [near Worcester] and Peterborough. He then became a clerk at Worcester cathedral, which meant that he was a minor cleric given to routine administrative duties. But his diligence in his duties and his chastity [he actually kept the celibacy rules and did not have a mistress or frequent brothels, as some clerics did] got him noticed and the bishop asked him to become a priest. He was ordained priest and later joined the Benedictine order in their abbey near Worcester,where his talents led him upwards first to the rank of novice master, supervising young monk, but next to he was promoted to prior,the  assistant to the abbot. 

By 1062 a problem had developed. Bishop Eadfrith was in trouble with the Pope. Eadfrith, who does not seem a bad guy, was guilty being bishop not only of Worcester, but also archbishop of York, besides having several other income streams. It is against church rules for a bishop to rule two  dioceses and so Pope Nicholas the Second laid the law down. Drop one, so he was forced to step down from Worcester. Why did Eadfrith have  two bishoprics? Easy, the trick was to have a few of them, get the revenues, appoint an underpaid, but devoted monk as suffragen/auxiliary bishop and then enjoy the profits. Wulfstan got the job and decided to run the diocese properly.

Then there came a problem. Strictly speaking Wulfstan should have been consecrated by his superior, Stigand of Canterbury, but Wulstan knew that Stigand had been uncanonically appointed [without papal consent] so he not only refused to be consecrated by him, but would not swear obedience, though he was happy to be consecrated by Eadfrith, by then safely at York, and later to swear obedience to Lanfranc,the Norman who succeeded Stigand at Canterbury. 

Then in 1066 the Norman conquered England and most Saxon bishops were deposed,  but Wulfstan was spared, as William the conqueror recognized a genunely good and holy man and an outstanding bishop. What helped Wulfstan's cause is that he was the first bishop to do homage to William. He was also willing to work well with Lanfranc. 



Worcester Cathedral
Worcester Cathedral


A commitment to justice for the poor is a benchmark of a Christian, and Wulfstan passed this test with flying colours. One of his achievements was to establish a hospital at Worcester in 1085. This was at first a home for a small number of indigent poor people, but very soon it developed into an infirmary for up to twenty two sick people. The hospital survived throughout the Middle Ages until Henry the Eight's reign, when he sold it off and kept the profits. What the people of Worcester thought of their king's theft of the hospital is not recorded, but in the region people still retain a folk memory of the monks and their kindness, but none speak well of Henry. 

Wulfstan was deeply troubled by some of his priests, who refused to baptize the children of those with no cash to pay them. When people thought that all unbaptized people were denied heaven, that was scandalous. So Wulfstan decided to walk the diocese, accompanied by two monks, one carrying the baptismal oils, the other with the money bag. As far as we know no robber assailed them. When he reached the church of a priest who would not baptize the poor, Wulfstan stood on the porch and summoned the poor, distributing alms and baptizing for free. These diocesan perambulations went on whatever the weather. 

But he put his powerful preaching skills to use. After the Norman conquest the condition of the English people worsened. Many lost their lands to the invaders and fell into  debt. An evil trade arose, with indebted people and some non-debtors being kidnapped and taken to Bristol, from which port they were exported to the slave markets run by the Vikings in Dublin. Without military power Wulfstan could only use words, but he ensconced himself in the port of Bristol and preached long and eloquently about the evils of slavery and the eternal damnation that awaited slave traders. Many slaves were freed, as the awesome spiritual presence of the bishop impressed many, and slowly but surely the slave trade became considered, if not technically illegal, morally unacceptable, and Wolfstan can be credited with having a major role in the suppression of the slave trade that occurred in mediaval England. [It was later to arise again in post-Reformation England, and the bishop Wulfstan had no sway with the Scots, who were major slave raiders, but he could not do everything.] In his endeavours against slavery he enjoyed the backing of the Norman archbishop of Canterbury, Lanfranc, an example of Saxon and Norman working together for the good of the people. 

For much of his episcopate he laboured to ease the condition of the repressed English people, speaking up for them at the courts of the king and of nobles. It was an arduous task.It is to be noted that when the bishop of nearby Lichfield died Wulfstan administered the diocese  for a year without trying to become its bishop, so he kept the church rules against plurality of benefices.

Relations With the State.

The bishop enjoyed good relationships with three kings. Firstly he was a friend of Harold Godwinson, the last Saxon king of England who was killed at the battle of Hastings.  Godwinson was impressed with the bishop's preaching and was prepared to travel for up to thirty miles to hear him. Godwinson, in 1062 still merely earl of Wessex,added his weight to the move to make Wulfstan a bishop and remained a close friend until his untimely death at Norman hands.

When his friend and supporter Harold was killed Wulfstan faced a serious problem.How was he to continue his work with a hostile king? Like most Saxons he resented the invasion, but he was realistic enough to know that the manpower of England had been seriously depleted and that the Normans were capable of refreshing their military with men from the continent. Saxon England was beaten and further warfare was pointless, so he did homage to William and made the best of a bad situation. His prudence paid off. William was impressed by Wulfstan's reputation and allowed him to  stay in office, the only Saxon bishop so blessed. William sought his advice and this enabled Wulfstan to get a place at court, where he could speak up for the common people. He used his position to advance his anti-slavery cause, where he managed to persuade William to object to the enslavement of Christians, which support aided Wulfstan's cause greatly. In 1075 he managed to act as a mediator between the sides in a rebellion, thus preventing the devastation that William had wrought on the rebel North in 1069 and saving many lives.

During this period he was persuaded to redevelop the cathedral, and the cathedral that you see in the picture is laid on Wulfstan's foundations.How enthusiastic he was for such  grandiose redesign is uncertain, as he was more concerned with social justice than he was with grandeur. He did,  though, found a new priory at Malvern to deal with the expanding number of monks who were outgrowing the monastic house at Worcester. 

He outlasted both William and Lanfranc. William's successor, William Rufus, was no friend of the church and kept the position of archbishop of Canterbury vacant so that he could hang on to the revenues of the diocese, but even he valued the wise counsel of the bishop of Worcester. Eventually wiser counsel prevailed and the Norman Anselm now nown as Saint Anselm, was appointed to Canterbury and Wulfstan had a share in his consecration. 

One surprising fact about Wulfstan is that he is the patron saint of vegetarians. The reason for this is, according to the story, that one he was tempted by the smell of roasting goose, and found the thoughts of it interfered with his prayers, so to prevent this situation occurring again he went vegetarian. He did not make a moral rule of vegetarianism, for it as for him a personal choice that he did not impose on others.

Wulfstan was a great Catholic and Christian and a great Engllshman. His memory is still strong around Worcester, but sadly he is not as well-known by his fellow English as he deserves to be and they need him to be.All would benefit by knowing about their great and holy fellow countryman.

Updated: 09/14/2017, frankbeswick
Thank you! Would you like to post a comment now?


Only logged-in users are allowed to comment. Login
frankbeswick on 09/16/2017

You have scientific proof of our genome, but as I have said previously, the historical interpretation of the data is to my mind questionable. English is not a single set of genes, but a complex interaction of various genetic inputs going back to the post Ice Age period. The composition, according to Oppenheimer, is three post ice age groups followed by some other inputs over the generations [including a neolithic input that brought farming.] The Anglo-Saxons followed, but they were South Scandinavians who contributed merely no more than ten per cent of the English gene pool. Then came the Danes and in Lancashire Norwegians. So English is a composite race containing much Scandinavian. The Angles and Jutes were both from Denmark and their language was close to Danish.Your Scandinavian could merely be Angle, or Danish though you have ancestors from Limerick, where the Scandinavian [Norwegian] input was strong

Personally, I have never had my Y chromosome tested [not worth spending the cash on it] so I don't know whether my Y chromosome is Anglo-Saxon or ancient British, for we are a family from Lancashire, where pre-Saxon British survived in significant numbers.

Veronica on 09/16/2017

Exactly : you estimate. I have scientific laboratory proof. Of course, we are the same but different You inherit the English Y chromosome from dad and his dad and his dad ......which I don't have as I got his Irish X from his mother.

Genetics is a fascinating field.

frankbeswick on 09/16/2017

Well, Veronica, I estimated it from where various ancestors originated. I am unsure of the precise mix, as the further back you go the more complex the mix becomes. When you read the history of these isles you see just how intermingled the nations are. I have pointed out before that English and Irish nationality both include Scandinavian ancestry. If you read Beowulf and Grendell, by Grigsby, you will see that the Angles, Saxons and Jutes counted as South Scandinavians rather than as Germans. English is not as some think a simple, mono-ethnic nationality, but from the beginning has been an ethic mixture.

frankbeswick on 09/16/2017

Wulfstan is a much loved folk memory in Worcestershire, but I am unsure whether there is a hospitl in his name. The British National Health Service has undergone so much re-organizaton, with institutions changing names as they are amalgamated that it is hard to keep up with it all. Normally, hospitals would be named according to the health trust to which they belong.

In the Sixteenth Century Wulfstan's institution was sold to the Wilde family, who closed it and used the building for their own purposes.An ancient noble family, they still own an estate in the West Midlands, but I do not think that they still own Wulfstan's site, which was sold on.

blackspanielgallery on 09/15/2017

Well written, and now your words have traveled throughout the world. Spreading information that is otherwise obscure is the power of Wizzley.

DerdriuMarriner on 09/15/2017

frankbeswick, Has there been a hospital built to honor the one that Saint Wulfstan had constructed in 1085 and that was dismantled in the sixteenth century? Was his hospital destroyed or re-purposed?

Veronica on 09/15/2017

I am not near equal measures at all. I don't know where you get that from .I am nearly 60% Irish and only 13% English. according to my DNA , I am 15% Scandinavian which is my second ethnicity.

frankbeswick on 09/14/2017

Katie, many in Britain are mixed like you are. I and Veronica have roughly equal amounts of English and Irish.

kimbesa on 09/14/2017

He does sound like a good man, and even more because he managed to get along with the Normans. I had never heard of him. Thanks for writing about this little-known saint!

katiem2 on 09/14/2017

My DNA test tell me I am Scottish, Irish and Welch ( as pronounced in England, Walsh in Ireland and Welsh in Scotland) in that order. Curious bit of history, interesting indeed. I love the castle.

You might also like

Walsingham: England's Marian shrine

Founded in Anglo-Saxon times it was ruined at the reformation, but now is reb...

Benedict XVI

Yesterday the world said goodbye to a man of great scholarship and holiness.T...

Disclosure: This page generates income for authors based on affiliate relationships with our partners, including Amazon, Google and others.
Loading ...