Wilfrid – Background

Reproduced from the North Isle Nave window in Chichester Cathedral

Wilfrid was born in 634 in what is now Northumberland, the northernmost county of England. The county is bounded north by Scotland, east by the North Sea, and west and south by the counties of Cumbria and Durham and by the area of Tyne and Wear.

Roman domination in the area began in AD 122, when Hadrian’s Wall was constructed from the River Tyne to the Solway Firth. In the 5th Century the Roman Empire collapsed and the two Centuries of the Dark Ages began as the heathen Angles and Saxons invaded and occupied the area.

In 547 the Angle King Ida built a fortress at Bamburgh (subsequently the seat of Saxon Kings) and founded the Kingdom of Bernicia stretching north from the Tyne to the Forth. On Ida’s death Deira, the Kingdom south of the Tyne, threw off the Bernician over lordship and Aelle became King of Deira in 559 whilst Ida’s descendants continued to reign in the northern Kingdom of Bernicia.

On Aelle’s death the Bernician King Aethelric again subdued Deira around 588, and his son Aethelfrith ruled both Kingdoms until 616, but Aelle’s son Edwin would return to rule as the most powerful English ruler of the age.

The power struggle between the competing dynasties in Bernicia and Deira, the combination of the states into Northumberland, the most powerful of the Anglo Saxon states, and the conversion to Christianity of the rulers, are complex but well worth analysing if we are to grasp the forces at work when our Saint took the direction he so passionately followed.

Christianity had been introduced to our shores in Roman times. The “bush telegraph” of the Roman soldiers as they travelled from Rome across Europe and the thriving sea trade that ensued would have led to an introduction of Christianity to this isle as early as the 2nd Century. In the 3rd Century we had our first martyr St Alban and by 306 Constantine the Great was declared emperor at York and was himself converted to Christianity in 312. However, much of the early Christian church evaporated when the Roman Legions left our shores in the 5th Century and the two centuries of the Dark Ages saw heathen Anglo Saxons invade our shores and establish settlements.

Whilst barbarians overran England, in neighbouring Scotland and in Ireland Celtic Christianity flourished. As early as 563 Columba and his 12 disciples had set up a Celtic monastery at Iona in Scotland. Interestingly, the Celtic monks made no attempt to convert their heathen Anglo Saxon neighbours south of the Scottish border.

In 596 Pope St Gregory I the Great commissioned Augustine to establish under the protection of Brunhild a mission in England and Augustine became the first Archbishop of Canterbury.

In 601 the Roman monk Paulinus was sent to England by the Pope to assist Augustine and was consecrated bishop at Kent in 625.

Now this is where the power struggle between the heathen Kingdoms of Bernicia and Deira is so significant – by a twist of fate the one line set a course towards the Celtic faith, the other towards the Roman.

During the years that the Deiran King Aethelfrith ruled both Kingdoms, his Bernician brother in law Edwin was in exile wandering secretly as a fugitive in heathen territory, finally receiving the protection of Raedwold, King of the Angles. However when Raedwold fought and defeated Aethelfrith and restored Edwin to power in 616, Aethelfrith’s sons Oswald and Oswiu, took refuge for the 17 year reign of Edwin in the Hebrides and were educated by the Celtic monks at Iona where they were converted to the Celtic Christian faith.

All the other English rulers except the King of Kent eventually recognized Edwin as overlord and he was about to cement relations even there by seeking marriage with the King of Kent’s daughter. Aethelburh was a Christian princess brought up in the Roman faith and when Edwin, a heathen, sent ambassadors to enquire of Eadbald, Aethelburh’s brother and then King of Kent, for her hand in marriage it was made clear that such a marriage would not be lawful. Edwin promised that he would not put any obstacles in the way of her or entourage to follow their faith and Christian worship. Edwin also intimated that he might follow the Christian faith himself. As part of the marriage agreement Aethelburh took with her for her daily instruction Paulinus who subsequently became Bishop of York and continued his mission of conversion in Northumbria.

Thus the Roman church was established in Northumbria and later under pressure from Rome (the separate letters to Edwin and Aethelburh from Pope Boniface are reproduced in full in the Venerable Bead’s ‘The Ecclesiastical History of the English People’ and make fascinating reading) and also the influence of Aethelburh and Paulinus, Edwin together with his nobles became converted to the Roman faith in the 11th year of his reign in 627. Aethelburh bore a daughter Eanfled who was baptised into the Roman faith by Paulinus at York.

In 632 Penda, King of Mercia (to the south of Northumbria and what is now the Midlands) and King Cadwallon of Gwynedd (in northern Wales) formed a combined army and defeated and killed King Edwin. For just one year Edwin’s cousin Osric then ruled Deira. However, in 633 Oswold returned from exile in Scotland and defeated and killed Cadwallon near Hexham and thus united again the kingdoms of Deira and Bernicia as his father Aethelfrith had done before him.

Queen Aethelburh, wife of the dead King Edwin, her daughter Eanfled, Paulinus and her entourage fled back to the safety of Kent. Thus Paulinus’s Roman mission collapsed in Northumbria after just 6 years. There remained a solitary church at Catterick where James the Deacon steadfastly continued to follow the Roman way. The change of power base thus allowed the Celtic way under the rule of Columba to flourish under the guidance of their new saintly King Oswold.

Oswold was a most devout Christian who lost no time in introducing to his Anglo Saxon subjects the Celtic Christian faith he had forged at Iona during those seventeen years of exile. In 635 he turned not to Rome but his friends in exile, the monks at Iona, to form a monastery in Northumberland. Iona responded enthusiastically, conscious of their inactivity in previous years in the unfulfilled task of saving souls of their heathen southern neighbours. The monk Aidan was sent from Iona and he chose a site for his monastery on the barren and windswept island at Lindisfarne. The site was very similar to the island site at Iona and also within a visible distance and therefore safe protection of the fortress at Bamburgh where Oswold held court.

Oswold’s reign was all too brief as Penda, the dreaded pagan King of Mercia, defeated and killed Oswold at Maserfelth (near Oswestry) in 642. The Northumberland kingdom then again returned to power sharing of the two sub kingdoms as Oswold’s brother Oswiu ruled Bernicia from Bamburgh until 670 and Osric’s son Oswin became King of Deira. In 651 the two kings quarrelled and Oswin was murdered. Subsequently members of the Bernician royal house governed Deira until 678.

So the upshot of all this political upheaval and its effect on Christian development at the time of St Wilfrid was that in 627 there had been a very brief introduction of the Roman church that virtually died in 632 (two years before the birth of Wilfrid) with the death of Edwin.

During Wilfrid’s childhood the Celtic church flourished under the amazing partnership and fusion of Church and state with abbot Aidan and King Oswold. Aidan’s monastery at Lindisfarne quickly becoming internationally famous as a centre of learning and culture and he appointed “12 English boys”, included Eata and Chad, modelled on Columba’s 12 apostles at Iona.

However there was one more piece of the jigsaw puzzle that was yet to be put in place and which would change the course of events in the Roman direction – yet another marriage of a Northumberland King to a Roman Christian Queen. Not this time heathen King Edwin to Roman Aethelburh but Celtic Christian King Oswiu to his cousin Roman Eanfled, the daughter of King Edwin and Queen Aethelburh. Remember that Eanfled had been baptised at York into the Roman way by Paulinus and on the death of Edwin had been taken by her mother back to Kent to be brought up in the Roman tradition. So back to the Bernician court arrived steadfastly devoted Roman Christian Eanfled who was determined to follow her parents in the rule of Rome, not the rule of Columba. So what is so significant about all this? Well Queen Eanfled catches the eye of a dashing, bright, handsome son of a nobleman at the court of Bamburgh – a boy she decides to groom and become his patron – his name is Wilfrid!
Peter Green