I was thinking about the feast of St Wilfrid today and flipping through the Life of Bishop Wilfrid. It occurred to me how much Wilfrid is surrounded by women in his Life. In some ways we learn as much about seventh century women in Stephen’s Life of Bishop Wilfrid as we do in Bede’s History, particularly relative to their lengths. It is important to note that Stephan and Wilfrid’s disciples apparently thought that it was important to show him nearly constantly interacting with women. Stephen wrote this Life only about ten years after Wilfrid’s death when many of the protagonists in the Life were still alive, or at the very least their children or disciples were very much still in power. So today I thought I would start a series of blogs on Wilfrid’s interactions with women.
Women are critical in the Life from the very beginning with the miraculous light shining over his pious mother’s labor and Wilfrid’s birth. This miracle is later repeated as divine light brightens Wilfrid’s dark dungeon cell as he sings the psalms. After this Stephan inserts a rare prayer:
“O Christ, Eternal light, who dost not desert those who acknowledge Thee, Thou whom we believe to be the true light illuminating ‘every man that cometh into this world’, who in the beginning didst mark with fiery glory from the hour of thy future servant’s birth when he came forth from his mother’s womb, now as he prayed in the darkness of his prison cell Thou didst deign to send an angel to visit him and to bring him light, just as when Thine apostle Peter was imprisoned in chains by wicked Herod. To Thee be glory and thanksgiving!”
(Stephen, Life of Wilfrid, ch. 36; Farmer ed. The Age of Bede, 1983, p. 144)
We hear no more from Wilfrid’s pious mother. By age 14, Wilfrid is suffering under the gaze of a harsh stepmother. We hear no specifics of her treatment of young Wilfrid, but obviously she did not measure up to the boy’s pious mother.
Wilfrid now equips himself and his servants and with the help of his father’s friends who he has impressed, presents himself before Queen Eanflæd. There have been various reasons put forward why this young noble offers his service to the queen rather than to King Oswiu. Most of these reasons focus on Eanflæd as a princess of Deira, but I think this very young boy is looking for a new surrogate mother. He is offering his service to a mother-figure who will look after him like a son, unlike his stepmother.
Surrogate mother is exactly the role that Eanflæd takes on. She is the one who recognizes that this clever boy would be better in the church than in a retinue or serving her household. She finds an older thane Cudda who wants to retire to the church and sets up Wilfrid as his servant, so they both join Lindisfarne together. When Wilfrid wants to go to Rome, on Cudda’s advice, he returns to Queen Eanflæd who takes care of him. She “fits him out handsomely for the journey” and has letters written to commend him to her cousin King Erconberht of Kent, who is asked to find other travelers to accompany him to Rome. Erconberht kept him in Kent for a whole year until — on Queen Eanflæd’s proding — he found (Benedict) Biscop Baducing to guide him to Rome. Eanflæd is not mentioned again in the Life, her role as surrogate mother is over.
Bede, on the other hand, claims that Eanflæd’s insistence on celebrating Easter according to the Roman calendar is one of the causes of the Synod of Whitby. It is nearly certain that she was present at the synod. What must it have meant to Wilfrid to come home and win the decision at Whitby in front of Queen Eanflæd who had initially sent him to Rome? Stephan surely knew that from 664, if not before, Wilfrid’s relationship with Queen Eanflæd had become much more complicated and was better ignored. It seems likely that Wilfrid’s relationship with Eanflæd soured over his relationship with her step-sons Alhfrith and Aldfrith, and her sons Ecgfrith and Ælfwine. Further, when King Oswiu died and was buried at Whitby, Eanflæd retired there as a nun to be with her daughter Ælfflæd and her cousin Hild. The monastery of Whitby continued to be opponents of Wilfrid until the synod of Nidd in 706. Yes, it was better for Stephan to leave Eanflæd as just the benevolent surrogate mother who sends him to Rome.
In future blogs I look at Stephan’s oscillating use of wicked and holy women, particularly queens in the Life of Bishop Wilfrid.