Bishop Wilfrid and the Irish

My friend Larry over at The Ruminate has come to the conclusion that he disagrees with my proposal back in 2003 that the link between Willibrord’s mission to Frisia and Bishop Wilfrid is not as strong as had long been assumed. The primary source for the link is not Bede, but Stephan of Ripon’s Life of Wilfrid. It is Stephan who calls Willibrord the spiritual son of Wilfrid and he is the only early author who mentions that Willibrord was raised at Ripon. Stephan tries to claim that Willibrord is continuing a mission began by Wilfrid. Bede doesn’t stress such a relationship between the two men and Bede’s source was Bishop Acca who spent a winter with Willibrord and Wilfrid, on Wilfrid’s last trip to Rome. Bede also used Stephan’s Life of Wilfrid extensively, so his knew of Stephan’s claims and did not repeat them. To be honest, I’m not sure where Larry’s disagreement lies. Part of my evidence was Irish influence on Willibrord and at Echternach, but I also wrote about how Stephan, Bede and Alcuin write about Willibrord and Wilfrid too.

As for the Irish influences on Wilfrid that he mentions:

  • Wilfrid’s relationship with/to “hermits”: Well, I don’t think hermits were uniquely Irish. There may have been more Irish hermits than other nationalities but supporting hermits (like Oethelwald of Farne) isn’t necessarily Irish influence. Guthlac was also a hermit, but I don’t think he was particularly influenced by the Irish.
  • “connections to St Brigit”: I don’t know what those are, so hopefully Larry will elaborate.
  • “his style of being a bishop”: I’ve heard this before (though I don’t remember where). I’ve been thinking about this recently and I don’t think this is necessarily an Irish style. It seems to me that this is also a missionary bishop style. It remained in Ireland because it suited their culture better than an urban model, since there was no real urban life in Ireland. Bishop Paulinus of York had also had a similar style of episcopate, working in Bernicia, Deira and Lindsey. Their epsicopates were linked to the hegemony of their king. York would not have forgotten that Pope Gregory the Great’s response to Paulinus’ large range was to make him an archbishop. I think Catherine Cubitt is correct when she says that Wilfrid’s real objection is that his own people would not be given the sees carved out of his own. He wanted to be an archbishop, as Gregory the Great had intended for York. If not an archbishop, at least promote his own people. Indeed, Wilfrid’s original appeal to Rome states

“If it pleases the archbishop and my fellow bishops to increase the number of bishops, then let them choose men from our own clergy, candidates whom the bishops can agree upon. Do no let the Church suffer damage from strangers and outsiders; anything irregular and imprudent does nothing but give rise to quarrel after quarrel, such as can never be unravelled, appeased, nor ended.” (Stephan, Life of Wilfrid, ch. 30, Farmer ed., 1988, p. 138).

When Wilfrid says from our own clergy he means his clergy. Of course the three intruders were also Northumbrian clergy from Lindisfarne’s network.

Another point of contact between Wilfrid and Ireland is Stephan’s claim that Wilfrid helped Dagobert II return from exile in Ireland to become King of Austrasia (Life of Wilfrid, Ch. 28 and Ch. 33). So there is no doubt that he had useful contacts in Ireland. None of this links him to Willibrord’s time in Ireland.


Cubitt, Catherine. (1989). “Wilfrid’s ‘Usurping Bishops’: Episcopal Elections in Anglo-Saxon England, c. 600-c.800”. Northern History 25:18-38.

4 thoughts on “Bishop Wilfrid and the Irish

  1. What about Wilfrid’s ascetic practices?
    It’s been a while since i did any work on this, but as i recall it Stephanus made a nice clear reference to Wilfrid submerging himself in water to pray. Isn’t that quite a distinctive Irish model of ascetic prayer?

  2. It is a form of ascetic prayer and I only know of the Irish or Irish influenced doing it, but Stephan doesn’t have a similar scene. Perhaps you are thinking of Cuthbert, whose Life is also included in the Age of Bede.

  3. Sorry if this appear twice it disappeared before I could click on submit.
    I am very interested in St Wilfred’s connections with hermits can anyone give me any further information or point me in the right direction. Thank you

    1. Wilfird was in control of Lindisfarne when he placed Oethelwald on Farne to occupy Cuthbert’s hermitage. This is the only hermit I can recall and he may have placed his monk from Ripon on Farne as a political move. However, this monk was honored at Lindisfarne long after Wilfrid’s death so he seems to have won them over.

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