Wilfrid and the British Boy

Thinking about this month’s lost kingdom of Craven, it calls to mind the episode in Stephan’s Life of Wilfrid where Wilfrid miraculously restores a boy to life and then later forcefully reclaims him at age 7. The miraculous healing of the British boy is given in the chapter immediately after Wilfrid is given lands in Craven.

“St Wilfrid was out riding on a certain day, going to fulfill his various duties of his bishopric, baptizing and also confirming people with the laying on of hands; among these there was a certain woman in a town called “On Tiddanufri”, sad at heart, moaning with grief and wearied with her load. For she held in her bosom the body of her first-born child, wrapped in rags and hidden from sight; she uncovered the face of the corpse for the bishop to confirm it amongst the rest, hoping thus to bring it back to life. Now our holy bishop, as soon as he perceived that it was dead, hesitated a little as to what he ought to do. But the mother fell to the earth before the face of the bishop on his perceiving what she had done, and, weeping bitterly, she boldly adjured him, in the name of the Lord his God, by virtue of his holiness to raise her son, to baptize him and free him from the mouth of the lion. …[she said] ‘Most holy man, do not destroy the faith of a bereaved mother but help thou my (un)belief, raise him up and baptize him and he will live for God and for you. By the power of Christ, do not hesitate!’

Then the holy bishop…uttered a prayer, and when he placed his hand on the dead body it breathed again forthwith, receiving the spirit of life. So he baptized the child which had been brought back to life again and gave it into the charge of the mother, bidding her, in the name of the Lord, give back her child to himself at the age of seven, for the service of God. The mother, however, when she saw how handsome the body was, listened to the evil counsel of her husband, made light of her promise, and fled from her country.

The bishop’s reeve, named Hocca, having sought and found him hidden among others of the British race, took him away by force and carried him off to the bishop. The boy’s Christian name was Eodwald and his surname was Bishop’s Son: he lived in Ripon serving God until he died in the great plague. (Stephan, Life of Bishop Wilfrid, Chapter 18; Bertram Colgrave, ed and trans. The Life of Bishop Wilfrid by Eddius Stephanus Cambridge UP, 1985 reprint of 1927)

This passage brings up many issues. Included as it is after the consecration of Wilfrid’s new church at Ripon, the date of the event must be around 671-2. The boy was seven years old when he was brought to the bishop, who was exiled in 678. The following chapter on King Ecgfrith’s victory over the Picts and Audrey’s leaving him to 671-673 also fits with this event occurring in about 671-2.

This is yet another clue as to a “great plague” that occurred in the after 678. Abbess Audrey of Ely also died in a plague in 679. The Historia Brittonum (c. 825) also claims that King Cadwaladr son of Cadwallon died in a plague. It mistakenly says it was in the time of King Oswiu, and this has lead to problems over dating Cadwaladr. However, the Annals Cambriae (ends 954) is clear:

682: A great plague in Britain, in which Cadwaladr son of Cadwallon dies.

In his notes on the text, Bertram Colgrave notes that his is probably the same plague that attacked Jarrow in 685 where only Abbot Coelfrith and one boy, usually identified as Bede, survived. Adomnan of Iona also refers to a plague in the mid 680s on one of his trips to visit King Aldfrith. From 679 to 686 seems like a long time for one plague to rage, usually they burn out faster. There may have been several waves of plague. Its hard to tell how feasible that is without knowing what the plague causing organism is.

What stands out more than the plague is Wilfrid’s treatment of the boy and his parents. Wilfrid obviously takes the boy away from unwilling parents. Stephan’s claim that Wilfrid had the right because of his mother’s request doesn’t hold up. Mothers are not allowed to make their children an oblate without the father’s permission! Obviously the father did not give permission. Also note that Wilfrid completely renamed the British boy Eodwald/Eadwald Bishop’sSon (cognomine Eodwald et agnomine Filius Episcopi)*. He is making a claim of ownership with that surname and completely obliterating the parents existence. Is this a window into the process of name changes from British to English? Did English overlords have the right to rename their British servants or monastic oblates? Is this also a window into how English monasteries found enough ‘monks’ to do all the work on their large estates? Of course the best known menial laborer on a Northumbrian estate, Caedmon** the cow herd, had a very British name, probably indicating that the first religious vernacular poet in English was genetically British/Welsh.

*Farmer’s edition is a significantly different and less accurate translation. He completely leaves the boy’s new name out of the Age of Bede edition. Colgrave’s 1927 edition (reprinted 1985) is the authoritative, bilingual edition.

** Note the similarity of this name to Cadfan, Cadwallon, Cadwaladr, Cadfael, all kings of Gwynedd (North Wales) during the seventh century.

6 thoughts on “Wilfrid and the British Boy

  1. Come to think of it, children are given Christian names at baptism and/or confirmation (being done at the same time or close together then). Would this have been a time to change a British child’s name to an English name?

  2. That naming scheme you noticed has an analogue in A-S kingship. Note page 52 in Yorke’s ” Kings and Kingdoms of Early A-S England for an example from the East Saxon royal house.

  3. Many Anglo-Saxon houses have names that alliterate. In East Anglia, Eni – Anna – Æthelthryth, Eni-Æthelric-Aldwulf-Ælfwald, in Northumbria Æthelric-Æthelfrith-Oswald-Œthelwald, and almost all the early Wessex kings have names that start with C. I don’t think its as common with the British, despite the seventh century kings of Gwynedd.

  4. Reblogged this on Heavenfield and commented:

    I know I haven’t been here hardly at all this summer but I haven’t forgotten about Heavenfield! Here is a blast from the past related to something I’m working on now. Hopefully I’ll be back with a blog post relatively soon.

  5. It’s a small point in comparison to the ones you’ve raised, but could the start of the story owe something to the story of Elijah and the widow’s son? (Although that story ended up more happily for both the mother and son!)

  6. This passage is usually interpreted as being a reaction to a similar passage in the Anonymous Life of Cuthbert. Hard to believe, but I’m sure some in Wilfrid’s circles actually thought forcefully taking the boy was the right thing to do and that he had a good death in the monastery. Lindisfarne and Bede’s edition of the Life of Cuthbert may be seen as more monastic but it never shows anyone being forced into a monastery.

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