Rites of Passage in the Vita Wilfridi: Constructing Wilfrid’s Sanctity

Calum Platts is a PhD candidate in the Department of Anglo-Saxon, Norse, and Celtic at the University of Cambridge, supervised by Professor Simon Keynes and Dr Rory Naismith.

Calum Platts is a PhD candidate in the Department of Anglo-Saxon, Norse, and Celtic at the University of Cambridge, supervised by Professor Simon Keynes and Dr Rory Naismith.

Rites of Passage in the Vita Wilfridi: Constructing Wilfrid’s Sanctity

The Vita Wilfridi (VW)is one of the most important and controversial sources for the Anglo-Saxon historian. It records the life of the great bishop Wilfrid, whose career was marked by his victory for the Roman Easter at Whitby (664) and his conflicts with various kings and archbishops, which prompted two personal appeals to the papacy. It was written shortly after his death in 710 by Stephen of Ripon, who knew the bishop personally.[i] As such, it is a remarkably detailed text that at first glance seems reliable. Yet it is exceptionally polemical and biased; Stephen has little time for those that opposed Wilfrid.[ii]

One of the curious developments in the historiography has been the tendency to view the VW as history rather than hagiography. Walter Goffart began this process by rejecting Wilhelm Levison’s firm distinction between history and hagiography.[iii] Alan Thacker then took the process one step further, observing that Stephen’s work contains features that mark out histories within the early medieval period. Specifically, he cited Stephen’s concern with Wilfrid’s career and the insertion of documents, such as papal letters, which are arguably a more significant theme in the VW than Wilfrid’s asceticism or miracle working. While he stops short of saying that Stephen was not writing hagiography, he does redefine the work as an apologia.[iv]

That Stephen wrote a hagiography unusually grounded upon Wilfrid’s personal history is undeniable. However, one could contend that the standard hagiographical tropes, such as asceticism, could not have been used effectively by Stephen; Wilfrid’s personal wealth was too well known.[v] Instead, he grounded Wilfrid’s sanctity in his defence of orthodoxy and orthodox authority. [vi] Wilfrid, arguably, was a confessor of orthodoxy. Rites of passage serve as a means of testing how Stephen utilised Wilfrid’s personal history to construct an authoritative and orthodox image of his subject. The basic question is how did Stephen narrate significant moments of transition in Wilfrid’s Christian life? This then feeds into wider questions about the nature of the VW.

Naturally, an account of Wilfrid’s life, from birth to death, includes many rites of passage, not least Wilfrid’s ordination, consecration as bishop, death and the translation of his relics.[vii] However, in this brief discussion, I will focus upon Wilfrid’s early life and his initial engagement with Christian rites, as presented by Stephen. There are two rites to focus upon.

The first is Wilfrid’s presentation to the pope (unnamed but either Martin I or Eugenius I). Stephen carefully explains the education Wilfrid received in Rome from an archdeacon called Boniface: he had learnt the four Gospels perfectly, much about ecclesiastical discipline and, most importantly for Wilfrid’s later career, the Roman method of calculating the date of Easter. He then relates the meeting as follows: Boniface ‘presented him to the Pope […] The Pope placed his blessed hand on Wilfrid’s head, prayed over him and gave him his blessing.’[viii] It is difficult to be certain precisely what is going on here. While it could simply be a papal blessing, the detail provided, the imposition of hands, the pope praying over his head, suggests that Stephen was describing the sacrament of confirmation.[ix]

Its significance becomes magnified because this is the first time in the VW that Stephen presents Wilfrid as engaging with a Christian rite. Wilfrid’s earlier life had seen him living with the monks of Lindisfarne, who were then out of step with Rome on the calculation of Easter. While this view would alter with time, they were initially perceived as Quartodeciman heretics. Stephen was careful to stress that Wilfrid ‘was still untonsured’[x] while at Lindisfarne and never presents him as engaging with the community’s religious life.

Any action Wilfrid undertook at Lindisfarne, such as learning the Psalter, was inspired by his own piety. In other words, Wilfrid’s confirmation serves not only as a rite of passage in his Christian life but is used by Stephen as a transitional point in his ecclesiastical career. Only after Stephen has stressed the orthodoxy of Wilfrid’s education and his first ritual engagement with the Church, does Wilfrid then enter the Church, beginning his career as a monk at Lyons.[xi]

The second rite of passage is Wilfrid’s tonsuring and its association by Stephen with the martyrdom of Aunemundus of Lyon. Once again, Wilfrid’s vocation can be seen originating with an unimpeachably orthodox source. He received the tonsure from Aunemundus, the metropolitan bishop of Lyons.[xii] Lyons was an ancient and important see and still in the seventh century may have been a centre of learning for canon law.[xiii]

Immediately after describing the tonsuring, Stephen narrated the martyrdom. This arguably has two effects. Firstly, it enhanced the figure of Aunemundus and so further stresses the authority that lay behind Wilfrid’s entry into the Church. Wilfrid was associated not simply with a bishop of an ancient, orthodox see but a martyr. Secondly, it provided Stephen with an opportunity to develop Wilfrid’s own authoritative persona. While Wilfrid survived, because he was a foreigner, his willingness to receive martyrdom made him ‘a confessor like John the Apostle and Evangelist.’[xiv] As Trent Foley has observed, this association with the apostle generated an apostolic image for Wilfrid and so aided Stephen’s development of Wilfrid’s image as a person with legitimate authority.[xv] Once again, Stephen was very careful in the presentation of his subject’s progression through the Christian life.

While there is no need to dispute that Wilfrid was tonsured by Aunemundus or that he putatively received confirmation from the Pope, it is clear that Stephen’s use of historical fact served a hagiographic purpose. His silences on Wilfrid’s early career stretch credulity and Wilfrid’s presence at Aunemundus’ martyrdom has provoked debate as to its possibility.[xvi] Stephen’s use of historical fact does not, in and of itself, necessarily mean that he was not writing a hagiography. In Wilfrid’s early rites of passage, Stephen constructed a firmly orthodox, precociously authoritative identity. In so doing he laid the groundwork for the triumphs and trials of Wilfrid’s career in defence of orthodox authority. The historical rites of passage arguably furthered a hagiographic purpose.


[i] C. Stancliffe, ‘Dating Wilfrid’s Death and Stephen’s Life’, in Wilfrid: Abbot, Bishop, Saint, ed. N. Higham (Donnington, 2013), pp. 17–26, at 25.

[ii] Ecgfrith of Northumbria’s successes and failures, for example, are defined by his attitude towards Wilfrid. VW 19, cf. 24, 34, 39.

[iii] W. Goffart, The Narrators of Barbarian History (A. D. 550–800): Jordanes, Gregory of Tours, Bede and Paul the Deacon (Guildford, 1988), pp. 240–58; cf. W. Levison, ‘Bede as Historian’, in Bede: Life, Times and Writings, ed. A. H. Thompson (Oxford, 1935), pp. 111–51, at 111. 

[iv] A. Thacker, ‘Wilfrid: his Cult and his Biographer’, in Wilfrid: Abbot, Bishop, Saint, ed. N. Higham (Donnington, 2013), pp. 1–16, at 3–4.

[v] Asceticism: VW 2–3, 21; wealth: 17, 22, 24, 63.

[vi] VW 14, 24, 26–7, 33–4, 36, 38, 45–7, 49, 58.

[vii] This last ‘rite’ might seem somewhat odd, given that it is post-mortem in nature. However, it was one of the rites crucial to the establishment of a saint’s cult. 

[viii] VW 5.

[ix] H. M. J. Banting, ‘Imposition of Hands in Confirmation: a Medieval Problem,’ in The Journal of Ecclesiastical History, 7 (1956), pp. 147-159, at 148–50.

[x] VW 2.

[xi] VW 6.

[xii] Ibid.

[xiii] I. N. Wood, ‘The Continental Journeys of Wilfrid and Biscop’, in Wilfrid: Abbot, Bishop, Saint, ed. N. Higham (Donnington, 2013), pp. 200–11, at 201.

[xiv] Ibid.

[xv] W. T. Foley, Images of Sanctity in Eddius Stephanus’ Life of Bishop Wilfrid, an Early English Saint’s Life (Lampeter, 1992), pp. 32–3.

[xvi] B. Colgrave ed., The Life of Bishop Wilfrid by Eddius Stephanus (Cambridge, 1927), pp. 154–5; J. N. Nelson, ‘Queens as Jezebels: the Careers of Brunhild and Balthild in Merovingian History’, in Medieval Women, ed. D. Baker (Oxford, 1978), pp. 31–77, at 66; P. Fouracre, ‘Wilfrid and the Continent’, in Wilfrid: Abbot, Bishop, Saint, ed. N. Higham (Donnington, 2013), pp. 186–99, at 187–90.

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