John Henry Newman.

Lives of the English saints (Volume 4) online

. (page 1 of 25)
Online LibraryJohn Henry NewmanLives of the English saints (Volume 4) → online text (page 1 of 25)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook







\ /' '\ r

1 /' ' S Tzy*



St. mHiixiti, iSisJop of Wox^.


JAMES TOOVEY, 192, IM CC ADl 1. 1. V



Printed by S. fk J. Bentley, Wilson, and Fley,

JJanpor House, Shoe Lane.



To be Striving to do good and to follow conscience, to
be secretly sure that, with many miserable failures, we
are doing God's work, and yet the while to be misunder-
stood, cruelly misinterpreted by persons whom we not
only acknowledge to be good but indeed far better than
ourselves — this is a cross which Saints have sometimes
had to bear. It was St. Wilfrid's cross, and very heavily
it pressed upon him. When St. Bernard persecuted St.
William of York, the archbishop doubtless suffered
greatly ; yet he was no Saint then, and he could not
have had that high clear consciousness that he was
suffering for the cause of Christ and His Church, which
St. Wilfrid might have. But it may be that St. Wil-
liam often pondered the story of his great predecessor,
in many respects not unlike his own. This then forms
part of the interest of St. Wilfrid's life to a reader,
while it gives no little pain and perplexity to the
writer. Here is a Saint misunderstood by Saints, per-
secuted by Saints, deposed by Saints as unworthy of the
pontificate : truly a very fertile theme for the shallow
criticisms of the children of the world : while to a
Christian its lesson is that earth is not our home, that
the balance of things is not righted till the Judgment,
the oppressive mystery of the world not unri<ldled, the



Church Militant not the Church Triumphant : a simple
thing to say, yet involving more than most people put
into the considei'ation.

Then another thing which makes St. Wilfrid's life
interesting is its being, so to speak (for the language is
hardly too strong), a new beginning for the Saxon
Church, a new mission from Kome. Not only were
the northern shires almost in overt schism about the
Scottish usages, not only had rough-handed kings begun
to tyrannize over the Church and even interfere in
episcopal elections, but we are told that, after the death
of St. Deusdedit, Wine the bishop of the West Saxons
was the only canonically consecrated bishop in England,
and he too afterwards guilty of fearful simony, and
Wilfrid felt himself compelled to go to the Gallican
"bishops for consecration ; and the course of the narrative
will bring before us some lamentable instances of eras-
tian submission, and even of disgraceful misrule in
ecclesiastical synods. But Rome carried the day in
the person of St. Wilfrid. They wore him out -with
strife, calumny, and persecution ; but his patience was
indomitable, his energy unsleeping, and he finished his
work, though he died in finishing it. Such was St.
Wilfrid's office ; let us see how he fulfilled it.

Of Wilfrid's parents nothing more is known than that
they were noble. None of his three biographers men-
tion his father's name or the place of his birth. The
date seems to have been somewhere about G34, if that is
not putting it too late. His birth was marked by a
singular prodigy, which attracted people's attention to
him, and made them divine what manner of child he
was to be. At the moment of his birth a heavenly
light enveloped the house, so that, to those without, it
appeared as though it were in flames. His mother


ilied while he was yet a child, and Fredegod relates
that the fury of a step-mother rendered his home any-
thing but peaceful ; and in his thirteenth year, the
boyish noble, already shewing his ardent and fearless
spirit, demanded of his father horses and armour and a
retinue, and in this guise, as if he were playing at
chivalry, young "Wilfrid received the paternal blessing,
turned his back upon his home, and proceeded in gay
martial trappings to the court of King Oswy. He met
■with a kind or rather good-natured reception, and was
soon wisely provided for by Queen Eanflede. It chanced
that there was then at court an old noble named Cudda,
whom a long palsy had weaned from the vanities of
the world, and who was anxious to become a monk at
Lindisfarne. To his care the queen commended young
Wilfrid. Anything that was a change seems to have
suited the boy equally well. Perhaps he was tired of
his armour and retinue. However, he asked his father's
leave to go to Lindisfarne, to which his father willingly
consented, deeming such a wish in one so young to be
probably an inspiration of Heaven. He resided some
years among the monks, diligently pursuing his studies,
and which is of far more importance, daily growing in
chastity and other graces. His powers of mind were
very great indeed ; the psalter was quickly learned, and
he made himself master of such other books as fell in
his way. But he was so far from conceit or forward-
ness or thirst for praise that his obedience edified the
whole community, and his humility was so lovely as to
gain for him the affections of old and young. But, as St.
Bede says, he was a clear-sighted youth, and that means
a great deal in the mouth of the venerable historian.

In truth, amid the monks of Lindisfarne, in the very
stronghold of Scottish usages, Wilfiid made a discovery,


and that discovery gave the colour to his whole life.
Whether he had fallen upon some old books, or from
whatever cause, he began to suspect that there was a
more perfect way of serving God ; that there were
ancient traditions of Catholic customs which it was
most dangerous to slight, and yet which were utterly
neglected. When once he had got this into his mind,
he seized upon it and followed it out in that prescient
way in which men who have a work to do are gifted to
detect and pursue their master idea, without wasting
themselves on collateral objects. Wilfrid pondered and
pondered this discovery in his solitude, and he saw that
the one thing to do was to go to Rome, and learn under
the shadow of St. Peter's chair the more perfect way.
To look Romeward is a Catholic instinct, seemingly
implanted in us for the safety of the faith. Wilfrid does
not appear to have made any secret of his difficulties,
neither do the good monks seem to have been quite satis-
fied themselves that all was right. He acquainted them
with his purpose of going to Rome to see what rites
were followed by the churches and monasteries close to
the Apostolic See. They not only approved his design,
but exhorted him at once to put it into execution.

Wilfrid, leaving Lindisfarne, went to take counsel of
his patroness Queen Eanflede, St. Edwin's daughter,
whose baptism was such an interesting event in the
history of the Northumbrian Church. The queen
highly commended Wilfrid's intentions, and despatched
him to Kent to King Erconbert, who was her relation,
desiring him to send the youth to Rome. The Church
of Canterbury was at that time governed by St. Hono-
rius, a man who is described as being peculiarly well
skilled in ecclesiastical matters. Here then was an-
other field for the keen-eyed Wilfrid. But it was short


of Rome. The process may be longer or shorter, but
Catholics get to Rome at last, in spite of Avind and tide.
What he saw in Kent would only make him thirst
more to approach as an ardent pilgrim the veritable
metropolis of the Church, to pray at the tombs of the
Apostles, and reverence the throne in the Lateran
Cathedral, and honour the relics in the basilica of
Holy Cross. Everybody who came across Wilfrid seems
to have been struck with him, and not only so, but to
have loved him also. King Erconbert probably had
not as yet forwarded many pilgrims from the northern
shires to Rome ; it was a road untrodden by the Eng-
lish youth, says Eddi Stephani, — untrodden as yet ;
so that Wilfrid was singular in looking on such a
pilgrimage as meritorious, and hoping to win pardon
for the sins and ignorances of his youth in such a holy
vicinity as the threshold of the Apostles. However this
fresh, quick youth from the north seems to have asto-
nished the Kentish king not a little. Prayer, fast,
vigil and reading, made up the life of his young guest,
so that Erconbert " loved him marvellously." Indeed
Wilfrid must have had a versatile mind, and certainly he-
sitated at nothing which enabled him to realize to him-
self communion with Rome. This strong feeling seems
to be the key to almost everything he did. At Lindis-
fame he had learned the psalter : but it was St. Jerome's
improved version, generally used by the Gallican and
German Churches of that day. At Canterbury he found
the old version in use, as it stood before St. Jerome
took the matter in hand. In fact it was used at Rome
in preference to St. Jerome's version ; this Avas enouo-h
for Wilfrid, lie made all the haste he could to forget
St. Jerome's version, and learn the old one. What a
task it must have been ! Learning the psalter by heart


is plain Avork, even if it take some time and no little
diligence ; but to go on saying the hours for years,
wearing the very inflexions of St. Jerome's version into
his heart, and then to lay it aside, and learn a new
version, and steer clear of his old remembrances during
recitation, — this must have been an irksome task, and
one which many would never have compassed at all.
But it was a labor of love : it brought Wilfrid more
into contact with Roman things. This was the Roman
feeling in a little matter ; but it was the same feeling,
and no other, which was the life of his actions afterwards.
Erconbert detained the reluctant pilgrim for four
long years in the Kentish court, and Wilfrid began to
languish with the sickness of hope deferred. Mean-
while there arrived another young noble on his way to
Rome. This was no other than Benedict Biscop. The
king could now hardly defer his consent to Wilfrid's
departure, and is said to have told St. Benedict to take
him to Rome. From this it would appear that St.
Benedict was the elder of the two ; now we know he
was only five and twenty when he made his first journey
to Rome, so that Wilfrid must have been very young
indeed when he left Lindisfarne, as he had resided four
years with Erconbert. Wilfrid and St. Benedict tra-
velled together as far as Lyons ; and here begins an-
other characteristic of St. Wilfrid's life. He and St.
Benedict disagreed, and parted at Lyons. That there
was nothing eccentric in Wilfrid's temper, no untoward
projections in his character, one may infer from the
love with which he seems to have inspired people
generally. Yet there must have been something about
him not easily come at, not readily understood or
sympathized with, which must account for much that
happened to him. That there was a quarrel seems


clear from the somewhat ambiguous language of Eddi
Stephani. " Affable to all, penetrating in mind, strong
in body, a quick u'alker,^ expert at all good works, Tie
never had a sour face ; but with alacrity and joy he
travelled on to the city of Lyons ; there he abode some
time with his companions, his austere-minded leader
departing from him, as Barnabas did from Paul because
of John who was surnamed Mark." What this exactly
means, whether there was any John Mark, i. e. any
bone of contention, in the case, or whether, as is usual
with the writers of those ages, whose style is tesselated
all over M-ith scripture vocabulary and allusions, the quar-
rel between two good men simply brought St. Paul and St.
Barnabas to mind in the way of an analogy, — we confess
we do not know. It is plain, however, that Wilfrid and
Benedict separated at Lyons in some unpleasant way :
and it may be that the objects of the two were not alike.
St. Benedict seems to have wished to visit Rome, and did
not want to linger by the way ; while one of Wilfrid's
professed objects was to visit and examine the chief
monasteries on the road and study their discipline, an
object which, later in life, became paramount with St.
Benedict himself.

If the date of St. Benedict's first visit to Rome be
correctly fixed to the year 653, then G34 obviously can-
not be the date of Wilfrid's birth ; for he was fourteen
when he went to Lindisfarne, and he stayed four years
in Kent : this would only leave him a year at Lindis-
farne, whereas Bede distinctly says that he served God
some years in that holy house. The chronology of St.
Wilfrid's life is altogether very difficult to fix ; and it
is not at all pretended that the dates given here are
really the true ones ; an attempt has been made to ascer-
' Allegorically, he was a quick walker his whole life through.


tain the truth, but without any such special research as
would have been beside the practical end for which the
life was written.

St. Delphinus was archbishop of Lyons at the time
when Wilfrid visited that city, and he would of course be
provided with commendatory letters from St. Honorius to
all the prelates whose dioceses lay in his road to Rome.
The young pilgrim seems to have made the same favor-
able impression on the archbishop that he had done on
so many others, and it is particularly mentioned that
his bright face recommended him especially to Delphi-
nus as betokening an inward purity and calmness. In
a short time he became so much attached to Wilfrid
that he proposed to adopt him, promised to give him
his niece in marriage, and to obtain for him an im-
portant government in Gaul. " If you consent to this,"
said the archbishop, " you will find me ready to help
you in all things just as a father." But much as the
archbishop loved Wilfrid, he had not fathomed him ;
Saint and martyr though he was, he did not see the
tokens of Wilfrid's real character, his love of God, his
burning zeal for the Church, his invincible singleness of
purpose ; else would he never have tempted him with
the world. He imagined his guest to be a young Saxon
noble, full of chivalry and devotion, high purposes and
virginal purity. But Wilfrid comprehended that he
was called to higher things than honorable wedlock and
dignified magistracy, room though there was in these
things to serve God and His Church. He refused the
archbishop's kind offers. " I have vows," said he,
" which I must pay to the Lord ; I have left, like Abra-
ham, my kindred and my father's house to visit the
Apostolic See, and learn the rules of ecclesiastical disci-
pline that my country may make proof of them in God's


service ; and I would fain receive from God what He
has promised to them that love him, an hundredfold
now, and then eternal life, for leaving father and mother,
houses and lands. If it please God, I will see your face
again on my return." The archbishop was of course
too holy a man not to delight still more in Wilfrid,
seeing in him such manifest proofs of a heavenly voca-
tion. He detained him on the whole about a year at
Lyons, and doubtless gave him much valuable instruc-
tion in the customs of the Church. Lyons and the
banks of the Rhone are not without Christian antiqui-
ties and associations of a sort to make a deep impression
on Wilfrid ; and it would not escape him that Easter
was celebrated after the Roman computation in the city
of St. Irenreus, notwithstanding the vain plea of the Scots
that they stood upon the tradition of St. John. At the
beginning of the following year St. Delphinus allowed
his guest to depart for Rome. The good archbishop
had promised to be a father to AVilfrid, if he would
accept his offers of worldly happiness and rank ; would
not the holy martyr feel still more a father's yearning
heart to that heroic youth who with such gentle con-
sistency put the bright things of the world aside, and
went on his way hopefully and bravely 1

As at Canterbury and Lyons, so at Rome Wilfrid
distinguished himself by his genius for making friends.
The archdeacon Boniface, who was secretary to St. Mar-
tin tlie pope,2 attached himself particularly to the
young Englisliman, and took as much delight in teach-
ing him as if he had been his own son. Truly Rome
was always a kind-hearted city ; the very hearth and
home of catholic hospitality ; even in these days, if con-
siderate kindness could do so at Rome, the very aliens
* Mabillon asks — "An Kugenii ejus successoris ?"


are made to forget that they are aliens, and dream for
that little while that they are sons. Is this craftiness 1
Yes ; goodness was ever crafty, ever had a wily way of
alluring what came near it. How happy Wilfrid must
have been at Rome ! We are told that he spent entire
months in going from one holy place to another, not to
see only, but to pray and perfect himself in the exer-
cises of a spiritual life. His lot in Rome was the same
which befjxlls most travellers Avho go there for religious
ends and spend their time in a religious way. Will it
be thought superstitious to say that to such persons it
almost invariably happens that there is something or
other of a mysterious kind in the occurrences which
befall them there, something new, strange, unaccounta-
ble, provided only they are searching after heavenly
things 1 As if that city were instinct with a sort of
preternatural energy, and that virtue went from it,
either to heal or hurt, according to the faith of him
who touched, we read that Rome made Petrarch almost
an infidel ; and Luther, to say the best, had his infidelity
corroborated by his visit to the catholic capital, because
of the sins, the pride, luxury, and corruption there.

Mysterious Rome ! thy very ills are fraught

With somewhat of thy fearful destiny.

So that the vision of thy sins hath wrought

Even like a curse within the passer-by.

Here gazed of old with no religious eye

Petrarch the worldling, here the Apostate Monk

Came ere his fall ; and when they saw how nigh

Good lay to evil, their base spirits shrunk

As from a touch-stone which coiild bring to light

Unworthy natures that must walk by sight

Through lack of trust : — and thus are sceptics made

By that half-faith which seeks for good unbound

From ill ; and hearts are daily wanting found,

Upon the balance of that problem weighed.


This is the dark side of the picture. But, to say
nothing of other shrines where relics repose and spots
where holy influences abide, who shall reach even by
conjecture to the number and extent of visions seen,
prayers answered, vows suggested, lives changed, great
ends dreamed, endeavored after, accomplished, inspira-
tions, or something very like them, given to the listen-
ing heart — who shall imagine the number and extent of
these things vouchsafed at one place only, the low ban-
nisters with their coronal of starry lights round the
Confession of St. Peter and St. Paul, where rich and
poor kneel and say Augustine's prayer, or breathe their
own secret wants and wishes 1 It cannot be too strong
a thing to say that no one ever went to Rome without
leaving it a better or a worse man than he was, with a
higher or a harder heart. However this may be, it is
certain that something strangle occurred to Wilfrid at
Rome, something just of the same sort that we hear of
so frequently in these days, or which some of us may
have actually experienced.

He approached Rome, his biographer tells us, in the
same spirit in which St. Paul approached .Jerusalem, full
of a diffident anxiety lest he should have run in vain.
He sought it as the legitimate fountain of catholic
teaching, desiring to measure and compare his English
faith with it, and prepared to abandon whatever was
opposed to the doctrine, spirit, or usage of Rome.
He went to a church dedicated to St. Andrew, or
rather an oratory, such as was not a parish church but
served by occasional priests. It appears to have been
one of the earliest places he visited. There on the
top of the altar was a copy of the four blessed Gos-
pels ; before this Wilfrid knelt down humbly, and
prayed to God through tlie merits of His holy mar-


tjo" St. Andrew that He would grant him the power
of reading the book aright, and of preaching "the
eloquence of the evangelists" to the people. From
certain circumstances, more or less singular, Wilfrid
was led to connect the unexpected friendship and in-
struction of the archdeacon Boniface with this prayer ;
and he seems to have told his biographer Eddi, the
precentor of Canterbury, that he gained that friend
through God and the Apostle. Boniface not only in-
structed him in the interpretation of the Gospels, but
taught him the paschal computation, and dictated to
him the rules of ecclesiastical discipline. When Wil-
frid's visit drew near a close, Boniface presented him to
the pope, laying open to his Holiness the cause of his
journey and how strangely and perseveringly he had
accomplished it ; whereupon St. Martin, laying his hand
on the young Englishman's head, dismissed him with
blessing and prayer : and so Wilfrid turned his back on
Rome, or rather carried Borne away with him in his heart.
Wilfrid had now a long road to traverse ; yet he had
a home nearer than England, even the palace of the
archbishop of Lyons. Whether the young traveller left
Rome by the Porta del Popolo and went straight to the
Ponte Molle, or whether he left it by the Porta degli
Angeli, the gate of the Saxon Borgo, and so skirted the
Tyber under Monte Mario, he would have abundant
matter for meditation as he wended to Viterbo over the
tawny pastures of the Campagna. This was his first
visit to Rome ; he was going to embrace the ecclesias-
tical state in England ; how unlikely that he should ever
visit Rome again ! He had nothing to carry away with
him but reminiscences of profit and pleasure. He little
thought how often the Eternal City must be approached
by him, how he must sit in councils, plead his cause


before synods and congregations, carry to the feet of
popes a load of weary wrongs and vexing calumnies and
iniquitous oppressions, how the hands of kings and
archbishops should be heavy on him, and that in fear of
life, he should escape beyond seas, avoid the daggers of
assassins and the conspiracies of monarchs, and seek refuge
at that very tomb of St. Peter and St. Paul where the
ardors of his youthful imagination had drunk and been
satisfied in joyous pilgrimage. Rome had been the
dream of his boyhood ; he had sought it, found it, and
thought he had done with it. But it was not so : the
word, the thought, the thing — they were to be by his sick-
bed at Meaux, they were to be by his death-bed at Oundle.
Ah ! so it is with all of us ; we have dreams, and they
are other than we expected, and they haunt us through
life, and go with us to the grave, like Wilfrid's Rome.

At Lyons, Wilfrid received a most aiFectionate wel-
come from the archbishop, who made him give a de-
tailed narrative of all that had befallen him at Rome,
and all that he saw, and all that he learned, and bade
him shew him the relics wherewith Wilfrid was return-
ing enriched to his own country. He remained with
St. Delphinus three years (some say six), and from him
received the clerical tonsure, St. Peter's Tonsure, as
it was called : for even in this matter St. Wilfrid was
still obstinately bent on Romanizing. The Scottish
tonsure, called by the witty malice of the Romans the
Tonsure of Simon Magus, was " a semicircle shaved from
ear to ear above the forehead, not reaching to the hinder
part, which was covered with hair." It does not appear
that any symbolical meaning was attached to this ton-
sure ; it was one of the Scottish usages to which they
clung almost as fondly as to their Easter reckoning.
They do not seem to have had any oriental tradition for


this custom, for the Eastern tonsure, sometimes called
the Tonsure of St. Paul, consisted in shaving the whole
h.ead, and this was used in some Western monasteries."
But the Tonsure of St. Peter went all round the head,
and was a professed symbol of the Crown of Thorns, a
solemn emblem setting forth the consecration of the
person so marked and separated from the children of
the world. This was the tonsure which Wilfrid now
received at the hands of St. Delphinus. The longer
Wilfrid stayed at Lyons the more necessary he seemed
to the archbishop, who again proposed adopting him
and making him his heir, dropping all mention of the

It would seem by the style of the good precentor of

Online LibraryJohn Henry NewmanLives of the English saints (Volume 4) → online text (page 1 of 25)