Memorial plaque set up for Wulfstan at Ely Cathedral Source: wikipedia

Archbishop Wulfstan of York (c. 946/66 – 1023)

Wulfstan played a significant political role in Anglo-Saxon England at the turn of the first millennium and the events surrounding the political and personal demise of King Æthelred (r. 978–1013, 1014–1016) and the conquest (996 – 1018) of Sweyn Forkbeard and Cnut the Great

Wulfstan s Institutes of Polity England, c 1000-1023- The page probably contains an autographed comment by Wulfstan. © British Library: Cotton MS Nero A I f 120r.
Wulfstan s Institutes of Polity England, c 1000-1023- The page probably contains an autographed comment by Wulfstan. © British Library: Cotton MS Nero A I f 120r.

Wulfstan was not just a prominent figure in high political circles during the turn of the first millennium in Anglo-Saxon England. He was also a prolific writer of legislative texts, homilies and other devotional and poetic texts in which he called for repentance and reform.

We don’t know when or where he was born, but if he followed the canonical rules, he must have been born at least 30 years before he was elevated to bishop of London in 996. As he ended his career in York as Archbishop yet was buried at Ely Cathedral, it has been speculated he was born nearby. Another suggestion, though, has been Worcester and the west midlands as his home. According to the Liber Eliensis, he was of noble origin. Several sources in the form of deeds indicate he was born into a family with landed estates.

Perhaps Wulfstan was educated at a Benedictine school, possibly Winchester, where he may have become acquainted with the reform movement and bishop Æthelwold. Likely, though, Worcester was his alma mater, as we are told he served as the monastery’s abbot before his appointment to Bishop of London. After his service in London, he was appointed Bishop of Worcester and Archbishop of York. During these years, he was engaged in administrative and legislative efforts to shore up the land held by the said dioceses. As part of this, he almost certainly commissioned the first Anglo-Saxon cartulary, the Liber Wigorniensis. Also, he wrote his first legislative texts during this early period. Based on these first forays into legislative writing, he spent the time after 1008 to compose the legislation for which he was later known. These were followed by political and exhortative texts, among which is his most famous: Sermo Lupus ad Anglos.

During his lifetime, he used the pen name Lupus as a pun on his own name but perhaps also as a hortatory admonition: Listen to the Wolf from the North. This role may have prepared him for the shift in allegiance after 1016 when Cnut the Great finally conquered England. During the next seven years, Wulfstan served as the king’s leading counsellor and an intermediary between the Danish and the Anglo-Saxons. During these years, he wrote some of his most seminal political tracts.

His writings are engrossing in several ways. In terms of his distinctive rhythmical prose style, characteristic wording and visualising approach to writing, he must command respect as an author out of the ordinary. But he also fathered a coherent and striking vision of a well-ordered Christian and moral society calling for reforms and repentance in an Anglo-Saxon England on the brink of dissolution and despair. Wulfstan is often recognised for the alleged civilising influence he is said to have exerted on Cnut the Great. However, this seems to reflect more on the propensity of English historians to describe Sweyn and Cnut as “uncivilised”.

Unfortunately, the potential influence he may have exerted on the formation of the early church in Cnut’s Scandinavian homelands has not been studied. An interesting perspective is represented by the survival of one of his so-called personal commonplace books in the Royal Library in Denmark, which offers an inkling of how he worked. These so-called commonplace books have been much debated.


Cover townend wulfstan of york


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