15 minutes of fame | Marc Morris chooses Saint Wilfrid
As part of our series exploring lost or lesser-known figures from history who deserve their 15 minutes of fame, Emily Briffett interviews Marc Morris about the life of Saint Wilfrid
Who was Saint Wilfrid?
Born in Northumbria , in c634 AD, Saint Wilfrid became a bishop of Northumbria.
Described as a “model of eloquence and politeness” by his biographer Stephen of Ripon and presented as rude and abrasive by the Venerable Bede, Wilfrid lived a long life that spanned the seventh and early eighth centuries, and his controversial career had a great impact on Anglo-Saxon England.
Saint Wilfrid’s life
We are well-informed about Wilfrid’s life, Morris explains, because the Anglo-Saxons converted from paganism to Christianity in the course of the seventh century, resulting in fuller written sources. From these sources, and most importantly his contemporary biography, we can see that Wilfrid was a larger-than-life character.
As a teenager Wilfrid was sent to the monastery on the island of Lindisfarne, where he learned the fundamentals of the Christian faith. After a few years, however, he decided to visit Rome. This would have been “a mind-blowing experience” for a young man from Northumbria, Morris explains. Prior to this point he would never have seen a community with more than a few hundred people, whereas the population of Rome in the seventh century was around 100,000 people.
As a result of this experience, says Morris, Wilfrid “was completely converted to the Roman idea of what Christianity should be”. When he returned to Britain a few years later, his adherence to Roman practices and ideals “sets him at loggerheads with the Celtic tradition in which he’s been raised”.
Throughout his adult life, Wilfrid continued to clash with both ecclesiastical and secular rulers, falling out with both the king of Northumbria, Ecgfrith, and his successor, Aldfrith. As a result, he spent several years living as an exile in other Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. As bishop of Sussex in the 680s, he was responsible for mass conversions to Christianity, some of which, according to his biographer, were forced. But this, says Morris, was par for the course with Wilfrid. Certain of his mission, he didn’t care “who got flattened in the process”.
Wilfrid’s importance as a historical figure becomes clear when his life is compared with that of other saints, explains Morris. For example, Cuthbert, a very well-known saint from the same time, lived a conventional saint’s life, “meandering from village to village on foot, converting”. Wilfrid, by contrast, travelled far more extensively, and was constantly embroiled in controversy – engineering dynastic coups, fighting pagans hordes, and making repeated trips to Rome.
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Why does Saint Wilfrid deserve his 15 minutes of fame?
Saint Wilfrid deserves his 15 minutes of fame, says Morris, “simply because he was such an interesting, impactful figure who has been largely forgotten.
“He is arguably the most important individual in terms of the conversion of the Anglo-Saxons,” says Morris, and this can be seen in his incredible legacy. Though he made many enemies, he was also well-loved by many. Without Wilfrid, Morris believes, the conversion process would have happened at a much slower pace.
Ultimately, Wilfrid provides us with an interesting story to tell. As Morris says, other individuals who were pious and God-fearing were good people, but the stories of their lives are lacking in incident. Wilfrid, on the other hand, was “relentless, constantly on the move, and constantly clashing with people”. This is a gift to historians and authors, and for that reason alone he deserves to be remembered.
Dr Marc Morris was speaking to Emily Briffett. Morris is a historian and author whose most recent book is The Anglo-Saxons: A History of the Beginnings of England (Hutchinson, 2021)
Article compiled by Isabel King
Emily is HistoryExtra’s podcast editorial assistant. Before joining the BBC History team in 2021, Emily graduated with an MA in Public History from Royal Holloway, University of London