The Life of Saint Wulstan (1008-1095AD)

Summary

Wulstan was the son of Athelstan and Wulfgeva. Even during his youth his piety had been noted, and he went on to study at the monasteries of Evesham and Peterborough. Once he was an adult his parents joined separate monasteries in Worcester.

After his ordination Wulstan was led his flock by good example rather than mere words and sermons. Monk at Worcester. Taught catechism to children, and served as church treasurer.

He became Bishop of Worcester in 1062 only a few years before the the Norman invasion. As Bishop he was known for inspirational preaching, great humility, and asceticism. He was one of the first bishops in England to make pastoral visits to the parishes of his diocese and was influential in ending the sale of Irish prisoners as slaves in England. It was he who put in hand the building of the present Worcester cathedral.

Wulstan's story is recorded in The Life of Saint Wulstan written in Latin between 1124 and 1143 by William of Malmesbury who extended an earlier version by the monk Coleman, Wulstan's friend and chaplain. JHF Peile, a former Archdeacon of Worcester translated Malmesbury's Latin text and published the first English version of the saint's life, as a book in 1934.

Early Years

Wulstan was born in the village of Itchington, Warwickshire. He was the son of Aethelstan and Wulfgifu who also entered the religious life in separate Worcester monasteries once Wulstan reached adulthood. Wulstan studied first at a monastery in Evesham before going for more advanced training in Peterborough. He was a strong athletic young man and Malmesbury's account shows clearly that he was very attractive to women, and had to endure several advances and considerable temptation for much of his life.

After much prayer, and an austere life of self-denial, in an attempt to ward off temptation, Wulstan had a dream in which a bright cloud descended upon him and relieved him of his strong carnal desires. Despite this he still had to fight off further advances in the coming years.

Monastic Years

Wulstan then took a job working for the Bishop of Worcester (Brihtheah) who soon realised his potential and gave him the chance to advance to the priesthood and take charge of a local parish. Wulstan, however, turned down the offer as he wanted to be a monk, and it was not long before he did indeed enter a monastery in Worcester.

His extent of Wulstan's renunciation of worldly values is summed up in a quote in Malmesbury's account: Happy is the man who grows sick of the attractions of the world. The pleasure of them passes in a moment of time but the tooth of conscience gnaws as long as a man lives.

As a monk he was very popular and regarded as exemplary as a man of holiness by his brothers, virtually free of faults and perfect in virtues. His austere life style included minimal sleep, and lying prostrate on a bare floor the foot of the altar.

He went on to be appointed as Prior of the monastery and continued his saintly life demonstrating the virtues of love and kindness particularly to those in need. He kept watch for hours at the door of the Church so that he could baptise the children of the poor and help those who had been assaulted.

Bishop of Worcester

His holiness drew attention of the Cardinals when the Bishopric of Worcester became vacant and despite his reluctance Wulstan accepted the post in 1061. It was not long before he had plans made for the building of a new Cathedral, but work did not actually start on this until 1084. Malmesbury records several miracles attributed to Bishop Wulstan:

  • A workman fell 40ft from the roof of the Cathedral but Wulstan, standing nearby, made a holy gesture as the man was tumbling, and he stood up unhurt, blessing the bishop.
  • Visiting Evesham, Wulstan received a plea from a monk name Eigelric who lay dying from a fever and who desired the bishop's absolution. Wulstan prayed at the monk's bedside and gave a blessing - and suddenly all the pains and weakness of the sufferer fled, and health abounded to drive out the disease Eigelric never ceased to bless God and the bishop for his healing.
  • Among Wulstan's many other miracles was the laying of healing hands on a woman at Evesham who had become a violent and frenzied idiot, on a leper at Kempsey whose flesh came again like that of a little child, and on Gunnilda, daughter of King Harold, whose eyesight had been attacked by a malignant tumour. Wulstan made the sign of the Cross before her eyes and straightway she was able to ... receive the light of day

Eventually, the fame of Wulstan's holiness had gone through all the land and even to the ends of the world. The Kings of Ireland paid him many signs of reverence. Malcolm, King of Scotland commended himself to his prayers. The Pope of Rome, the Archbishop of Bari and the Patriarch of Jerusalem, in letters, besought his advocacy with God.

Wulstan died a little after midnight on Saturday the nineteenth day of January in the year of the Incarnation of Our Lord, one thousand and ninety-five when he had been Bishop for 34 years. For centuries after his death, St Wulstan's tomb in the Cathedral brought pilgrims flocking to Worcester, but sadly, the saint's shrine was destroyed by order of Henry VIII during the Reformation.

Further Information

The full translation from Latin of William of Malmesbury's Life of Saint Wulstan was undertaken earlier this century by a former Archdeacon of Worcester, the Ven JHF Peile who published it as a book in 1934. Sadly, this is out of print, as it a later version, but sometimes a second hand one comes up online from second hand book sellers.