The heirs of Bishop Wilfrid: Succession and presumption in early Anglo-Saxon England

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The biography of the Anglo-Saxon bishop Wilfrid (d. 710) has always been prized as a rare window onto the ‘real world’ of the seventh- and eighth-century Church. It offers us stories of bishops arranging bribes in monastic treasuries, describes factional infighting among churchmen, and imagines ecclesiastical leaders as rulers of ‘kingdoms of churches’. Its tone is so unlike that of other contemporary writings that its testimony, partisan though it may be, has always seemed like a valuable corrective to the more idealized character of our other major sources. This article argues that in our enthusiasm to use the Life of St Wilfrid in this way, we have misunderstood the uses for which the text was originally written. Through a re-examination of the Life’s account of Wilfrid’s final years, it reconsiders the motives of the text’s patrons: Tatberht, abbot of Ripon, and Acca, bishop of Hexham. The two men played an active role in the text’s creation, and a great deal of the Life rests on the acceptance of secretive events to which only they could testify. Those events, in turn, underpinned their own claims to be the designated heirs of the recently deceased Bishop Wilfrid. The Life’s defensively partisan tone has typically been understood as the product of a beleaguered ‘Wilfridian’ faction anticipating criticism from outside opponents. This article argues instead that it reflects a moment of profound disunity within the ‘Wilfridians’ themselves, and reveals the strategies by which ambitious ecclesiastics might sometimes seek to gain and secure their positions.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1377-1404
Number of pages28
JournalEnglish Historical Review
Issue number571
Publication statusPublished - 7 Nov 2019


  • Bishop Wilfrid
  • Early Anglo-Saxon England

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