In the United States today there is great interest in the issues surrounding justice, as well there should be: our nation has a tragic history with regards to human rights. It took 200 years, one of our greatest presidents and the bloodiest war in American history to finally bring the institution of slavery to an end, and another century to rid ourselves of the racial bigotry developed by the institution of slavery.
In 11th century England there was a similar institution of slavery but it was brought down in a very different way: by one courageous man with a heart for God. St. Wulfstan is one of those remarkable characters in history who should be remembered not only for his deep holiness but for the dramatic effect he had on the world around him. No saint in the history of the Church was and is more dedicated to human rights than St. Wulfstan, and while his fight took place almost a thousand years ago there is no doubt he plays an intercessory role whenever and wherever man’s rights are threatened.
England in the time of St. Wulfstan
England was a difficult place to live in the 11th century. England had been controlled by the Anglo Saxons since the 5th century, and early in the 11th century the great English monarchs were under heavy external attacks from the Danes. Perhaps the most traumatic event in English history took place mid way through the century in 1066: the Norman Invasion, when William the Conqueror forever changed the history of the English speaking world.
In spite of these dark times, England was also filled with great rays of light. Just prior to William the Conqueror’s invasion both England and Scotland had enthroned monarchs that became saints: St. Edward the Confessor in England and the humble St. Margaret in Scotland. A momentous and joyous event that created light for England was the appearance of Our Lady at Little Walsingham in 1061, sparking a devotion to Our Lady that created the greatest pilgrimage site in the English speaking world for over 400 years.
The Saint as a Young Man
St. Wulfstan was born around 1008 a.d. in a small village about 15 miles from Stratford upon Avon, where approximately 556 years later William Shakespeare would be born, and studied under the tutelage of a holy monk named Earnwig at the monastery at Peterborough.
The young saint grew in holiness and from as early as his teenage years great signs seemed to be attached to the pious youth. St. Wulfstan was also athletic and strong, and would always win when competing in sporting events. His success, however, did not seem to lead to bravado or hubris, in fact his humility was attested to by all.
Wulfstan the Bishop
While great turmoil and upheaval reigned in the days of St. Wulfstan, Our Lord was clearly present and invested in the interests of the England. St. Wulfstan was a man on fire for the Lord, and he worked tirelessly to advance God’s Kingdom on earth.
St. Wulfstan was appointed bishop of Worcester by King St. Edward in 1062, one year after Our Lady appeared at Walsingham and 4 years before the great King St. Edward’s death. After King St. Edward’s death and William the Conqueror’s successfully invasion of England, he replaced all the English bishops with French bishops except for one: St. Wulfstan.
The story goes that when St. Wulfstan was requested to turn over his bishops crook (a shepherd’s staff) in Westminster Abbey, he slammed it into the tomb of King St. Edward the Confessor and proclaimed that since the King St. Edward had given him the staff, only King St. Edward could take it from him. Several strong men tried to retrieve the staff, however, it only could only be removed by St. Wulfstan. The men gathered at Westminster Abbey determined this to be a sign that the Lord saw St. Wulfstan as the rightful bishop of Worcester. Due to his natural piety and faith William the Conqueror developed a deep respect for the bishop and the bishop played an important role in helping the Normans keep peace.
St. Wulfstan and Civil Rights
As bishop of Worcester St. Wulfstan stood against one of the most despicable and powerful enterprises in 11th century England, the slave trade. At this time slavery was not only still allowed in England but almost 10% of the English population were in chains, with the port city of Bristol being the main hub for the slave trade. Thousands of Englishmen and women in debt would find themselves being loaded on slave ships bound for the pagan Viking colony of Dublin, with some of the slaves being shipped to Viking colonies in Iceland and Scandinavia. However, the worst fate for an English slave was not to end up in a Viking colony but to be sold again by the Vikings to the Moors in Spain.
St. Wulfstan was incensed by the slave trade in Bristol, however considering the city was 60 miles away from his cathedral in Worcester the saintly bishop had to rely upon God’s providence. God provided for St. Wulfstan and the horrific human rights abuses in Bristol, and eventually many witnessed the noble bishop bilocating to the Bristol markets to preach against the horrifying nature of the slave trade.
St. Wulfstan fought the slavers with everything he had, and eventually he prevailed. By the time of his death in 1095 the slave trade was completely eradicated in England. Sadly it would reappear in England after the Reformation and Bristol would have a prime role again. However, the noble island was free for over four hundred years mainly because of one man’s work.
There are many fantastic stories from the life of St. Wulfstan, and in this modern time of great concern over man’s right to live and live free, we should ask St. Wulfstan for intercession and honor this great and noble saint.