St. Wilfrid, Patron of the Isle of Wight

Written by the Isle of Wight Catholic History Society

2009 marks the 1300th anniversary of the death of St. Wilfrid. A concelebrated Mass was offered at St. Wilfrid's School in Ventnor on his feast day (12th October). To commemorate this anniversary the IoW Catholic History Society arranged an exhibition on his life and work. Wilfrid (634-709) is one of England's greatest and most controversial Saints. He directly influenced the move away from Celtic to the more orderly Roman church practices and is best known for championing and winning the case for the Roman, as opposed to the Celtic method of calculating the date of Easter at the famous Synod of Whitby in 664. He became Bishop of York with a See covering the whole of Northumbria, built magnificent stone churches at Ripon and Hexham and completed and restored the stone church at York started by the newly converted king Edwin. He acquired vast landholdings and established monasteries in Northumbria, Mercia, Sussex and the Isle of Wight and converted Sussex, the last vestige of paganism, to Christianity. Wilfrid spent some time with king Caedwaller and established a monastery on the Isle of Wight.

Caedwaller, king of Wessex, contemplated conquering the Isle of Wight. He bound himself with a vow that should he be victorious in capturing the island, he would give one quarter of it to Christ the Lord. And Caedwaller, enjoying the fruits of victory, discharged his vow in this way: he offered the specified portion to Wilfrid to be used "in the service of the Lord". A holding of three hundred hides of land was given to the bishop in A.D. 687. Wilfrid entrusted the portion he had been given to a certain cleric named Beornwine among his followers, who was his sister's son, giving him also the service of a priest, Hildila. Once they had taken upon themselves the ministry of preaching, by their own perseverance and with the intercessions of the blessed father they subjected that island to the yoke of the Christian faith. Wilfrid's followers built the first church on the Island at Brading. This, therefore, is the mother-church, - the Canterbury of the Isle of Wight.

Wilfrid was the confidant of kings and rulers across Europe but made many powerful enemies and was twice banished from Northumbria. He made three journeys on foot and horseback through Europe to Rome and was not afraid to seek papal jurisdiction over both crown and church where he felt badly treated. His life was threatened many times being shipwrecked and nearly killed by natives off the coast of Sussex, imprisoned in Northumbria by the king and twice nearly murdered whilst travelling abroad.

A talk by Edmund Matyjaszek on the life of the saint took place on 14th October 2009. He emphasised the fact that England was a unified ecclesiastical entity before it was a political and constitutional realm led or governed by king or ruler. Did this happen in any other country? This was largely due to the work of St. Wilfrid.

While many of us here on the Island have read of the Countess of Clare's second and final trip to Rome in 1868 at the age of 75, perhaps we are aware that the patron of our Island, St. Wilfrid set out for Rome at the age of 70 exactly 1300 years ago in A.D.704. There is a fine stained glass window in St. Mary's which depicts Wilfrid arriving on the Island in A.D 687 with his Benedictine monks asking King Caedwalla for permission to spread the Gospel message to the inhabitants of the Isle of Wight.

It was the famous Victorian convert Fr. Frederick William Faber who promoted the Benedictine saint when he wrote "Life of St. Wilfrid" while still an Anglican much to the annoyance of his superiors. It caused controversy because of Wilfrid's advocacy of the supremacy of Rome over the locals churches. Fr. Faber became a Catholic in 1845. He was the first Provost of the London Oratory.

Co-incidentally, the Feast of St. Wilfrid is also the anniversary of the Dedication of our two Solesmes abbeys at Quarr and St. Cecilia's.

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