Historical Figure Profile: Archbishop Wulfhere of York

Pre 867 AD silver Styca from the York Mint, issued by Archbishop Wulfhere of York. He was also the last Archbishop to issue Styca coins.

Unfortunately there are only three primary sources which describe the 9th century Archbishop of York in any detail at all. They were all written by one man, Simeon of Durham, a monk and precentor of Durham from the late 11th and early 12th Century.

Presumably, sometime either before or during the year 854, Wimund, Archbishop of York, passed away and the position was given to Wulfhere, who must have been a man of note within the Northumbrian church already to have been considered. He was given the pallium in 854: a long, thin band of fabric (usually wool) which is awarded to those directly representing the Popes jurisdiction, such as Bishops or Archbishops.

A period of 12 years then passed until he is again mentioned, in the fateful year of 866, when the Vikings came and attacked York. Simeon is quite specific about Wulfhere’s actions during this turbulent time, writing that:

While these bloody struggles were going on, bishop Wulfer kept aloof, residing at Addingham, a valley in the Western part of Yorkshire, which is called Hwerverdale, upon the banks of the river Hwerf, between Otley and the castle of Sciptun…

Simeon’s thinly veiled disgust at Wulfhere seems to have been mirrored by the inhabitants of York at the time. In 872, obviously not happy with the Archbishop or the King that had been appointed to rule over them by the Danes, the Northumbrians revolted and chased both men not just out of York but out of the Kingdom. Fleeing beyond the Humber, they sought sanctuary with King Burghred of Mercia.

The people of York then appointed a man named Ricsige as their King and according to Simeon of Durham, he ruled for only a year.

The Northumbrian’s at York were able to do this initially because their overlords, the Danes, were busy fighting elsewhere. Two years previously they had left Northumbria for East Anglia, killing the now sainted Edmund of East Anglia before turning west to fight against King Aethelred of Wessex, and then his brother King Alfred who took over after Aethelred’s death.

At the time of the rebellion in Northumbria, the Danes were in London where they were recouperating after their victory at Wilton. By the spring of 873 they moved north to Lindsey just south of the Humber river. The Chronicle of Florence of Worcester states that for 873,

The oft mentioned army evacuated London and went into Northumbria, and wintered there in the district called Lindsey; and the Mercians again made peace with them.

But the peace did not last long. From Lindsey they marched back into the heart of Mercia, wreaking havoc amongst the people and forcing King Burghred to abdicate and flee with his family to Rome. Then, after installing their own king in Mercia, they finally turned their attention back to Northumbria.

In 875, Halfdan took half of the army from Guthrum and for a year laid waste to the kingdom, even expanding the destruction into Strathclyde and Pictland. None of the versions of the Anglo saxon chronicle or of Simeon’s writings mention the reason explicitly that they went north to Northumbria, abandoning their seemingly fruitful endeavours in Wessex. However, it isn’t hard to make a few guesses as to at least one possible reason, especially seeing as they also attacked King Burghred who had taken in King Ecgbert and the Archbishop.

Returning once more to Archbishop Wulfhere, a year after his expulsion back in 872, after the death of his companion in exile King Ecgbert (yes, apparently he just died, more on him in another post), and the submission of the Mericans after Burghred’s exile to Rome, Wulfhere was restored once more to his church and his See, where he remained event free (as far as sources have recorded) until his death around the year 900.

It is an interesting point indeed, that two kings were exiled and (possibly) killed at the instigation of the Danes, whereas Wulfhere was merely reinstated. And who was he reinstated by? It could have been by the Northumbrians, however I think this is unlikely seeing as they were the ones who got rid of him to start with. If it were the Danes, then this speaks volumes for the relationship between them. Was he the archetypal villain who threw his lot in with the Danes, only to be kicked out of power by his countrymen as soon as his new allies left? Or perhaps he was actually a hero in disguise, misunderstood by York, who perhaps saw his peacemaking between themselves and their new overlords as a weakness or a betrayal?

Without more information from contemporary sources about his life, we may never know what really happened or what type of man Wulfhere was. However, we do know that he continued to be the Archbishop of York until his death (892 or 900 depending on the source you use).

Despite civil war, Danish invasions and exile, at the time of his death, Wulfhere was the longest serving Archbishop of York since Paulinus created the position (he would have served 47 years). The second longest service by an Archbishop of York before that had been St Wilfred, with 45 years (although if Wulfhere had died in 892 then he would only have served 39 years).

It’s an amazing feat really that after all that had happened, he continued on for another two decades. He certainly was one of many intriguing men in an intriguing age.

By A H Gray

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