Articles from the Thoroton Society Newsletter

Wulfstan II of Worcester and his adventures in Nottinghamshire

By Ray State

During the Norman Conquest almost all the Saxon bishops were dismissed and replaced by Normans. The one exception was Wulfstan II of Worcester. Wulfstan II was born in Warwickshire in 1008, the nephew of Wulfstan I (circa 966 to 1023) who was firstly Bishop of London, then York and in 1020, Bishop of Worcester. Wulfstan II was also made Bishop of Worcester circa 1062. Wulfstan II was born at Itchington, Warwickshire into a married priest family. In the 11th century, before the Norman reforms, married priests were quite common and Wulfstan’s mother may have been a sister of Wulfstan I, later bishop of Worcester. They were quite wealthy owning much land in the village hence the thorough education given to their son.

Wulfstan was a supporter of William I before the Conquest (although some accounts deny this) and it is this support which contributed to his survival as the sole Saxon bishop after 1075. Wulfstan died in 1095. Wulfstan was much admired by the Norman bishops probably because he was a renowned orator and could speak in Old English as well as Norman French. In consequence he was widely employed in dedicating new Norman churches, mainly in the south and west. He was assisted in his duties by his chancellor, a man by the name of Colman. Colman was a scribe and wrote down everything in Old English that he saw and took part in. Colman’s text survived into the 12th century and was acquired by William of Malmesbury circa 1117. He was intrigued by what Wulfstan had accomplished and set about interviewing all who were still alive who had met him. As a result he wrote a text in Latin intending to seek beatification of Wulfstan from the Pope. This text was entitled Vita Wulstani (Life of Wulfstan) which is now considered to be a hagiograph (a biography that treats its subject with undue reverence). As a result Wulfstan was canonised on the 14th May 1203 by Pope Innocent II and a shrine was installed in Worcester cathedral to which pilgrims came. The shrine was destroyed at the time of the reformation.

The Vita Wulfstani remained almost ignored for centuries until it was examined and partially translated into English by Reginald Darlington in 1928 under the direction of Sir Frank Stenton. Darlington was awarded his doctorate for this work. Even then the translation was incomplete when transcribed into the book St Wulfstan and his Works. In this Darlington described Wulfstan’s work in dedicating churches and noted a number of “miracles” which the bishop performed on his travels which William of Malmesbury had used in the argument for beatification. Why Darlington did not complete the translation is unknown* but the only reference to Nottinghamshire was a line which referred to Wulfstan attending “ Saewin’s church at Ratcliffe”. This event is undated. The Domesday Book confirms that Ratcliffe had a church in 1086. The entry stated that “there is a church and a priest” but it also confirmed that the lord was Saewin, a King’s Thegn. The interpretation is that Saewin was a retainer of the king; although that status by 1086 had been much devalued, it indicates that Ratcliffe manor was probably owned by William I. In light of Ratcliffe’s history between 1087 and 1135 this assumption is not unreasonable. Saewin’s name (in Danish Mercian) is also sometimes confused as he is sometimes called Sewi or Sewy (old English) and Sauvinus (Thoroton Latin).

To return to the Vita Wulfstani, Darlington’s work remained the sole translation which was extant until 1990 when Emma Mason decide to review the work and produce a complete edition called St Wulfstan of

Worcester 1008 to 1095. The work showed the context of Wulfstan’s visit to Nottinghamshire. The book lists eighteen “miracles” which Wulfstan performed, most of them in London and the south. Some authors claim that one was the curing of an illness of the daughter of King Harold but this is not borne out by the translation and the date would be placed before 1066 which is questionable. The interesting ones for this publication are the nineteenth and twentieth miracles, both of which must have been carried out between 1080 and 1084 (for reasons stated below). As mentioned previously, both of these had been omitted by Darlington and so it has only been in the last few decades that the Nottingham “miracles” have received attention.

Wulfstan was visiting Nottingham en route to York at the behest of William I and Archbishop Thomas of York. Emma Mason believes the bishop followed the Saltway from Droitwich and then the Fosse Way (now the A46) to arrive at Nottingham. At Nottingham he performed another “miracle” (the nineteenth) whilst staying in the house of the High Sheriff which some identify as Hugh FitzBaldric. Generally Hugh does not feature before 1069 but appears to have been in office until 1080. However, the Domesday Book identifies Hugh de Port as High Sheriff in 1086, having been appointed in 1080. The latter is the most likely and it had to be well before 1086 as the church was complete in that year. The story goes that whilst dining he had an argument with the wife of the High Sheriff who challenged him to perform a miracle to demonstrate his piety, whereupon he enabled an unusual run of salmon at the local Trent fish weir. Before leaving for York he visited Ratcliffe.

I give below the details as stated by Emma Mason:

Wulfstan’s gift of prophesy was also considered to have been demonstrated in another, but altogether more sombre, episode which occurred in Nottinghamshire. A rich man named Sewy1 built a church on his estate in Ratcliffe on Soar (then Redeclive). As an Englishman2, and a King’s Thegn he was eager to have the dedication performed by Wulfstan3. The church built of stone with a stone altar which may have replaced an earlier Saxon church4. He asked the Archbishop of York to permit Wulfstan to act, and this was agreed. Archbishop Thomas (of York) was normally only too willing for Wulfstan to perform routine tasks - and in any case bishops apparently functioned outside their own diocese on occasion before such activity was curbed by the expansion of canon law in the 12th century5. News went round that Wulfstan was to perform the dedication and people flocked to the church6,7 The arrival of this eminent and venerated Englishman and his celebration of the elaborate ritual would make a welcome change from the drudgery of the daily round. As usual, Wulfstan took the opportunity offered by the big congregation to preach a long sermon - probably a novelty in itself to most of those present-and he expounded his favourite theme of peace and goodwill. This encouraged a certain poor man to come forward. He earnestly asked the bishop to make peace between him and a rich man who was standing nearby8. What Colman did say was that the rich man was a priest who had betrayed his calling for love of increased wealth. Wulfstan called this man forward and asked repeatedly - three times in all-to make peace with the poor plaintiff, but the rich priest scornfully ignored all the bishop’s entreaties. With the priest still standing before him, Wulfstan then prophesied:

You are determined not to have peace. I tell you truly that the time is coming and is almost here when you will want to be merciful to this man, and to others, but you will not be able to do so. You yourself will ask for mercy and it will be denied you.

Wulfstan would know from long experience that unresolved disputes about land were only too likely to lead to violence, particularly when the aggressor had stirred up enemies on all sides. The rich priest was not in the least moved by the bishop’s words, but hurried off to his own house. Up to this point he had always been favoured by fortune, but now it turned against him with a sting in its tail. The denouement appears to have followed immediately, to demonstrate the fulfilment of Wulfstan’s prophecy. Most likely several of the priest’s victims had listened to the bishop’s words and felt justified in wreaking vengeance at once. The priest’s enemies stormed into his house and his companions fled as best they could. The priest himself was killed and Wulfstan’s prophesy was fulfilled. It was felt in the bishop’s circle that the outcome was a warning to others to recognise what is good for them, and in particular, to take care not to transgress the commands of holy men.


Main Text

A Reginald Darlington died in 1977 and in his obituary there is a copy of a statement made by Darlington circa 1951. The statement reads “As a young scholar I received much kindness and encouragement from him (Stenton) and it was he who urged me to start work again on the cartulary (Vita Wulfstani) after my first transcript had been destroyed (in a German air-raid of 1942) “ This may be why the work was not completed.


1   Sewy (or Saewin or Sauvinus) was a King’s Thegn who had acquired the former lands of Osgod including Ratcliffe, Kingston, Gotham and Barton probably after the Mercian suppression of 1068/9. He is referred to in the Domesday records of 1086. He disappears from records on or about 1089 when the estates were acquired by Hugh Lupus, Earl of Chester.

2   But probably of Danish extraction

3   This begs the question as to why Sewy could make such an arrangement. Although Wulfstan dedicated many named churches in his own diocese the number dedicated outside with names are very few, Emma Mason only identifying two, Ratcliffe and St Botolph’s at Bradenham. It may be that Sewy was known to Wulfstan.

4   In a directive from Archbishop Lanfranc issued in 1076 all altars should be made of stone. As a result wooden Saxon altars were removed. In the main, these stone altars or Mensa slabs were carried on stone supports. The slab projected over the base at the front and sides and its edges were square and usually undercut. Five crosses were incised on the top surface - one in each corner and one in the centre, representing the five wounds of Christ. Ratcliffe’s Mensa slab carries a cross in the top left corner but those on the other three corners were destroyed in the 16th century during the attempt to break the stone. Although the stone conforms to the Norman specification the current stone is believed to be 14th century.

5   Emma Mason believes this section was added by William of Malmesbury who was renowned for adding legalistic asides.

6   Darlington says that one of the important acts of dedication was to dedicate the altar stone which may well be the Mensa stone still extant in the church (see note 5 above). Whatever building existed at this time it could not have been larger than the existing chancel. The church has been altered in 1160, 1195, 1220 and 1303.

7   Wulfstan only dedicated newly built churches. In addition, Normans only built in stone. Therefore there is a good chance that Ratcliffe’s chancel footprint dates from this period. There are several pointers in this direction. The chancel is much longer than the nave indicating that the chancel once was the only building; the walls are some 4ft thick indicating early Norman origins although the lancet windows are Early English from late 12 century and the south wall (the only original remaining) is built in random rubble. There is also an early Cistercian priest door in the chancel south wall but this cannot be earlier than 1130.

8   Both names were omitted from the Vita Wulfstani as written by Colman either because he did not know them or, as suggested, out of discretion. It has been suggested the priest was from Breedon or Melbourne the former being a well establish Saxon church. This is not unreasonable as the number of Saxon churches existing in the 1080s was very limited.