Thursday, August 18, 2016

Saint Wilgils: A Conversion That Goes Beyond Serious

By Kim Rendfeld

Saint Wilgils probably was born a pagan, but once he converted to Christianity, the faith dictated his life.

Wilgils, a householder in Northumbria, was likely born in the 630s, a turbulent time for both politics and religion. King Edwin, who had accepted baptism in 627, supported efforts to convert the population to Christianity, but those efforts were cut short in 633, when Edwin was slain in battle and a pagan was crowned king.

The folk might have seen Edwin’s death as a divine sign to return to their old gods, who determined what side won the war and whether the harvest would be plentiful or meager. Many converts never stopped believing in their pagan deities despite their baptismal vows. Early medieval Christians went to Mass and celebrated holidays, but they maintained pagan rituals, especially for healing or to ensure a good crop.

Then Oswald, a Christian, decided to come out of exile and seize the throne. (Some of you might remember Oswald from a recent EHFA post by Matthew Harffy; a link to his post is in my sources.) Oswald indeed won the kingdom around 634 and believed he owed his victory to Christ. He showed his gratitude by backing missionaries. Saint Aidan was appointed bishop and travelled throughout the country.

King Oswald of Northumbria,
from a circa 1220 manuscript
(public domain,
via Wikimedia Commons)
We can only guess at how the priests’ teachings impressed the young Wilgils. Alcuin’s hagiography of Wilgils’s son, the source of most information, says nothing of Wilgils’s childhood. Perhaps, Wilgils’s family believed Oswald’s God was the stronger deity and decided to accept Christianity.

Wilgils was more devout than the typical Christian. In an age when most people couldn’t read and a Bible cost much more than a herd of sheep, most of the laity understood only what the priests told them and what they could see in the statuary and murals.

If we are to believe Alcuin, Wilgils got married solely to beget “a child who should benefit many peoples.”

Even by early medieval standards, this is an unusual reason to wed. Among aristocrats, marriage was to forge or solidify alliances and increase wealth. For commoners such as Wilgils, families were seeking good in-laws. The family of a daughter sought a fellow who would provide for his wife and kids. The bachelor, or his parents, sought a young woman to take care of the house and rear the children. If husband and wife were fond of each other, that was nice but not the primary reason for the union.

If Wilgils was so moved by religious belief, why didn’t he forgo marriage and join a monastery? Did he find a young woman as zealous as he was?

Alcuin doesn’t tell us much about Wilgils’s wife. Even her name is a mystery. But he says the couple was devout. And, as is common in hagiographies, the woman had a prophetic dream. In this case, she saw the new moon increase to full, and then it fell into her mouth. She swallowed it, and her bosom was suffused with light. She asked a priest for an interpretation and was told the vision meant the son she had conceived that night would bring light to those in the darkness of error and attract the multitudes.

The couple’s son, Willibrord, was born on November 6, 658, or thereabouts. When he was a young boy—the typical age to send a child to school was 7—he was given to the church at Ripon.

Saint Willibrord, photo by Jwh
at Wikipedia Luxembourg (CC BY-SA 3.0 lu,
via Wikimedia Commons)
Were there tears from parents or son? Did the parents have any second thoughts? Were they sad but accepting the will of God? Did this cause a strain on the marriage? The hagiography answers none of these questions. We don’t know if the parents ever saw their son again.

For the parents, the sacrifice went beyond emotions. Sending their son away meant he could not help them cultivate land or raise livestock. Their act, though, was more than religious devotion. Willibrord now had a chance to get an education and set himself on the path to rule a bishopric or abbey.

If Wilgils and his wife’s whole purpose was to bring into the world a holy man who would minister to many, they succeeded. As an adult, Willibrord was called to be a missionary and crossed the Channel.

His parents remained in Britain. Later in life, presumably after his wife died, Wilgils joined a monastery. Perhaps, he was grieving and seeking solace. Or maybe he’d always been drawn to the clergy and was free to pursue it as a widower.

Wilgils embraced the monastic life. More than embraced it. It didn’t take long for him to decide what he really needed was solitude and an even more austere lifestyle. So he probably traveled for days to a promontory where the Humber River meets the North Sea, today’s Spurn Point. There, he became a hermit.

Spurn Point, 1979, photo copyrighted by Stanley Howe
(used under the terms of CC BY-SA 2.0,
via Wikimedia Commons)
In modern times, the spit of land is a nature preserve. The sea side has chalk grassland, sand dunes, and beaches. The estuary has mud flats. It looks like a nice place to visit, but even by early medieval standards, it was far from civilization.

Nevertheless, Wilgils built a chapel and dedicated it to Saint Andrew. He fasted and prayed, but the solitude he longed for proved elusive. People flocked to him, and he instructed them in the faith. He attracted the attention of the king and aristocrats, who donated land in the area so that Wilgils could build a church. At that church, Wilgils started a small but devout community of religious men.

His legacy would be twofold. The religious community would last past his death, and his famous son, Willibrord, would become the apostle of Frisia, preaching in dangerous lands and becoming embroiled in Frankish politics.


Medieval Sourcebook: Alcuin’s The Life of Saint Willibrord

The Christians Are Coming! (The Islands of Iona and Lindisfarne)” by Matthew Harffy, English Historical Fiction Authors

England’s North East

Alcuin of York, by George Forrest Browne

The Lost Towns of the Yorkshire Coast, Thomas Sheppard

Visit Hull and East Yorkshire

Kim Rendfeld is the author of two novels set in early medieval Francia and is working on a third. In The Cross and the Dragon, Alda, a young Frankish noblewoman, must contend with a vengeful jilted suitor and the fear of losing her husband in battle. In The Ashes of Heaven's Pillar, Saxon peasant Leova will go to great lengths to protect her children after she's lost everything else.

The Cross and the Dragon was rereleased August 3, 2016, in print and ebook formats. You can order the book at Amazon, Kobo, iTunes, Barnes and Noble, Smashwords, CreateSpace, and other vendors. The Ashes of Heaven's Pillar will be rereleased in November 2016. Preorders are available at Kobo, Barnes and Noble, and iTunes. It will soon be available on Amazon.


  1. Alas, if you hold a sword to someone's throat and make them convert to another religion, they probably will say "yes, yes". It doesn't mean they will believe. Forced overnight conversions do not have a high success rate.

    1. As the 8th century wars between the Franks and the Saxons demonstrate, that is indeed the case, and the scholar Alcuin argued against this method of spreading Christianity. The process in 7th century Britain appears to be more gentle, though.


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