Chris Upton discovers why an old friend of King John of England attracted such devotion.
When King John of England died, largely unmourned, in 1216 he gave instructions that his body be buried before the high altar of the cathedral church of Worcester, and close to the shrines of St Wulfstan and St Oswald. If the king had won precious few friends in his lifetime, he might perhaps count on these two for the life-to-come.
King John still lies in the same spot today, but his two saintly companions paid the price for a later king’s divorce from Rome. Under Henry VIII the shrines of Oswald and Wulfstan were torn down, and their bodies sealed in lead.
The two saints had much in common. Both dated back to Anglo-Saxon times and both had been bishops of Worcester. There might have been a third. Bishop Dunstan - another popular saint - was also canonized, but his translation to Canterbury in 960 took him to Kent instead.
Quite how the monks of Worcester felt about the arrival of the king’s body is unrecorded, but there’s a fair chance they were less than delighted. They were in the middle of building work.
So popular had St Wulfstan become to pilgrims that the east end of the church was being expanded to accommodate them. The work was completed two years after King John’s death, when his son and successor - Henry III - was invited to the dedication, and to see the saint’s body transferred to a splendid new tomb.
You wait years to see a Plantagenet, and then two come along almost at once.
So who was this Wulfstan who attracted such devotion from kings and commoners ?
Wulfstan was born a Warwickshire man, born in Long Itchington in c1008. The date is not certain, but it was close enough for Worcester to celebrate the millennium of his birth two years ago. Naming children was much more flexible in Saxon days; it seems that Wulfstan’s name derived partly from his mother - Wulfgeva - and partly from his father - Athelstan.
Wulfstan was educated first at the abbey of Evesham and then at Peterborough, before being enrolled as a clerk at the priory of Worcester. He was ordained in 1038, and began to climb the ecclesiastical ladder.
In 1062 he became bishop and remained in that position for more than 30 years. Wulfstan died at Worcester in 1095, probably in his 85th year.
If all this sounds rather unexceptional, it conceals a much more interesting sub-text. Even if your historical knowledge fits easily onto the back of a postcard, you will certainly be aware that England went through a change a management over that period.
No longer a family firm run by the Anglo-Saxons, it became a multi-national with a Norman as managing director.
One thing we know of the Normans is that they wanted their own men in positions of power, both in the state and the church. For a Saxon to hold on to his bishopric was very unusual indeed, and by the time he died, Wulfstan was the only English-born bishop in England.
The story goes - in existence at least since 1138 - that when Wulfstan was summoned to Westminster to yield up his crozier to King William, he refused, saying that he would only give it to the Saxon king who had appointed him. He thereupon drove his staff into the tomb of Edward the Confessor, where it stuck fast. Only Wulfstan, says the legend, was able to pull it out.
Those early saints’ lives need to be taken with a pinch of salt, of course. But for what it’s worth, Wulfstan’s contemporary biographer also records that the bishop became a vegetarian as an act of contrition for thinking of roast goose whilst he was conducting a service.
Yet hold onto his seat he did, and Worcester came to be very grateful for that, for Wulfstan transformed the diocese over which he presided for 33 years. He founded the priory at Great Malvern, ordered large-scale building work at Hereford and Tewkesbury, and no doubt at many parish churches too.
But Wulfstan reserved his greatest efforts for the cathedral in Worcester itself, increasing the number of monks from 12 to 50, commissioning manuscripts, acquiring new lands and replacing St Oswald’s old cathedral with something much more substantial.
According to a contemporary biographer, tearing down the old Saxon cathedral brought Wulfstan to tears - “pompusly destroying the work of saints”, he called it - but down it came nonetheless. The bishop might have been a Saxon by birth, but his instincts were now thoroughly Norman.
Given the size of the new church, practically the same length and width of the current cathedral, it was a mammoth undertaking. Stark, white and immense it was, a church of vast proportions for the new age. Although the building was not complete when Wulfstan died in 1095 it was largely so, and a powerful legacy to his successors.
But if Wulfstan had effectively erased the achievements of his own saintly predecessor, Oswald, the same fate was to befall him.
Ironically, such was the fame of Wulfstan that the church was being rebuilt to reflect the importance of his shrine, just as King John made his final pilgrimage there.
Today it is only below ground - in the crypt - that we can get a real sense of Wulfstan’s achievement. No doubt Wulfstan had a good idea of what he wanted the chapter house to look like too, but it was only completed 15 years or so after his death.
The crypt at Worcester is undoubtedly one of the finest underground spaces in England, a dense forest of plain Romanesque columns, no less than seven bays wide.
Only here can one feel the stark simplicity that was Wulfstan’s style. In the absence of a burial place, this will have to be the good bishop’s memorial.