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Wulfstan [Lupus] (d. 1023), archbishop of York and homilist, was the uncle of Brihtheah, bishop of Worcester (1033–8). Since knowledge of him has been transformed in the last hundred years, few entries in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography differ so markedly from their Victorian forerunner as this on Wulfstan.


Wulfstan was clearly enough a product of the tenth-century monastic reform movement, though his debt to it is not so explicit as that of Ælfric, his contemporary as homilist and canonist. Unlike the earlier generation of the reform's protagonists, he was not generally regarded as a saint, so was not commemorated in a life. The only sources for his family background are a few records from Worcester and a notice of his burial at Ely in the Liber Eliensis. Both reveal his kinship with his successor but one at Worcester, Brihtheah. The former records a marriage agreement for an unnamed sister, as well as a lease to one Wulfgifu who may be the sister in question (the lands involved had the same tenant, elsewhere identified as Bishop Brihtheah's nephew, in 1066). Ely's notice gives a warm account of Wulfstan's stature and sanctity; his determination to be buried there (though he died as far away as York) is ascribed to a semi-miraculous event on an earlier visit and there is also a mention of miracula at his tomb. This implies an effort to generate a cult, even if it had only local resonance. A different story was preserved by Peterborough, where it was claimed that he had intended to be buried there, Ely acquiring him by chance; it may be significant that Wulfstan's immediate predecessor at York and Worcester was Abbot Ealdulf of Peterborough. Noble families with members named Wulfstan had featured in the tenth-century history of each abbey; the likelihood is that the archbishop belonged to one or other (or both) of them.

The first evidence of Wulfstan at work is a set of letters by or addressed to the bishop of London, Lupus (Lat. ‘wolf’); their preservation in Wulfstan manuscript miscellanies is proof that London's Bishop Wulfstan (996–1002) was the future archbishop. Three letters are on penitential issues, while a fourth defers to Lupus's eloquence. It is an engaging possibility that the apocalyptic homilies which are usually considered among Wulfstan's earliest, and which would after all have been appropriate enough for the eve of the year 1000, first made his reputation, prompting his promotion to the sees of York and Worcester in 1002. The holding of the potentially disaffected northern archbishopric in plurality with a southern see, usually Worcester, was evidently policy in the tenth and eleventh centuries. Often, as with Wulfstan, the incumbent was someone whose Danelaw background would give him insight into northern mentalities, but whose southern landed interests would discourage support for separatist tendencies. However, Wulfstan soon became more than the government's Northumbrian lieutenant. Probably at an early stage, he drew up the so-called ‘Canons of Edgar’ and ‘Peace of Edward and Guthrum’, for the clergy and laity of his diocese respectively. By 1008 he was drafting the laws that Æthelred II issued at Enham. He played the same role for the edicts of 1009 and 1014. The first versions of his powerful 1014 ‘Sermon of the Wolf to the English’ envisaged Swein's rampaging Danes as apocalyptic visitations of God's anger at English sins. Later drafts came to imply that the English could learn from the parallels between their recent experience and their own defeat of the Britons back in the sixth century. God would punish but could also be placated by a fresh start. Hence, Wulfstan not only dedicated the church that Cnut founded on the site of his decisive victory for the souls of those slain there (perhaps composing a homily for the occasion), he also orchestrated the reconciliation of the two peoples at the Council of Oxford in 1018. His chosen instrument was a restatement of ‘Edgar's law’, which in practice meant laws he had earlier issued for Æthelred. The culmination of his life's work was the great code which he drew up for promulgation by Cnut at Winchester in 1020 or 1021. In effect it codified much of the pertinent law made by English kings since Alfred, as a foundation for a regime that would now earn God's favour rather than his wrath.

Wulfstan's place at the king's right hand made him the logical choice to settle legal disputes for the churches of Hereford and Sherborne. He is also said to have refounded St Peter's Abbey at Gloucester. His administration of his own episcopal estates appears from marginalia by his hand in documents from both cathedrals. These include Worcester's first cartulary, whose compilation he probably directed and which is much the earliest such record to survive. Yet he left a bad name at Worcester. Clearly—in the circumstances, naturally—his property strategies favoured his kin. In the more reformist ecclesiastical climate of the later eleventh century, this did not seem so natural at all. Nor did pluralist tenure; and though Wulfstan ostensibly gave up Worcester in 1016, he appears to have retained a supervisory role. His reputation can only have suffered as a result, especially as Worcester had serious trouble on these scores from his successors. But at Ely his fame was secure. His obit was commemorated there on 28 May, the anniversary of his death, which took place in York in 1023. The Liber Eliensis notice was in fact occasioned by his translation from his original burial place at Ely to the new church's choir in 1154. He was moved again and provided with an effigy in the reign of Edward III. A drawing of this effigy survives and a bronze pin found in his tomb is preserved by the Society of Antiquaries.

As an author

Wulfstan is named as author (almost always by the nom de plume Lupus) in only six homilies (Bethurum VI–VII, XIII, XX–XXI, Napier LIX) and the Latin version of the law-code ‘VI’ Æthelred. His prose style is what enables him to be identified as author of so much more. Dorothy Bethurum printed a total of thirty texts in 1957, but six of them consist of little more than preparatory matter and three are variations of the 1014 sermon. The official corpus of mainline homilies thus numbers twenty-two (Bethurum, Ib, II–VII, VIIIb, VIIIc, IX, Xc, XI–XV, XVIb, XVII–XXI). Apart from the probably early eschatological series, the heart of this collection is made up of discourses on Christian life, its prayers, beliefs, and rituals. They draw for the most part on standard authorities from the Carolingian period or earlier: Alcuin (d. 804), Jesse of Amiens, Theodulf of Orléans, Amalarius of Metz; also Pirmin and Defensor of Ligugé; and, for eschatological discourses, Adso of Montier-en-Der. His sources even extend to works with a much less general circulation such as Abbo of St Germain and Atto of Vercelli. The mainline corpus includes some sermons for specific occasions, among them that already mentioned for ‘Dedication of a church’, and one for ‘Consecration of a bishop’ that may have had a particular bishop in mind. Further items are a recasting of Ælfric's homily on false gods, which has been described, like its model, as ‘more a piece of learning’ than the sort of impassioned denunciation the archbishop built into his laws; and a pastoral letter, extant in several recensions, that does already anticipate the sort of Christian conduct (payment of church taxes, for example) demanded by the laws. Special interest, given what was to come, attaches to some sermons that meditate on the history of God's dealings with the people of Israel. The mainline homilies seem, on the whole, to predate the laws, if only because Wulfstan was well capable of incorporating his legal stipulations into sermons, and does not do so throughout this series. All of that said, it is not in fact possible to confine the canon of Wulfstan sermons to those edited by Bethurum in 1957. Her chief reason for excluding all the rest is that they are too like legal or other prescriptive works. Yet it is of vital importance that Wulfstan drew so vague a line between exhortation and decree, in that it brings out the imperative driving both modes of instruction. Assuredly genuine Wulfstan sermons printed only by Napier in 1883 are his nos. I, XXIII–XXV, XXVII, XXXV–XXXVI, XXXVIII, L–LIII, LIX–LXI. They include texts closely associated with the 1009 (and perhaps 1014 and 1018) legislation, one that seems to have been preached to an unidentifiable law-making assembly, and three, apparently from the very end of his career, where there is again a marked overlap with the laws he was by then drafting. Wulfstan's codes were those labelled by Felix Lieberman, in his great edition of the Anglo-Saxon laws, V/VI/X Æthelred, VII Æthelred, VIII/?IX Æthelred, and I–II Cnut; along with four unofficial tracts, the ‘Peace of Edward and Guthrum’, Geþyncðo, Hadbot, and Grið; three more that he at least rewrote, Norðleoda laga, Mircna laga, and ; and two in purely ecclesiastical vein, the ‘Canons of Edgar’ and Episcopus.

The relationship between Wulfstan's legislation and his homiletic work, either mainline or editorially marginalized, calls for three comments. First, the clue to the authentication of all this material is, as stressed above, Wulfstan's highly distinctive prose. One need not spend long on these works to get to know his stylistic blueprint. Among its features are a fondness for alliterative, even rhyming, verbal catalogues (usually of sins), intensitive compounds as with woruld-, adverbs like georne (‘eagerly’), and phrases such as gime se þe wille (‘let heed who will’). It is a style that depends on rhythm and repetition, not by and large on image or metaphor: a preacher's prose. Second, it is crucial that Wulfstan's preaching mode is so hard to tell apart from that of his legislation. Some of his earlier codes lack almost every penal element to be expected in laws. Æthelred's 1014 edict is more concrete, Cnut's great code more so yet; but the extant text of the 1018 agreement is again wholly devoid of sanctions. This is not to be taken as proof that English resistance to attack had crumbled into supine moralization. If God's ire was the fount of all troubles, then whatever ameliorated it made sense. Wulfstan's skills in engendering a moral crusade may in fact explain how he came to be drafting royal decrees. Third, when Wulfstan's laws are set beside his marginal, and probably in general later, homilies, it emerges that the laws look much more like enacted homilies than do the homilies like expositions of law. Wulfstan obsessively recast his work (the changes often being visible in his own hand), and the effect was nearly always to amplify, not to abridge them. Since the laws tend to contain more developed statements on church dues or clerical morals even than later homilies, they are reasonably seen as consummations of the archbishop's efforts. In other words, Wulfstan went from preaching about the standards demanded of a Christian society to organizing them by law. Such is the context of perhaps his most remarkable work, the semi-homiletic/semi-legislative programme called the Institutes of Polity. ‘Estates literature’ in a familiar sub-Carolingian mode, it is also shot through with the intensity of Wulfstan's moral purpose. It exists in evolving recensions, the trend as ever being towards a more expansive and moralistic treatment of the theme of Christian citizenship.

As a collector of manuscripts and books

Wulfstan is important not only for what he wrote but also for the manuscript collections which formed a foundation for his own works and which amounted to a programme of reform for circulation in their own right. Besides those featured in Neil Ker's catalogue of 1957, they include the Latin manuscripts, Oxford, Bodleian, MS Hatton 42 and part of MS Barlow 37, and Rouen, Bibliothèque Municipale, MS 1382. Four of these books (Copenhagen, Kongelige Bibliotek, MS Kgl. Sam. 1595; Bodl. Oxf., MS Hatton 42; and parts of BL, Cotton MS Nero A.i and MS Vespasian A.xiv) are among those containing glosses and additions in Wulfstan's hand. The others are later, in one case twelfth-century; but they are similar enough in arrangement and content to those where the archbishop perceptibly intervened for it to become highly likely that they are copies of manuscripts assembled on his initiative.

Wulfstan books fall roughly into two groups. One set consists basically of collections of his own work. In these (examples are the early parts of the Wulfstan section in BL, Cotton MS Nero A.i, the core of Cambridge, Corpus Christi College, MS 201, and Bodl. Oxf., MS Junius 121), versions of his homilies are mixed up with other prescriptive texts, his laws among them in the first two cases. It fits well with his reluctance to distinguish between the subject matter of homilies and laws that they are presented on the page in near-identical ways—as are accompanying passages from the Institutes of Polity or penitential formulas. The Nero manuscript is notably pocket-sized and otherwise unornamented. It may have been a book for carrying about; but if so, more probably by itinerant clergy than judges, in that legal elements are in general subordinate to pastoral.

The second and on the whole grander set comprises mainly Latin materials that often turn out to be Wulfstan's sources; this is what established their connection with him in the first place. Their content varies from the liturgical to the pastoral and canonist. In some, conceivably the earlier, little attempt is made to sort out these types of text. But liturgical works and sermons predominate in the Copenhagen manuscript; the Vespasian manuscript is an important collection of Alcuin's letters, with other early English conciliar literature (and a striking poem in the archbishop's honour which he may have composed and certainly copied out himself); while the later part of Cotton MS Nero A.i's Wulfstan section is given over to a long series of excerpts from early church councils, popes, and fathers, that was attributed through seventeenth-century codicological confusion to Archbishop Ecgberht of York (732–66). A different selection of these excerpts appears in Cambridge, Corpus Christi College, MS 265, alongside a much wider set of canonical sources. Wulfstan emerges as a close student of Carolingian models, among them the canon law collection known as the Dionysio-Hadriana, Book I of Ansegisus's edition of royal capitulary legislation, the episcopal capitularies of Radulf of Bourges and Theodulf of Orléans (his rare second capitulary as well as his widely known first), and the ninth-century canon collection De vita sacerdotum ascribed to Halitgar of Cambrai. He was familiar too with the insular tradition, for example as embodied in the Irish collection of canon laws, Collectio canonum Hibernensis. Some of what he knew was mediated by two pastoral letters that Ælfric compiled and then translated for him in 1005 or 1006.

But Wulfstan's miscellanies are ample evidence for his eventual command of the church's law. When these collections were first isolated in 1895, they were characterized as ‘a theological commonplace book specially intended for a bishop's use’ (Bateson, 712). Since their connection with Wulfstan emerged, they have been known as ‘Archbishop Wulfstan's commonplace book’. But they are much more substantial and systematic than what even the nineteenth century meant by commonplace books. To all intents and purposes, Corpus Christi College, MS 265, and its fellows are themselves canon collections. They are structured in the same way as the contemporary work of Abbo of Fleury (d. 1004) or Burchard of Worms (d. 1025). All that is lacking is a clear guide to what that structure was. The other difference is that Wulfstan could not draw on nearly so much of the rich Carolingian conciliar tradition. There is little or no trace of the Pseudo-Isidore decretals, which is also what mainly distinguishes his canon collection from the one that Archbishop Lanfranc brought with him. Nevertheless, Wulfstan, perhaps abetted by some of his predecessors and successors at Worcester, came closer than any other pre-conquest churchmen to giving the English church its own code of canon law.

Wulfstan's ideas

Wulfstan can be viewed in a variety of lights: one of the more substantial of the eschatological moralists inspired by the millennium; archiepiscopal organizer and canonist in typical early eleventh-century vein; lieutenant and spokesman of Christian kingship. But the central idea of his writings and career, and what gives coherence to the whole, was the law of God (Godes lage, Godes riht, lex Dei). This was revealed above all by scripture but also by the church's councils and authorities. It meant acceptance of the full Mosaic programme, that is, justice for the socially helpless as well as prohibition of heathen cult and robbery. It meant upholding Pauline ideals of marriage: chastity was absolutely incumbent on priests and only a restrained indulgence was permitted for the laity. It meant observing all the church's festivals and (especially) fasts, adequate provision for the poor, even respect for God's handiwork in a limited recourse to capital punishment (Wulfstan did not go along with Ælfric in forbidding clergy to have anything to do with judgments of blood, but the substitution by Cnut's code of admittedly hideous mutilations for the previously decreed death penalty may have been a step in that direction). God's justice also of course involved due regard to the motives and circumstances of crime: ‘if anyone acts unintentionally, he is not wholly like one who does it intentionally’ (II Cnut 68.3, ed. Liebermann); this is a long way from the exclusive attention to the outcome of offences that legal historians like to detect in all primitive law. Finally, to accept God's law was to endorse the social order he had ordained, so that each class must know its station and fulfil its assigned role in society. All these divine ordinances were absolutely binding on all persons and classes. Defiance of any of them risked not only heavenly salvation but also earthly fortune; Wulfstan liked to think of law as made ‘for Gode and for worulde’. Society, indeed the nation, is punished for individual transgressions. Enforcement is thus an urgent priority for the church's ministers, especially bishops, who are to teach it as much by their works as by their words. But this is also the responsibility of kings and secular officials. That is why law is almost indistinguishable from homily. It is also why the consequences of disobedience can be averted only by penance: the law-code ‘VII’ of Æthelred, issued at Bath in 1009, ‘when the great army came’, was almost wholly devoted to marshalling penitential gestures en masse.

Wulfstan's intellectual odyssey began with eschatological homilies, in which the imminence of the reign of Antichrist and divine judgment were God's comment on the disorders of earthly existence. He moved as he matured to a position where man is scourged by current political misfortune and social chaos. Efforts to temper God's wrath by penance and eventually by ambitious law making on behalf of a new regime then have their place. The triple climax of Wulfstan's work is therefore to be found in the ‘Sermon of the Wolf’, the final version of the Institutes of Polity and the laws of Cnut. The sermon is a fierce denunciation of sin and crime, of a deranged social order, and of treachery to kings. God's wrath is presaged by signs of the coming of Antichrist, and by the victories of a heathen people, just as God had once punished Israel with the Babylonians and the Britons with the advent of the English themselves. But the implication is that a new and better society can arise under God's auspices, as it had before. The revised Institutes are no longer so much a list of ranks and their proper functions, as an elaboration of the way that each should be solemnly instructed by God's servants (the bishops) in their duties to God and man. Lastly, Cnut's code draws on almost everything pertinent that the archbishop had previously written or decreed as well as on law made by earlier kings. It blends exhortation and injunction in homiletic mode with explicit penalties for breach of God's law, whether as regards the integrity of church property, loyalty to the king, and abstinence from theft, or respect for marital rights. It is as constructive a response as can be imagined to the premisses that the new regime had been put in place by God's repudiation of what had gone before, and that only his favour could secure its future.

Two things about Archbishop Wulfstan are thus quite clear. On the one hand, he was a European figure: one who can be ranked with Adso and the eschatologists of the year 1000; a canonist whose work compares in ambition if not sophistication with others of the era preceding the Gregorian reform movement and who already anticipated Gregorian themes in the urgency of his assault on clerical unchastity and in his consciousness of the exalted responsibility of churchmen; finally, and perhaps above all, a Carolingian ideologue par excellence in his view of a holy people whose kings and bishops work together to realize the kingdom of God. On the other hand, his work was of huge importance in English history. When conquest came again, fifty years later, there is good reason to think that the new rulers paid close attention to the arrangements made for their Danish predecessors. The much-valued law of King Edward was in effect the law of Cnut, which dominated twelfth-century legal collections. Wulfstan, once the herald of Antichrist and of the end of all things, had become the prophet and architect of transition.

Rediscovery of a reputation

Wulfstan's entry in the Dictionary of National Biography, of some thirty-five lines, was mostly devoted to the little revealed about the archbishop by chronicle sources. It concluded by saying that he was not the bishop of London consecrated in 996 and that he perhaps did not write the Old English homilies standing in the name of Lupus. This is worth emphasis: that he was, that he did, and that he wrote a lot more besides, is one of the major discoveries of early English studies of the twentieth century; that it needed discovery is instructive in itself for Wulfstan's life and career. The first to realize that the author of the Lupus homilies was probably Wulfstan of York and Worcester was Humfrey Wanley in his 1705 catalogue of Anglo-Saxon manuscripts in England. In 1883 A. S. Napier put together a collection of the sixty homiletic pieces listed by Wanley. Next, Karl Jost in 1950 demonstrated that many of these texts drew on a common set of authorities and that it was not possible to transfer responsibility for most of them to a ‘Wulfstan imitator’. Jost went on to show that Wulfstan's hallmarks were imprinted on the Institutes of Polity. By then, it was becoming clear that all Æthelred's later law-codes were in this increasingly familiar idiom. Dorothy Whitelock and Dorothy Bethurum in the mid-twentieth century proved just how much legislation Wulfstan had drafted, including the giant code of Cnut. They also established a close link between Wulfstan's works and a series of manuscripts of canonical, pastoral, and liturgical works that seemed to be Wulfstan's sources. Finally, Neil Ker from 1957 began to find the same distinctive handwriting throughout manuscripts with known or likely Wulfstan contents and associations, sometimes in what looked like an authorial capacity. It was a logical deduction that this was the archbishop's own hand. The result was that further books where the hand appears could be drawn into his sphere of activity. The piecing together of literary and palaeographical clues has thus transformed Wulfstan from just another doubtless worthy Anglo-Saxon prelate into one of the half dozen most significant figures even in the crowded and dramatic history of eleventh-century England.

Patrick Wormald


The homilies of Wulfstan, ed. D. Bethurum (1957) · Wulfstan Sammlung der ihm Zugeschriebenen Homilien, ed. A. S. Napier (1883) · Sermo Lupi ad Anglos, ed. D. Whitelock, 3rd edn (1963) [trans. in EHD, 1, no. 240, 928–34] · F. Liebermann, ed., Die Gesetze der Angelsachsen, 1 (Halle, 1898), 236–311, 380–85, 444–73, 477–9 · Die ‘Institutes of polity, civil and ecclesiastical’: ein Werk Erzbischof Wulfstans von York, ed. and trans. K. T. von Jost (Bern, 1959), repr. in M. Swanton, ed. and trans., Anglo-Saxon prose, rev. ed (1985), 125–138 · Wulfstan's canons of Edgar, ed. R. Fowler, EETS, 266 (1972) · N. R. Ker, ed., Catalogue of manuscripts containing Anglo-Saxon (1957), nos. 45, 49, 53, 99, 130, 141, 164, 190, 204, 225, 324, 331, 338, 402 · N. R. Ker, ‘The handwriting of Archbishop Wulfstan’, England before the conquest: studies in primary sources presented to Dorothy Whitelock, ed. P. Clemoes and K. Hughes (1971), 315–31 · H. R. Loyn, ed., A Wulfstan manuscript (1971) · J. E. Cross and J. M. Tunberg, eds., The Copenhagen Wulfstan collection, Early English Manuscripts in Facsimile, 25 (1993) · D. Bethurum, ‘Archbishop Wulfstan's commonplace-book’, Proceedings of the Modern Languages Association of America, 57 (1942), 916–29 · J. E. Cross, ‘Rouen Bibliothèque Municipale 1382 (U 109), fols. 173r–198v: a newly identified manuscript of Wulfstan's commonplace-book’, Journal of Medieval Latin, 2 (1992), 63–83 · D. Whitelock, ‘Archbishop Wulfstan, homilist and statesman’, TRHS, 4th ser., 24 (1942), 25–45 · D. Whitelock, ‘Wulfstan and the laws of Cnut’, EngHR, 63 (1948), 433–52 · D. Whitelock, ‘Wulfstan's authorship of Cnut's laws’, EngHR, 70 (1955), 72–85 · K. Jost, Wulfstanstudien (1950) · D. Bethurum, ‘Six anonymous Old English codes’, Journal of English and Germanic Philology, 49 (1950), 449–63 · D. Bethurum, ‘Wulfstan’, Continuations and beginnings, ed. E. G. Stanley (1966), 210–46 · P. Wormald, ‘Æthelred the lawmaker’, Ethelred the Unready: papers from the millenary conference [Oxford 1978], ed. D. Hill (1978), 46–80 · A. G. Kennedy, ‘Cnut's law code of 1018’, Anglo-Saxon England, 11 (1983), 57–81 · M. Godden, ‘Apocalypse and invasion in late Anglo-Saxon England’, From Anglo-Saxon to Middle English: studies presented to E. G. Stanley, ed. M. Godden, D. Gray, and T. Hoad (1994), 143–56 · P. Wormald, The making of English law: King Alfred to the twelfth century, 2 vols. (1999), chap. 4, pp. 2–5; chap. 5, pp. 5, 7–8, 9; chap. 6, p. 3 · A. McIntosh, ‘Wulfstan's prose’, PBA, 35 (1949), 109–42 · D. Bethurum, ‘Regnum and sacerdotium in the early eleventh century’, England before the conquest: studies in primary sources presented to Dorothy Whitelock, ed. P. Clemoes and K. Hughes (1971), 129–45 · J. Wilcox, ‘The dissemination of Wulfstan homilies: the Wulfstan tradition in eleventh-century vernacular preaching’, England in the eleventh century [Harlaxton 1990], ed. C. Hicks (1992), 199–217 · M. K. Lawson, ‘Archbishop Wulfstan and the homiletic element in the laws of Æthelred II and Cnut’, EngHR, 107 (1992), 565–86 · M. Bateson, ‘A Worcester Cathedral book of ecclesiastical collections, made c.1000 AD’, EngHR, 10 (1895), 712–31 · E. O. Blake, ed., Liber Eliensis, CS, 3rd ser., 92 (1962) · G. Hickes and others, Linguarum vett. septentrionalium thesaurus grammatico-criticus et archaeologicus, 3 vols. (1703–5)


BL, Cotton MS Nero A.i, MS Vespasian A.xiv · Bodl. Oxf., MS Hatton 42 · Bodl. Oxf., MS Junius 121 · CCC Cam., MSS 201, 265 · Kongelige Bibliotek, Copenhagen, MS Kgl. Sam. 1595


tomb effigy, 14th cent. · drawing, repro. in R. Gough, Sepulchral monuments in Great Britain, 1 (1786), pl. cxlvi