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Saint of the week

The hermit who informed an English king that he would soon die

St Wulfric’s (February 20) reputation for prophecy and miracles earned him visits from royalty

By on Thursday, 21 February 2013

Forde Abbey, near Chard, in Somerset, where the Abbot John wrote a memoir of St Wulfric

Forde Abbey, near Chard, in Somerset, where the Abbot John wrote a memoir of St Wulfric

St Wulfric (c 1080-1154) was a Somerset priest who became a hermit. His reputation for holiness and miracle-working has been preserved in a memoir written in the 1180s by John, Abbot of Forde Abbey, near Chard. This account affords rare insight into parish life in England during the early 12th century.

Wulfric was born at Compton Martin, 10 miles south of Bristol. After becoming a priest, he at first exercised his ministry at Deverill, near Warminster. At this stage, apparently, he was much addicted to hunting, with both hawks and hounds. A chance conversation with a beggar, however, converted him to more godly pursuits.

He moved back to Compton Martin as parish priest. Then, about 1125, he settled as an anchorite beside the church at Haselbury Plucknett, six miles west of Yeovil. (William Fitzwalter, lord of the manor at Compton Martin, was also lord at Haselbury, and always proved friendly to Wulfric.)

The saint established his cell on the north side of the chancel at Haselbury. Although he apparently failed to obtain episcopal permission for this move, he was supported by the Cluniac monks at Montacute.

His ascetic regime included rigorous fasting, the wearing of chain mail, and frequent immersion in cold water. These pursuits, however, left him time for copying and binding books. Wulfric’s reputation for prophecy and miracles earned him visits from royalty, whom he did not flatter. Henry I was informed, correctly, that he would shortly die, while King Stephen was chastised for the evils of his government.

A courtier of Henry I, who presumed to suggest that the hermit’s cell should be searched for money, was instantly struck with paralysis.

By contrast, Wulfric seemed wholly unconcerned that the parish priest of Haselbury, called Brictric, was married, in defiance of the Church’s recent injunctions to clerical celibacy.

Brictric, indeed, would be succeeded as parish priest by his son Osbern. Another local priest had four sons, three of whom became monks at Forde, while the other was a lay brother there.

Matrimony was not permitted to interrupt Brictric’s devotions. Although he rode home to dine with his wife, he immediately returned to spend long hours before the altar reciting psalms and prayers.

He did, however, become exasperated when Wulfric cured a dumb man, who proceeded to hold forth in both English and French.

“Lo,” remonstrated the stolidly Anglo-Saxon Brictric, “I have served you so many years, but today I have proved that it is in vain.

“To a stranger for whom it would have been quite sufficient simply to have loosed his tongue, you have devoutly ministered the use of two languages, while from me, who am compelled to be silent before the bishop and archdeacon, you have withheld the use of French.”