SAINT WULFHILDA, ABBESS OF BARKING (+ 1000)
By Vladimir Moss
Our holy Mother Wulfhilda was the daughter of a wealthy nobleman named Wulfhelm. Wulfhelm had several children by his pious wife, but for eighteen years before the conception of Wulfhilda they had lived together as brother and sister so as to give themselves up more completely to prayer and fasting. One night, however, an angel appeared to each of them separately three times, and told them that they should come together so as to beget a daughter who would become a bride of Christ. The next morning they told each other the vision, and discovered that it had been identical for the two of them. So they accepted it as having come from God. Thus was the saint conceived and born; and shortly after her weaning she was given over to be brought up at the convent in Wilton.
One day the adolescent King Edgar came to Wilton on a hunting expedition and was struck by the beauty of the novice Wulfhilda. He made advances to her, but neither by flatteries nor threats could she be persuaded by him, but rather fled from him as a dove from a hawk. Not daring to snatch her from out of a monastery, the king conceived a cunning strategem. The virgin had a paternal aunt named Wenfleda, who was abbess of a convent at Wherwell. Tempted by the desire to have a relative of hers as queen, she agreed to pretend that she was ill and lure the virgin to her on the pretext of wishing to dispose of her possessions before she died. So when Wulfhilda arrived she found her aunt, not ill as she had supposed, but full of good cheer from a royal banquet - and with the king sitting beside her. Everyone greeted and congratulated the new arrival, and she was commanded to deck herself royally and come before the king. Thus, shining in the splendour of golden raiment, she was acclaimed by everybody as worthy of being queen. The king sat her beside him, between himself and her aunt, and tempted her with blandishments, riches and the title of Queen of Britain. But she was silent, thinking only of flight, and pouring out her heart in prayer to God. She would not eat, feigning illness; and indeed, she was sick with anxiety, which made the feast like iron to her. At length, pleading tiredness, she was given permission to go out for a short time. But the king, knowing her intention, had placed guards at the doors to follow her even into her bedroom. Eventually she escaped through an underground passage, her guide being the same angel who had announced her birth to her parents.
Then, wandering through pathless places, she came to the humble hut of a peasant woman in Wherwell, where she stayed the night as a beggar. Meanwhile, there was much coming and going from the king's court, where everyone was worried, not so much because she had escaped, as that she might have perished. But she was not lured out of her hiding-place by the shouts of the men or the sounding of the trumpets, remembering the words of David: “God is in the midst of her, she shall not be shaken… He that dwelleth in the help of the Most High shall abide in the shelter of the God of heaven. He is my God, and I will hope in Him. For He shall deliver thee from every troubling word.” In the morning the king went away, and Wulfhilda, having generously rewarded her hostess (who was a servant of Wenfleda's), found her travelling companions and returned to the safe refuge of Wilton.
When the king discovered this, he abandoned all his kingdom's affairs and flew back to Wilton. But she could not be persuaded by any means even to talk to him. However, he caught her in the courtyard outside the church, and, leaping at her as she was fleeing across the threshold, he took hold of her sleeve. But then a miracle took place: the sleeve came away in his hand without the slightest sign of tearing or cutting. She fled into the altar and took hold of the box containing the holy relics. But the king was smitten in his heart as once was David at the words of the Prophet Nathan. Trembling, he realized that the sleeve coming away in his hand indicated that she had been cut away from his lust by God Himself. Then he said:
"Fear not, O virgin acceptable to God. I promise in the sight of God that I shall molest you no longer, but will rather show myself to be your helper and protector with all benevolence. Only pray, I beseech you, that the most kind God will forgive my vanity and rashness. And now farewell, you who are given to a better Spouse. You will be dearer to us now, in accordance with a chaste and higher and incorruptible desire."
The virgin assented to these words with a humble nod. But she did not leave the place of prayer until the king had departed.
True to his promise, the king now extended his help to the saint, making her abbess of Barking in Essex and restoring it to what it had been under St. Ethelburga in the seventh century. He also greatly endowed the monastery at Horton in Dorset and likewise gave it, together with some other churches in Wessex, to Wulfhilda. And all this before she had even been tonsured!
When she did come to be tonsured, the grace of God was seen to descend upon her head in the form of a dove which was whiter than snow. Thereafter she governed the two convents which had been given to her for many years. Caring for the nuns with maternal love, she was an example to them in all virtue: in prayer and fasting and abstinence and in every kind of lowly work.
She was especially given to almsgiving. Early in the morning, she was at the doors of the church distributing alms to the poor and anticipating their petitions. Once a woman brought her blind child to her. The blessed virgin made the sign of the cross with a gold ring over the eyes of the child, and he immediately opened his eyes and, seeing the light of the ring and his mother's face, laughed joyfully. The saint told the woman not to publicize the miracle, but she was unable to restrain herself.
Once she gave hospitality to St. Ethelwold, bishop of Winchester, and his retinue, who were sailing down the Thames to meet the king and his fleet at Sandwich. Many people came to meet the prelate, and the demands on the supply of alcoholic drinks were great. But the level of wine never fell below its original level throughout the day - much to the astonishment of the bishop's servants who had measured it with a rod beforehand.
On another occasion, she and the virgin Lenfleda were carrying some heavy jugs of water on their shoulders. But, finding them too heavy, they were forced to put them down. Then Wulfhilda said:
"It seems to me that we are good for nothing: the beasts of burden are more efficient and deserve their food more than we do."
In this way she gave a lesson in humility to Lenfleda, whom she knew, by the gift of prophecy that was in her, would be her successor. Lenfleda had been brought up in luxurious surroundings, but had always longed to be a nun. When her parents were about to give her in marriage, she ran away to the saint, who told her to preserve her virginity until the Coming of the Lord. She received the monastic tonsure, and was thereafter inseparable from her mistress.
As we have said, Wulfhilda was granted the gift of prophecy by the Lord. Once she rebuked one of the church's goldworkers for profligacy. But he responded with a torrent of furious words.
"Before your death," she said, "you will atone for the crime you have committed, as well as for your abuse."
A year before his death, the man became mute and was confined to his bed with a chronic illness. Remembering the saint's prophecy, he repented deeply of his sin.
After she had ruled the two monasteries in peace for several years, the envy of certain priests in Barking was aroused against the saint, and they prevailed upon Queen Elfrida to cast her out and install them. The sisters escorted their mother out of the monastery with tears and groans, as if they themselves wished to go with her. But she comforted them, saying on the threshold of the church:
"Weep not, my dearest daughters, but as I have instructed you, so remain in the Lord."
And, touching the threshold with her hand, she said:
"I tell you that on this very day twenty years from now, and by this very door by which I am going out, I shall return."
Then she retired to her other monastery at Horton, from where she continued to instruct and exhort the sisters of Barking.
Once Queen Elfrida visited the orphaned monastery. Immediately a variety of disasters overtook her: animals died, then her own men, and finally she herself fell ill. As she was praying fearfully, the first abbess of the monastery, St. Ethelburga, appeared to her, looking ill and miserable, and with her clothing torn and in rags.
"Do you see the shame of my wretchedness," she said to the astonished queen. "You have taken away the ornament of my glory, the holy Wulfhilda, and in her long exile you have covered me with this squalid attire. And by what right do you occupy this holy place? Therefore I tell you that unless you recall her as soon as possible you will not recover from this illness but will die of it."
Terrified, the queen sent messengers with all speed to Wulfhilda, and received her back with all the honour due to her. This happened on the very day, and by the same door, as had been prophesied by the saint. Then the queen recovered from her illness, by which she knew that the cause of it had been her expulsion of Wulfhilda.
For seven more years the saint ruled both monasteries in peace, drawing all hearts by her love and gentleness and angelic life. Then, on Candlemas (February 2) in about the year 1000, she fell and hurt herself badly.
"We have fallen like a leaning wall," she said, "and soon the house, too, will fall."
Then she asked when was the feast of the translation of the relics of St. Ethelwold. The tenth of September, she was told.
"Good," she replied. "I have a little time left with you, until the birth of our supreme mistress, and the feast of our beloved prelate."
And so, on the vigil of St. Ethelwold's translation, September 9, which was during the feast of the Nativity of the Mother of God, after prayers and fastings and vigils, and having partaken of the Body and Blood of the Lord, she reposed in peace. She died in London, but her body was conveyed immediately to Barking and buried there. Many miracles were wrought in the presence of her holy relics, as well as at her other monastery of Horton.
When the sacred relics of St. Wulfhilda were being conveyed the seven miles from London to Barking, a certain man who had been rebuked for his sins by the saint during her earthly lifetime put his hand to the coffin. Immediately it became very heavy, as if rooted to the spot, so that no-one could move it. Everybody noticed this and blamed the man, whereupon he departed trembling. Immediately the coffin became light again. But the guilty man, overcome with grief, followed the procession with bitter tears and groans. At length the Lord had mercy on him, and his friends called him to help in carrying the body the last two miles to the monastery. There it was buried at the head of St. Ethelburga.
Once a woman who was both blind and lame came to the monastery at Horton. Having prayed, she received the sight of her eyes, which encouraged her to pray more fervently for the use of her legs. Then it was intimated to her that she should go to the saint at Barking. Thither she dragged herself with great difficulty, and kept vigil at the tomb. Suddenly she was able to stand upright, healed in both her feet.
On September 2, 1030, the relics of St. Wulfhilda were translated together with those of Saints Ethelburga and Hildelitha, the first two abbesses of Barking.
St. Wulfhilda is commemorated on September 9.
Holy Mother Wulfhilda, pray to God for us!
(Sources: Mario Esposito, "La vie de Saint Vulfhilde par Goscelin de Cantorbery", Analecta Bollandiana, 1913, XXXII, 10-26; David Farmer, The Oxford Dictionary of Saints, Clarendon Press, 1978, pp. 411-12).