On this day we celebrate the feast of St. William fitzHerbert, twice Archbishop of York. He was born around 1090 and died on June 8, 1154.
"St William of York is one of the more obscure saints of medieval England. . . . If he is remembered at all, it is as likely as not for the miracle of Ouse bridge -- surely one of the least remarkable miracles in the annals of hagiography -- or for the unedifying mystery surrounding his death. Outside York, few people have ever heard of St William -- unless they be twelfth-century ecclesiastical historians, among whom he has achieved a certain notoriety as the man at the centre of one of the most protracted and convoluted election disputes ever to have afflicted the English church."
--St William of York, by Christopher Norton, York Medieval Press, 2006, p. 1.
"Modern assessments of William's personal qualities have generally been at best disparaging, if not overtly negative. . . . William left no letters or other writings to counter-balance the contemporary effusions of his enemy, St Bernard. Even Bernard's modern admirers have conceded that some of his letters on the subject of the York election dispute, and some of the aspersions cast on William fitzHerbert, are among the most forceful and extreme ever to have come from his pen. . . . The general feeling that William was something of a worthless or unsavoury character is summed up by the opinion, attributed recently to a canon of York Minster, that he was 'not the kind of saint we would wish to commemorate'." Page 2.
What was the miracle on the Ouse? The wooden bridge collapsed under the weight of all the people who had gathered to greet Archbishop William, and no one was hurt.
And what was the mystery about his death? Many believed he was poisoned while saying Mass.
". . . neither the Chronica Pontificum nor the Vita makes any mention of the poisoning, nor was it ever raised during the process of canonisation. . . . Nonetheless, the rumours had sufficiently wide credence to give rise to a Latin hymn in praise of William which attributes his death to the malice of his enemies and poison in the chalice." Page 147.
"William fitzHerbert was formally canonized by Pope Honorius III on 18 March 1226." The papal bull lists some of the miracles performed by Saint William: "oil flowing from the tomb which had healed many people of their infirmities; three dead people brought back to life; five blind people given their sight; and new eyes given to a man who had been unjustly defeated in a duel and blinded". Page 149.
St. William's popularity was short-lived. The Franciscans and Dominicans spread the cults of their founders, and William fitzHerbert was nearly forgotten. But in the fifteenth century, clerical supporters of the Lancastrians renewed interest in the former Archbishop of York with "the immense St William window in York Minster. Created in about 1415, its one hundred panels illustrating the life and miracles of William fitzHerbert constitute one of the largest pictorial cycles of the life of a saint ever attempted. The current restoration of the damaged panels of glass is bringing vividly back to life one of the most ambitious and unusual stained glass windows to have survived from medieval Europe. St William still has the capacity to surprise!" Page 202.
Join the Conversation
Send your thoughts and reactions to our online Letters to the Editor column. Learn more here