2018 brings in an 800th anniversary for Worcester Cathedral – the rededication of the Cathedral to its saintly Anglo-Saxon bishops, Oswald and Wulfstan. The years preceding this had been turbulent ones for England and not least for Worcester. 1202 saw a great fire in the City which damaged the Cathedral and Priory buildings. In 1208 Bishop Mauger of Worcester dared to serve King John with the Pope’s Interdict, and as a result spent his last four years in exile at the Abbey of Pontigny in France. In the Civil War that followed the King’s rejection of Magna Carta, Worcester declared support for the invading French Dauphin and in retaliation the Earl of Chester plundered the town and ordered the Priory to pay a fine of 300 marks or £200. The monks had to melt down valuable metals decorating Saint Wulfstan’s shrine to pay for this.
The story is told in a well-used volume of history in the Cathedral Library: The Monastery and Cathedral of Worcester by John Noake, published in 1866. We have also used words from the Magna Carta translated from The Great Charter and the Charter of the Forest, with other authentic Instruments, which William Blackstone published in 1759 at the Clarendon Press Oxford. And last but most certainly not least we have quoted from King John’s last testament, the original of which is among the Library’s most prized records.
Not everything had been so negative in those early years of the thirteenth century. Bishop Mauger had welcomed the canonisation of Wulfstan in 1203, and he had also begun the repairs and rebuilding needed after the fire. Worcester became a place of pilgrimage almost as popular as Canterbury. Even King John sought a blessing from the holy Wulfstan, and was buried in the Cathedral next to the shrine of the saint. 1218 was the first full year of peace, the restoration of the Cathedral was completed and the building was rededicated to Wulfstan in the presence of the new young King Henry III “and a company of Bishops, Abbots and Nobles”, in the words of John Noake.
One Bishop-elect and two consecrated Bishops filled in the short six years between the death of Bishop Mauger and this hopeful year of 1218. Prior Randulf was elected Bishop of Worcester by the monks in 1213, but his election was not approved by the Pope, and in compensation he was appointed Abbot of Evesham. By the thirteenth century the growth of papal power meant that an election was no longer enough to confirm an appointment.
However in 1214 Walter de Gray was approved by the Pope as Bishop of Worcester, after King John had finally accepted the Pope’s authority and the Interdict had been lifted. The de Gray family were among King John’s favourites, and Walter was Lord Chancellor of England before his consecration as Bishop. Walter’s uncle John had been the King’s preference for Archbishop of Canterbury in 1207 – the fateful choice that had originally led to the Interdict. Nonetheless Walter was one of the Bishops present at Runnymede, as recorded in the second chapter of the 1215 Magna Carta:
The Latin of the illustrated section can be translated like this:
with the advice of our venerable fathers Stephen Archbishop of Canterbury and Henry Archbishop of Dublin, and our bishops William of London, Peter of Winchester, Jocelyn of Bath and Glastonbury, Hugh of Lincoln, Walter of Worcester, William of Coventry and Benedict of Rochester
Walter appeared still to enjoy royal favour and in 1215 he was appointed an Archbishop, and left Worcester for York. The monks now elected Prior Sylvester as the new Bishop and this time their choice was approved and Sylvester was consecrated in July 1216. In that very month the Priory endured the assault by the Earl of Chester, and the forced spoiling of Wulfstan’s shrine. Later that year the body of King John was buried in the Cathedral by Wulfstan’s altar, according to the first term of the King’s will: “In the first place, therefore, I desire that my body be buried in the church of St Mary and St Wulfstan at Worcester.” The effigy on John’s tomb has miniature figures of St Wulfstan and St Oswald by his head.
Bishop Sylvester was able to oversee the rededication of the building in June 1218 as described in the words of the historian John Noake:
In 1218 the restoration of the Cathedral after the great fire of 1202 was completed and the renovated building was dedicated in honour of the Blessed Virgin and St Peter and of the holy confessors Oswald and Wulstan. Henry was present with a great company of bishops, abbots and nobles, and then it was that St Wulstan’s body was translated to its shrine near the high altar.
This event was another milestone in the growing cult of St Wulfstan and its associated pilgrimages. The Bishop may personally have found it a difficult time, since he died only a few weeks later, and although the reason for his death is not known, it is possible he was already suffering from a serious illness.