John of Worcester – writing up the Conquest on the orders of Bishop Wulfstan

A Benedictine scribe – probably Bede illustrated in the Life and Miracles of St Cuthbert.

John of Worcester was a monk, unsurprisingly, from Worcester Abbey. He is usually regarded as the author of Chronicon ex chronicis. This is a world wide history which begins with the Creation and ends 1140 (the reign of King Stephen.)

The Orderic Vitalis – an Anglo-Norman Chronicle of the period contains some notes about John. It states that a native of Worcestershire he entered the abbey as a boy and recorded the reigns of the Conqueror and his sons upto and including Henry I. The monk initially worked on the orders of Bishop Wulfstan who wanted John to continue the chronicles of Marianus Scotus, an Irish monk living in Mainz who died there in 1082. The Orderic describes him as a holy man.

Experts believe that three hands are evident in the chronicles and just to add a degree of complexity there are seven versions of the Chronicle located in different places whose contents are not exactly the same – there is some sense of history being reworked according to circumstance. There are also assorted illustrations. It is John of Worcester’s Chronicle that contains an illustration of the nightmares of Henry I who dreamt that various social orders came to him in his sleep across three nights demanding legal reforms and justice. The third dream contained monks and bishops who weren’t best pleased with Henry’s laissez-faire attitude to Church property.

Bishop Wulfstan on the effigy of King John in Worcester Cathedral

The works of John have been conflated with Florence of Worcester. For many centuries, until very recently, Florence was given credit for John’s Chronicle. Part of the reason for this confusion is that John did not blow his own trumpet unlike some other chroniclers. We have only what the Orderic Vitalis says about him.

Bishop Wulfstan was the last Anglo-Saxon Bishop in post-Conquest England. He died in 1095. Wulfstan was responsible for knocking down the Saxon Cathedral of Worcester and rebuilding in a fashionable Romanesque (Norman) style. Only the crypt remains of his building works.

The monks at Worcester had an interesting relationship with the Godwin family – and are the only chroniclers not to relate Swein Godwin’s misdeeds with relish. By 1055 Wulfstan was acting as prior at Worcester whilst the bishop was on the king’s business. He went on to become Harold Godwinson’s confessor. In 1061 Wulfstan became the abbot of Worcester when his predecessor was promoted to the Bishopric of York.

In 1066 Wulfstan was with Harold when he became king. Harold’s claim to the throne was helped by the fact that Wulfstan had a reputation for holiness. Wulfstan helped to stem the rebellions that sprung up in the north against Harold in the spring of 1066 by stating that it was a sin to rebel against an anointed king.

The Worcester Chronicle recounts Wulfstan being required to surrender his staff of office to William the Conqueror and that he refused saying that he would only surrender it to the king who had made him a bishop. He laid the staff on Edward the Confessor’s tomb in Westminster – where it miraculously became stuck. Only Wulfstan could remove it and so William was forced to recognise Wulfstan as the Bishop of Worcester whether he wanted him or not.

I’ve posted about Wulfstan before when I posted about King John who revered the bishop and used him as an argument for why English kings had the right to appoint bishops and not the pope. The sharp eyed amongst the History Jar readers may also remember that Wild Edric who rebelled against William the Conqueror was Wulfstan’s Steersman – or commander of the warship that the bishop provided for the defence of the realm.

History does not record exactly how Wulfstan felt about his former steersman rebelling against the anointed King William who had disposed of King Harold but we do know from the accounts that there were many refugees from the various rebellions in Worcester; that Wulfstan provided funds for soldiers to defend Worcester and that he campaigned against the practice of selling the landless/dispossed English into slavery. He specifically campaigned against slavery in Bristol which was part of his diocese at the time.

It is from John of Worcester’s chronicle that we know what happened to some of Harold Godwinson’s family in the aftermath of the Conquest. Harold’s son “Ulf” was held hostage by King William and released only when the king died in 1087. History does not tell us what happened to Ulf. He probably went on crusade with William’s eldest son, Robert Curthose. There are records of a visit by Wulfstan to Gunhild, one of Harold’s daughters, in Wilton nunnery. Gunhild ended up married to Alan the Red of Richmond – there is some question as to whether she was a nun or had simply been educated in Wilton and then stayed there to avoid the consequences of the Conquest.

Happily the chronicles have been translated from Latin into English and can be found online here: http://www.bsswebsite.me.uk/History/JohnofWorcester/Chronicle_John2.html

3 thoughts on “John of Worcester – writing up the Conquest on the orders of Bishop Wulfstan

  1. Interesting. David Austin rose Wild Edric in my gardens I see that period daily as I pass the main borders on way to my ducks on the lake to be fed. We all can trace our very existence to that time if we try . In North of England most are Viking blooded who married into Saxon and Old native families moving up the nation from Normandy the Viking lands

  2. Abbot Wulfstan led (or sent?) the Fyrd of Worcestershire which defeated the Midlands army of Earl Roger of Montgomery during the Rebellion of 1088. This loss forced Roger to drop his overt opposition to the reign of William II.

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