St. William, Archbishop of York, Confessor
HE was son of Earl Herbert, and Emma, sister to King Stephen. He learned from his infancy that true greatness consists only in humility and virtue; and renounced the world in his youth, employing his riches to purchase unfading treasures in heaven by works of mercy to the poor, and giving himself wholly to the study and practice of religion. Being promoted to holy orders, he was elected treasurer in the metropolitical church of York, under the learned and good Archbishop Thurstan. When that prelate, after having held his dignity twenty years, retired among the Cluniac monks at Pontefract, to prepare himself for his death, which happened the year following, St. William was chosen archbishop by the majority of the chapter, and consecrated at Winchester in September, 1144, according to Le Neve’s Fasti. 1 But Osbert, the archdeacon, a turbulent man, procured Henry Murdach, a Cistercian monk of the abbey of Fountains, who was also a man of great learning and a zealous preacher, to be preferred at Rome, whither William went to demand his pall, and to plead the cause of his constituents rather than his own. Being deprived by Pope Eugenius III. in 1147, he, who had always looked upon this dignity with trembling, appeared much greater in the manner in which he bore this repulse than he could have done in the highest honours. Being returned into England, he went privately to Winchester, to his uncle Henry, bishop of that see, by whom he was honourably entertained. He led at Winchester a penitential life in silence, solitude, and prayer, in a retired house belonging to the bishop, bewailing the frailties of his past life with many tears, for seven years. The Archbishop Henry then dying in 1153, and Anastasius IV. having succeeded Eugenius III. in the see of Rome, St. William, to satisfy the importunity of others, by whom he was again elected, undertook a second journey to Rome, and received the pallium from his holiness. 2 The saint on his return was met on the road by Robert de Gaunt, dean, and Osbert, archdeacon of the church of York, who insolently forbade him to enter that city or diocess. He received the affront with an engaging meekness, but pursued his journey. He was received with incredible joy by his people. The great numbers who assembled on that occasion to see and welcome him, broke down the wooden bridge over the river Ouse, in the middle of the city of York, and a great many persons fell into the river. The saint seeing this terrible accident, made the sign of the cross over the river, and addressed himself to God with many tears. All the world ascribed to his sanctity and prayers the miraculous preservation of the whole multitude, especially of the children, who all escaped out of the waters without hurt. 3 St. William showed no enmity, and sought no revenge against his most inveterate enemies, who had prepossessed Eugenius III. against him by the blackest calumnies, and by every unwarrantable means had obstructed his good designs. He formed many great projects for the good of his diocess, and the salvation of souls; but within a few weeks after his installation was seized with a fever, of which he died on the third day of his sickness, on the 8th of June, 1154, 4 He was buried in his cathedral; and canonized by Pope Nicholas III. about the year 1280. At the same time his body was taken up by Archbishop William Wickwane, and his relics put into a very rich shrine, and deposited in the nave of the same metropolitan church in 1284. The feast of his translation was kept on the 7th of January. 5 King Edward I. and his whole court assisted at this ceremony, during which many miracles are attested to have been wrought. A table containing a list of thirty-six miracles with a copy of an indulgence of one hundred and forty days to all who should devoutly visit his tomb, is still to be seen in the vestry, but no longer legible, as Mr. Drake mentions. 6 The shrine with its rich plate and jewels was plundered at the Reformation; but the saint’s bones were deposited in a box within a coffin, and buried in the nave, under a large spotted marble stone. Mr. Drake had the curiosity to see the ground opened, and found them with their box and coffin in 1732. He laid them again in the same place with a mark. 7 See Nicholas Trivet in his Annals of Six Kings of England, ad an 1146. Stubbs, Act. Pontif. Ebor. in S. Willelmo, Capgrave’s Legend, Gulielm. Neubrig. De Rebus Anglicis sui temporis, Brompton, Gervasius Monachus inter 10 Scriptor. Angliæ, and Drake, in his curious History and Antiquities of York. Also Papebroke’s remarks, Jun. t. 2. p. 136.
Rev. Alban Butler (1711–73). Volume VI: June. The Lives of the Saints. 1866. June 8.