Medieval Studies Wulfstan
Jonathan Wilcox
  • LAST MODIFIED: 23 June 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396584-0152


Wulfstan (d. 28 May 1023) was a major ecclesiastical figure and writer in early medieval England. Bishop of London from 996 to 1002 and then archbishop of York from 1002 to 1023, while in part simultaneously bishop of Worcester (from 1002 to 1016), Wulfstan was prominent in high political circles. He formulated the late law codes of King Æthelred (r. 978–1013, 1014–1016) and those of King Cnut (r. 1016–1035), and he has been credited with a role in turning the latter from Viking invader to model Christian ruler. Wulfstan wrote an extensive body of homilies in which he deploys a distinctive rhythmical prose and characteristic wording and phrasing. He signed six homilies and the Latin version of one law code with the nom de plume Lupus, Latin for wolf; other works can be attributed to him based on his distinctive prose style and through manuscript associations. Wulfstan inveighed against the sins of his time in both law codes and homilies, addressing what he saw as the approaching apocalypse and the consequent need to reform by restating Christian verities and moral imperatives. The Sermo Lupi ad Anglos, a sermon from 1014, is Wulfstan’s most famous work, in which he describes Viking attacks and English pusillanimity in ear-catching detail to argue the need for reform and repentance. Much of Wulfstan’s writing stresses the need for an ordered Christian society and this is seen most fully in his political treatise, Institutes of Polity, in which he places particular stress on the importance and responsibilities of leaders of the church. Wulfstan’s works as a whole give a powerful sense of a nation in crisis, along with suggested remedies, conveyed in an almost hypnotic rhetorical style. Wulfstan is a somewhat common name in early medieval England and so it is useful to distinguish Wulfstan the homilist (fl. 996–1023) from his various near-contemporary namesakes. He is the second archbishop of York by that name (hence, Archbishop Wulfstan II of York) but the first of two bishops of Worcester with the same name (hence, Bishop Wulfstan I of Worcester), where his namesake successor, Bishop Wulfstan II of Worcester, who held office from 1062 to 1095, acquired particular prominence since he became a saint. Wulfstan the homilist is also not to be confused with an approximately contemporary Latin writer generally known as Wulfstan the Cantor (fl. 996) in view of the office he held at Winchester.

General Overviews

Wulfstan’s significance as a major historical and literary figure of early medieval England was quite late in being acknowledged by modern scholarship, but he is now the subject of significant scholarly attention. The foundations were laid in Whitelock 1942 and Jost 1950. Wormald 2004 provides the best brief overall assessment of his life and works, while Wormald 2000 provides a useful essay-length introduction to his significance in history. Orchard 2007 provides a good introduction to Wulfstan’s writings, with particular emphasis on his style, while Townend 2004 is a collection of original essays that serve well as an introduction to all aspects of Wulfstan studies.

  • Jost, Karl. Wulfstanstudien. Schweizer anglistische Arbeiten 23. Bern, Switzerland: Francke, 1950.

    Foundational study that was key for establishing and analyzing the corpus of writings by Wulfstan with particular attention to his prose style. Written in German.

  • Orchard, Andy. “Wulfstan as Reader, Writer, and Rewriter.” In The Old English Homily: Precedent, Practice, and Appropriation. Edited by Aaron J. Kleist, 311–341. Turnhout, Belgium: Brepols, 2007.

    Orchard provides a useful overview of Wulfstan’s homiletic achievement, remarking on the high seriousness with which he took his episcopal role and particularly elucidating Wulfstan’s prose style. Also considers two short Latin poems written in praise of Wulfstan.

  • Townend, Matthew, ed. Wulfstan, Archbishop of York: The Proceedings of the Second Alcuin Conference. Studies in the Early Middle Ages 10. Turnhout, Belgium: Brepols, 2004.

    Valuable collection of essays on all aspects of Wulfstan’s life and works that derive from papers presented at a conference to commemorate the millennial anniversary of Wulfstan’s appointment as archbishop of York.

  • Whitelock, Dorothy. “Archbishop Wulfstan, Homilist and Statesman.” Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, 4th ser., 24 (1942): 25–45.

    DOI: 10.2307/3678467

    Foundational study that was key to sorting out Wulfstan’s life and works. Whitelock lays out the essential outline of what is now accepted as Wulfstan’s career and the corpus of his writings, with particular attention to his historical contribution. Reprinted in Essays in Medieval History Selected from the Transactions of the Royal Historical Society on the Occasion of Its Centenary, edited by R. W. Southern (London: Macmillan, 1968), pp. 42–60. Reprinted in Dorothy Whitelock, History, Law and Literature in 10th–11th Century England (London: Variorum Reprints, 1981).

  • Wormald, Patrick. “Archbishop Wulfstan and the Holiness of Society.” In Anglo-Saxon History: Basic Readings. Edited by David A. E. Pelteret, 191–224. New York: Garland, 2000.

    A useful overview of the career and significance of Wulfstan.

  • Wormald, Patrick. “Wulfstan [Lupus] (d. 1023).” In Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Edited by Lawrence Goldman. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.

    Outstanding summary statement of Wulfstan’s life and works. This is a good starting point for approaching Wulfstan. Available by subscription.

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