This Saint was formed in the crucible of public humiliations

Today, 8 Jun 2012, is the memorial of St William of York, (a.k.a. William FitzHerbert, William of Thwayt), a 12th century English archbishop. People seemed to either love him or violently hate him. Anyone who has been tried in the court of public opinion and has had to fight or wait for justice will find in him a most sympathetic intercessor.

St William of York was born sometime in the late 11th century into a family with close connections to the King of England. His father, Herbert of Winchester, served as chancellor and treasurer to King Henry I. Entering the clerical state, his family would have had high expectations for William. Indeed, at the time the troubles began in 1140 William was serving as treasurer of York Minster. 

It all began with the death of the archbishop of York, Theobald of Canterbury. On one side the King wanted his candidate (William) to fill the vacant post, on the other side the Cistercians wanted one of their members to take on this ministry. At the time, the keys of St Peter were held by a Cistercian Pope, Eugene III, so the Cistercians had high hopes of winning papal favour for their candidate. Some wanted William and others wanted anyone but William as Archbishop. Eventually William was elected, and a campaign started to unseat him. Accused he was of taking bribes, of simony and of letting the opinions of the King sway his judgment. William’s position as archbishop of York had to be ratified in Rome before he could undertake his episcopal duties. To settle the matter Pope Innocent II decreed that if William could swear an oath of innocence he could take up task of being archbishop of York. The oath was duly sworn.

With this first set-back behind him, William proved to be a rather effective and reforming bishop. One trouble still lingered, because to be an archbishop a sign of your acceptance by Rome and of your authority was to receive the pallium from the Pope. At this time Pope’s were having a rather short reign ; Innocent II died in 1143, Celestine II died in 1144, Lucius II died in 1145. Due to the distance between York and Rome and this high papal turnover, the pallium for William had not yet been sent. The new Pope in 1145 was Eugene III, a Cistercian. Given a new lease of life with this news, those who didn’t like William as Archbishop and who wanted the Cistercian candidate drummed up more allegations for William to answer. This time they were successful, the Cistercian candidate Henry Murdac was made archbishop and William was removed from office. Henry was ordained to the episcopate by Eugene III, and then made his way back to York. Outraged, the people of York wouldn’t let Henry in, and he had to administer everything from the Cistercian abbey a day’s journey away (30 miles / 48 kms). 

Meanwhile William didn’t kick up a fuss, and went off to Wincester where he grew up (in county Hampshire in the south of England ; York in county Yorkshire is in the north of England). There William lived a monastic life of prayer and penitential practices. In time Eugene III died in 1153 and so did Henry Murdac. The way was now clear with Pope Anastasius IV in charge, for William to ask to be reinstated to York. This time there were no troubles, and William was welcomed back to his See by such a crowd that one of the bridges collapsed under the weight of the throng. Everyone was amazed that despite the disaster, no one died. Showing his character, William took no revenge on anyone who had played a part in his removal from office. 

To the surprise of all, William died on 8 June 1154, on Trinity Sunday, only a few short weeks after returning to York. Lots of muttering went around that he had been poisoned by those who still hated him, but nothing was ever proved. Soon miracles were being reported by people who visited William’s tomb, and when a fire damaged his tomb and William’s body found to be intact and unburnt, the process towards canonisation began. his remains now rest in the crypt at York Minster. 

During his life William suffered from the political machinations of the day and from all the slander and accusations levelled against him, yet he dealt with it in quiet dignity and found in God the ability to forgive. May he help us to accept humiliations with grace, in imitation of the Lord Jesus, when it is our turn to suffer them.

St William of York, pray for us.