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William of York

(d. 1154) archbishop of York


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(d. 1154),

archbishop. Of noble birth and with royal connections, William Fitzherbert became treasurer of York at an early age (c.1130) and a chaplain of King Stephen. In character he was kind, amiable, and easygoing. On the death of Thurstan, archbishop of York, in 1140 the canons of York, with royal support, chose William as his successor; but a disappointed minority, supported by Bernard and the Yorkshire Cistercians, accused William of simony, unchastity, and intrusion. Both sides appealed to the pope, who ruled that the elect could be consecrated provided the dean of York could clear him of these charges and William purge himself of them by oath. After enquiry, Henry, bishop of Winchester and William's uncle, consecrated him. Meanwhile Bernard sent vituperative letters to popes and legates against both William and Henry. The premature death of Pope Lucius II deprived Henry of jurisdiction. The next pope was the Cistercian, Eugenius III, who heeded Bernard's intervention, suspended and deposed William, and appointed in his place the Cistercian abbot of Fountains, Henry Murdac.

William retired to Winchester and lived devoutly as a monk until 1153, when Bernard, Eugenius, and Henry Murdac all died. He was restored to his see and given the pallium. Soon after his triumphant return to York in 1154, he died suddenly, perhaps by poison. He was buried in his cathedral, miracles were reported at his tomb, and he was regarded both as the victim of injustice and as a saint. Honorius III appointed the Cistercian abbots of Fountains and Rievaulx to enquire into his life and miracles, and canonized him in 1227. In 1283 his relics were translated to a new shrine. In 1421 the famous St William window was made; this depicts his life, death, translation, and miracles in sixty-two scenes.

The strong local cult at York filled a void caused by the early absence of any local saint's relics in contrast to the flourishing shrines of Durham and Beverley, but it had little support elsewhere. No ancient, but a few modern churches were dedicated to William. Feast: 8 June; translation, 8 January.

AA.SS. Iun. II (1698), 136–46; J. Raine (ed.), Historians of the Church of York (R.S.), ii. 270–91, 388–97; R. L. Poole, ‘The Appointment and Deprivation of St William of York’, E.H.R., xlv (1930), 273–81; D. Knowles, ‘The Case of St William of York’, C.H.J., v (1936), 162–77, 212–14; C. H. Talbot, ‘New Documents in the Case of St William of York’, ibid., x (1950), 1–15; A. Morey, ‘Canonist Evidence in the Case of St William of York’, ibid., 352–4; F. Harrison, The Painted Glass of York (1927).

Subjects: Christianity.


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