Since the early 11th century, Britain’s culture and policy have been heavily influenced by religion. Bishops were strong influential figures in their society, giving homilies and sermons that were based on the happenings of their community. In 1014, the author Lupus first read “The Sermon of the Wolf to the English,” an Anglo-Saxon homily, following the expulsion of King Ethelred in 1013 by the Danish King, Sweyn. Lupus, which was the pseudonym of the Archbishop Wulfstan, gave the sermon in Old English, despite the Latin rubric at the beginning of the sermon.
Wulfstan intended his message to be heard by the people of England and was easily able to get out his message to them. Since a homily generally follows scripture during mass, Wulfstan’s audience would be at the church when he read it aloud. Five manuscripts of the work survive, encompassing three revision of the sermon.
The source is in its entirety, based on a longer version of the work. This longer version is “written in a contemporary hand” and is believed to have been written either during Wulfstan’s lifetime or shortly after his death. It was translated into Modern English for the publication in English Historical Documents for today’s modern audience.Wulfstan’s importance in British history has recently been discovered to stretch much farther than just a prominent figure in the church. His early life remains a mystery, with not much information available about him before 996. He became the bishop of London in 996 until 1002.
In 1002, he became the archbishop of York until 1023. He also held the see of archbishop of Worcester in plurality with that of York until 1016. Wulfstan also wrote a considerable amount of the legislation under Ethelred and Cnut alongside his many sermons. These writings cement his importance in both religious and political spheres.
Wulfstan also had a tendency to refer to the reign of King Edgar as a happier time. Under Edgar, England was unified under one king and enjoyed a peaceful reign. His son, Ethelred, however, starkly contrasted his father. Dubbed “Ethelred the Unready,” he failed to fend off the invading Danes and subsequently fled to Normandy in 1013.
This expulsion would ultimately lead Wulfstan to write “The Sermon of the Wolf” in 1014, when “the Danes persecuted the English most,” citing Ethelred’s flight as a proof of disloyalty and misfortune that was surely part of the apocalypse.”The Sermon of the Wolf” claimed that the end of the world was upon the English nation. A series of misfortunes plagued the English “in every district again and again,” ranging from famine to treason to disease. Taxes were unjustly high, planting seasons failed to produce good crops, and robbers stole and pillaged the country. He blamed the Anglo-Saxons for this, as their sins amounted to be so great that “daily evil was piled on evil and wrongdoings and many lawless acts” over years and years. The sins of England were not just failing to pray and attend church as disloyalty ran rampant through matters of both the church and the state, as they betrayed their lords by persuading them to do things against the Word of God, killing them, and pushing them from the land.
The monarchy was not safe from this line of betrayals. King Edward the Martyr, who was the son of Edgar and half-brother of Ethelred, reigned for only three years before he was betrayed and assassinated in 978. Ethelred succeeded his half-brother and became king, but his authority was undermined by suspicions that he might have been complicit in the murder of Edward. In the end, Ethelred was pushed out by the Danish Invasion after the British accepted Sweyn as their king and fled to Normandy. Wulfstan himself drew back to the historian Gildas, a member of the Britons, who, like Wulfstan, spoke of the sins and misdeeds of the Britons that, in his belief, angered God so much, that he allowed the English to conquer the land and completely wipe out the Britons.
Using this example, Wulfstan warned that the English would be met with the same fate if they did not change their ways and beg God for forgiveness. He also called for the return of loyalty between the citizens, as well as the careful keeping of oaths and pledges they made to their fellow men. This, Wulfstan claimed, would be the only way that England could save itself from eternal damnation to the pits of hell following the inevitable Judgement Day.