Saint William: Patron Saint of York

Saint William on Ouse Bridge - stained glass in York Minster

The stone coffin of York’s Patron Saint, William Fitzherbert, can be found in the Western Crypt of York Minster.  William Fitzherbert was Archbishop from 1141 to 1147 and from 1153 to 1154.  His appointment was controversial but it ended in miracles and sainthood.

William was the Minster’s Treasurer before being elected Archbishop in 1141 by the majority of the Chapter.  Even then some of the Canons disputed the decision and he was not officially consecrated until 1143.  In 1147 he was deposed by the Pope, who replaced him with the Abbot of Fountains Abbey, Henry Murdac.  In contrast to the abbey in York, Fountains had a reputation for austere and holy living.  Murdac’s appointment was unpopular and the citizens of York refused to allow him to enter the city when he arrived in 1148.

William accepted the Pope’s decision and left for Sicily - but that wasn’t to be the end of the story.  Murdac and the Pope both died in the same year, 1153, and William was asked back to York.  As he made his triumphant return to the city, he stopped at Ouse Bridge.  So many people were crowded on the bridge that the structure collapsed.  William stopped and called on God to save the drowning.  Miraculously no one was hurt. 

It wasn’t long after, in June 1154, that William himself fell ill after celebrating mass at York Minster and he died a week later.  Many believed he had been given poison in the chalice he had used.  We know that one of his chaplains was accused of murder but not the outcome of the charge.

The miracle at Ouse Bridge, coupled with various miracles attributed to him after his death, led to him being canonised in 1224.  

Pilgrimage in medieval England was a common religious act and was economically important for the destination sites, much as tourism is today.  St William was originally commemorated by a small altar in the Minster but in about 1330 a shrine was built in the center of the Nave to house his tomb.  This proved a very popular place to visit, pay homage and pray.  So much so that 150 years later the tomb was moved to a new larger shrine behind the High Altar.  

Both shrines were dismantled during Henry VIII's reformation of the church and buried.  Pieces of each have since been excavated and large parts are now in the collection of the Yorkshire Museum, York. 

St William’s tomb is still in the Minster and in a location that he would recognise.  The stone coffin is actually a reused Roman sarcophagus, although the top is modern.  On St. William’s day, in June, small services are still held in the Western Crypt, and the area around the tomb is used as an area of quiet reflection.


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