Not much is known about the early life of William Fitzherbert, also
known as William of Thwayt. His father, Count Herbert, had been
Treasurer to King Henry I. His mother, Emma, was the granddaughter
of William the Conqueror and half-sister of King Stephen and of Henry of Blois, the Bishop of Winchester. William grew up to be a
priest, and when he was still fairly young he became the treasurer
of the Church of York. He was also King Stephen's chaplain. In
1140 he was elected Archbishop of York, and that was when his life
stopped being unremarkable.
His election met with vehement opposition from the Cistercians in Yorkshire, who wanted one of their monks to become
the Archbishop. The Cistercians accused William of paying for his ecclesiastical position. They also claimed that he had
broken his vow of celibacy and that he had used his uncle the king's
influence to get himself elected. Under these circumstances, the Archbishop of Canterbury was reluctant to consecrate William. The Vatican initiated an investigation, and eventually Pope Innocent II cleared
William of all the charges. In 1143, three years after his election,
William was finally confirmed as Archbishop.
Immediately, he began to carry out reforms in his diocese. His
gentleness and charity soon made him very popular. Unfortunately for
William, he forgot to obtain the pallium (fancy Archbishop costume)
that Lucius had sent him in 1145. As silly as it sounds,
the vestments were apparently necessary for him to be considered truly
the Archbishop. Since William had forgotten to get them, they were
sent back to Rome.
So in 1147 William went to Rome to get his pallium. Meanwhile, Pope
Lucius had died. His successor, Eugene III, was a Cistercian.
The English Cistercians took the opportunity to renew their
objections to William being the archbishop, and William was tried again. Back in England, certain followers of William were enraged. In
retaliation, they plundered the Cistercians monastery, Fountains
Abbey. Needless to say, this didn't help William's case. Eugene
promptly suspended him.
William went to stay with his uncle Henry at Winchester. He spent
six years there, living an austere and prayerful life. In 1153,
Pope Eugene and died, and William appealled to
Pope Anastasius IV to restore him to his position as Archbishop of
York. The appeal was successful, and in 1154 William returned in
triumph to York.
He was still quite popular, and enormous crowds gathered on a wooden
bridge over the River Ouse as he arrived. The bridge collapsed,
dumping people into the river. William is said to have saved them
all from harm through a miracle. Later, a chapel dedicated to him was
built on the stone bridge erected in the same place as the old wooden
Less than a month after his return to York, William became ill while
celebrating Mass on Trinity Sunday. He was dead within a week. The
death was sudden enough that many people suspected he had been
poisoned, but it's more likely that he died from a fever. He was
buried in his cathedral, and miracles began to be reported at his
tomb. At that point, the church of York didn't have a saint to call its own. This fact, and the continuing rumors of murder, contributed to
popular demand for William's canonization.
He was canonized in 1227 by Pope Honorius III. The process was
hastened by the "money and urgent entreaties" of Anthony
Bek, the Bishop of Durham. Honorius appointed the Cistercian
abbots to inquire into William's life and miracles. In 1283,
William's relics were translated to a shrine behind
the high altar of York Minster. They remained there until the
English Reformation, when the shrine was smashed as a gesture
of protest against the Vatican during Henry VIII's visit to York in
1541. William is still depicted in stained glass in the windows of
many churches in York. His festival is observed on June 8.