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When Charlemagne destroyed the Irminsul in 772 (a devastating event for my heroine in The Ashes of Heaven’s Pillar), he was not the first to meddle with a site sacred to pagans. Decades earlier, Saint Boniface, the Apostle of Germany, chopped down Donar’s Oak. And before Boniface, there was Saint Willibrord, a bishop Boniface assisted in Frisia from 719 to 722.

Statue of Willibrord by Albert Termote

Statue of Willibrord by Albert Termote (1889-1978) (Wikimedia Commons image used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License).

In the late seventh and early eighth centuries, Willibrord traveled as a missionary to northern Francia, Frisia, and Denmark, the last of which he gave up on except for 30 boys. Alcuin’s The Life of Saint Willibrord recounts an unplanned visit to Fositeland (Heligoland), a North Sea island between Denmark and Frisia.

Willibrord and his companions were blown to the island by a storm and stayed there to wait for better weather. They found the island’s inhabitants worshiped the god Fosite and built temples to him. The cattle who grazed at holy sites were not to be bothered, and believers were silent when they drew water from a sacred fountain.

Determined to show the pagans the falseness of their ways and unafraid of Frisian chieftain Radbod’s cruelty, Willibrord baptized three people in a ritual that required the spoken word and had some of the cattle killed for meat. As objectionable as a tolerant 21st century person might find such an act, the purpose for medieval Christians was to show that their God was stronger than pagan deities and thus spur conversions and save souls.

Alcuin says the pagans were amazed nothing bad happened to Willibrord and his company, and they reported it to Radbod.

Furious, Radbod held Willibrord and his companions for three days and cast lots three times a day to see who should die. Perhaps Radbod used lots because he feared Frankish Mayor of the Palace Pepin II, who had already defeated him in battle and seized lands, but only one of Willibrord’s party was martyred. Willibrord tried to convince Radbod that he was really worshipping devils, but as readers of last Tuesday’s post know, the Frisian ruler would not be moved. Ultimately, Radbod let Willibrord return to Francia.

Willibrord, the subject of today’s post at English Historical Fiction Authors, would go to face a difficult dilemma: whom to side with in the civil war after Pepin’s death in 714.