In 750, Archbishop Boniface anointed the upstart Frankish King Pepin in Soisson. A Saxon in his 70s, he could have had influenced Frankish politics, or he could have retired to a monastery. Instead, a few years later, he embarked on a mission to preach to the Frisians, a mission that cost him his life.
That’s the striking thing about Saint Boniface. He could have had an easy life, by early medieval standards, but again and again, he repeatedly gave up power and the privileges that went with it to pursue his missionary work.
An 11th century image of St. Boniface baptizing converts and being martyred (public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)
Details about Boniface’s early life are sketchy. He is believed to have been born to a noble family in Saxon kingdom of Wessex in the 670s–his date of birth is unclear. He was called Winfrid until he took the Latinized version of his name, either when he joined the Benedictine order or when he was consecrated bishop in 722.
Although he received a religious education, his parents intended for their son to have a secular life. But missionary monks visited his family’s home, and they must have made quite an impression on him. Did what they say about the pagans in Saxony cause him to worry that thousands of fellow Saxons faced eternity in hell?
With his father’s hard-won permission, he went to the abbey of Adescancastre (site of today’s Exeter) and seven years later the abbey of Nhutscelle (between Southhampton and Winchester). There, he furthered his education, joined the Benedictine order, and was ordained a priest. (The lines between priest and monk were loose then.)
He could have basked in the praise of his scholarship and preaching, but that’s not what he wanted. He wanted to preach to the Continental Saxons, pagans who lived in today’s Germany and might have practiced human sacrifice as a thanksgiving after a first battle. At this point, he was probably in his late 30s or early 40s.
He made a foray into Frisia but found the political situation too unstable and returned to Britain. About a year later, toward the end of 717, the abbot of Nhutscelle died and the monks elected Boniface the abbot. Abbots often had political influence, and although the abbot at Nhutscelle chose an austere lifestyle, many lived as aristocrats. Boniface rejected the abbacy and instead convinced the bishop of Winchester to have the monks elect someone else.
He then traveled to Rome to receive the pope’s blessing for his mission. When the pope determined Boniface had the right morals and motivation, he sent him to lands in today’s Germany.
What Boniface found was that officially Christian countries had lapsed, often following a mix of Christianity and paganism. With the exception of a couple of visits to Rome, he spent the next decade preaching, converting pagans to Christianity, founding monasteries, and appointing abbesses. Some of his tactics will bother a tolerant 21st century audience. He felled a sacred tree and made a chapel from its wood, and he destroyed an idol.
Engraving by Bernhard Rode, 1781 (public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)
His stature and mission continued to grow. In 732, he was elevated to archbishop and continued to found monasteries and build churches and institute reforms. He wanted to resign his archbishopric in 738 and return to mission work, but the pope would not let him. For many years, he held synods, enforced canons, trained monks, and led prayers and meditation.
In 753 or 754, he resigned the archbishopric of Mainz and went to Frisia with his followers. He surely knew that it was not safe. Having lived longer than most medieval folk, perhaps he no longer feared death. During a confirmation on the River Bornes in 754, his party was attacked by pagans. His body was found near a bloodstained copy of Saint Ambrose’s The Advantage of Death.
His body was eventually taken to Fulda, whose establishment he had supervised, and his canonization soon followed. More than 20 years later, the monks at Fulda went to great lengths to protect his relics.
Carolingian Chronicles, which includes the Royal Frankish Annals and Nithard’s Histories, translated by Bernard Walter Scholz with Barbara Rogers
“St. Boniface” by Francis Mershman, The Catholic Encyclopedia
This post was originally published May 12, 2013, on English Historical Fiction Authors.