Wessex Worthies: Saint Boniface

Born near Crediton in Devon and originally named Wynfrith, Saint Boniface (675-754) was the first Archbishop of Mainz, and is known as "the apostle to the Germans". Christopher Dawson, in his 1946 book The Making of Europe, has said that Boniface "had a deeper influence on the history of Europe than any Englishman who has ever lived". A bold claim, but does it hold up?

The young Wynfrith was noted for his academic prowess. Originally sent as a boy to the monastery at Exeter for his education, he eventually entered the monastery at Nursling in Hampshire, where he became director of the school at an early age, compiling the first known Latin grammar in England. King Ine and his witan (advisors) selected him to become part of a delegation to the Archbishop of Canterbury, where he honed his skills as a diplomat. This led to him being dispatched as a missionary to the Frisians, where he met with fierce resistance from their pagan king, Radbod. The mission ending in failure, Wynfrith became convinced that he needed a direct commission from the pope, Gregory II. This was granted in 719, along with his new name, Boniface, named in honour of an earlier martyr.

Boniface returned to Frisia following the death of Radbod, and found more success in winning converts to the new faith, assisting the now elderly Saint Willibrord of Utrecht. Willibrord wanted Boniface to take over from him after his retirement, but Boniface chose instead to lead a mission to the still unconverted German lands, under an order of protection from Charles Martel, who saw an opportunity to establish Frankish rule.

It was in Hesse that he performed his most famous deed, cutting down an oak tree that had been struck by lightning, and was thus sacred to Donar (Thunor/Thor). The locals seeing that he was not punished by the gods for this impious deed, converted to Christianity. The story was later embellished to have the oak felled by a divine blast of lightning, and split into four pieces of equal size, arranged in the shape of a cross. A later legend credits this as the origin of the Christmas tree, though in reality, Christmas trees are much too recent in origin for this to be the case.

But Boniface's most enduring legacy was the reform of the German churches, establishing the Rule of St Benedict and leaving behind a system of administration, and an alliance between the Carolingian dynasty and the papacy, that was to form the basis of the so-called "Holy Roman Empire". He and his missionaries were active in bringing Roman learning and Roman civilisation to the Germanic world, making the claim made by Dawson in the opening paragraph more than just empty hype.

In 754, at the age of 79, Boniface undertook one last mission to Frisia. At a mass baptism event, he was ambushed by armed robbers. His companions tried to defend themselves, but he urged them to lay down their arms and trust in God. This went exactly as you might expect. His body was initially transferred to Mainz, before being translated to the Benedictine abbey (later cathedral) in the Hessian city of Fulda, where his remains are kept to this day. They are a major pilgrimage site, even attracting a papal visit in 1980. There is also a shrine at the Catholic church in Crediton, Boniface's feast day is observed on June 5th in the Anglican, Catholic and Orthodox churches.

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