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St. Boniface |
The foremost apostle to Germany

St. Boniface is drawn from Chapter Two, beginning on page 64, of Volume Six, The Quest for the City of the twelve-volume historical series The Christians: Their First Two Thousand Years. If you would like to order this book please visit

The irrepressible Boniface converted over 100,000 German tribesmen before his head was split open by an angry Frisian’s sword

St. Boniface - The foremost apostle to Germany

St. Boniface - The foremost apostle to Germany
Boniface is martyred in the top right of this image, while on the left his labors in Germany come to fruition as German pagans are baptized. From the sacramentary of the church of St. Salvatoris, Fulda, Germany.

Near the little settlement of Dokkum, pagan warriors angrily watched their fellow Frisians gathering at the riverside camp of the accursed archbishop. Boniface, an Anglo-Saxon, had already helped draw more than one hundred thousand German tribesmen to Jesus Christ. Although the veteran missionary was now at least seventy-five years old, he had led this band of fifty or so clergy deep into the swampy flatlands beside the North Sea, far from any helpful army commander or friendly chieftain. That day–June 5, 755–he planned to baptize the latest newcomers to his flock. But shortly after dawn, the hostile pagans suddenly charged toward the still quiet tents of the Christians.

First to confront the assailants was Hildebrand, the archbishop’s personal attendant. He was immediately hacked to death. Hahmund, Hildebrand’s brother, stepped into their path, and died just as quickly. The Christians and their converts rallied, swinging the few weapons they had among them–until Boniface, who had been praying in his tent, emerged with lifted hand to forbid any attempt at defense. “Let us not give evil for evil!” he cried. The entire party was then slaughtered, a Frisian sword cleaving Boniface’s head. So died the foremost Christian apostle to the German tribes.

Boniface, baptized as Winfrid, had been a natural leader since childhood in southern England. His Saxon parents were of good family, farming on the frontier between the Saxon kingdom of Wessex and the Britons of the southwest peninsula. Their raw and often violent district had few churches, and monks would preach instead beside stone crosses erected at central locations. Listening to these regular visitors convinced Winfrid that he wished to join them, a notion flatly rejected by his parents, although they were Christian. After recovering from a deadly bout with the plague, however, his stalwart father relented and gave up his promising son to God.

The boy was sent to a small monastery at nearby Exeter, governed by Abbot Wolfhard, a practical if not especially learned soul, who soon realized that his young charge was both intelligent and mature beyond his years. At age fourteen, the already popular Winfrid became a full member of the religious community, a vow that normally would have bound him to Exeter for life. Instead, Wolfhard dispatched his talented protégé to a more scholarly and sophisticated monastery at Nursling near Winchester, capital of Wessex. At Nursling, Winfrid soaked up the pious learning appropriate to a monk, while learning to write fine Latin, and it seems that practically everyone loved him and trusted his sturdy common sense.

The king even sent him to represent Wessex in important church discussions with the archbishop of Canterbury, and fellow monks assumed that their talented and holy brother would in due course become abbot at Nursling.

Since boyhood, however, Winfrid had yearned to spread the gospel to pagan tribes across the narrow seas that separate southern England from Belgium and Holland. He now unexpectedly reported an inner call from God to evangelize the Frisians in what would become northern Holland, and his abbot agreed, albeit reluctantly. When the mission was cut short due to Frisian hostility, however, Winfrid decided to secure from Rome a mandate and support for his work. This long journey in 718 presented its own perils, especially from the unfriendly Lombards of northern Italy, but letters of introduction from ecclesiastical authorities in Wessex ensured that bishops and abbots would provide food and shelter along the way.

Many of his hosts, Winfrid realized, fell drastically short of the mark as Christian leaders, especially among the Merovingian Franks. As he later wrote to the pope: “For the greater part, the sees of bishops in our cities here have been handed to grasping laymen or adulterous clergy….” Winfrid was shocked to discover bishops and priests who performed the sacraments even though they “sleep with four or five mistresses, yet neither blush nor fear to read the gospel at mass.…” In Rome, Pope Gregory II quickly fell under the spell of this earnest, attractive monk, conversing with him for days about his distant homeland. The visitor in turn felt confirmed in his already profound commitment to institutional discipline, ensured by strong papal leadership and authority over the whole church.

In May 719, Gregory commissioned Winfrid to evangelize the German tribes, renaming him Boniface. His roving assignment took him far into the lonely forests and wild hill country of Germania, domain of the Thuringians, Alamanni and allied tribes. Most of them were still outright pagans, while others had slipped back into paganism after earlier evangelization by pioneering Irish monks. Even the Christians among them reportedly wore magic amulets, ate meat sacrificed to heathen gods (after making the sign of the cross over it, however), and sold slaves for human sacrifice. In Thuringia, an outbreak of “free love” was being led by Christian renegades. Preparing himself to deal with this turbulent flock, Boniface apprenticed for two years as assistant to Archbishop Willibrord (another English Saxon) in Frisia. He then journeyed up the Rhine Valley, where he attracted thousands of converts and backsliders into the embrace of the church.

Back in Rome in 722, he conferred with the pope before launching his main offensive, and Gregory II decided to make him a bishop–but one with no geographically defined see. It was an unusual appointment, in which he would report directly to the Vatican. Bishop Boniface took as his first challenge the Bortharian tribe, who worshiped around an ancient tree at Geismar, the Thunder Oak, sacred to the god Woden. To their unmitigated horror, Boniface took an ax to it, and the astonished tribesmen watched wide-eyed as the oak crashed to earth. Even so, this lunatic Christian, as his onlookers saw him, remained inexplicably unharmed. Rather than kill Boniface on the spot, they accepted this remarkable phenomenon as proof of the truth of his message, and many accepted Jesus as savior. They even used timber from the felled oak to construct a small church.

Other churches sprang up as Boniface continued his work. He also found himself frequently writing to Rome concerning pastoral problems, posing questions that provide wonderful insight into the difficulties he faced.

Should he conduct the lighting of the Easter candle even though his ex-pagan converts confused the ceremony with the practice of lighting a great fire in spring to honor the rising sun? (Yes, replied the pope.) Is a baptism valid if conducted by a priest who had parti-cipated in pagan rites, or if it was performed in a native language or in bad Latin? (Baptisms were valid so long as the intent was clear, the pragmatic pope ruled.) Being short of priests, could he ordain men at age twenty-five rather than thirty? (Yes, indeed.) Would the pope permit a man of noble rank to marry a widow who happened to simultaneously be his cousin, his aunt by marriage and a nun who had abandoned her vows? (Certainly not.) Could Rome relax its prohibition against marriage between even fourth cousins, a severe restriction for a people who lived in small villages? (One pope agreed, a later one did not.) Could lepers be given Holy Communion? (Yes, but separately.)

Oh, and one more question: Would the pope forgive a bishop for the late arrival of a report? He had been busy replacing thirty churches burned by Saxon raiders, said Boniface.

Boniface would never see England again, yet he kept in constant touch via correspondence with an astonishing number of people. The English were proud of him. For example, King Aelfwald of East Anglia wrote that his name was remembered during the seven daily rounds of prayer at every monastery in his realm. Boniface on occasion expressed anxiety for the good name of his country, in 747 admonishing Cuthbert, archbishop of Canterbury, to “stop your married women, and your nuns, from going so often to and from Rome. Many of them meet their ruin; few remain unharmed. There are very few cities of the Lombards in Italy, of the Franks in France, in which some courtesan or prostitute of English race is not found.”

When pressed for funds, he sometimes asked a friend to send him a cloak or other simple items. Unbidden, kings and abbots dispatched silver cups, spices and other gifts, but what Boniface wanted most were books. The future of German monasteries and schools depended on assembling collections of those costly, handwritten works of scholarship.

The charismatic prelate, drawing many aristocratic youths to the religious life, closely ordered their lives. For instance, he ruled that Sturm, a young nobleman, should work for his fellow monks in the kitchen while others performed more prestigious offices. The humbly obedient Sturm later became the first abbot of Fulda, the most important monastery Boniface founded. But the abbot was a reasonable man. “Let each of you, according to his strength and character, try to preserve his chastity,” he advised his monks, which implies that unchastity was far from unknown among them, religious enthusiasm and commitment notwithstanding.

Almost ten years after he became a bishop, Boniface received from Rome an archbishop’s pallium. He still ruled no specific territory, but with years of hard work, he had created three bishoprics within his broad jurisdiction. (Finding enough brother bishops to consecrate their leaders had been a final difficulty, since Boniface would not work with any Frankish ecclesiastic whom he regarded as corrupt.) The new pope, Gregory III, approved of all his methods and innovations, despite doubts that the small, isolated settlements of Germania could soon build an imposing cathedral or provide the civic prestige considered appropriate for a bishopric in Italy and Gaul.

Boniface, who had added Frankish to his languages, staunchly supported Charles Martel in his resistance to Muslim incursions from Spain, though the two were not personally friendly. He grew close to Martel’s son, Carloman, after he inherited his father’s eastern territories. Carloman and Boniface, both pious men, organized the first German synod in 743, a pivotal conference that among other things forbade the clergy to indulge in fornication, go to war, or hunt, and adopted the moderate yet firm Benedictine Rule for monasteries. Carloman returned church lands and revenues that had been seized by his subjects, thus helping to finance expanding Christian endeavors in Germania.

This secular connection was crucial to preserving Nicene orthodoxy in a time of considerable religious confusion. The most popular heretic in the region was a telepathic miracle-worker named Adalbert, who claimed that his powers had been given him by an angel. Calling himself “the saint of saints,” Adalbert sold his own nail clippings and hair as relics, and reportedly lived in luxury. Three genuine bishops had actually consecrated Adalbert to the episcopacy (critics charged that they were bribed, which was altogether possible), and he proceeded to build churches. One Clement was another supposedly legitimate bishop. He had a wife and two children, denied the teaching authority of the church fathers, and proclaimed the Jewish custom that a man should marry his deceased brother’s widow. Boniface and Rome, backed by synods, repeatedly condemned Clement and Adalbert, prompting the Franks eventually to imprison them. Their ultimate fates are unknown.

Boniface had his prejudices, of course. He long remained at odds with Pirmin, an abbot in the neighboring lands of the Alamanni tribe, who was supported by one of their chieftains. But Pirmin’s monastery at Reichenau, on Lake Constance, became one of the great centers of medieval scholarship, and over time Boniface grew to respect his adversary’s commitment to the Benedictine Rule. Toward the end of their lives, these two giants of the early German church warmed to each other.

In the meantime an entire corps of distinguished priests and bishops matured under Boniface’s tutelage. Lullus, also of Wessex, a fine scholar who struggled lifelong against ill health, nevertheless became archbishop of Mainz (amid great controversy), and finally founded a monastery at Hersfeld. Leoba, a much younger cousin of Boniface, had to be disciplined when she was a spirited young novice, for stomping on the grave of an older nun whom she had disliked. On maturity, Leoba founded a nunnery near the Mainz River, and was a close friend of Hildegard, Charlemagne’s influential wife. Many of her nuns became abbesses of their own convents.

Lebuin, another Anglo-Saxon, was renowned for boldly entering a Saxon assembly and calling the pagans to Christ. The Saxons, much impressed, made no attacks on Lebuin’s missions so long as he lived. Gregory of Utrecht, who joined Boniface in early youth, became an abbot and founded a famous school of learning, while humbly refusing episcopal consecration as too high an honor.

Through men and women of this caliber, Christianity gradually took root in central and northern Europe. Yet no one matched the public renown accorded to the Apostle of the Germans. When King Carloman retired to a monastery, and the two Frankish kingdoms were united under his brother Pepin, Boniface conducted the coronation ceremony, anointing Pepin as king. It was a telling precedent for Western Christendom. Kings and bishops, working in partnership, would come to define the values of medieval civilization. As for the aging Boniface, he returned to his missionary work, and less than five years later, was martyred by the Frisians–the very people among whom he had begun that work more than four decades earlier.

This is the end of the St. Boniface category article drawn from Chapter Two, beginning on page 64, of Volume Six, The Quest for the City. To continue reading more about St. Boniface from The Christians, Their First Two Thousand Years we suggest experiencing the rest of the book, complete with hundreds of magnificent illustrations, by ordering it at