Boniface, St.

Boniface, St.
(c. 675-754)
   Most famous and influential of all the Irish and Anglo-Saxon missionaries to the continent in the seventh and eighth centuries, Boniface spread the Christian faith to pagan Saxons and other Germanic peoples. He also founded several bishoprics and the important monastery at Fulda and reorganized numerous dioceses during his career as a missionary and reformer. He was supported early in his missionary work by the Carolingian mayor of the palace, Charles Martel, and also by the pope. His support from the pope was perhaps most important to Boniface, because, like all Anglo-Saxons, he felt a special devotion to the papacy and structured his reforms along models established at Rome. He later played a role in the reform of the Frankish church and was supported by Charles Martel's sons, Pippin the Short and, especially, Carloman. Martyred on June 5, 754, Boniface has been recognized as the Apostle to Germany because of his successful missionary activity, and his feast day is celebrated on June 5.
   Born in circa 675 to a noble family in Devonshire, England, and originally called Winfrith (Pope Gregory II gave him the name Boniface in 719), Boniface, according to his biographer, demonstrated great piety and zeal for the monastic life from an early age. While still a boy, according to his biographer, Boniface "subdued the flesh to the spirit and meditated on things eternal" and discussed spiritual matters with priests who visited his father's house (Talbot 1995, 111). Although reluctant to allow his son to take up the monastic life, Boniface's father eventually relented, after a serious illness, and sent him to a Benedictine community near Exeter. He received an excellent education at the community, was ordained a priest at age thirty, and developed a reputation as a scholar. Indeed, in 705 he was called on by the archbishop of Canterbury to help resolve a number of issues facing the king of Wessex, which Boniface did successfully.
   Despite his success and the possibility of ecclesiastical advancement, Boniface, like many Irish and Anglo-Saxon monks, felt the call to take up missionary work. In 716 he joined his fellow Anglo-Saxon missionary, Willibrord, on the continent and traveled to the region called Frisia (in the modern Low Countries), whose inhabitants had slid back into paganism during the turmoil after the death of the mayor of the palace Pippin of Herstal. His efforts, however, proved unsuccessful because he found no support from the Frisian leader, Radbod. Boniface then returned to England, but would not stay there for long, even though he was elected abbot of his monastery, an honor he declined in favor of further missionary activity.
   In 719, Boniface began his second evangelical mission on the continent. He visited Rome first this time and received both a new name and a commission from Gregory II to preach to the pagan Saxons east of the Rhine River and to spread the Roman method of baptism and the Roman liturgy. Returning north, he joined Willibrord again in Frisia and spent three years evangelizing the Frisians, where the death of Radbod, the Frisian king who opposed the Franks, and the rise of Charles Martel offered the opportunity for success. Indeed, in 723 Charles Martel sent an official letter to the ecclesiastical and lay nobility proclaiming Martel's protection of and support for the activities of Boniface. In the previous year, Boniface had been called back to Rome, where Gregory consecrated him bishop, provided him the mandate to preach to the pagan Saxons, and sent a letter to the Carolingian mayor of the palace requesting his support. Boniface returned to the north and began his mission in most aggressive fashion by chopping down one of the pagan Saxons sacred oaks near Fritzlar. This event had great significance, because Boniface suffered no vengeance from the pagan gods and demonstrated that the power of his God was far greater.
   Over the next several decades, Boniface continued his missionary activities and remained in frequent contact with the pope in Rome. From 725 to 735 he spent most of his time in Thuringia, where he converted pagans and struggled against rival missionaries whose methods he disliked and termed heretical. As with all things, Boniface sought the support of Rome in his struggles with rival missionaries. His devotion to Rome, his efforts to spread Roman traditions, and his frequent reports to the pope attracted the attention of the new pope, Gregory III, during his years in Thuringia. Gregory welcomed his efforts and raised him to the rank of archbishop, which increased Boniface's authority and reinforced his power and prestige as the official representative of the pope in Germany.
   In 735, Boniface was sent to the duchy of Bavaria to reorganize and reform the church, activities that turned out to be important when the duchy was absorbed by the Frankish kingdom. Although supported by the duke, Boniface was often opposed by the bishops and other church leaders in Bavaria, especially after his trip to Rome in 737. There he had been welcomed by Gregory III, who supported his efforts in Germany. Returning to Bavaria, Boniface wholeheartedly began reorganization of the church of Germany, despite frequent opposition. He established numerous new bishoprics, including those at Erfurt, Freising, Regensburg, and Würzburg. He also, in 744, established a monastery at Fulda, which he placed under the protection of the pope and entrusted to his Bavarian convert Sturmi. His activities in Bavaria were an important prelude to his activities in the Frankish kingdom after the death of his patron, Charles Martel.
   Until the rise to power of Pippin and Carloman, Boniface had done little with the Frankish church, which was much in need of reform. Indeed, it is from Boniface that we learn of the sorry shape of the Frankish church. Certainly there is some exaggeration, but Boniface complained that there had been no church council in the kingdom in eighty years and that the bishops were "greedy laymen" or "adulterous, undedicated clerical carousers." Moreover, he lamented that the bishops also shed blood and that the lower clergy were often ignorant and had "four, five, or more concubines in their bed each night." With the support of the Carolingian mayors of the palace, particularly Carloman, Boniface instituted reform of the Frankish church. The German Council of 742 or 743 held by Carloman implemented the reform ideas of Boniface, declaring that priests and other clergy must wear distinctive and simple clothes and must not keep arms, hunting dogs, or women in their house. Monks were encouraged to follow the Rule of St. Benedict and were to live chaste and stable lives. Carloman, inspired by Boniface, also established new episcopal sees, which he put under Boniface's authority as archbishop. Finally, Boniface reinforced the pro-Roman tendencies in the Frankish church, inadvertently laying the foundation for a political alliance between the Carolingians and the pope.
   After Carloman's retirement to a monastery Boniface's influence at the Carolingian court declined, particularly because of Pippin's close relationship with Chrodegang of Metz, an important bishop and religious reformer, and Boniface returned to missionary work. His influence continued in the kingdom, and he did not completely separate himself from Pippin's affairs, at least according to the Royal Frankish Annals, which declare that Boniface anointed Pippin king in 751. There is more than a little uncertainty about his presence at the ceremony, but his importance in the realm even after Carloman's retirement is attested by the assertion that he participated in the coronation. It is certain that Boniface resumed his evangelical activity and remained dedicated to it during the last year of his life. Retiring from his duties as archbishop, he turned the office over to one of his disciples and began preaching to the pagan Frisians. He was attacked on the morning of June 5, 754, and suffered martyrdom, and, according to his biographer, Boniface encouraged his followers not to fear the attackers but to "endure with steadfast mind the sudden onslaught of death, that you may be able to reign evermore with Christ" (Talbot 1995, 136). Boniface's biographer notes further that within a few years great miracles occurred at the spot of the martyrdom.
   See also
 ♦ Duckett, Eleanor Shipley. Anglo-Saxon Saints and Scholars. New York: Macmillan, 1947.
 ♦ Emerton, Ephraim, ed. and trans. The Letters of Saint Boniface. New York: Columbia University Press, 2000.
 ♦ Lawrence, Clifford H. Medieval Monasticism: Forms of Religious Life in Western Europe in the Middle Ages, 2d ed. London: Longman, 1984.
 ♦ Levison, Wilhelm. England and the Continent in the Eighth Century. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.
 ♦ Reuter, Timothy, ed. The Greatest Englishman: Essays on St. Boniface and the Church at Crediton. Exeter: Paternoster Press, 1980.
 ♦ Riché, Pierre, The Carolingians: A Family Who Forged Europe. Trans. Michael Idomir Allen. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1993.
 ♦ Scholz, Bernhard Walter, trans. Carolingian Chronicles: Royal Frankish Annals and Nithard's History. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1972.
 ♦ Talbot, C. H., trans. "Willibald: The Life of Saint Boniface." In Soldiers of Christ: Saints and Saints' Lives from Late Antiquity to the Early Middle Ages, ed. Thomas F. X. Noble and Thomas Head. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1995.
 ♦ Wallace-Hadrill, JohnM. The Frankish Church. Oxford: Clarendon, 1983.

Encyclopedia of Barbarian Europe. 2014.

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