Saint Boniface



Saint Boniface (Latin: Bonifatius) (c. 675? – 5 June 754), born Winfrid, Wynfrith, or Wynfryth in the kingdom of Wessex, probably at Crediton, was an Anglo-Saxon missionary who propagated Christianity in the Frankish Empire during the 8th century. He is the patron saint of Germany, the first archbishop of Mainz and the "Apostle of the Germans". He was killed in Frisia in 754, along with 52 others. His remains were returned to Fulda, where they rest in a sarcophagus which became a site of pilgrimage. Facts about Boniface's life and death as well as his work became widely known, since there is a wealth of material available—a number of vitae, especially the near-contemporary Vita Bonifatii auctore Willibaldi, and legal documents, possibly some sermons, and above all his correspondence.

Norman F. Cantor notes the three roles Boniface played that made him "one of the truly outstanding creators of the first Europe, as the apostle of Germany, the reformer of the Frankish church, and the chief fomentor of the alliance between the papacy and the Carolingian family." Through his efforts to reorganize and regulate the church of the Franks, he helped shape Western Christianity, and many of the dioceses he proposed remain until today. After his martyrdom, he was quickly hailed as a saint in Fulda and other areas in Germany and in England. His cult is still notably strong today. Boniface is celebrated (and criticized) as a missionary; he is regarded as a unifier of Europe, and he is seen (mainly by Catholics) as a German national figure.


The earliest Bonifacian vita does not mention his place of birth but says that at an early age he attended a monastery ruled by abbot Wulfhard in escancastre, or Examchester, which seems to denote Exeter, and may have been one of many monasteriola built by local landowners and churchmen; nothing else is known of it outside the Bonifacian "vitae". Later tradition places his birth at Crediton, but the earliest mention of Crediton in connection to Boniface is from the early fourteenth century, in John Grandisson's Legenda Sanctorum: The Proper Lessons for Saints' Days according to the use of Exeter.


According to the vitae, Winfrid was of a respected and prosperous family. Against his father's wishes he devoted himself at an early age to the monastic life. He received further theological training in the Benedictine monastery and minster of Nhutscelle (Nursling), not far from Winchester, which under the direction of abbot Winbert had grown into an industrious centre of learning in the tradition of Aldhelm  Winfrid taught in the abbey school and at the age of 30 became a priest; in this time, he wrote a Latin grammar, the Ars Grammatica, besides a treatise on verse and some Aldhelm-inspired riddles. While little is known about Nursling outside of Boniface's vitae, it seems clear that the library there was significant. In order to supply Boniface with the materials he needed, it would have contained works by Donatus, Priscian, Isidore, and many others. Around 716, when his abbot Wynberth of Nursling died, he was invited (or expected) to assume his position—it is possible that they were related, and the practice of hereditary right in early Anglo-Saxon would affirm this. Winfrid, however, declined the position and in 716 set out on a missionary expedition to Frisia.

Boniface first left for the continent in 716. He traveled to Utrecht, where Willibrord, the "Apostle of the Frisians," had been working since the 690s. He spent a year with Willibrord, preaching in the countryside, but their efforts were frustrated by the war then being carried on between Charles Martel and Radbod, King of the Frisians. Willibrord fled to the abbey he had founded in Echternach (in modern-day Luxembourg) while Boniface returned to Nursling.

Boniface returned to the continent the next year, and this time went straight to Rome, where Pope Gregory II renamed him "Boniface", after the (legendary) fourth-century martyr Boniface of Tarsus, and appointed him missionary bishop for Germania—he became a bishop without a diocese for an area that lacked any church organization. He would never return to England, though he remained in correspondence with his countrymen and kinfolk throughout his life.

According to the vitae Boniface felled the Donar Oak, Latinized by Willibald as "Jupiter's oak," near the present-day town of Fritzlar in northern Hesse. According to his early biographer Willibald, Boniface started to chop the oak down, when suddenly a great wind, as if by miracle, blew the ancient oak over. When the god did not strike him down, the people were amazed and converted to Christianity. He built a chapel dedicated to Saint Peter from its wood at the site —the chapel was the beginning of the monastery in Fritzlar. This account from the vita is stylized to portray Boniface as a singular character who alone acts to root out paganism. Lutz von Padberg and others point out that what the vitae leave out is that the action was most likely well-prepared and widely publicized in advance for maximum effect, and that Boniface had little reason to fear for his personal safety since the Frankish fortified settlement of Büraburg was nearby. According to Willibald, Boniface later had a church with an attached monastery built in Fritzlar, on the site of the previously built chapel, according to tradition.

The support of the Frankish mayors of the palace (maior domos), and later the early Pippinid and Carolingian rulers, was essential for Boniface's work. Boniface had been under the protection of Charles Martel from 723 on. The Christian Frankish leaders desired to defeat their rival power, the non-Christian Saxons, and to incorporate the Saxon lands into their own growing empire. Boniface's destruction of indigenous Germanic pagan sites may have benefited the Franks in their campaign against the Saxons.

In 732, Boniface traveled again to Rome to report, and Pope Gregory III conferred upon him the pallium as archbishop with jurisdiction over Germany. Boniface again set out for what is now Germany, baptized thousands, and dealt with the problems of many other Christians who had fallen out of contact with the regular hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church. During his third visit to Rome in 737–38, he was made papal legate for Germany.

After Boniface's third trip to Rome, Charles Martel erected four dioceses in Bavaria (Salzburg, Regensburg, Freising, and Passau) and gave them to Boniface as archbishop and metropolitan over all Germany east of the Rhine. In 745, he was granted Mainz as metropolitan see. In 742, one of his disciples, Sturm (also known as Sturmi, or Sturmius), founded the abbey of Fulda not far from Boniface's earlier missionary outpost at Fritzlar. Although Sturm was the founding abbot of Fulda, Boniface was very involved in the foundation. The initial grant for the abbey was signed by Carloman, the son of Charles Martel, and a supporter of Boniface's reform efforts in the Frankish church. The saint himself explained to his old friend, Daniel of Winchester, that without the protection of Charles Martel he could "neither administer his church, defend his clergy, nor prevent idolatry."

According to German historian Gunther Wolf, the high point of Boniface's career was the Concilium Germanicum, organized by Carloman in an unknown location in April 743. While Boniface was not able to safeguard the church from property seizures by the local nobility, he did achieve one goal, the adoption of stricter guidelines for the Frankish clergy, which often hailed directly from the nobility. After Carloman's resignation in 747 he maintained a sometimes turbulent relationship with the king of the Franks, Pepin; the claim that he would have crowned Pepin at Soissons in 751 is now generally discredited.

Boniface balanced this support and attempted to maintain some independence, however, by attaining the support of the papacy and of the Agilolfing rulers of Bavaria. In Frankish, Hessian, and Thuringian territory, he established the dioceses of Würzburg, and Erfurt. By appointing his own followers as bishops, he was able to retain some independence from the Carolingians, who most likely were content to give him leeway as long as Christianity was imposed on the Saxons and other Germanic tribes.

According to the "vitae", Boniface had never relinquished his hope of converting the Frisians, and in 754 he set out with a retinue for Frisia. He baptized a great number and summoned a general meeting for confirmation at a place not far from Dokkum, between Franeker and Groningen. Instead of his converts, however, a group of armed inhabitants appeared who slew the aged archbishop. The vitae mention that Boniface persuaded his (armed) comrades to lay down their arms: "Cease fighting. Lay down your arms, for we are told in Scripture not to render evil for good but to overcome evil by good."

The German bishop St. Boniface, whom this religious freedom conference is named for, converted many pagan tribes before being martyred in his old age. According to legend he once took an ax to a giant oak tree that was worshiped by Germanic pagans, and as soon as he struck, the tree fell down. 

Having killed Boniface and his company, the Frisian bandits ransacked their possessions and got drunk on the wine remaining among the provisions, and then started killing each other, arguing over the division of the booty. The surviving "freebooters" found that the company's luggage did not contain the riches they had hoped for: "they broke open the chests containing the books and found, to their dismay, that they held manuscripts instead of gold vessels, pages of sacred texts instead of silver plates." They attempted to destroy these books, the earliest vita already says, and this account underlies the status of the Ragyndrudis Codex, now held as a Bonifacian relic in Fulda, and supposedly one of three books found on the field by the Christians who inspected it afterward. Of those three books, the Ragyndrudis Codex shows incisions that could have been made by sword or axe; its story appears confirmed in the Utrecht hagiography, the Vita altera, which reports that an eye-witness saw that the saint at the moment of death held up a gospel as spiritual protection. The story was later repeated by Otloh's vita; at that time, the Ragyndrudis Codex seems to have been firmly connected to the martyrdom.

His remains were eventually buried in the abbey of Fulda after resting for some time in Utrecht, and they are entombed within a shrine beneath the high altar of Fulda Cathedral, previously the abbey church.

Saint Boniface's feast day is celebrated on 5 June in the Roman Catholic Church, the Lutheran Church, the Anglican Communion and the Eastern Orthodox Church.

A famous statue of Saint Boniface stands on the grounds of Mainz Cathedral, seat of the archbishop of Mainz. A more modern rendition stands facing the cathedral of Fritzlar.

The UK National Shrine is located at the Catholic church at Crediton, Devon, which has a bas-relief of the felling of Thor's Oak, by sculptor Kenneth Carter. The sculpture was unveiled by Princess Margaret in his native Crediton, located in Newcombes Meadow Park. There is also a series of paintings there by Timothy Moore. There are quite a few churches dedicated to St. Boniface in the United Kingdom: Bunbury, Cheshire; Chandler's Ford and Southampton Hampshire; Adler Street, London; Papa Westray, Orkney; St Budeaux, Plymouth (now demolished); Bonchurch, Isle of Wight; Cullompton, Devon.

Bishop George Errington founded St Boniface's Catholic College, Plymouth in 1856. The school celebrates Saint Boniface on 5 June each year.

In 1818, Father Norbert Provencher founded a mission on the east bank of the Red River in what was then Rupert's Land, building a log church and naming it after St. Boniface. The log church was consecrated as Saint Boniface Cathedral after Provencher was himself consecrated as a bishop and the diocese was formed. The community that grew around the cathedral eventually became the city of St. Boniface, which merged into the city of Winnipeg in 1971.

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