Dictionary of National Biography – Willibald

Saint Willibald of EichstaettArticle

Willibald (700?–786), bishop and traveller, born about 700, was the son of a certain Saint Richard who bore the title of king, and is conjectured to have been the son of Hlothere, king of Kent, who died in 685. His mother was Winna, sister of Saint Boniface, the great apostle of Germany; she was also related to Ine, king of Wessex. Willibald had a brother Wunebald and a sister Walburga, who were also missionaries among the Germans. In his boyhood he was sent to the monastery of Waltham to be educated. Here he conceived the idea of a pilgrimage, and persuaded his father and brother to set out with him for Rome about 720–721. At Lucca Willibald’s father died, but he himself and his brother pressed on their difficult and dangerous journey, and finally arrived in Rome. Here Willibald formed the design of going on to Jerusalem, and after wintering in Rome, where he was seriously ill, set out in the spring of 722 for Syria. It was a time when pilgrimage in the east was fraught with infinite hardship and danger, when the old hospitals on the pilgrim routes had fallen into neglect, and when the great Mahommedan empire stretched from the Oxus to the Pyrenees. The sufferings of Willibald and his party were therefore very great. At Emesa they were taken prisoners as spies, but were ultimately set free to visit the pilgrim shrines still allowed to remain open. Willibald seems to have wandered about Palestine a good deal, and to have visited Jerusalem several times, finally leaving Syria about 726 after a narrow escape of martyrdom through smuggling balsam from Jerusalem. In Constantinople he spent two years, from 726 to 728, returning to Italy after an absence of seven years by way of Naples. At the great Benedictine monastery of Monte Casino he remained for ten years, holding various offices in the house. At the end of this time he again visited Rome, where Gregory III talked with him of his travels, and authorised the publication of his narrative. Boniface meanwhile was in need of help in Germany, and asked for Willibald, who was accordingly despatched by Gregory III to Eichstädt. At Salzburg in 741 Willibald was consecrated to the bishopric of Eichstädt by Archbishop Boniface, and after the latter’s death became the leader of the German mission. He built a monastery at Eichstädt, and lived a monastic life there, dying in 786.

Willibald’s guide-book, entitled ‘Vita seu Hodœporicon Sancti Willibaldi scriptum a Sanctimoniali,’ from which the details of his life are taken, was dictated by himself, and probably written down by a nun at Heidenheim, the finishing touches being added by another hand after his death. His book gives little general information, as the writer was intent upon his devotions, but throws some light upon law and custom in the eastern lands in which he travelled. Its value is owing to the extreme scarcity of pilgrim notices during the eighth century. It is published by Mabillon in the ‘Acta Sanctorum Ordinis Benedicti’, but the most accessible edition is that of Tobler in the ‘Descriptiones Terræ Sanctæ’. Other lives based upon this have been written, but have added to it nothing of importance. The chief of these – the ‘Vita sive potius Itinerarium Sancti Willibaldi auctore Anonymo’ – is also published by Tobler. Willibald is said to have written the well-known life of Saint Boniface published by Jaffé in the ‘Monumenta Moguntina’ in ‘Bibliotheca Rerum Germanicarum’.

MLA Citation

  • Alice Margaret Cooke. “Willibald”. Dictionary of National Biography, 1899. CatholicSaints.Info. 16 April 2019. Web. 13 December 2019. <>