Dictionary of National Biography – Boniface

detail of an illustration of Saint Boniface by Cornelis Bloemaert, c.1630Article

Boniface, Saint (680–755), the apostle of Germany, was an Englishman, whose original name was Winfrid or Winfrith, born at Kirton, or Crediton, in Devonshire, in the year 680. The name of Boniface has been said to have been given to him by Pope Gregory II at his consecration as bishop; but as it occurs earlier it was more probably assumed when he became a monk. When quite a child, influenced by the discourse of some monks who visited his father’s house, he expressed an earnest desire to devote himself to a monastic life, and, the opposition of his father being at length withdrawn, he entered a monastery at Exeter. He then removed to the house of Nutshalling, or Nursling (which was afterwards destroyed by the Danes), near Winchester, where he had the advantage of better teaching. Here he learned grammar, history, poetry, and rhetoric, and biblical interpretation, and himself became famous as a preacher and expounder of Scripture. At the age of thirty he was ordained priest. The honour in which he was already held is indicated by the fact of his having been sent, at some period between the years 710 and 716, by the Synod of Wessex to Brihtwald, archbishop of Canterbury, on a mission the purport of which is unknown, but which was probably intended to draw closer the ties between the clergy of Wessex and the see of Canter-bury. Boniface might have taken advantage of such an opportunity to push his fortunes in the church of his own country; but he was imbued with the zeal of the missionary, and his whole mind was bent upon continuing the work of preaching the ospel in Frisia, the country in which the Englishman Willibrord had already been labottring since 692, and had established his see at Wittaburg, or Utrecht.

In 716 Boniface crossed the sea, accompanied by only two monks, but he found the Frisians in no condition to receive’ his teaching. War had broken out. The pagan chief Radbod-the same who had at first consented to be baptised, but who, on learning that the souls of his unbelieving forefathers must necessarily he among the damned, drew back, preferring ‘to be there with his ancestors, rather than in heaven with a handful of beggars’ – was in the midst of one of those struggles with the Franks in which his life was passed. He had commenced an active persecution of the Christians, had destroyed churches and rebuilt heathen temples. He consented, however, to an interview with Boniface, but refused him leave to preach in his dominions. Boniface could only return to England to his monastery of Nursling. Here he might now have settled down into a quiet path of life, for, on the death of their abbot, the brethren would have elected Boniface to his place. But, eager for a more active career, he refused the order, and in 718, provided with a letter from his bishop, Daniel of Winchester, and supported by Archbishop Brihtwald, he set out for Rome to seek papal sanction for his missionary enterprise. The pope (Gregory II) readily entered into his views, and on 16 May 719 formally laid upon him the work of converting the heathen tribes of Germany.

Armed with Gregory’s letters of authority and a supply of relics, Boniface set out for Bavaria and Thuringia. These districts were already partly christian, and Boniface was proceeding with a survey of the state of the church there, when news arrived of the death of Radhod. At once he embarked on the Rhine and joined Willibrord in Frisia, and there he laboured with success for the next three years. Willibrord, now gpowing old, looked to Boniface to succeed him, but the declaration of this wish was the signal for Boniface to retire. He excused himself from accepting the proposed honour; he was not yet fifty, and therefore unfit for so high an office; finally he pleaded the task which had been laid on him by the pope of propagating the gospel in Germany – a duty which had been already too long delayed. Taking leave, then, of Willibrord, Boniface journeyed into Hessia. Here two local chiefs gave him leave to settle at Amanaburg (Amöneburg) on the river Ohm, and in a short time he ad converted them and their followers and baptised many thousands of Hessians.

On hearing the news of his success Pope Gregory summoned the missionary to Rome, A.D. 722, and, after exacting from him a profession of faith in the Trinity, he consecrated him a bishop on 30 Nov. 723, and at the same time bound him by oath ever to respect thc authority of the papal see. The imposition of such an oath on a missionary was an innovation, although it had been required of bishops within the proper patriarchate of Rome. On his return to Germany in 723 Boniface took with him a code of regulations for the church, which was supplied by Gregog, and above all a letter of introduction to harles Martel, in which the pope invoked his assistance in favour of the missionary bishop. Charles is said by some to have received Boniface with coldness, but he gave him permission to preach beyond the Rhine and granted him letters of protection. The value of the prince’s countenance is frilly acknowledged by Boniface in a letter which he wrote at a later period to his friend Bishop Daniel of Winchester ‘Without the protection of the prince of the Franks I could neither rule the people of the church nor defend the priests or clerks, the monks or handruaidens of God; nor have I the power to restrain pagan rites and idolatry in Germany without his mandate and the awe of his name’.

Hessia and Thuringia, the countries to which Boniface now directed his steps, had received the teaching of christian missionaries, but without a regular system; their preachers being chiefly drawn from the Irish church, ‘in which diocesan episcopacy was as yet unknown, and the jurisdiction was separate from the order of a bishop; they had brought with them its peculiar ideas as to the limitation of the episcopal rights; they were unrestrained by any discipline or by any regard for unity; they owned no subjection to Rome, and were under no episcopal authority’. They also held the doctrine of lawfulness of marriage for the clergy. Trained in totally different ideas of discipline, Boniface, on his anivalin the country, found himself at once in opposition to these teachers, and was henceforth involved in never-ending disputes with them. He also discovered that the Hessians were practising a strange mixture of the creed of the Gospel with pagan rites; while professing christianity, they still worshipped in their sacred groves, and some even offered sacrifice. It was with the view of correcting such abuses in a way which was palpable and could not he mistaken, that Boniface determined with his own hands to fell one of the chief objects of superstitious reverence -the great oak tree of Geismar near Fritzlar, sacred to the god of thunder. Scsrcely, we are told, had he struck the first blows, when a gust of wind seemed to shake the branches and the aged tree fell, breaking into four piecrs. The awe-stricken pagans gave up their gods, and with the wood of the tree Boniface built a chapel to Saint Peter. Churches and monasteries now arose on all sides; the work of conversion made rapid progress; and the bishop was joined by many of his countrymen and countrywomen from England to assist in the good work. The success of English missionaries among the Frisians and Germans is no doubt largely to be attributed to similarity of language and the facility with which they would learn kindred tongues. On the accession of Gregory III to the papal chair in 732 Boniface received the pall of an archbishop, and in 738 he again visited Rome, where he was received with the distinction merited by his great success. Returning northwards in 739 he was prevailed upon by Odilo, duke of Bavaria, to remain awhile in that country and organise the Bavarian church. Only one bishop existed, and there was no system of ecclesiastical government. Boniface effected an organisation by dividing the country into four bishoprics-Salzburg, Passau, Regensburg, and Freising-and then again turned his face northwards.

But it was not only with the evangelisation of heathen Germany that Boniface had now to do. His powers of organisation and reform were to be utilised in favour of the Frankish church. While, however, his successes beyond the Rhine were undisputed, at the Frankish court he found himself thwarted by the nobles who were in possession of church property, and by the easy-living bishops, more given to fighting and hunting than to the cure of souls. In 741 both Gregory III and Charles Martel died. Charles’s sons, Carloman in Anstrasia and Pepin in Neustria, were ready to support Boniface, and the new pope Zacharias extended his powers, appointing him his legate and imposing upon him the reformation of the whole Frankish church. Boniface forthwith erected four bishoprics for Hessia and Thuringia, viz. Würzburg, Eichstädt, Buraburgb or Bierberg (afterwards removed to Paderborn), and Erfurt, to which he appointed four of his followers, Bruchard, Willibald (the future writer of his ‘Life’), Albinus, and Adehar. In 742, at the request of Carloman, was held a council, which in the course of the next few years was followed by others, for the reformation of the church. These councils, moreover, partook of the nature of national assemblies, the members not being confined to ecclesiastics; and while Boniface’s office of papal commissioner was recognised, the decrees were issued by the Frarrkish princes in their own name. The canons were directed towards the establishment of order and the reform of lax abuses, the celibacy of the clergy, and the restoration of church property which had been alienated by Charles Martel. The opposition, however, with which the last-named reform was metproved too strong, and it was finally abandoned. The discontent of the Frankish bishops at these measures extended in some instances even to a refusal to accept promotion. With heretical and irregular teachers Boniface had also to contend, and in of his conduct attending their repression modern writers have found reasons for censure.

Adalbert, a man of Gaulish descent, a fanatic who pretended possession of a letter written in the name of our Lord and sent down from heaven, and who passed through the land disparaging the saints and martyrs and dedicating churches in his own honour, was condemned, at Boniface’s instance, in a council held at Soissons in 744. Clement, by birth an Irish Scot, who despised ecclesiastical authority, held the writings of the fathers in scorn, and entertained heretical opinions on the salvation of unbelievers and on predestination, was also proceeded against, but both he and Adalbert continued to cause trouble and ultimately required more rigorous repression. A third person with whom Boniface dilfered was Virgil, an Irish ecclesiastic, the point of contention being the question of the validity of baptism, even when administered by an ignorant priest in bad Latin, which Virgil maintained. In this opinion he was upheld by the pope. He afterwards became bishop of Salzburg, in spite of Boniface’s opposition, who charged him with holding heretical views in astronomy, which extended to a belief in the existence of other worlds like our own ; and he was eventually canonised.

About this period, 742 or 744, Boniface laid the foundation of the famous abbey of Fulda, with the aid of a noble Bavarian, Sturmi, who became its first abbot. The house was placed under a rule still more strict than that of Saint Benedict.

Hitherto Boniface had been an archbishop without a see. The consolidation of the German church now required that this want should be supplied. He first turned his eyes on Cologne, probably as a central point from which to control the church of Frisia as well as that of Germany. Willibrord had died in 739, at the advanced age of eighty-one, and since that time Boniface had regarded Frisia as falling within the scope of his legatine jurisdiction. But before final arrangements were made for his taking possession of the see of Cologne, now (A.D. 744) vacant, events took place which led to his establishment at Mentz. The late bishop Gerold of that see had been slain in an expedition against the Saxous, and had been succeeded by his son Gewillieb. The latter determined to avenge his father’s death, and, having discovered the Saxon by whom Gerold had been killed, he treacherously stabbed him with his own hand. In the eyes of the Frankish nobles such an act of violence was of little consequence, and does not appear in any way to have affected Gewillieb’s position and character as a bishop. But Boniface, whose duty it was to enforce a stricter discipline in the church, brought the matter before a council, and Gewillieb resigned his bishopric. Hereupon Boniface was called upon by the Frankish nobles, against his will, to fill the vacancy, A.D. 746. Pope Zacharias confirmed him in his new see, and placed under his jurisdiction the dioceses of Worms, Spires, Tonglres, Cologne, and Utrecht, in addition to those of Germany which had been established by his efforts.

The next few years were passed by Boniface in the discharge of the many duties of his high position, still struggling with illwill and opposition from his bishops and clergy, and harassed by the pagans, who in frequent inroads pillnged and burned his churches. Important political changes also took place in these years. In 747 Carloman retired to lead a monk’s life in Monte Cassino, leaving the whole power of the Frankish kingdom in the hands of Pepin, who in 752 assumed the title of king. Boniface is said to have officiated at his coronation at Soissons, but the evidence on this point is doubtful, and it has even been argued that he was opposed to the transfer of the crown to the new line. He was now upwards of seventy years of age, and the cares of his office weighed heavily upon him. He sought to be relieved, and had already obtained license to appoint a successor if he should feel the approach of death. He now received Pepin`s consent to the consecration of his countryman Lull to the see oi’ Mentz, and resigned his office into his hands in 754. Lull, however, did not receive the pall for twenty years.

Boniface now turned his face again to that land which had had such an attraction for him in his early years. He set out once more as a missionary bishop to Frisia, and, consecrating Eoban to the see of Utrecht, he preachhed with him among the heathen tribes. We are told that affain he baptised many thousands, and, wishing to hold a confirmation of his new disciples, he a pointed the eve of Whitsunday, 5 June 755, for the ceremony, at a place near Dokkum on the Bordau, between eastern and western Frisia. But when the day arrived, instead of the converts, a hand of armed pagans appeared and surrounded the camp. The younger of his followers prepared for resistance, but Boniface forbade it, exhorting them to submit to the death of martyrs, in the sure hope of salvation. The whole company, numbering fifty-two, and including bishop Eoban as well as Boniface, was massacred upon the spot. The remains of Boniface were eventually carried to the abbey of Fulda, the place where he had hoped to spend his last days.

In his twofold character of missionary and reformer Boniface’s actions were throughout made subordinate to the authority of Rome. In his view, that authority was the only means of spreading christianity and of maintaining the discipline of churches once established. ‘He went forth to his labours with the pope’s commission. On his consecration to the episcopate after his first successes he bound himself by oath to reduce all whom he might influence to the obedience of Saint Peter and his representatives. The increased powers and the wider jurisdiction bestowed upon him by later popes were employed to the same end. He strove continually not only to bring heathens into the church, but to check irregular missionary operations and to subject both preachers and converts to the authority of Rome’. It is this attachment to the pope’s authority which has laid him open to the attacks of writers such as Mosheim and Schröckh, who have accused him of ‘an ambitious and arrogant spirit, a crafty and insidious disposition, an immoderate eagerness to augment sacerdotal honours and prerogatives,’ and of being ‘a missionary of the papacy rather than of christianity. Such charges, and a still more serious one, that he used force as an instrument of conversion, are without proof and may be passed over unnoticed. No man in a high position, such as is, can altogether avoid mistakes, and he may sometimes have failed in his judgment of men. But small blemishes cannot detract from the high character of Boniface as one who followed without deviation and with unflagging energy the path of duty in difficult times. Nor was his obedience to Rome merely a blind obedience. Where religion and morality were concerned he did not hesitate to speak freely in remonstrance against the too indulgent views of the papal court in matters which in his opinion required stricter discipline. He would resist the pope himself in what he considered an encroachment on his archi-episcopal functions. When Stephen II, during a visit to Pepin, presumed to consecrate a bishop of Metz, it was, we are told, only the intervention of the prince which prevented a rupture between the pope and Boniface.

Besides his great foundation of Fulda, Boniface also established monasteries at Fritzlar, at Utrecht, at Amauaburg, and at Ordorf or Ohrdruf. For the instruction of the brethren of these houses, he invited scholars from England. The correspondence which he kept up with princes and ecclesiastics and others of his native land is still preserved among his letters, and proves the interest which he continued to feel in the welfare of the English church: and from it may also be gathered details on the social condition of the times which are not without interest. In a letter written to Ecgberht, archbishop of York, between 735 and 755, we find the record of an exchange of books, and a request for a copy of the Commentaries of Breda; and in another addressed, between 732 and 745, to his old friend Bishop Daniel of Winchester, now blind, he too speaks of failing sight, and asks that the tine manuscript of the Prophets, so fairly and clearly written hy Winbert, abbot of Nursling, may be sent to him: no such book can be had abroad, and his impaired vision can no longer read with ease the small character of ordinary manuscripts.

Besides his epistlcs, Boniface has left a set of ecclesiastical statutes, in thirty-six articles, and a collection of fifteen sermons; and, in Latin verse, acomposition on the virtues and vices, entitled ‘Ænigmata,’ and a few other shorter ieces. A gment of a work on penance has also, but on insufficient authority, been ascribed to him. In addition to these, it appears from a reference in a letter of Pope Zacharias of the year 748 that Boniface was also the author of a work ‘De Unitate Fidei Catholicæ,’ which Mabillon has thought to be nothing more than the ecclesiastical statutes already referred to, but which was, more probably, an independent treatise, written to confute the hcresies of Adalbert and others. The profession of faith which he made at Rome previous to his consecration is likewise lost. Some other works attributed to him appear to be certain of his epistles under distinct titles, Lastly, a ‘Life of Saint Livinus,’ to which his name has been attached, is a work of more recent date, and a ‘Life of Saint Libuinus,’ also improperly assigned to him, was written by Hucbald.

MLA Citation

  • Edward Maunde Thompson. “Boniface”. Dictionary of National Biography, 1886. CatholicSaints.Info. 6 April 2019. Web. 29 July 2021. <>