When Boniface wrote his critical letter to Æthelbald of Mercia he was no stranger to the middle kingdom and its people; about one third of his surviving collected correspondence comprises letters to or from Mercians or related to Mercian affairs. The archive was probably assembled under the aegis of Boniface’s helper St Lull, who would succeed him in the see of Mainz. Born about 710, Lull seems to have received his initiation into the religious life at the abbey of Malmesbury, with its ‘catchment area’, so to speak, across southwestern Mercia and northwestern Wessex. Lull met Boniface in Rome during the 730s and became one of his two chief assistant bishops (chorepiscopi) and a central figure in the English network in Germany. In the 770s a Northumbrian king naturally turned to him for help with a delegation to Charles the Great; a German bishop asked for his advice; he actively disseminated English learning on the Continent, such as the works of Aldhelm and Bede. Lull was the founder of the bishoprics of Hersfeld and Bleidenstadt. He was just one, if a distinguished example, of the numerous English churchmen active and influential in Europe during the eighth and early ninth centuries. How they came to be there and the role they played in the evolution of European culture is the theme of this chapter. They would have found the prevailing political conditions prevailing in the early 700s quite familiar.
The European background
Western Europe was a patchwork of rival power centres, Christian for the most part but with pagan outliers such as northern Frisia and, east of the Rhine, the remoter districts of Hessen, all struggling for control within their own fluid borders and for hegemony over their neighbours. North of the Alps the dominant power factor was the Merovingian dynasty, established in Gaul by Clovis about AD 500, around the time the Anglo-Saxons were settling in Britain. The dynasty derived its name from Merovech, the legendary hero of the Salian Franks who had settled, probably as foederati, within the Roman province in the marshlands of the Scheldt and Meuse river basin during the fourth century. He had been conceived, so went the story, by the coupling of his mother with a sea monster who surprised her while sea bathing. When, in 498, his descendant Clovis I converted to Catholicism, the descendants of this monstrous nativity acquired additional Christian charisma.
The conversion was a delayed thank-you note from Clovis to his Christian wife’s god. Two years before, facing defeat by the Germanic Alemani tribe before the battle of Tolbiac, he had invoked the aid of Jesus and triumphed. The Merovingians’ lands were divided between rival factions into an eastern branch in Austrasia, ancestor to the Holy Roman Empire, and later a western grouping called Neustria. The kings, however, were challenged by their own chief ministers (‘mayors of the palace’) as well as by powerful dukes, as in Bavaria and Thuringia. In the early 660s the Austrasian minister deposed his king, a child called Dagobert II, had him tonsured as a monk and sent him into exile in Ireland. Fifteen years of court politicking later, fortune pointed in Dagobert’s direction. One of the factions looking for a puppet candidate contacted Northumbria’s prince bishop Wilfrid for help. The great man complied. He had the Irish contacts and his years in Lyon had introduced him to Merovingian politics. In due course he invited young Dagobert over to Northumbria and then, having equipped him with a magnificent entourage, arranged for his return in style to the Austrasian throne in 676.
All this earned Wilfrid the enmity of the western Merovingian ‘palace’. Two years later, embarking for another journey to Rome, Wilfrid decided to avoid the crossing to Quentovic and took the more easterly route to Frisia. So, fortuitously, he initiated what was to become a major episode in the history of Europe – the Anglo-Saxon mission campaign among the Germanic peoples. Held up in the arrangements for his onward journey to Rome, he put the delay to good use by talking Christianity to the local king. He received a friendly reception thanks, it seems, to the coincidence of a bumper fishing season with his arrival. Thousands were converted, we are told by his admiring biographer. Unfortunately the pioneering mission was short lived. The fishing grounds reverted to normal, the new religion lost credibility and then the crown passed to a fiercely pagan ruler named Radbod.
The Frisian mission was to be at length successfully re-established under St Willibrord today the patron saint of Utrecht, the Netherlands and Luxembourg. There had been a Christian presence in Roman times and a short-lived attempt at conversion in the early 600s but the Frisians, the dominant seafarers of their time in the North Sea, were comfortable with their pagan religion. Elsewhere, east of the Rhine, there had been Christian missions of greater or lesser effectiveness led by Irish monks or peregrini and some by German churchmen.
But this scattered Christian presence was not flourishing nor, from the papacy’s point of view, duly subordinate to Rome. The new missionaries would encounter communities lapsing back into paganism and aristocratic prince bishops jealous of their independence and sovereignty within their ill-defined borders. They would find local clerics tolerating pagan practice within the context of supposedly Christian ritual, dubious marriage liaisons and numerous near heresies. Among these allegiances, beliefs and cult practices, the Anglo-Saxon intervention would prove decisive. St Boniface of Crediton, better known in Germany as St Boniface of Fulda, is regarded as the founder of the German Roman Catholic Church, respected by all German Christians. He and the cohorts of Anglo-Saxon churchmen and women – West Saxons, Mercians and above all Northumbrians – who flooded into Continental Europe can with reason be called pioneers.
In the context of Rome’s dealings with the Anglo-Saxon world, the eighth century was payback time: Augustine’s mission to Canterbury inaugurated a papal policy of expansion; Archbishop Theodore consolidated Rome’s hold with his affirmation of Canterbury’s position in a reorganized English church; and Wilfrid of York, by his appeals to Rome, was expanding the papal curia’s jurisdiction in Western Christendom at large. Now some three generations of English monks, nuns and clergy were to make unquestioning allegiance to Rome the central assumption of the Western church, and so strengthen its position against the claims of the Byzantine emperors to suzerainty over the papal see. To quote Walter Ullmann a classic authority on the early papacy:
In concrete terms strong ties especially between Anglo-Saxon England and the papacy came to be forged at exactly the same time as that at which the imperial [i.e. Byzantine] government had begun to terrorize the papacy.1
Willibrord of Northumbria: apostle of the Netherlands
For the best part of a century churchmen and monks from England criss-crossed the Channel or the North Sea. Many expected to spend most of their lives on the Continent, working among the pagan or recently converted pagan tribes bordering on the territories of the Merovingian Frankish kingdoms. Back in England there was a good deal of interest in the missionaries’ activities, particularly in the conversion of the German Saxons, the ‘Old Saxons’, whom the English considered their kinsfolk.
Wilfrid’s first Frisian venture had failed but then, in 689, Pippin of Heristal, warlord and chief minister of the royal household of the Merovingian king Dagobert III, defeated Radbod and married his son Grimoald to Theodelinda, the daughter of the Frisian chief. Radbod reluctantly came to terms. This was the situation facing Willibrord, son of a devoutly Christian member of the Northumbrian minor nobility, when in 690 he landed with eleven companions, among them Suidbert, Hewald ‘the Dark’ and Hewald ‘the Fair’, on the coast of Frisia. He headed for an old Roman fort at Utrecht, some twenty miles away on the Krom branch of the Rhine mouth. The Romans had known the place as Trajectum ad Rhenum (‘Ford across the Rhine’); in the 620s the Merovingian ruler of the day had conferred a chapel there on the Bishop of Cologne to be used as a missionary base. Nothing had come of that venture.
Now aged thirty-three, by the demographics of his day Willibrord was well into his prime. Sent by his father to Ripon, he had started his career under the influence of St Wilfrid and then, thanks to Wilfrid’s contacts there, it seems, spent twelve years in Ireland at the monastery of Rath Melsigi under Ecgberht, who apparently had once dreamed of himself missionizing the Continent. (The fact that Willibrord sailed to Frisia directly from Ireland seems to have prompted the mistaken idea that he was Irish). From Wilfrid, Willibrord learned his unswerving allegiance to Rome; as a noble, he naturally gravitated to the royal court. He found an aristocracy beyond royal control; a king subject to his chief minister; a church establishment largely autonomous and indifferent to Rome; and a chief minister single-mindedly devoted to the advance of his own power and dynasty.
For Pippin, religion was a natural tool of policy with which to reaffirm Frankish authority over pagan neighbours, and this Englishman with his devotion to Rome was the natural lever in court politics against churchmen attached to the traditional dynasty and their group interests. Rome, where the popes still acknowledged the overlordship of the emperors at Constantinople, was secondary. Indeed, according to Wilhelm Levison, at this time ‘the pope was of little importance to the Frankish church . . . [whereas] the English church was conscious of its Roman origin.’2
This suited Pippin well. By championing the Rome-orientated Anglo-Saxon missions he positioned himself in the eyes of the head of the church in the West as a staunch son of the church, in contrast to the dynastic loyalties of the Frankish church establishment and the ambivalent status of the royal house itself, whose traditional charisma rivalled, for many of their subjects, the spiritual aura of the Roman popes. Pippin and his house, ancestors to the Carolings, would prove stalwart advocates of the new Christian missions and of the papal patrons of those missions. As to the Frisians in the 690s, many, perhaps most, took the new religion resentfully. Baptism was to them less a sacrament to the Divine Being than ‘a symbol of subjection to the Franks’. Radbod himself swore that he would rather spend eternity in the kingdom of Hades with his ancestors than in the Christian Heaven without them. For the moment, however, he bided his time.
With his mission established under Pippin’s aegis, Willibrord travelled to Rome for the approval and blessing of Pope Sergius I. What was a natural move for a disciple of Wilfrid was ‘a momentous decision’ in a Merovingian context, but, as indicated, Pippin approved. The Englishman’s visit strengthened his dynasty’s dealings with Rome, which could only be good. Sixty years later the last king of the Merovingian house was to be replaced with papal approval as king of the Franks by his descendant Pippin III.
When Willibrord returned from Rome with holy relics for the new churches that were to be erected in their honour in the newly converted territories, it was to find that his companions had elected Suidbert as bishop. He was now in England being consecrated by Wilfrid. It was less a case of politicking within a divided team, more part of plans to extend the mission. The new bishop soon departed for work in pagan Westphalia, Germany. Driven out by Saxon raiders he retired to found a monastery under Pippin’s patronage; this was the origin of the settlement that became the town of Kaiserswerth. The two Hewalds were martyred while attempting to continue his work in Westphalia. Their shrine is still to be seen in Cologne Cathedral.
Willibrord now made his headquarters at Antwerp,3 under Pippin’s aegis, on the southern border of Frisia. Thanks no doubt to the threatening Frankish presence across the border, by 695 Frisia was ripe to become a new church province. Pippin sent Willibrord on a second journey to Rome, this time for Pope Sergius to consecrate him as archbishop of the Frisians. He took with him gifts from Pippin for the Holy Father and was duly consecrated in the church of St Cecilia in Trastevere on 21 November. He returned to Frisia and the following year received the fortress of Utrecht as his bishop’s palace at the hands of Pippin. An old church within the walls of the former Roman fort became his cathedral. (In 1996 the modern city celebrated its 1,300th anniversary with its patron St Willibrord given due prominence.)
Pippin, theoretically the king’s chief minister, was acting in every way as a king himself, intervening at the highest level in the affairs of the Frankish church and dealing through his and not the king’s intermediary with the pope. If Willibrord was not just a pawn on the chessboard of palace politics, he was certainly a very useful bishop! The importance of his mission from Rome’s point of view was surely strengthened when Pope Sergius granted him the name in religion ‘Clemens’, after St Peter’s successor as pope. He and his colleagues pushed ahead with the extension of the Christian community in the territories owing allegiance to King Radbod. Back in England, friends of Wilfrid praised Willibrord, whom they saw as the continuator of his work. On a last journey to Rome about 703 Wilfrid, accompanied by a young monk named Acca, spent time with Willibrord. The two Northumbrian veterans reminisced over the old days and the wonders worked by the relics of King St Oswald,4 some of which Wilibrord had with him. Years later Acca, now bishop of Hexham, would tell Bede his memories of the meeting.
Willibrord had established a new base with a monastery at Echternach, in modern Luxembourg, on land given to him by Pippin about 700. He lies buried in the tenth-century crypt of the church that bears his name and the town still celebrates his feast day (7 November). This church also held relics of St Oswald and honoured Willibrord on the king’s feast day. His pastoral care for the community was not merely spiritual. On one visitation ‘the saintly man’ found that the cellar was down to a single half-empty tun of wine. He dipped his staff into the barrel with a blessing and went on his way. That evening the cask was found brim full, to the delight of the house steward. Willibrord swore him to silence. There is a delightful seventeenth-century engraving showing the bishop-saint with his wand of office, among the barrels of the wine cellar.
Willibrord extended his missionary activities to the Frisian islands of Heligoland and Walcheren and even made some conversions in Denmark. His standing in the Frankish kingdom was evident when he was chosen to baptize the infant child of Charles Martel, Pipin of Heristal’s ambitious bastard son. The child, later known as Pippin the Short, was the first king of the Carolingian dynasty and father of Charles the Great. Pippin of Heristal died in December 714. It was the signal for bitter internecine war between his grandsons, their sponsors and Charles Martel, the illegitimate son. In Frisia Radbod seized his chance. He ravaged the Christian enclaves intruded into his territories by the Franks and drove Willibrord from the country. The saint retired, for the time being, to Echternach.
Four years later, in 719, the Merovingian political landscape was transformed. A puppet still wore the crown, but old divisions were to be merged into a single immense domain under the supreme effective power of Charles Martel. On the northern frontier the death of Radbod that same year opened the field to revived Christian initiative. Although in his sixtieth year, Willibrord willingly returned. To help him he had a vigorous new assistant in the person of Wynfrith of Crediton or Exeter, known to history as St Boniface.
St Boniface of Crediton, patron of Germany: his early career
The newcomer was in his forties and the ageing Willibrord had another twenty years of active life ahead of him. Given the general assumption that medieval people had very short lifespans a word about ages may be in order. The indomitable Wilfrid of York lived to be seventy-six; Willibald, the English-born bishop of Eichstätt, eighty-six. His brother Wynnebald, abbot of Heidenheim, died in his sixties and their sister St Walburga, who succeeded him as head of the abbey, was verging on seventy. The sweet-natured and much beloved Lioba, abbess of Tauberbischofsheim, another alumna of Wimborne, died aged about eighty. As to Boniface himself, when he met his death in 754, aged about seventy-eight, it was not from natural causes but as martyr of a pagan raiding party into his encampment at Dokkum during a final missionary campaign in northern Frisia – his only shield a heavily bound Gospel book with which, tradition holds, he tried to parry the sword blows of his attackers.
Wynfrith, said to have been born in Crediton, Devon, about 675, was the son of a notable West Saxon family in the region of Exeter. His biographer and kinsman St Willibald tells us that it was only with reluctance that his father allowed the boy to attend the monastery school of Exeter and then travel to the monastery of Nursling in Hampshire. Here he was soon attracting students of his own by his academic reputation and the general admiration for his austere and virtuous life.
King Ine of Wessex and his advisers selected Wynfrith to head a delegation to the archbishop of Canterbury. Its success added the skills of a diplomat to his reputation. Inevitably, when the old abbot died the monks of Nursling begged him to take over the job. Instead, with two or three companions, he headed for the port of Lundenwic, bent on a Continental mission. A sea passage usually meant finding the skipper of a merchant ship willing to take passengers. Departure time could depend on how long it took the shipmaster to assemble his cargo. Having negotiated a fare, the monks waited for the shipmaster to set his sail for Dorestad, about twelve miles from Utrecht. It was the year 716 and Boniface found the Frisian opposition to the Franks in spate. He returned to England to reconsider his strategy.
The Continent was still the objective and Bishop Daniel of Winchester appointed another abbot at Nursling. The bishop offered advice on dealing with pagan rulers and their claims to descend from the gods. Don’t argue, just listen to the genealogies with interest. And then point out that beings generated through the intercourse of male and female can hardly be eternal, so they must be not gods but men. And why, if against the odds they do have divine powers, do these gods of the north allow the Christian peoples to occupy the fertile southern regions of the world, rich in oil and wine, while they and their own worshippers are restricted to the cold regions? Above all the heathen are to be constantly reminded of the superiority of the Christian world. This must have been a difficult proposition to advance given the recent victories of Islam around the southern shores of the Mediterranean and its contemporary incursions into Europe; Boniface would later have to write to an abbess friend to delay her plans for a pilgrimage to Rome until the Saracen attacks on the Holy City had abated.
Once more Boniface left Nursling and set out along the road for Lundenwic. It was the turning point of his life. He never lost touch with England and would maintain a stream of correspondence with friends and personalities in most of the English kingdoms, but he never returned. Sailing from Lundenwic as before, though this time on a ‘small swift ship’, Boniface and his party took a crossing to Quentovic. Being a Wessex man he might have considered taking ship at Hamwic, as St Willehad was to, and then up the Seine to Rouen. But Quentovic was the principal Channel port and arrangements for the onward journey to Rome were probably easier. Even so, lodging was a problem and the party had to pitch tents for shelter.
Warrior for Christ, ealdorman for Rome
King Alfred was to describe St Peter as having received the ealdordom of Rome from God. The image well suits the role that Wynfrith of Crediton would discharge for Rome in eighth-century Germany, as the West Saxon ealdorman was the king’s local deputy. Wynfrith made his way to Rome and there, on 15 May 719, Pope Gregory II ‘commissioned him to preach to the unbelieving gentiles’. It is the earliest such mandate to have been preserved.5 It specifies that any baptisms are to be conducted according to the Roman rite and that Wynfrith, now named Boniface by the pope, is to report back to Rome. There had been some papal contacts with the peoples of northern Germany and bishops in the Rhineland had been sending missionary expeditions eastwards. While the English were not always first in the field, however, they pioneered unquestioning authority to Rome. Boniface would later boast of having made more than 100,000 converts.
It has been observed that:
What gave Boniface’s work lasting success, compared with that of some of the Irish monks who had preceded him, was his care for organization and his realization that it was necessary to enlist the support of the state as well as the Church.6
He prepared the ground with a ‘journey of inspection . . . to discover whether [the people] . . . were ready to receive the word of God.’7 In Bavaria and Thuringia he consolidated and extended the existing Christian presence, whether in pockets centred upon baptismal churches established by lay lords or resulting from earlier sporadic Irish missionary work; there were some German initiatives, particularly to the west of Bavaria where Christianity already had some devotees among the aristocracy. His travels also took him into Lombardy where he was received by King Liutprand, though Boniface’s biographer does not tell us whether he visited the monastery at Bobbio, near Pavia, founded by the Irish missionary St Columbanus a century before.
With the death of Radbod in 719 Boniface returned to Frisia where for three years he worked with Willibrord, re-establishing gospel teaching and destroying pagan temples and shrines and building churches. Now getting on in years, the ‘Apostle of Frisia’ wanted to make his dynamic compatriot a bishop and his second in command. Boniface pointed out that he had come to Germany under the aegis of the Apostolic See and had not formally sought Rome’s permission to divert his energies to Frisia. Reluctantly, Willibrord let him return to the German mission field. At Amöneburg in Hesse, Boniface found the ‘rulers’, two brothers, ‘practising . . . the sacrilegious worship of idols under the cloak of Christianity’, though Willibald does not explain further. Boniface won enough converts to establish a chapel. He now commissioned ‘an experienced and trustworthy messenger’ to report his progress to Rome. By return he was commanded to come to the Holy City in person. Pope Gregory II questioned him on his creed and teaching, but it was immediately clear there was a ‘communication problem’, since it seems the Englishman could not easily understand the Italianized Latin that was evolving at the papal court. Saying, diplomatically, that he ‘lacked the skill in the use of the tongue with which you are familiar’ (a comment incomprehensible if it meant this renowned scholar could not understand Latin), Boniface asked permission to make a written confession of faith. This granted, he produced a piece ‘expressed in polished, eloquent and learned phrases’. Gregory consecrated him bishop without a diocese on 30 November 722.
Like any liegeman he was required to take an oath, but where his fellow noblemen pledged loyalty to king or war leader, Boniface swore his allegiance in the first instance to St Peter ‘and to his vicar on earth the pope’. From the outset his mission was pledged to Rome. Bishops of the sees adjacent to Rome (the so-called suburbicarian sees) made allegiance to the Byzantine emperor, that is the Byzantine emperor at Constantinople. Boniface pledged to uphold Catholic teaching and to report any bishop deviating from it to the Holy See. A few days later Boniface received letters of commendation from the Pope to the Thuringians, the Old Saxons and to ‘Duke Charles’, that is Charles Martel, mayor of the palace to the Merovingian Theodoric IV, informing him that the new bishop was charged with ‘preaching the faith to the peoples of Germany who dwell on the eastern bank of the Rhine, some of whom are still steeped in the errors of paganism’.8 Armed with a letter of protection from Charles, the new bishop returned to the land of the Hessians, where there was a superficial adherence to Christianity although many practised pagan rites and incantations to springs and trees.
Boniface led his war band of Christian warriors into the heart of enemy territory. The objective was an ancient and massive oak at a place called Geismar (probably the one near Fritzlar). The ancient tree, possibly with four trunks rising from the same bole, was sacred to Thor, the Germanic god of thunder and storm (known to the Anglo-Saxons as Thunor, and was the focus of a vigorous cult. Such tree cults were at the heart of north European paganism and lingered well into the Christian era. Instances are cited from sixteenth-century Prussia, while as late as the 1640s the priest of the little Normandy parish of Allouville-Bellefosse was battling with superstitious villagers over a great cleft oak tree at the heart of the community. Rather than risk the fury of the locals by chopping it down, the priest constructed a miniature wooden chapel-cell in the cleft, which is still on the tourist itinerary of the département of Seine Maritime.
St Boniface confronted problems similar to those facing that Normandy curé. In the Germanic pantheon, Thor was the special deity of warriors; the fact that the cloven trunk, no doubt the result of a lightning strike, continued in vigour suggested the indwelling presence of the god whose weapon was the thunderbolt, Thor’s magic hammer. Undaunted by a largely hostile crowd, Boniface laid an axe to the main trunk. According to Willibald he had not completed the first notch on the fore side of the tree when it ‘was smitten by a divine blast from heaven and crashed to the ground, shattering its crown of branches as it fell’. As if to confirm the miracle, the tree split into four parts, now found to be of equal length, without any further human intervention. Boniface ordered that the wood be used to build an oratory chapel, which he then dedicated to St Peter, patron of himself and of Rome.
Fulda, frontiersmen, English and German
Boniface now pressed on into Thuringia. He and his Christian pioneers, together with the scattered outposts of earlier missionary activity (perhaps from German sees) were harassed constantly. But little by little converts increased in number, ruined church buildings were reactivated as evangelizing centres and land cleared for a new monastery at Ohrdruf, near Gotha. Here the founding group ‘grew their own crops and made their own clothes’. In due course the monastery was put in the care of Wigbert, a Dorset man with a reputation for discipline who had come out to be abbot of Fritzlar, on the Eder river, which together with the Fulda river was later an important trade navigation.
News of the work attracted recruits from Britain, where ‘readers, writers and skilled men trained in other arts’9 flocked to the villages and forest settlements of Hessen, Thuringia and other German lands. It has been argued that this exodus seriously depleted English resources of educated men and women. Newly converted locals, too, were inspired by the Englishman’s example. When Boniface decided on the foundation of the monastery at Fulda, where his body still lies in its magnificent Baroque sarcophagus, he entrusted the job to his Bavarian follower Sturmi (St Sturm).
Sturm’s parents, noble Christian converts, entrusted the boy’s upbringing to Wigbert at Fritzlar. Ordained as priest, he retreated with two friends to a wild, uninhabited spot to lead the life of a hermit in huts they built themselves and roofed with tree bark. Obviously self-sufficient, practical and determined, he was, Boniface decided, just the man to find the site for his new venture. It was the kind of prospecting expedition that would be a key factor in the medieval clearance of Europe’s forests. The final objective was a self-sufficient community pursuing the contemplative life under a disciplined monastic rule. The chosen site was a deserted spot in well-watered, virgin terrain, capable of self-sustaining productive exploitation. The outcome was an economic growth point and centre for culture and learning.
After one false start, when several days rowing upstream along the River Fulda produced no useful sighting, Sturm was told by Boniface to try again. This time he set out alone, we are told, on a single ass. By day he ambled through the trackless forest, checking out the terrain, soil quality and above all possible drinking water sources and access to the river. By night he cut saplings and brushwood to make a corral for the ass, using ‘a tool which he carried in his hand’ – presumably some form of billhook . . . or an unclerical sword? We are told wild animals were a hazard. Then, on the bridge carrying the merchant road to Mainz over the River Fulda, he came upon a party of Slavs bathing in the river. They scared his beast and, ‘as all heathen do’, jeered at him. Fortunately, when they tried to do him harm, they were ‘held back by divine power’ – which rather tends to favour the sword theory.
Eventually, at a place called Eihloh, Sturm found a man with local knowledge who seems to have been invaluable in tracking down the ‘blessed spot foreordained by God’ – though Sturm, of course, attributed the discovery to the prayers of Boniface. Persuaded by Sturm’s report, the latter took over and went to Carloman, the Frankish chief minister, to get his consent to the appropriation of the land.
The English role in Europe’s Frankish Empire: I
Carloman was a member of the Carolingian dynasty that would soon dominate European affairs. It would come to owe a good deal to the Anglo-Saxon missions, as did the papacy. Boniface repeatedly sought papal decisions on the difficulties of canon law or to be informed on the rites of the Roman Church. As other churchmen followed his example, papal influence in the Frankish church inevitably increased. Above all, the English system of provincial church organization, originally approved by Pope Gregory the Great and brought to England by St Augustine, was now introduced into Frankish Europe as Boniface re-established councils as a relatively regular feature of Frankish church government.
By their own admission these [eastern] Franks had not held a council in eighty years and Carloman, Charles Martel’s successor in the region, begged Boniface to convene a synod, promising to ‘reform and re-establish ecclesiastical discipline’ there. The so-called ‘Germanic church council’ of April 742, convened by Boniface under Carloman, proclaims by its very date the pervasive English influence. The chief minister did not at this time recognize any official Merovingian king and the proceedings of the council are dated by the Bedan AD method, the first official Frankish document to do so.10 In this way the Anglo-Saxon missions pioneered the very era in German usage.
Growing papal success in Germany was counterbalanced by a deteriorating papal position in Italy itself. Once supervised by the Byzantine imperial governors at Ravenna, the popes were now in danger from the Lombard kings, with their capital at Pavia. It seemed they might become mere bishops of Rome, subjects not of the emperor but of a great Lombard monarchy. They looked for help from the Frankish kingdom across the Alps.
The title to power was still held by the Merovingians – later dubbed the fainéants (do-nothing) kings – at this point embodied by Childeric III, but action was the province of their Carolingian chief minister, now Pippin the Short. Even in its decadence the dynasty was held in awe among the people. With a charisma symbolized by the long uncut tresses of their hair, according to J. M. Wallace-Hadrill in Early Germanic Kingship, they retained privileged behaviour, notably open polygamy, from the pagan past. Straightforward assassination followed by a coup d’état might be possible for an ambitious member of the royal family; but the overthrow of that family itself was another matter. If the pope wanted help against the Lombards, he would have to offer help himself – to the ambitious ruler of the Franks.
Pippin aimed to oust King Childeric III; this required the authority, if not of God himself, then of as near as one could get on this earth. His family’s cultivation of the successors of St Peter was about to pay off. Pippin sent a two-man embassy to Rome: Fulrad, abbot of Saint Denis near Paris and Burchard, bishop of Würzburg, an Anglo-Saxon and a Mercian by birth. They were to pose Pope Zacharias a question: ‘Which of two should be king: the man who had the title but no power or the man who, in these difficult times, exercised the power but had not the title?’ It was hardly a trick question and the pope, fortunately, knew the answer. He ordered that Pippin be made king, forthwith.
Yet the Merovingians were a hard act to follow and required special magic. In 750 the great minister’s henchmen arranged for his election as king of the Franks at Soissons. Next, in early autumn 751 ‘King’ Pippin, who had been baptized by Archbishop Willibrord, was, according to the Royal Frankish Annals, anointed by another Englishman, Boniface, by now archbishop of Mainz and ‘Legate for Germany for the Catholic and Apostolic Church of Rome’. So it appears that the dynasty of Charlemagne or Charles the Great, King of the Franks, the dynasty that established the medieval, later Holy Roman, empire was raised to royal status in consecration by an Englishman.
English contributions in the field
Boniface had long depended on support from the Frankish authorities. In a letter to Bishop Daniel he explained that without their help the suppression of pagan rites and idol worship would be quite impossible; the protection of the clergy within the community could be hazardous; even discipline within the church itself could be difficult. All depended upon directives from the palace and the fear of sanctions if they were broken. But in this world of rival loyalties and sanctions Boniface had telling arguments on his own side when dealing with pagans: first his own allegiance to St Peter, founder of God’s church on earth; second to that church itself, a monarchical hierarchy, and a fighting body, or church militant.
In a letter to Eadburga, abbess of Minster in the Isle of Thanet, he asks her to copy out for him in ‘letters of gold’ the Epistles of his lord, St Peter. There was a lot to commend the books to non-Christian lords and rulers. In the first place, Boniface’s oath had been pledged on the earthly relics of their author, the first lord of the church militant – surely an important factor among men whose world was governed by oaths of allegiance. Secondly, the greatest of all the saints was no grey celibate but a married man who, like the many-partnered rulers the missionary was dealing with, had known all about the pleasures of sex. Thirdly, the books were ‘compact’, so to speak – just seven short chapters in total. But above all the glorious gilded lettering and luxurious quality of the illuminated manuscripts that Eadburga was to prepare for him would ‘impress a reverence and love of Holy Scripture on the minds of the heathens to whom I preach’. He also writes that he is sending the costly materials for the work by separate messenger.
Of all the gifts he received from his own correspondents, Boniface particularly welcomed the books ‘as lamps . . . [of the word of God] . . . to guide the feet of one working . . . in these gloomy lurking-places of the German people’. It is a telling glimpse of work in the great central forest of Dark Age Germany. Time and again we catch an echo of the workaday life of the mission field. The lack of a library to hand means that Boniface must check a basic date, like the year of Augustine’s arrival in England, with Canterbury; he settles technicalities about the validity of baptisms performed in ‘heathen tongues’ and urges his co-workers to always instruct in the Catholic traditions of the see of Rome; he petitions the English clergy to pray regularly for the missionaries and to remember the pagan Saxons, ‘. . . people of the same blood and bone’ and unable to honour the heavenly lord by death as members of his war band, so long as they are destined for hell.11
In Bavaria Boniface appointed three new bishops and with the support of Duke Odilo, who brought his nobles with him, divided the duchy into four dioceses and so laid out the basic ecclesiastical geography of the state for the next thousand years. Gregory rubberstamped the arrangements and vested Boniface with ‘apostolic authority’ to attend a council shortly to be held on the banks of the Danube as his representative. Outside Bavaria, as he reported to Gregory’s successor Pope Zacharias (741–52), he had appointed three further bishoprics, Erfurt, Würzburg (then in Franconia) and Buraburg, near Fritzlar, the ancient meeting place of east Franks and Saxons. He begged the pope to give charter confirmation to the foundations ‘so that there may be in Germany three Episcopal sees founded and established by St Peter’s word and the apostolic see’s command’.12 The pope agreed this request.
Reform in the German church was certainly needed. Many a diocese had come into the hands of laymen who, although they claimed ordination, continued to behave like the members of a warrior aristocracy, riding into battle not only against heathens but also shedding the blood of Christians in their local feuding. In fact, since Europe’s lay establishment pursued warfare as a way of life and since they often manned the upper reaches of the ecclesiastical hierarchy, the church could do little but compromise.
The principal means of establishing discipline in the religious life itself was the Rule of St Benedict of Nursia (proclaimed the patron saint of all Europe by Paul VI in 1964), founder of the monastery of Monte Cassino. The spread of the rule of St Benedict in Frankish monasteries owed much to English foundations such as the abbey of Fulda, which accepted it from the outset. So impressed was he by the Benedictine advance, promoted by the Anglo-Saxons, that Charles the Great was to ask the abbot of Monte Cassino for an authentic copy of the Rule. Many English monks spent years at the great monastery, among them Willibald the kinsman and biographer of Boniface, who had lived there for a decade before Boniface appointed him bishop of Eichstätt (‘Oakstead’). But Willibald had led an action-packed life before retiring to the cloister and his biography, composed by a nun visiting his brother Wynnebald’s abbey of Heidenheim, opens a window onto the great rival world of Islam barely a century old at that time.
Contacts with the world of Islam
Willibald had left England for Rome in his early twenties. After a three-year stay in the great city he took ship from Naples for the Holy Land with Wynnebald and another companion. Their destination, which had been within the territory of the Christian Roman empire only eighty years before, was now under the Muslim caliphate of Damascus, which was administered by governorships and emirates. Christian–Muslim relationships were now peaceful, if wary; trading vessels plied once more and some took fare-paying passengers. Travel was feasible but some form of identification or letters of introduction was advisable. The three young monks reached Cyprus without trouble and found a passage to the Syrian port of Tartus, formerly the Byzantine Christian city of Antaradus. From here a day or two on the road took them to Emesa, in the Orontes Valley. Birthplace of two Roman emperors and then a seat of Christian bishoprics, since 636 it had been an Arab city under the name of Hims (Homs), although still with a sizeable Christian element and a number of churches. Without documents, Willibald and his party were immediately arrested as spies because ‘the pagan Saracens . . . [did not know] . . . to which nation they belonged.’ Luckily the local dignitary who first questioned them had encountered other men from remote parts of the world travelling in Palestine, ‘eager to fulfil their [own] law’, as he put it – presumably equating Christian pilgrimage with the Muslim’s obligation to the hajj. The party now applied to the governor for documents to cover their onward journey to Jerusalem. Instead, he put them in prison awaiting further instructions from the ‘king’ of the region, presumably the emir of Hims.
Their ‘imprisonment’ was not too arduous. Apparently impressed by their loyalty to their religion, a generous local merchant fitted them out in new clothes, sent them well-prepared meals from his own kitchen and twice a week had them escorted to the local bath house. On Sundays he took them himself to the local Christian church. (Christians and Jews were at that time allowed to continue the practice of their faiths on payment of a tax.) For a time, it seems, these ‘young, handsome and beautifully dressed’ Englishmen caused quite a stir in the town. Eventually they were cleared of suspicion and sent on their way. Arrested as spies they had emerged almost as friends at court. All this the biographer attributes to the benign workings of God, though we might think that Muslim generosity was part of the story. Willibald and company certainly returned with a wallet of travellers’ tales: from the soured milk drink they shared with a company of shepherds (presumably a type of kwass) to a near-encounter with a mountain lion.13 A century or so later the local inhabitants might well have been seen as dangerous. Upheavals in Islam brought in the less Christian-tolerant regimes; the local Christian community of Hims would be ‘cleansed’ and its churches demolished.
In fact, bands of Saracen raiders were harrying Europe soon after Willibald settled into his work in Germany. A letter of the 740s from Boniface bewails them as the punishment of God on a sinful people; more practically the saint warns an abbess friend planning to visit Rome that even here travel could be hazardous, given the prevailing incursions – the contemporary equivalent of an Islamist terrorist threat.
The tribulations of an old man
Such ‘Saracen’ attacks presented a physical danger but no threat to the Faith as such. Here the danger was the enduring resistance to the missions. The ‘conversion’ of the Saxon heartlands, for example, was to be achieved only after decades of warfare by the armies of Charles the Great that killed tens of thousands of Saxons. Meanwhile, Boniface had to contest against the corruption and debasement of his beloved religion’s image by the conduct of the Christians themselves. His strictures against Æthelbald for his immoral life owed much to the scandal they caused in pagan territories across the frontier where sexual fidelity was fiercely enforced:
Thus, in Old Saxony . . . if a married woman commit adultery, they sometimes force her to kill herself by hanging; and when the body has been cremated they hang her seducer over the pyre . . .
The implied contrast with goings on among the Christian (Anglo) Saxons under Æthelbald’s dispensation is obvious.14
But then the lifestyle of the average, unreformed Frankish aristocrat bishop paid little heed to clerical niceties, either. Polygamy was not unheard of among the episcopate – perhaps on the theory that a bishop’s ordination gave him something of the sacral mystery surrounding the king. Boniface reported deacons who slept nights with four or five concubines in their bed, acknowledged bastard children, and yet became bishops and celebrated mass. Part of the problem was that the church permitted married men to enter the priesthood if, admittedly, on what one might term a strictly one priest, one wife basis. Neighbouring heathen tribes might understand such concessions to their own practices. What they could not stomach, Boniface wrote, were pagan practices in Rome itself–January celebrations in front of St Peter’s, where crowds paraded the streets and gorged themselves at food- and wine-laden tables and women, festooned in ornaments, hawked pagan amulets and bracelets.15
Nor was Boniface much helped by the unsavoury reputation that the clergy of his native island seem to have acquired on the Continent. In his long letter to Archbishop Cuthbert of Canterbury he complains about reports of drunken parish priests, and even drunken bishops who encourage what sounds suspiciously like binge drinking among their clergy. Even then the English had a reputation for excessive drunkenness, which later in the same letter Boniface laments as ‘a vice that is peculiar to the heathen and to our race, and that neither the Franks nor the Gauls, . . . Lombards, . . . Romans, nor Greeks [indulge in]’ [my emphasis].16
Apparently, although he never read Bede on the ‘English’, Boniface was perfectly aware of an ethnic identity that distinguished him from other peoples of Europe – including, it would seem, the heathen Saxons. It is also worth pausing to notice that he distinguishes between ‘Gauls’, the original Romano-Celtic population of what we today call ‘France’, and ‘Franks’, the federation of diverse barbarian tribes that overran them. As to drink, perhaps Boniface himself was not averse to the occasional episcopal tipple. In a letter to Archbishop Ecgberht of York he not only asks for copies of the book of homilies and the commentary on the Proverbs of Solomon by Bede, ‘inspired priest and student of the scriptures’ (not ‘historian’, we note), but sends by the bearer two small casks of wine to be consumed ‘in a merry day with the brethren’.
But books were always the great solace and book requests are a standard feature; with advancing age he had a particular need for large print versions ‘with the letters written out clearly and separately’, which were to be had in England but ‘unavailable in this country’. The more serious troubles of old age in exile, such as the withering of friendship, could challenge even his determination. Recalling his original name ‘Boniface also called Wynfrith’ asks a West Country acquaintance from his youth to pity ‘. . . an old man worn out by tribulations in this land of the Germans’.17
The role of women
This section focuses upon St Lioba, for whom St Boniface had an intense regard. She is just one of a number of Anglo-Saxon women saints, such as Abbess Hild of Whitby, Abbess Æthelburga of Barking in Essex and Abbess Æthelthryth (also known as Etheldreda or Audrey), daughter of King Anna of the East Angles. Twice married, Æthelthryth nevertheless maintained her virginity so that her second husband, Ecgfryth of Northumbria, who evidently expected more from a ‘peace weaver’, as dynastic wives were called, released her for the life of religion so that she might found a double monastery at Ely, where she presided until her death. She was succeeded by her sister St Sexburga, dowager queen of Kent.
The double monastery/nunnery was a fairly common institution in the Old English church and in most cases headed by a woman rather than a man. But then the Anglo-Saxons honoured many women as saints, a practice that ended with the Norman Conquest; in the view of the distinguished historian Doris Stenton, ‘Anglo-Saxon women were more nearly the equal companions of their husbands and brothers’ than in Norman England. In her Women in Anglo-Saxon England, Christine Fell cities cases of women apparently in business on their own account in the craft of embroidery. In the 810s the bishop of Worcester granted a certain Eanswith 200 acres (80 hectares) of land in return for the maintenance and enlargement of the cathedral’s vestments, which means she must have employed a team of craft workers. From the reign of Edward the Confessor we hear of Ælfgyth, who was made a modest grant from the royal revenues for teaching a king’s sheriff’s daughter the craft of gold thread embroidery (aufrisium).
Laws regulating relations between the sexes could be harsh. Adulterers were liable to severe penalties, but whereas a man might be subject to forfeiture of land, under Cnut’s laws a woman offender faced bodily mutilation. But from the very earliest period, Anglo-Saxon codes provide clear and sensible legislation for the rights of women. A rapist could expect a heavy fine but the laws also specified compensations payable for different degrees of sexual harassment short of rape, from seizing the breast to throwing a woman to the ground. The ‘morning gift’ a man paid to his wife on their marriage became her personal property to dispose of as she saw fit and it could be a substantial amount, whether in money or land. Æthelfryth, a certain ninth-century lady, sold land equivalent to five peasant land holdings. The code of Æthelred II of 1008 protected a widow from forced remarriage, ruling that she must remain single for twelve months, after which time she could remarry if she wished, but was free to choose her husband. Some chose to enter the life of religion: noblewomen and others might already be literate and, as for men, the church could offer prospects denied them in lay society. Not all could be abbesses, but many could exercise lesser responsibilities, while some apparently learnt to excel at the demanding skills of manuscript illumination.
Like Jerome, Boniface enjoyed the friendship of women. But whereas Jerome seems to have had a more or less permanent entourage of female admirers, Boniface kept a wide correspondence with various nuns and abbesses – many, like him, of noble kin, but also expert in the disciplines and the skills of the religious life. We have seen him writing to Abbess Eadburga, asking her to make a luxury copy of the Epistles of St Peter. It is not a question of her commissioning the work from a master illuminator but it is clear he is confident of her skills in this highly sophisticated and complex technique. A princess of the West Saxon dynasty, she uses the vocabulary of royal triumph on hearing of Boniface’s initial success against the Frisian King Radbod, ‘the enemy of the Catholic Church, [whom] God humbled at your feet’. When she says farewell ‘in love unfeigned’, one senses feelings deeper than mere friendship. His mission certainly owed a good deal to her generous support in books, church furniture and money.
Probably the woman who made the greatest impression on Boniface, as she seems to have done on all who met her, was Lioba (also Leoba). At his request she was sent out at the head of thirty nuns, all able to read and write and with some Latin, to act as a sort of missionary back-up team.
In his biography of her, Rudolf of Fulda, writing about 830, tells us that St Lioba was born about 699 in the island of Britain, which, he adds, ‘is inhabited by the English nation’. Her aristocratic parents had almost given up hope of having children and Lioba’s birth, foreseen by her mother’s aged nurse in a dream, seemed divinely ordained. Devout Christians, they vowed the child to the service of God – and rewarded the aged nurse, evidently a household slave, with her freedom. The girl entered the Wessex convent of Wimborne under Abbess Tetta, sister of the king and well known to Boniface.
The community had just come through a troubled time. Tetta kept a strict house, even guarding her girls from contact with clerics – and that included bishops (drunken or not!). But her deputy, still more severe and quite unwilling to apologize, had infuriated the younger sisters, who were mostly young aristocrats used to deference. In due course the termagant died. Within days some of the younger nuns were jumping on the grave and cursing the body. Ominous portents subdued the more rebellious spirits and by the time of Lioba’s arrival Abbess Tetta was presiding once more over a docile community.
It was a sympathetic atmosphere for the serious-minded young novice, at this time perhaps something of a prig (bishop-proof certainly). But she was to become a model of spiritual commitment and wisdom, truly worthy of sainthood. Boniface knew about her, as she was ‘related to him on his mother’s side’, and wrote to Abbess Tetta asking her to release Lioba for service in the German mission. Continually building churches and monasteries throughout Hesse, Thuringia and Bavaria he wrote regularly to England to rally recruits, not just as missionaries in the field but to head his new monastic communities, which were to be homes of both prayer and scholarship, as well as anchors for the scattered rural congregations of believers. Tetta released her community’s most celebrated member with a bad grace. Boniface made Lioba abbess at the convent of Tauberbischofsheim and general superintendent of nuns throughout Germany. By the end of her career there was hardly a convent in the region that did not have one of her pupils as abbess.
Lioba was described as beautiful (angelic) in appearance, abstemious (her personal drinking cup was known as ‘Leoba’s little one’) and unfailingly good natured. A woman of private means, she was generous in her hospitality, hosting banquets for her guests even when she herself was fasting. In summertime she took an afternoon siesta, observing that lack of sleep dulled the mind, especially for study. But she expected a scripture reading all the same. Younger nuns competed for the privilege and the fun of trying to trick the holy abbess. Even when she seemed most soundly asleep she would correct any slip or omission and no one was ever able to catch her out.
Serious to a fault, apparently she never laughed out loud. Quite averse to the courtier’s world, she was nevertheless much respected in court circles, above all by Queen Hildegard, wife of Charlemagne, who ‘revered her with a chaste affection and loved her as her own soul’. There are hints that Lioba detected undertones in the queen’s regard. In response to a pleading letter that they might meet one last time, Lioba complied ‘for the sake of their long-standing friendship’. She received the usual effusive welcome, but cut short the visit. Their farewell embrace was more affectionate than usual, Rudolf tells us. The abbess kissed her royal friend on the mouth as well as upon the forehead and the eyes, saying
farewell dearly beloved lady and sister . . . most precious half of my soul . . . we shall never more enjoy one another’s presence on this earth. May Christ . . . grant that we meet again without shame on the day of judgement.
Shortly after, returned to her convent, Lioba fell into a terminal illness and was given the last rites from her English priest and confessor Torhthat.
The consequences of a pioneer age
Summing up what we know of the English missions in Germany during the eighth century reveals an episode of immense consequence in the history of the European continent. By its constant allegiance to Rome and the popes, the English mission assured the ascendancy of the Roman rite in the Western Church’s liturgy until the Reformation of the early 1500s and, for good or ill, the survival of papal authority over Western churches. By its organization of the German church hierarchy the mission and its leaders prepared, under papal direction, a structure that proved central to the administration of the medieval, later Holy Roman, empire. So much for the future. At the time, contemporaries recognized its leaders as men of importance at the very summit of European affairs. According to tradition, the seventy-year-old Boniface anointed Pippin the Short, ancestor of the Carolingian dynasty, king of the Franks in 751. At the local level English clerics and monks were doers and role models admired and long remembered in the lands of the old Germany hegemony. Willibrord of Echternach, Willibald at Eichstätt and Boniface are only the most notable in the roll call of Anglo-Saxon names who were fundamental in the formation of early European history.
The reform spirit created by the Anglo-Saxons was alive in the Frankish church and the ecclesiastical policy of these Carolingians on the whole may be regarded as the continuation and the heritage of the work of St Boniface. Of crucial significance, according to Professor Rosamond McKitterick, were their methods of teaching, their conviction of the importance of papal authority, their emphasis on synodal authority and the energy they devoted to establishing a coherent diocesan structure.18
Professor McKitterick showed also that there is ‘abundant manuscript evidence’ of English men and women at work on the Continent in the form of the books they copied, both west and east of the Rhine. Even where, as at Jouarre, near Paris, the work is in Merovingian Frankish style there may be ‘unmistakable insular traits’ indicating connections with England. From the regions of Germany where Boniface and his colleagues were active, manuscripts in distinctively insular script styles indicate many more men and women from England than would be expected. McKiterrick found similar evidence of English scribes in Bavarian records, representing a continuous influx of Anglo-Saxon volunteers up to thirty years after the death of St Boniface.19 Such a trend might help explain the low level of learning in England deplored by King Alfred in the next century. On the continent, the contribution of these Anglo-Saxon expatriates was undeniable.
Work by Professors McKitterick and Rollason in England and Joachim Ehlers in Germany, has revealed that Bede’s Ecclesiastical History was widely influential on the continent from the late 700s. Presenting the English church as an extension of the primitive church and of the universal mission enjoined by Christ on his disciples, Bede belongs in the tradition of ‘l’histoire universelle’, according to Georges Tugène. Continental copies, probably made at Aachen from manuscripts originating in Northumbria, such as the so-called ‘Leningrad’ Bede (completed about 746 and in St Petersburg since the early eighteenth century), arrived at monastic libraries from Würzburg to Tours and from St Hubert in the Ardennes to Trier. Recounting the conversion of a heathen people and the building of a Christian polity, Bede’s work appealed to a Frankish elite pushing Christianization as a tool of imperial expansionism first among the Frisians, then the Saxons under Charles the Great, and under his successors (less effectively) among the Danes. When Europe’s present nomenclatura wrote religion out of its failed ‘constitution’, it betrayed the convictions of Charlemagne himself, eponymous hero of its most vaunted prize.
At the time, the English example of diocesan organization was as important as Bede’s historical schema. In the 760s, Abbot Gregory of Utrecht, a young Frankish nobleman, disciple of Boniface, took on an English auxiliary named Aluberht, who was duly consecrated bishop of the ‘Old Saxons’ at York; here a brilliant young scholar was making a Europe-wide reputation. His name was Alcuin.