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From The English Correspondence of Saint Boniface: Being for the Most Part Letters Exchanged Between the Apostle of the Germans and His English Friends: Translated and Edited with an Introductory Sketch of the Saint’s Life by Edward Kylie, M.A.; London: Chatto & Windus: 1911; pp. 1-37.



No single aspect of the career of Saint Boniface so well illustrates the whole as his connection with England. Not merely was he English by birth and education, but during his residence abroad he always maintained the closest relations with the people of his own race. Indeed, he might almost be said by his loyalty and devotion to have discharged the obligations, however great, under which England placed him. Yet we should do wrong to conclude that patriotism supplied the only or the chief motive of his conduct. He had given his allegiance to the kingdom of Christ: his country merely prepared him for this grander citizenship, and helped him to discharge the duties which it imposed. In order, therefore, that the English correspondence may be regarded in its true perspective, we are required for the purposes of an introduction to take a somewhat broader view of his life and work than the letters would of themselves afford.


The effect of the barbarian settlements within the Roman Empire was determined largely by the character of the provinces into which the invaders came. Britain, though bearing outwardly the Roman impress as sharp and well defined as an imperial coin, had not been penetrated by Roman civilization. Hence the pirates from the Continent who drove the provincial population into the western and northern extremities of the island made the country Teutonic in speech, manners, and laws. But so far from pursuing consciously any pan-Germanic mission, the conquerors were merely wild tribes in search of plunder, who, once become the possessors of a rich land, fell to fighting over the spoils. In consequence, the England of Boniface was torn by strife and showed few signs of national unity or life. Even the Church had been hindered by its dissensions from playing the part of peacemaker. The British, who had received Christianity under the Empire, took it with them on their retreat and left the task of converting their enemies to the Roman mission of Augustine, and to Irish and Scotch preachers who came in from the north. All the Christian bodies alike were affected by the changing fortunes of the states which gave them support, while differences in ecclesiastical usage separated the British and Celtic communions from that of Rome. Only after the victory of the latter at the synod 3 of Whitby (664) could Christianity unite its forces and proceed to weld together the people of the island.

The Continent, which had been more deeply influenced by Rome, was proportionately less altered by the strangers. The provincials of Gaul imposed their language, customs and religion upon the Franks, the survivors among their many conquerors and, by their habits of obedience, assisted the rise of a strong centralized monarchy. The monarchy in turn subdued the more purely German territories to the east of the Rhine, where the Roman eagles had winged at best a timid and uncertain flight. As a result the kingdom of France embraced really two states, Neustria, the western, Roman in character, and Austrasia, the eastern, more distinctively German. These the royal family, gradually enfeebled by the vices of an older civilization, must have failed to keep together, had not their powers been exercised by the Mayors of the Palace. The German family of the Carolings, from which the great Mayors came, saved the crown and the kingdom. The political crisis, however, as so often in history, threw into the background the interests of the Church. It had been vigorous and powerful, at the time when the barbarian invaders were breaking the continuity of the Church in Britain: it maintained large monastic establishments, an organized episcopate, and missionary forces in the Eastern 4 provinces. But the evils which beset the society of the Franks impaired its vitality. So that when Christianity, newly accepted by the English, was putting forth all the energy of youth, the ecclesiastical system in the Frankish kingdom manifested all the weaknesses of age. We shall not, then, be surprised to find the English Church pouring some of its best blood into the shrunken veins and hardened arteries of the neighbouring body.

Boniface was born between the years 675 and 680. If tradition be correct in making Crediton in Somersetshire his birthplace, his family must have formed the very end of the wedge which the West-Saxons were driving into the British territory on their south-western frontier. There can be little doubt, in any event, that the monastery at Exeter was his first school. From the wars which raged over the whole country the monasteries offered the safest retreat, and children of good birth were commonly sent to them for their education. But as yet the centres of church life in England were situated towards the south and east; Exeter stood too remote to catch the waves of moral and intellectual energy which they sent forth. It was only upon joining the community at Nursling, near Winchester, that Boniface experienced the full strength of the new forces.

The new learning introduced from abroad into the 5 Canterbury school had spread to Nursling and was there earnestly pursued. It involved a careful study of Latin grammar and prosody. From the skill in Latin versification which he now acquired Boniface derived real pleasure and satisfaction throughout his life. But the interpretation of the Scriptures possessed an even greater attraction for him and his contemporaries. He set up as a lecturer on exegetics, and drew large audiences of the brethren and strangers alike, while, by an early extension-scheme, his notes were circulated among the women in distant convents. The academic distinction which he thus attained gave him a place among the “Apostles” of his day, the circle of Bishop Aldhelm, mystic and controversial, scientist and poet (I). He found also an opportunity of displaying his genius for affairs, being commissioned to submit to the Archbishop of Canterbury the resolutions of a synod held in Wessex under the presidency of the king. A distinguished career in the English Church opened before him, when the call came to leave friends and fatherland for Christ’s sake.

Christianity having scattered the mists which shrouded Britain during the sixth century, the island, whither, it was formerly said, there were conveyed at nightfall from the Continent mysterious cargoes of the dead, now shone in learning and piety, a beacon-light for the West. The 6 mainland was astir with the passing of English pilgrims, men and women, along the road to Rome, and the impulse to share the faith with people still outside the fold was strong in the newly converted nation. Wilfrid of York and Willibrord had gone among the Frisians, and the two Hewalds among the Saxons; so that in departing for Friesland in 716 Boniface was merely taking up the burden of his race. There, however, he met insuperable difficulties. The spirit of liberty already brooded over the waters and low-lying lands of modern Holland, and the natives were resisting to the death the arms and the faith of their neighbours, the Franks. Their King, Rathbod, having consented to be baptized, had set his foot in the water, when he stopped to ask whether his ancestors were in heaven or in hell. On being told their fate, he cried, “I prefer to be with my ancestors in hell than with a few beggars in heaven,” and rejected the sacrament. Before such opposition Boniface retired. On his return to England he was asked to succeed Winbert, his former abbot at Nursling. But realizing that this stern apprenticeship had not shaken his determination to undertake missionary work (II), his friend, Bishop Daniel of Winchester, persuaded the community to let the dignity pass from him.

Boniface had burned his bridges. Yet in spite of his 7 eagerness to press on he perceived that little could come from these individual sallies into a hostile country. It was better to submit to the designs of the universal Church. “As a limb would seek guidance from the head of the body,” so he decided to seek advice and instructions from Rome. With Bishop Daniel’s letter of introduction (III), and a band of English friends, he visited the churches of France, and, crossing the Alps, passed unharmed through the Lombard kingdom and the rude barbarian troops who kept the Greek power alive in Italy, to feel the joy of the pilgrim with his goal attained, when, in the late autumn of 718, he begged at the tomb of the Apostles forgiveness for his sins.

As he looked from the throne of Peter, Gregory the Second saw storm clouds hanging heavy over Italy. The Lombards threatened life and property and the independence of the Church, and no real help came from the Emperor of Constantinople, whose motley soldiers proved more dangerous to their friends than to their enemies. The Pope himself had scarcely the means of sheltering those entitled to his protection. Nor could he catch many signs of clearing skies north of the Alps. Charles Martel, the Frank Mayor of the Palace, was ready enough to grasp at missionary effort as a weapon against Frisian independence, and the Englishman, Willibrord, who had 8 been ordained bishop at Rome in 695 and put in charge of the Frisian mission, was again beginning a slow advance. But as to Charles’ willingness either to reform the Church in the Frankish kingdom, or to render assistance in Italy, Gregory might well entertain serious doubts.

It was only in the German provinces east of the Rhine that a ray of light pierced the gloom. There, through all the shifting phases of the barbarian invasion, Arian, Orthodox and Celtic influences had mingled, with the result that organization was lacking and the people followed still the familiar round of heathen practices. Out of this chaos the zealous English stranger might create a well-ordered Church and unite it closely with Rome. Hence, though the instructions given to Boniface were expressed in the most general terms, he was probably advised to give special attention to these provinces. Wynfrith, his homely Saxon name, assumed a Latin guise. Another barbarian passed into the legions of Rome. With a glad cry of joy he announced his success to his friend Bugga: “God has inclined the supreme pontiff to smile on my heart’s wish” (IV).

In many respects the task assigned to Boniface resembled that of the missionaries whom Gregory the First had sent into England. The Irish preachers, who, assisted by the inactivity of the Frank clergy and 9 their own political neutrality, did so much to prepare the way in the Eastern provinces, seem to have bequeathed to their followers the quarrel with the Roman Church. There is reason for believing that Boniface was forced to win anew the victory of Whitby on German soil. The conflict between Christianity and the older Teutonic faith also presented similar features. Boniface encountered a few priests and leading men, who, like those at the court of King Edwine in Northumbria, sought to find in reason the grounds of belief. In a remarkable letter (V) Bishop Daniel urged him when dealing with such inquiries to demonstrate by argument the absurdities of polytheism. But to shatter the popular faith the missionary had to humiliate the gods in some more striking manner. Just as Coifu cast his bold lance against the heathen idols, and Willibrord struck down the Frisian gods at Walcheren, so Boniface felled at Geismar the oak sacred to Thor. The practical Englishman rightly valued deeds above words, and the crash of the sacred tree was the death-song of heathenism in Hesse. The way stood open for the adoption of other and more conciliatory measures. The instructions which Gregory the Great had given Augustine, to adapt the older temples and festivals for Christian use, Boniface himself obeyed, when, from the ruins of the sacred oak, he built a chapel in 10 honour of Saint Peter. Like Paulinus on the memorable mission to the Border country, he shared the sufferings of his flock in Hesse through the year 722, and gained their love and confidence. He recognized, moreover, that it would be necessary to hedge his people about with spiritual and intellectual influences if they were not to wander carelessly into heathen paths. At places in Hesse and Thuringia, on ground given by local converts, he established monasteries like fortresses to hold a conquered country. Many of the orthodox clergy, redeemed from evil ways, lent him assistance, but for effectual aid he turned homeward to England.

On the eve of his venture in Friesland the Archbishop of Canterbury had assured Boniface that he would always be united to his home-Church by a spiritual bond. Of his older friends such as the Archbishop himself, Abbot Beorwald of Glastonbury and Bishop Aldhelm, who has so largely shaped his character and career, only Bishop Daniel of Winchester remained to give him counsel during these years. Yet the same bond held him united with the English men and women of his own generation. “When worn out by the storms of the German sea” (XII) he sought consolation and strength in their prayers (VI). Together they formed a veritable community of prayer in which neither the living nor the dead were ever 11 forgotten. How completely this comradeship in the service of God made them all kin appears everywhere through the letters. Egburga, who had lost her brother and sister, addressed Boniface as a brother (VII), while Abbess Eangyth and her daughter, Bugga, confided to him without restraint their griefs and perplexities I, (IX).

Common literary interests formed another link in the chain of friendship. Archbishop Nothelm (X), Bishop Pehthelm (XI), and Abbot Duddo (XII) had at their command the libraries which English scholarship was enriching, and represented in the eyes of Boniface the best learning of the time. His own literary tastes and love of the Scriptures continued unimpaired. He asked Abbot Duddo to send him, “as a faithful son would an unlettered parent,” commentaries upon the Epistles of Saint Paul and any other books likely to be useful. “I desire thee,” he wrote, using to this companion of his English days his Saxon name, Wynfrith, “to remember the maxim of the wise man who said, ‘Hold fast to an old friend,’ and not to forget in age that old friendship which we began and kept in youth, but to hold in mind thy father now grown feeble.” Hildelida, abbess of the double monastery at Barking, who gave Boniface a description of a vision of the after-world as marvellous and characteristic as Bede’s 12 account of the wonders at Barking itself, had come like Boniface under the influence of Aldhelm, and was interested in poetry and the Scriptures (XIII). When Boniface wished the Epistles of Saint Peter written in letters of gold that he might show them to his people, he trusted to the skilled hands of Abbess Eadburga (XIV, XIV). From the English convents there were constantly conveyed to him presents of books, vestments and clothing, testifying not merely to the skill of the makers, but to their desire at any cost to assist and cheer their friend (XVI).

It was not, however, from his contemporaries, but from a younger generation that Boniface demanded the most complete sacrifice. English men and women, some of them formerly his pupils, came at his invitation to transplant in the German wilderness the bloom of their native piety and culture. Of the men Lul may be taken as typical. Born in Wessex, of good parents, he had been given to the monastery at Malmesbury; going thence to Nursling he came under the spiritual and literary influence of Boniface. Thoughts of sin and death consequent upon an illness sent him to Rome, where he renounced his fatherland and determined to join his former master in Germany. Wishing to train and strengthen such young assistants, Boniface allowed him 13 some years of study before raising him to the priesthood and assigning him the work which poverty and the bitterness of enemies, as much as the lack of helpers, made so hard (XVII). Amidst these difficulties Lul found strength in his veneration for Boniface, in his attachment to his English friends, and in his own literary pursuits (XVIII, XIX, XX, XXI, XXII). As companions he brought Denehard, the trusted messenger of Boniface to the Papal court, and Burchard and Witta, afterwards bishops. Among the women, like a rich jewel, shone Lioba, “the beloved.” At Thanet, whither she had been sent, an only child of noble Wessex parents, Abbess Eadburga taught her the art of verses and the love of Boniface. The young girl wrote her first letter to her mother’s kinsman hoping that she might deserve to have him as a brother (XXIII). The friendship born of this letter led her, “beautiful as the angels, fascinating in her speech, learned in the Holy Scriptures and the Canons,” to devote all her sweetness of character and her learning to his service. No missionary before Boniface had called women to his aid. Lioba, mistress of a convent at Bischofsheim, her kinswoman, Tecla, ruling two at Kitzingen and Ochsenfurt, Chunihilt, aunt of Lul, at work further north, carried the spirit of Christian piety and virtue among German women and into German homes. Girls were given them to be 14 educated (XXIV). They taught handicrafts and the fine arts. The embroidered sacrament-cloth which Boniface sent to Bishop Pehthelm in 735 came almost certainly from their hands.

A service no less valuable was rendered by the English monks. New monasteries rose to be permanent centres for education and parochial effort. Wiehtberht, the English abbot of Fritzlar, faithfully visited the sick in his large parish. His brethren planted vines before their door and spread the knowledge of improved agricultural methods through the neighbourhood. That the work was dangerous and difficult appears from Wiehtberht’s letter home to the monks of Glastonbury: hunger and thirst and sickness afflicted the preachers (XXV). But they had zeal and courage, as Boniface knew when he went so far to meet them. Indeed the character of his English assistants furnishes the best proof of what Boniface did for Germany. They replaced immoral priests who, instead of stripping from the popular faith the encrustations of heathen beliefs, themselves sacrificed to Wodan. Through their unselfishness and culture, contrasted with the worldliness and ignorance of the Frank clergy, they created a Church in the German provinces, representing the best in Western civilization, and put flame to the torch which the great Charles was soon to hold high before the peoples of Europe.


All these subtle influences of association, learning and piety Boniface intended to make permanent for his people by means of organization. The labourers whom he called into the field were sowing the seed; it only remained to provide for the gathering in of the harvest. Consequently in 741 two bishoprics were established at Buraburg and Wurzburg for Hesse and Thuringia respectively, and the two Englishmen, Witta and Burchard, were appointed to fill them. A peculiar interest attaches to the raising, two years later, of Eichstaedt, near the Danube, into an episcopal seat, as a base for work among the Slavs, for there Willibald, the most romantic figure among the English friends of Boniface, was afterwards bishop. Willibald, who in his infancy had been given to a monastery, upon coming to manhood persuaded his elder brother, Wunnibald, and their father, to join him in a pilgrimage on the continent. The father having married again was loth to leave his home and young children; he set out, however, only to die at Lucca, while his sons pressed on to Rome. Willibald, not content, as his contemporaries usually were, with reaching this goal, became one of the early pilgrims to Jerusalem, and did his part towards creating the passion for the Holy Land which burned like a subterranean fire under the surface of mediæval life to burst forth finally in the Crusades. The weaker brother, remaining in pious 16 contemplation at Rome until 738, joined the cosmopolitan throng which crowded to hear Boniface on the occasion of the missionary’s third visit to the Eternal City. He followed to the North, where seven churches in Thuringia were put under his charge. Later he and his sister, Waltpurgis, ruled over the double monastery at Heidenheim, in their brother’s diocese. The monastery, organized on English lines, set up the first mill to grind the peasant’s corn, and taught farming, manners and morals to the people of the district. The loving hand of Waltpurgis preserved the story of the family in which is enshrined so much of the religious devotion and self-sacrificing heroism shown by the associates of Boniface.

While employed in the Eastern provinces Boniface gladly accepted the aid and protection of the Frankish government. He was accustomed to the fullest co-operation between the Church and State in England, where bishops and nobles, sitting with the king, dealt alike with men’s souls and bodies. At the outset Gregory the Second had asked Charles Martel to support his efforts, and Boniface acknowledged in a letter to David of Winchester that the Mayor of the Palace rendered invaluable assistance. But it was not to be expected that Charles would be as generous to Boniface as to Willibrord. He was opposed in the Eastern provinces by no such 17 strong national feeling as existed in Friesland, and he probably regarded with some distrust the reforming zeal of a Roman legate “trained in accordance with the institutions of the Holy Apostolic See.” In fact, Charles was using the Church of the kingdom entirely to serve his own ends. Church offices were either kept vacant that the revenues might fall into his hands, or were given to laymen whose palms itched, not for the pastoral staff, but for the good sword and hunting-spear. It never crossed the minds of such prelates to do anything for the preservation of morality or discipline. Synods were no longer held. The culture of the sixth and seventh centuries was dead, and the people, left without light or leading, went astray in the morass of heathen practices.

Charles Martel died in 741. Like many a self-made man he had educated his sons to despise his ways. The new rulers, Carlomann and Pippin, who were reared at the abbey of Saint Denis, showed a desire to promote reforms in the Church. They took the natural course of inviting Boniface to co-operate with them. They saw him everywhere successful, thoroughly experienced, armed with all the prestige and authority of Rome. In Bavaria he had recently restored the shattered fabric of the Church by fixing four dioceses and taking 18 the necessary steps to secure the meeting of synods and the restoration of discipline. They knew him to be a foreigner by birth and a stranger to their politics. Seeking protection for the Thuringian Christians against the heathen he had appealed to Grifo, their step-brother, in whose interests Charles Martel wished to carve out a middle kingdom, but he did not fall under suspicion of complicity in Grifo’s revolt. Hence in the five synods which met between 742 and 747 his was really the guiding mind.

The programme of reform which Boniface carried through was not a new one, for the evils were such as everywhere resulted from decay, and the remedies followed the traditional lines. The ideal ecclesiastical system which the synod of 747 outlined had been the dream of Archbishop Theodore. It was apparent also that while actually framing his measures Boniface kept English precedents before his mind. Certainly in his determination to have Church-lands restored he shared the conviction of every churchman of his time, that in such a disturbed state of society a permanent organization required independent and settled revenues for its support.

Yet it would be a mistake to infer that the situation in the Frankish kingdom presented no peculiar difficulties. 19 In his oath to Gregory the Second, Boniface had undertaken to avoid intercourse with the enemies of the Church, but he was compelled to regard as such the clerical courtiers whom he met when attending upon the mayors of the palace. Neither Gregory’s recommendation that he should by persuasion recall those to the faith, nor the moderate letter so characteristic of Bishop David overcame his scruples (XXVI, XXVII). He complained bitterly to Abbess Eadburga of the snares of false brethren and the lairs of wolves through which he had to pass (XXVIII). Indeed, things soon went far beyond the neglect of social amenities. Those native churchmen who had a vested interest in the maintenance of ecclesiastical abuses could not be expected to welcome the reforming efforts of this English stranger with his Roman mission. The leaders among them, the bishops of Mainz and Trier, did not attend the first synod, where Boniface was chosen archbishop. There is reason for believing that they made an attempt on his life. Yet Carlomann and Pippin were scarcely free to cast aside the supporters of their father’s policy. As a result Boniface found it extremely difficult to pierce through the general indifference and reach the body of the clergy. To all outward appearances, his efforts were crowned with success in the synod of 745. He was elected Archbishop of Cologne 20 that he might stand directly at the head of the hierarchical system in the North and occupy a commanding position between the Church of the kingdom and the Church which he had created in the Eastern provinces. But in the following year the opposition prevailed upon the government to withdraw its consent to this measure. Boniface, while still archbishop and legate, was left to administer the diocese of Mainz.

Heresy constituted as great a menace as the hostility of these clerical politicians. Most of the Celtic and irregular preachers who had flourished during a period of lax discipline probably submitted to the synodal decrees. But in places the decaying tissues of the Church had become cancerous growths which needed to be cut away. Aldabert, half-mystic, and whole charlatan, erected oratories in his own name, forgave sins without confession, “because everything hidden was known to him,” and called the people for worship to the groves and fountains. Clemens, the Scot, a man of greater intellect and integrity, questioned the authority of the Fathers and the canon law. It was only by persistent efforts in the synods and by representations to Rome that Boniface overcame the inertia of the northern Church and silenced these heretics. In Bavaria the educated Celt, Virgil, laid some complaint against him before the Pope. Boniface weighted a counter-accusation 21 with the charge of heresy. Apparently Virgil had made a shrewd guess at the existence of the Antipodes. We might have expected the contemporary of Bede to take a scientific interest in such a theory, but when Boniface saw the forces of religion and science ranging themselves for a conflict he could not entertain even a momentary doubt as to the colours that he should follow.

The arms which Boniface bore during these engagements had been furnished him by the Head of the Church. At the Papal invitation he visited Rome a second time in 722, and was there consecrated bishop. He proved the orthodoxy of his opinions formed in the English school by a written statement of his belief in the Trinity. His oath followed the formula subscribed to by Italian bishops, and put him in immediate subjection to the supreme pontiff. He carried beyond the Alps a book of Church canons and letter confirming his appointment, directed to the people of Hesse and Thuringia, and to all Christians. Like Augustine, he submitted his difficulties to the Pope. Indeed, the experience of Boniface and his followers in the north resembled that of colonists everywhere: whatever distinguished them from the people of their adoption, language, manners and nationality, threw them more completely upon the support of Rome. The appointment of Boniface as archbishop in 732, his completion 22 of the organization in the Eastern provinces, and the reformation of the Frankish Church, prepared for what must be regarded in this connection as the climax of his career. In the clerical synod of 747 the members of the restored hierarchy declared “their desire to preserve the Catholic faith and unity, and submission to the Roman Church, and to obey Saint Peter and his Vicar,” and forwarded their pronouncement to the Pope. This momentous profession of what would now be called ultramontanism furnishes sufficient proof of the success of Boniface in bringing the northern Church to look beyond the Alps. Pippin’s negotiations with the Papacy leading to his coronation as King of the Franks showed that the temporal rulers had turned their gaze in the same direction. By his influence, both in Church and State, the English missionary had laid the foundation-stone of the imperial edifice, which rose to its full height and dignity on Christmas Day, 800.

The devotion of Boniface to the Papacy, like true devotion of any kind, was quite consistent with the maintenance of independence and self-respect. On two occasions when his opinions differed from that held at the Lateran he sought to ascertain from the body of precedents the reason for the divergence. With Saint Bernard and Robert Grosseteste he required that the 23 object of his love should stand above suspicion. The world must behold in Rome a vision of righteousness. When he heard the Papal court taunted with simony he put the charge frankly before Pope Zacharias. In the same spirit he complained that the continuation of a heathen festival in Rome on the first of January gave scandal to the northern peoples and rendered his preaching ineffectual. But his allegiance never wavered. In his letter of greeting to Stephen the Third he besought the new Pope to accept from him the same loyal service which he had given to the two Gregorys and to Zacharias: “If I have accomplished anything for the good of the Church during the thirty-six years of my Roman mission I still wish to complete and perfect it. And anything unwise and unjust in act or speech which is attributed to me I submit with pleasure and humility to the judgment of the Roman Church.”

The heavy responsibilities which his duty to the Church laid upon Boniface, so far from crushing out his affection for his homeland, made it even more imperative for him to retain the sympathy and support of his English friends. This is noteworthy because, as can be seen from the letters, still another generation had risen, during the period of his activity in the Frankish kingdom, to rule both Church and State in England. Of his older correspondents only Bugga survived (XXIX). Yet 24 the correspondence itself presents the familiar themes. Boniface asks Egbert of York, himself the author of a penitential, for guidance on church rules, and for some of the works of Bede to assist him in his preaching and Scriptural study. To Bede, death and fame had come before Boniface undertook the reformation of the Frankish Church. Hence the missionary could regard the historian “as that candle of the Church which the Holy Spirit lit” in England; he besought Egbert for “a tiny gleam from the candle” to guide him on his way (XXX, XXXI). that the last letters treating of literary matters were sent to Huetberht, Abbot of Wearmouth, and to Egbert, who had his school-library at York, indicates how English culture had passed from the south to the north, and marks the continuity between Boniface and Egbert’s pupil, Alcuin, the friend and literary guide of Charles the Great (XXXII). But, as formerly, prayer was the most enduring bond between Boniface and England (XXXIII, XXXIV, XXXV). During his trials in the Frank kingdom he needed the spiritual strength which friends like Herefrith, or such a community of prayer as he had formed with Ælbwald of East Anglia and his monastery, alone could give him (XXXVII). He, on his part, brought comfort by his prayers to King Æthelbert of Kent (XXXIX). So, 25 too, the pleasure which the friends found of old in the interchange of gifts still endured. Æthelbert did not hesitate to ask for two falcons for his hunting. With good-humoured tolerance Boniface, who was himself a total abstainer, sent two jars of wine to Egbert of York “that he might make a happy day with his brethren.”

Yet, though the affection of Boniface for England remained unaltered, his relations with it had necessarily undergone some change. He was no longer the adventurer in a dangerous field, but the great churchman of assured renown, standing at the head of the Northern Church. He could, therefore, with propriety, lead the eight bishops, who, jealous of the good repute of the English race, addressed a remonstrance to Æthelbald, King of Mercia, on his immoral life and his violence towards religious houses (XL, XL, XLI) . He was able also to draw upon the treasury of his continental experience for his English friends, as, for example, when he sent the decrees of the synod of 747 to Cuthbert of Canterbury (XLII). The view presented in this letter of the evils which had befallen his native Church since his English days should be compared with that of Bede in the famous letter to Egbert. Both churchmen lamented the encroachment of the State, particularly upon the integrity and 26 independence of the monasteries. But it was the danger to the Church which appealed to Boniface, while in the eyes of Bede the absorption of the land by pseudo-monasteries spelt national ruin. His cosmopolitan career had its inevitable result in bringing Boniface to regard the claims of nationality as second to those of the universal Church.

When it is remembered that Boniface was a monk for several years before he entered upon his missionary labours, and that he carried with him from England his deep-rooted attachment to the monastic life, it becomes easy to understand his desire to found a model monastery in Fulda, and his habit, when his synodal activity came to an end with the retirement of Carlomann in 748, of seeking rest and quiet within its walls. In its discipline the house followed the best English traditions: “The monks, obeying the Benedictine rule, were men of strict abstinence, neither using flesh, wine, or any fermented liquor, nor having any servants, but content with the labour of their own hands.” Boniface visited it yearly to initiate the brothers in the practice of their vocation and in a knowledge of the Scriptures, and to bear his share of their toil. To a small hermitage on a neighbouring hill he retired for writing, prayer and meditation. Standing between the four peoples of his ministry, Fulda set the 27 seal upon his work and, like the famous monastic centres of England, represented the highest virtue and culture in the north.

It was concern at once for the future of this monastery, and for the fortunes of all his assistants in the East, which led Boniface to present his final request to the Frankish government. Never a politician, he had not been taken into the masterful design of Pippin upon the crown, though as the leading churchman on the North he anointed the king (XLIII). But believing always that the first duty of the State was to assist in the service of God, he wrote in 753, to Fulrad of Saint Denis, a letter meant for the royal ear, in which, while sending his greetings and thanks to “our glorious and lovable King Pippin,” he pleaded thus for his followers: “They are almost all strangers; some of them priests stationed in many places to minister to the people; some of them monks in our monasteries, teaching children their letters; some of them are old men who have lived and laboured long with me. I am anxious about all these that after my death they may have the royal counsel and protection, and may not be scattered like sheep without a shepherd, and that the people living near the heathen frontier may not lose the law of Christ.”

These manifold and absorbing interests, the care of so 28 many souls, the routine of administration, did not quench in Boniface the fire of missionary zeal. Surging over the eastern border the Saxons were a constant danger to his Church and a reproach to their Christian kinsmen. On his second and third visits to Rome the Pope addressed to them eloquent appeals to accept the faith. It was doubtless in eager expectation of himself leading a mission into their territory, that Boniface wrote the splendid letter to his English friends, in which “as an off-shoot of the same stock,” he urged them to join him in saving the heathen people “of one blood and of one bone” with themselves (XLV). That he could count upon the English following him to the world’s end was shown by Bishop Torhthelm’s reply (XLVI). But his hopes were never to be fulfilled. In vain had he looked from the rich fields of his own tilling to the eastern lands ready for the plough. He was summoned to bring again under cultivation the soil of the Frankish kingdom in which weeds and brambles had all but choked the seed of Christian faith. While the task was probably less congenial than the conduct of a mission, yet it would be an error to conclude that Boniface was torn by a struggle between the missionary impulse and his obedience to Rome. He accepted without question the guidance of the Pope, and though he did right to regard further missionary effort as the logical complement 29 of his work, he must have recognised the necessity of laying the foundations broad and deep. We cannot allow that in consequence his energy was misdirected, his genius circumscribed, and his growth dwarfed. By a hasty entrance upon a purely missionary undertaking he could neither have secured the permanence of Christianity to anything like the same degree, nor have shaped so unalterably the destinies of Europe.

As it was, Boniface proved more fortunate than most men in that the light of hope, which had shone upon his early manhood, struck across his declining years. He was free at the last to return to his original mission-field. Friesland had never been forgotten; when he first came from Rome he had turned aside to work there for three years under his fellow-countrymen, Willibrord. So now he left the security and peace of Fulda, and for the last time took boat on the Rhine, which had so often borne him in his journeying. Believing that he would never return, he bade Lul put a winding-sheet for his body in the chest with his books. Lul was to follow him to Mainz, to complete the church in Fulda and the churches in Thuringia, and to guard the people from error. To Lioba he gave command that she should remain at her task in Germany — his last testimony to the character of the work which his English friends were 30 doing for the German people. She was to be buried beside him; united by their service of Christ in this world, they were to await together the Judgment Day. It was characteristic of the English scholar that he took his books with him. He hoped, with the help of the bishops, the priests, deacons, and monks who accompanied him, to found a monastery and school. Education and Christian instruction would be joined as in Hesse and Thuringia. Probably too the vision of Augustine and the Roman missionaries faring to the North was always before his eyes. Following it, he sailed down the river out of the world where he had found his career. One final act of public policy it remained for him to discharge. He found that the bishopric of Utrecht, rendered vacant upon the death of Willibrord in 739, was claimed for the Bishop of Cologne by virtue of a grant from King Dagobert, “on condition that the Bishop of Cologne should convert the Frisians to the faith of Christ and become their teacher — which he did not do.” Naturally Boniface wished Willibrord’s foundation to remain intact, so he applied to Rome for the letter of Pope Sergius which had made Utrecht a permanent bishopric in dependence upon the Papacy. It seemed fitting that his career should close with an appeal to the distant power to whose service he had consecrated his life.


The middle portion of Friesland which Boniface entered was not purely heathen, since Charles Martel had overrun it in 734, destroying the pagan idols. He discharged episcopal functions among a population possessing a large Christian element. At Docking, however, on June 5, 754, a day appointed for confirmation, instead of a body of the faithful who were expected, a heathen band surrounded his tents, determined to exterminate the mission. Forbidding his companions to resist, and merely holding up his gospel-book to ward off the sword from his grey hairs, he met his death.

The crowds which accompanied the body of the martyr from Utrecht to Fulda showed in what regard he was held by his contemporaries. Evidence to the same effect is supplied by the concluding letters of the collection (XLVII, XLVIII). This popularity came to Boniface because, in Lord Macaulay’s words, “The world generally gives its admiration, not to the man who does what nobody else ever attempts to do, but to the man who does best what multitudes do well.” Alike in his religious views and his intellectual outlook, he saw eye to eye with his friends. He went beyond them in the zeal and ability with which he carried his ideas into action.

That he accepted implicitly the teaching of the Church goes without saying. No trace of doubt or scepticism can 32 be found in him. He turned his undeniably powerful and vigorous mind, not to a critical examination into the grounds of belief, but to a more reverent comprehension and application of Christian principles. Hence in the history of religious thought he takes rank with those who uphold tradition and law and things established against those who question authority and sow the seeds of change and revolution. With what might be described as modernism he had no sympathy whatsoever; Clemens and Virgil both fell under his ban. It follows, also, from the nature of his convictions, that every observance, every detail of Christian practice became supremely important. The whole scheme of worship and discipline had to give a logical and consistent expression to the indwelling spirit of faith; a single flaw would weaken the structure, a broken link would destroy the chain. This explains the scrupulous attention to small things which shows itself slightly in the English correspondence and to a marked degree in the letters exchanged with the Popes. The attitude is one common to theologians of the conservative school: first principles being taken for granted, every care must be bestowed on their development and application.

Scrupulousness about the matter and form of belief does not always extend to the domain of conduct, but in the 33 case of Boniface the whole correspondence shows with how little patience he regarded any defiance of the moral law. His wrath fell particularly upon those holding high places in Church or State who by their evil manner of life endangered their own souls and the spiritual welfare of the whole people. He judged himself with even greater rigour. We search the letters almost in vain for the note of personal satisfaction, of delight over success. The prevailing tone is rather one of despondency. Life is an unending struggle with trials and temptations. In fact, the man who feels himself to be the instrument of Providence, serving not human ambition but a divine cause, can scarcely think otherwise. He can never satisfy the demands made by such a service, and must attribute even a partial success to heavenly aid. The triumph and reward which he hopes ultimately to enjoy will not come here, but with God.

Humility and a sense of weakness, acceptance of pain, and the conviction that joy is not of this world are common to Boniface and all the saints. But, unlike some of them, he had to uphold these unworldly views in the world itself, and in a worldly society. Though firmly attached to the monastic life, he was never a solitary; even at the end of his career when an opportunity for retirement presented itself he turned back into the field of action. That he found it difficult at times to reconcile 34 his principles with the necessities of his position may be admitted, but there can be no question of his success in maintaining his ideals unsullied. In another respect he differed from a much greater company of the saints. The spiritual trials which they endured he seems never to have experienced. No record remains to show that he wandered from the path of virtue, or was recalled to righteousness by a great convulsion of his moral being. But if he was spared such misfortunes, he failed at the same time to enjoy the supreme consolation afforded to so many servants of God. We find no indication that like them he held ecstatic communion with Christ and heavenly visitors. He was never lifted out of the light of common day. There fell to him the more ordinary if harder lot of holding true to his faith without either the impetus which the revulsion of feeling following upon guilt has so often supplied, or that vision of his reward which the ecstatic is permitted to behold.

Religion, as the ruling motive in the life of Boniface, necessarily determined the character of his intellectual interests. He was above all else a student of the Scriptures, and gained a reputation with contemporaries for his biblical investigations (XLVII). As we have already noticed, he saw in the Venerable Bede not the historian and scientist, but the writer on scriptural subjects. 35 Even when he entered other fields of learning, the same influence asserted itself. Though he must have had a knowledge of the Latin classics, to judge only from the allusions in some of the letters addressed to him, and some acquaintance with Greek, yet the bulk of his reading was probably the Fathers and the growing literature of the Church, while his own compositions served a distinctly religious purpose.1 The only long poem of his which remains describes ten virtues, “the golden apples of the tree of life,’ and ten vices, “the evil fruit of the tree of death.” His verses were by no means a spontaneous outpouring of the soul like the songs and hymns of the early Franciscans, but, following the fashion of the period, were a highly artificial exercise in enigma and allegory, alliteration and acrostics. The teaching, however, which they were intended to convey gave them a certain dignity and impressiveness.

Though Boniface never abandoned his intellectual pursuits, he was not primarily a student or teacher. Religion exercised its most decisive influence upon his life by removing him from purely academic surroundings and calling him into the world. Possibly his character would have saved him from becoming, even in the narrowest 36 circles, a mere visionary or self-centred pedant. But it was in the public service of God that his real strength appeared. There is no need to dwell upon his practical ability as shown either in securing the assistance of the government without being defiled by the pitch of political intrigue, or in bringing order out of chaos, stationing his forces at the best strategic points, and completing his organization. He was one of those rare men who can give attention to details without losing grasp of principles. While at times he displayed a characteristically English willingness to compromise, yet for the most part — like other great men of action — he held resolutely, even stubbornly, to his own course. We may fairly compare his vigour and directness with the academic aloofness of Daniel of Winchester and the rhetorical ineffectiveness of Lul.

Boniface owed a large measure of his success to his power of winning and holding followers. The letters furnish constant testimony to the affection and reverence with which those working in the same field regarded him. There is no sign that, as so often happens, the nearer people came to the great man, the less remarkable he appeared. Nor do we find on his part any failure to show justice and consideration to his assistants (XLIV). We are familiar enough with that strong type of personality which commands the loyalty and devotion of subordinates, and 37 yet treats them as tools to be cast aside when used. The dictates of a selfish policy leave little room for genuine sympathy and confidence. But the relations between Boniface and all his friends rested on a different basis. Their common aim kept personal motives in check, and fostered those virtues and interests best calculated to preserve a lasting and sincere understanding. They became, in reality, members of an harmonious family, whose intercourse was marked, on the one hand, by freedom and the absence of restraint, and, on the other, by perfect delicacy and refinement. Wordsworth speaks somewhere of the “defrauded” lives of those who break the ties of kinship, and, in the ordinary sense of the phrase, abandon the world. He scarcely realizes that such lives may be filled not merely with spiritual hopes and joys, but with the delights and consolations of pure love and friendship. If this selection from the correspondence of Saint Boniface does anything to establish this fact, it will have fully accomplished its end.

The text upon which the translation is based is that given by Dümmler in Monumenta Germaniae Historica, Epistolarum III.

I am indebted to my friend Mr. William Mowbray, of Upper Canada College, Toronto, for many suggestions.


University of Toronto.


1  Monumenta Germaniae Historica, “Poetae Latini Aevi Carolini, t. 1.”

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