Saint Boniface
May 31, 2019
by staff

Saint Boniface (680 – 754) — or Winfrid, his baptismal name — was born to noble, Christian parents in Crediton, Devonshire. He opted for the religious life already as a boy after having listened to the conversation of two monks staying at his house. His father initially objected but a serious illness drove him to see things differently and he relented, sending the boy to be educated at the abbey of Exeter. Winfrid finished his studies at the abbey of Bursling, in the diocese of Winchester, and was then appointed head of its school. His teaching skill attracted many students and he wrote a grammar for them which is still extant. He was ordained a priest at the age of thirty.

Though Winfrid was assured of rapid advancement in the English Church, he opted to become a missionary to the Germans. In 716, he obtained permission from his abbot and set out for Friesland (today’s Netherlands) along with two other companions. The local duke, however, was an enemy of Christianity and was at war with Charles Martel, the Frankish duke. The conditions, therefore, were not favourable for evangelisation and the three missionaries returned to England. Two years later, in 718, Winfrid tried again. This time, however, he went first to Rome to obtain a letter of commission from the pope, seeing that this would give him greater authority with the local chieftains and ease the process of evangelisation of the pagans. It was at this visit that the pope, Gregory II, changed Winfrid’s name to Boniface, which means fortunate.

Armed with the papal commission, St Boniface then went into Germany where he spent the remainder of his life evangelising its inhabitants. In his ministry to the people, he found that the support of the temporal rulers was of great benefit. He would write in a letter to England, "Without the patronage of the Frankish chiefs, I cannot govern the people or exercise discipline over the clergy and monks, or check the practice of paganism." He had the support of Charles Martel, and later of his son Carloman, and finally of Pepin the Short, after Carloman had retired into a monastery.  In 731, Saint Boniface was made archbishop of Germany, and some year later he was appointed apostolic legate. As the legate, he crowned Pepin King of the Franks, an event which may well have been witnessed by Pepin’s son, Charlemagne. 

One of Saint Boniface’s most famous deeds occurred when, early in his mission, he along with one or two companions cut down — while the local pagan inhabitants watched — an oak tree deemed sacred to them and believed to be protected by Thor. The tree quickly fell and split in four sections upon hitting the ground. Those watching were amazed that nothing had befallen St Boniface and his companions, and many were converted.

St Boniface died in 751, a martyr’s death. While on an evangelising mission to the northeastern region of Germany, his group was attacked by local pagans and he was killed without offering resistance.

In his work, St Boniface had been guided by two principles. The first was to restore the obedience of the clergy to their bishops in union with the pope of Rome. The second was the establishment of many houses of prayer which took the form of Benedictine monasteries. A great number of English monks and nuns followed him to the continent, where he introduced the Benedictine nuns to the active apostolate of education.