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Chapter 3

CHAPTER III: ST. BONIFACE (AD 680-755)

Although the Church of Ireland was in a somewhat rough state at
home, many of its clergy undertook missionary work on the Continent;
and by them and others much was done for the conversion of various
tribes in Germany and in the Netherlands. But the most famous
missionary of those times was an Englishman named Winfrid, who is
styled the Apostle of Germany.

Winfrid was born near Crediton, in Devonshire, about the year 680.
He became a monk at an early age, and perhaps it was then that he
took the name of Boniface, by which he is best known. He might
probably have risen to a high place in the church of his own country
if he had wished to do so; but he was filled with a glowing desire
to preach the Gospel to the heathen. He therefore refused all the
tempting offers which were made to him at home, crossed the sea, and
began to labour in Friesland and about the lower part of the Rhine.
For three years he assisted another famous English missionary,
Willibrord, bishop of Utrecht, who wished to make Boniface his
successor; but Boniface thought that he was bound rather to labour
in some country where his work was more needed; so, leaving
Willibrord, he went into Hessia, where he made and baptized many
thousands of converts. The pope, Gregory the Second, on hearing of
this success, invited him to Rome, consecrated him as a bishop, and
sent him back with letters recommending him to the princes and
peoples of the countries in which his work was to lie (AD 723).

The government of the Franks was then in a very odd state. There
were kings over them; but these kings, instead of carrying on the
government for themselves, and leading their nation in war, were
shut up in their palaces, except that once in the year they were
brought out in a cart drawn by bullocks to appear at the national
assemblies.

These poor "do-nothings" (as the kings of the old French race are
called) were without any strength or spirit. From their way of life,
they allowed their hair to grow without being shorn; and the Greeks,
who lived far away from them, and knew of them only by hearsay,
believed, not only that their hair was long, but that it grew down
their backs like the bristles of a hog. And, while the kings had
sunk into this pitiable state, the real work of the kingly office
was done, and the kingly power was really enjoyed, by great officers
who were called "mayors of the palace".

At the time which I am speaking of, the mayor of the palace was
Charles, who was afterwards known by the name of Martel, or "The
Hammer." Charles had done a great service to Christendom by
defeating a vast army of Mahometans, who had forced their way from
Spain into the heart of France, and driving the remains of them
back across the Pyrenees. It is said that they lost 375,000 men in
the battle which they fought with Charles near Poitiers (AD 732);
and, although this number is no doubt beyond the truth, it is
certain that the infidels were so much weakened that they never
ventured to attempt any more conquests in western Europe. But,
although Charles had thus done very great things for the Christian
world, it would seem that he himself did not care much for religion;
and, although he gave Boniface a letter of protection, he did not
help or encourage him greatly in his missionary labours. But
Boniface was resolved to carry on bravely what he believed to be
God's work. He preached in Hessia and Thuringia, and made many
thousands of converts. He built churches and monasteries, and
brought over from England large numbers of clergy to help him in
preaching and in the Christian training of his converts, for which
purpose he also obtained supplies of books from his own country. He
founded bishoprics, and held councils of clergy and laymen for the
settlement of the Church's affairs. Finding that the Hessians paid
reverence to an old oak-tree, which was sacred to one of their gods,
he resolved to cut it down. The heathens stood around, looking
fiercely at him, cursing and threatening him, and expecting to see
him and his companions struck dead by the vengeance of their gods.
But when he had only just begun to attack the oak we are told that a
great wind suddenly arose, and struck it so that it fell to the
ground in four pieces. The people, seeing this, took it for a sign
from heaven, and consented to give up their old idolatry; and
Boniface turned the wood of the huge old oak to use by building a
chapel with it.

In some places Boniface found a strange mixture of heathen
superstitions with Christianity, and he did all that he could to
root them out. He had also much trouble with missionaries from
Ireland, whose notions of Christian doctrine and practice differed
in some things from his; and perhaps he did not always treat them
with so much of wisdom and gentleness as might have been wished.
But after all he was right in thinking that the sight of more than
one kind of Christian religion, different from each other and
opposed to each other; must puzzle the heathen and hinder their
conversion; so that we can understand his jealousy of these Irish
missionaries, even if we cannot wholly approve of it.

In reward of his labours and success, Boniface was made an
archbishop by Pope Gregory III in 732; and, although at first he was
not fixed in any one place, he soon brought the German Church into
such a state of order that it seemed to be time for choosing some
city as the seat of its chief bishop, just as the chief bishop of
England was settled at Canterbury. Boniface himself wished to fix
himself at Cologne; but at that very time the bishop of Mentz got
into trouble by killing a Saxon, who, in a former war, had killed
the bishop's father. Although it had been quite a common thing in
those rough days for bishops to take a part in fighting, Boniface
and his councils had made rules forbidding such things, as
unbecoming the ministers of peace; and the case of the bishop of
Mentz, coming just after those rules had been made, could not well
be passed over. The bishop, therefore, was obliged to give up his
see; and Mentz was chosen to be the place where Boniface should be
fixed as archbishop and primate of Germany, having under him five
bishops, and all the nations which had received the Gospel through
his preaching.

When Boniface had grown old, he felt himself again drawn to Frisia,
where, as we have seen (p174), he had laboured in his early life;
and at the age of seventy-five he left his archbishopric, with all
that invited him to spend his last days there in quiet and honour,
that he might once more go forth as a missionary to the barbarous
Frieslanders. Among them he preached with much success; but on
Whitsun Eve, 755, while he was expecting a great number of his
converts to meet, that they might receive confirmation from him, he
and his companions were attacked by an armed party of heathens, and
the whole of the missionaries, fifty-two in number, were martyred.
But although Boniface thus ended his active and useful life by
martyrdom at the hands of those whom he wished to bring into the way
of salvation, his work was carried on by other missionaries, and the
conversion of the Frisians was completed within no long time.
Boniface's body was carried up the Rhine, and was buried at Fulda, a
monastery which he had founded amidst the loneliness of a vast
forest, and there the tomb of the "Apostle of the Germans" was
visited with reverence for centuries.