Saint Boniface: Biography, Facts & Quotes

Instructor: Jennifer Shaw

Jennifer is a third year PhD student in women's studies and has a a Master's degree in History.

This lesson explores the life and work of Saint Boniface, a Benedictine monk who spent the majority of his life preaching the word of God to pagan tribes in Germany.

Saint Boniface

What happens when you cut down a sacred oak tree dedicated to Thor? Nothing! But for Saint Boniface, cutting down such a tree in Geismar (in present-day Germany) ensured the conversion to Catholicism of many pagans and cemented his place as 'apostle to the Germans'.

Early Life

Born around 675CE in Wessex, part of present-day Devon, England, Saint Boniface was originally named Wynfrid. Born into a noble family, he convinced them to send him to school at Benedictine monasteries, where he received a first-rate education. As a result, Wynfrid decided to become a Benedictine monk, and was ordained as a priest around the age of 30.

St. Boniface by Cornelius Bloemaert
St. Boniface

First Trip to Europe

Though well-respected for his skills as a teacher, Wynfrid felt a strong calling to spread the word of God to non-Christians. He became a missionary in his 40s, and left his relatively comfortable and safe life in England to travel to mainland Europe. In 716 he joined another missionary, Willibrord, to try and convert the pagan tribes that lived in Frisia (now part of the Netherlands). Willibrord had been denied access to the tribes by their king, Radbod, who then destroyed churches that had already been established. Forced to flee, Wynfrid and Willibrord left in order to regroup. Returning to England, Wynfrid discovered that the abbot of his order had died, and that he had been elected to replace him. Though a significant honor, Wynfrid turned it down in order to continue his missionary efforts.

St. Boniface converting pagans. The bottom shows his martyrdom.
St. Boniface conversion and martyr

Second Trip to Europe

Wynfrid wanted to return to Germany despite the failure of his first mission. This time, he decided to travel first to Rome to get the approval and support of the pope. In 718 he reached Rome, and asked for the sanction of Pope Gregory II. Gregory kept Wynfrid in Rome for the winter to talk it over; it was at this point that he renamed Wynfrid Boniface, the name by which he is now known. Finally accepting Boniface's plan, Gregory sent him to convert tribes east of the Rhine River.

In 719, Radbod died, and Boniface learned that Willibrord had returned to Frisia. Perhaps hoping to make good on his earlier failure, Boniface returned to Frisia to join Willibrord. Working for three years with him, Boniface so impressed the older priest that Willibrord wanted him to be his successor. However, Boniface turned him down and returned to Hesse, in Germany.

Boniface's Later Life

Boniface reached Hesse in 722. It was a place that hadn't had much exposure to Christianity, so he set about establishing churches and monasteries to spread the word of God. He also returned to Rome to ask for more help, and was consecrated as a missionary bishop by Gregory while he was there. Gregory also provided him with letters of recommendation to important people in Germany such as Charles Martel, the Frankish ruler. When he returned to Hesse he cut down Thor's tree to demonstrate to pagan worshipers that nothing would happen if it was destroyed. Legend has it that the tree split into four parts and fell into the shape of a cross, convincing pagan tribespeople to convert.

St. Boniface cutting down the oak tree of Thor. Engraving by Bernhard Rode, 1781.
boniface and the oak

After his success in Hesse, Boniface went to Thuringia, staying there from 725-735, and setting up more churches. After Charles Martel died in 741, Boniface worked with his sons, Pepin and Carloman, to consolidate the church's place in Germany. He was named archbishop of Mainz by Pope Zachary around 746, and helped found the monastery of Fulda, still in use today.

Engraving of Fulda Cathedral
cathedral

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