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Saint Boniface
from the book "Little Pictorial Lives of the Saints"
Bishop and Martyr
Born c. 672, Crediton, Devon
Died June 5, 754, Dokkum, Frisia
Venerated in Roman Catholic Church,
Eastern Orthodox Church,
Lutheran Church,
Anglican Communion
Major shrine Fulda
Feast June 5
Attributes axe; book; fountain; fox; oak; raven; scourge; sword
Patronage brewers; file cutters; Fulda; Germany; tailors;[1] World Youth Day

Saint Boniface (Latin: Bonifacius; c. 680 – June 5, 754), the Apostle of the Germans, born Winfrid, Wynfrith, or Wynfryth possibly at Crediton in the kingdom of Wessex (now in Devon, England), was a missionary who propagated Christianity in the Frankish Empire during the 8th century. He is the patron saint of Germany and the first archbishop of Mainz.

He was killed in Frisia in 754.[1] His tomb is in the crypt of Fulda Cathedral. The date of his canonization is unknown.


Early life and first mission to Frisia

The earliest "Life" of Boniface, written by Willibald around 765, does not mention his place of birth but that at an early age he attended a monastery at Examchester. The "life" written by Otloh of St. Emmeram in the 10th century says that his birth was at Crediton, but it is not clear on what basis this was.

Winfrid was of a respected and prosperous family. It was somewhat against his father's wishes that he devoted himself at an early age to the monastic life. He received his theological training in the Benedictine monasteries of Adescancastre, near Exeter and Nursling, on the western edge of Southampton, under the abbot Winbert. Winfrid taught in the abbey school and at the age of 30 became a priest. He wrote the first Latin grammar produced in England.

In 716 AD, Winfrid set out on a missionary expedition to Frisia, intending to convert the inhabitants by preaching to them in their own language, his own Old English language being similar to Old Frisian. His efforts, however, were frustrated by the war then being carried on between Charles Martel and Radbod, king of the Frisians, and he returned to Nursling.

In 723, Boniface felled the holy oak tree dedicated to Thor near the present-day town of Fritzlar in northern Hesse. He did this with the Prophet Elijah in mind. Boniface called upon Thor to strike him down if he cut the "holy" tree. According to St Boniface's first biographer, Willibald (an Anglo-Saxon priest come to Mainz after Boniface's death, not to be confused with the saint),[2] Boniface started to chop the oak down, when suddenly a great wind, as if by miracle, blew the ancient oak over. When Thor did not strike him down, the people were amazed and converted to Christianity. All belief in Thor ended. He built a chapel from its wood at the site where today stands the cathedral of Fritzlar. Later he established the first bishopric in Germany north of the old Roman Limes at the Frankish fortified settlement of Büraburg, on a prominent hill facing the town across the Eder River.

The felling of Thor's Oak is commonly regarded as the beginning of German Christianization north and east of the old borders of the Roman Empire.

Boniface and the Carolingians

St Boniface, Baptising and Martyrdom, from the Sacramentary of Fulda

The support of the Frankish mayors of the palace (maior domos) and later the early Pippinid and Carolingian rulers, was essential for Boniface's work. Monasticism went from the Celts to the Anglo-Saxons and thence to the Carolingian kings. Boniface had been under the protection of Charles Martel from 723 on. From the Anglo-Saxons, Boniface joined the papacy and the Carolingian kings and provided education for them. The Christian Frankish leaders desired to defeat their rival power, the non-Christian Saxons, and to incorporate the Saxon lands into their own growing empire. Boniface's destruction of the indigenous Germanic faith and holy sites was, thus, an important part of the Frankish campaign against the Saxons.

In 732, Boniface traveled again to Rome to report, and Pope Gregory II conferred upon him the pallium as archbishop with jurisdiction over Germany. Boniface again set out for what is now Germany, baptized thousands, and dealt with the problems of many other Christians who had fallen out of contact with the regular hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church. During his third visit to Rome in 737–38, he was made papal legate for Germany.

After Boniface's third trip to Rome, Charles Martel erected four dioceses in Bavaria (Salzburg, Regensburg, Freising, and Passau) and gave them Boniface as archbishop and metropolitan over all Germany east of the Rhine. In 745, he was granted Mainz as metropolitan see. In 742, one of his disciples, Sturm (also known as Sturmi, or Sturmius), founded the abbey of Fulda not far from Boniface's earlier missionary outpost at Fritzlar. Although Sturm was the founding abbot of Fulda, Boniface was very involved in the foundation. The initial grant for the abbey was signed by Carloman, the son of Charles Martel. The saint himself explained to his old friend, Daniel of Winchester, that without the protection of Charles Martel he could “neither administer his church, defend his clergy, nor prevent idolatry.” He also organized provincial synods in the Frankish church and maintained a sometimes turbulent relationship with the king of the Franks, Pepin, whom he may have crowned at Soissons in 751.

St Boniface balanced this support and attempted to maintain some independence, however, by attaining the support of the papacy and of the Agilolfing rulers of Bavaria. In Frankish, Hessian, and Thuringian territory, he established the dioceses of Würzburg, and Erfurt. By appointing his own followers as bishops, he was able to retain some independence from the Carolingians, who most likely were content to give him leeway as long as Christianity was imposed on the Saxons and other Germanic tribes.

Last mission to Frisia

Saint Boniface Crypt, Fulda, Germany
A view inside the shrine of Saint Boniface of Dokkum in the hermit-church of Warfhuizen in the Netherlands. The little folded paper on the left contains a bone-fragment of Saint Benedict of Nursia, the folded paper on the right a piece of the habit of saint Bernard of Clairvaux. The big bone in the middle (about 5 cm in length) is the actual relic of Saint Boniface.

He had never relinquished his hope of converting the Frisians, and in 754 he set out with a small retinue for Frisia. He baptized a great number and summoned a general meeting for confirmation at a place not far from Dokkum, between Franeker and Groningen. Instead of his converts, however, a group of armed inhabitants appeared who slew the aged archbishop. According to their own law (The Lex Frisionum), the Frisians had the right to kill him, since he had destroyed their shrines. Boniface's hagiographer reports that the Frisians killed the saint because they believed the chests he carried with him contained gold and other riches, but were dismayed when they discovered that there were only the bishop's books contained within.

His remains were eventually buried in the abbey of Fulda after resting for some time in Utrecht, and they are entombed within a shrine beneath the high altar of Fulda cathedral. The forcible conversion of Germany up to the Elbe River was executed by Charlemagne, who destroyed the Saxons' independence, though not that of the Frisians, in the last decades of the eighth century.


Saint Boniface's feast day is celebrated on June 5 in the Roman Catholic Church, the Lutheran Church, and the Anglican Communion and on December 19 in the Eastern Orthodox Church.

A famous statue of St Boniface stands on the grounds of Mainz Cathedral, seat of the archbishop of Mainz. A more modern rendition stands facing the cathedral of Fritzlar.

The UK National Shrine is located at the Catholic church at Crediton, Devon, which has a bas-relief of the felling of Thor's Oak, by sculptor Kenneth Carter. The sculpture was unveiled by Princess Margaret in his native Crediton, located in Newcombes Meadow Park. There is also a series of paintings there by Timothy Moore. There are quite a few churches dedicated to St. Boniface in the United Kingdom: Bunbury, Cheshire; Chandler's Ford and Southampton Hampshire; Adler Street, London; Papa-Westray, Orkney; St. Budeaux, Plymouth (now demolished); Bonchurch, Isle of Wight.

Bishop George Errington founded St Boniface's Catholic College, Plymouth in 1856. The school celebrates St Boniface on June 5 each year.

In 1818, Father Norbert Provencher founded a mission on the east bank of the Red River in what was then Rupert's Land, building a log church and naming it after St. Boniface. The log church was consecrated as Saint Boniface Cathedral after Provencher was himself consecrated as a bishop and the diocese was formed. The community that grew around the cathedral eventually became the city of St. Boniface, which merged into the city of Winnipeg in 1971.

St. Boniface also has a church dedicated to him in the city of Lafayette, Indiana of the United States of America. It was started sometime in the 1800s. It is still holding masses for the city's Catholics that wish to come celebrate. St. Boniface Church, Chicago was established by German immigrants in 1865, with the current building dating from 1903. The church, although of significant architectural interest, fell into disuse in 1990 and its future is in doubt. There is another St. Boniface Roman Catholic church in Anaheim, California. This year it is celebrating its 150 year anniversary


Some traditions credit St Boniface with the invention of the Christmas tree. The aforementioned Oak of Thor at Geismar was chopped down by Boniface in a stage-managed confrontation with the old gods and local heathen tribes. A fir tree growing in the roots of the Oak was claimed by Boniface as a new symbol: "This humble tree's wood is used to build your homes: let Christ be at the centre of your households. Its leaves remain evergreen in the darkest days: let Christ be your constant light. Its boughs reach out to embrace and its top points to heaven: let Christ be your Comfort and Guide."[3] It is worthwhile adding that the latter part of this account is completely legendary (and probably later than the Middle Ages) and has no credible authority in any of the vitae or later biographies.

Further reading

  • Talbot, C. H., ed. The Anglo-Saxon Missionaries in Germany: Being the Lives of S.S. Willibrord, Boniface, Strum, Leoba and Lebuin, together with the Hodoeporicon of St. Willibald and a Selection from the Correspondence of St. Boniface. New York: Sheed and Ward, 1954. (English translation of original source material. Includes the first biography of St. Boniface, written by his 8th-century contemporary St. Willibald, and the Boniface correspondence.)
The Bonifacian vita was republished in Noble, Thomas F. X. and Thomas Head, eds. Soldiers of Christ: Saints and Saints’ Lives in Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages. University Park: Pennsylvania State UP, 1995. 109-40.
  • Mostert, Marco. 754: Bonifatius bij Dokkum Vermoord. Hilversum: Verloren, 1999.(Excellent and well-illustrated popular study of Boniface and Friesland, the saint's role, and modern veneration, in Dutch.)
  • Padberg, Lutz E. von. Bonifatius: Missionar und Reformer. München: Beck, 2003. (Biography by one of the foremost authorities on the saint and the conversion of the German peoples, in German.)
  • "St. Boniface", entry from online version of the Catholic Encyclopedia, 1913 edition.

See also


Search Wikimedia Commons Wikimedia Commons has media related to: Saint Boniface
  1. ^ a b Boniface from Patron Saints Index
  2. ^ Lapidge, Michael, John Blair, Simon Keynes, and Donald Scragg, eds. The Blackwell Encyclopaedia of Anglo-Saxon England. Wiley-Blackwell, 2000. Print.
  3. ^ Boniface of Crediton
Preceded by
Archbishop of Mainz
Succeeded by

1911 encyclopedia

Up to date as of January 14, 2010
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