St Willibrord (658-739; Feast: 7 November) is one of the various missionary saints from the Anglo-Saxon world to the European continent such as his younger contemporary St Boniface (saint of the week here); his mission field was Frisia and parts of the modern Netherlands and Luxembourg, reaching into (pre-Viking) Denmark.
Willibrord was born in Yorkshire, the son of a certain Wilgils who at some point after Willibrord’s birth became a hermit. Willibrord was educated by St Wilfrid at Ripon and, in 678, went into exile in Ireland when Wilfrid lost his episcopacy in York and took his appeal to Rome (the first English bishop to use Rome as a court of appeal). Of note concerning Wilfrid is that he spent some time preaching in Frisia, also an Anglo-Saxon first, and no doubt later to inspire his disciple Willibrord.
Willibrord spent twelve years in self-imposed exile in Ireland where he spent time in study and was ordained priest. According to the Venerable Bede (saint of the week here), Egbert had long wanted to engage in continental mission, and the earlier mission of a certain Wictbert had availed nothing. After Willibrord’s return to England in 690, he and twelve companions went as missionaries to Frisia to fulfil Egbert’s vision. The choice of Frisia/Friesland makes sense, given the linguistic similarities between Old English and Frisian. I also believe that it is one of the parts of the Continent whence came Britain’s post-Roman Germanic invaders (ultimately ‘Anglo-Saxons’ to us).
Willibrord had the support of the Carolingian dux Pippin II, and his continental mission, like that of Boniface shortly thereafter, was both episcopal and apostolic. As Archbishop of Utrecht, he organised and reformed the existing Christian communities as well as engaging in evangelism of the non-Christian inhabitants of his Metropolitan area.*
Anglo-Saxon bishops (and Carolingians) tended to hold the Bishop of Rome in very high regard, not simply as the Patriarch of Western Christendom, but also as the person (in particular, Gregory the Great, saint of the week here) who first organised the Anglo-Saxon mission of Augustine of Canterbury (saint of the week here). As a result of this esteem in which the papacy was held, Willibrord visited Pope Sergius in Rome early in his mission. In 695 he again visited Rome, this time for his consecration as Bishop of Utrecht.
In 698, he founded his first monastery at Echternach. Monasticism and mission go hand in hand for insular evangelism.
Christianity, of course, can be a politically and socially de-stabilising creed. While Pippin II may have supported Willibrord, Radbod, a Frisian king who practised traditional religion, did not. In 714, Radbod drove Willibrord out of Utrecht, destroyed churches, and killed some priests. In 719, Radbod died, and Willibrord returned to Achiepiscopal see. It was after this that St Boniface joined Willibrord for a time before going East for his own missionary activity.
Like most missionaries of his day, Willibrord literally killed some sacred cows and destroyed some idols. Unlike the less fortunate ones, he and his companions survived. He died at the monastery in Echternach in 739.
He is an example of how early mediaeval prelates combined asceticism with evangelistic zeal. We would do well to imitate, I think.
Read more about Willibrod!
I got most of this information from:
- David Farmer, The Oxford Dictionary of Saints, 5th ed., Revised (2011)
- Bede, The Ecclesiastical History of the English People — I recommend the Oxford World’s Classics translation, FYI
*Quick note on church organisation: Local bishops have the pastoral and administrative care of cities and their surrounding area, today called a Diocese. These are further organised into Provinces, each of which has a Metropolitan. In the early mediaeval church, above the Metropolitans was the Pope.