St. Boniface was born at Crediton, or Kirton, in Devonshire, about the year 680, and at his baptism named Winfrid. When he was but five years old, his chief delight was to hear holy men converse about God and heavenly things. The edifying deportment and holy instructions of certain pious monks, who, being employed in preaching in that country, happened to come to his father's house, gave him a strong desire to devote himself to God in a religious state; and though he was then only a child, the deep impressions which their words left upon his heart were never after effaced. His father exerted his whole authority to divert him from his inclination to a monastic life; till being visited by a dangerous sickness, he acknowledged in it the hand of God, chastising him for opposing his son's vocation, which he from that time gave him free leave to pursue. Winfrid was educated from thirteen years of age in the monastery of Escancester, or Exeter, under the holy abbot Wolphard. With the study of grammar he joined assiduous, devout meditation, and the most rigorous observance of monastic discipline, even before he had professed that state; which he embraced before he left the aforesaid monastery. After he had spent there some years, the reputation of the schools and discipline of the monastery of Nutcell, in the diocese of Winchester, under the learned abbot Winbert, drew him to that house. He made an extraordinary progress in poesy, rhetoric, history, and in the knowledge of the scriptures; and was afterwards appointed by his abbot to teach the same sciences: of which duty he acquitted himself with great fruit to others, at the same time improving himself in the sciences with that redoubled advantage which maturity of years and judgment, and a diligent review of a well-digested course of former studies, give to masters of an elevated genius. At thirty years of age he was promoted to the order of priesthood; and from that time was chiefly employed in preaching the word of God to the people, and in the care of souls. Such was his reputation, that he was intrusted by his superiors with an important commission to Brithwald, archbishop of Canterbury; by which means that prelate and the religious king Ina became acquainted with his extraordinary merit; and the bishops of the province from that time invited him to their synods, that they might be assisted by his learning and advice in their deliberations.
The servant of God, burning with zeal for the divine honor and the salvation of souls, never ceased to bewail, night and day, the misfortune of those nations which lay benighted in the shades of idolatry. In these holy dispositions, after having long implored the light and blessing of heaven, he, with the leave of his abbot, passed over into Friesland to preach the gospel to the infidels in 716. But for the trial of his virtue, a war breaking out between Charles Martel, mayor of the French palace, and Radbod, king of Friesland, threw insuperable difficulties in his way. However, he advanced as far as Utrecht, then the capital city of that country, and addressed himself to king Radbod, but without success; and he was obliged to return to his monastery in England. Winbert dying soon after, Winfrid was unanimously chosen abbot. He did all that in his power lay to decline this promotion, alleging that he was called to the conversion of infidels. Though he was not able then to prevail, he shortly after urged the same motive with such success, as to engage Daniel, the learned and pious bishop of Winchester, to procure that his demission should be accepted, and another nominated abbot in his place.
After having stayed two years in England, he set out for Rome in 719, and presented himself to pope Gregory II., begging his apostolic blessing, and authority that he might preach the faith to infidels. The pope, fixing his eyes upon him, asked him if he brought with him commendatory letters from his diocesan. Hereupon Winfrid delivered into his hands letters from the aforesaid bishop Daniel, by which he was strongly recommended to his holiness. Gregory having read them, and conversed some time with the saint, began to treat him with extraordinary marks of kindness and esteem, and gave him an ample commission to preach the faith to all the infidel nations of Germany. He bestowed on him many holy relics, and dismissed him with his blessing, and letters of recommendation to all Christian princes in his way. The holy missionary lost no time, but taking the road of Germany, crossed the Lower Alps, and travelling through Bavaria into Thuringia, there began his apostolical functions. He not only baptized great numbers of infidels, but also brought the Christians he found already established in Bavaria, and in the provinces adjoining to France, (especially the priests and bishops,) to reform many irregularities, and to live in a manner agreeable to the precepts of the gospel, and to the holy canons of the church; for the commerce of the heathens had almost extinguished in them the sense of the pure maxims of their faith. Winfrid hearing soon after that, by the death of Radbod, Charles Martel was become master of Friesland, and that a door was there opened for the preaching of the gospel, he hastened thither, and during three years joined his labors with St. Willebrord to the great increase of the faith; till, understanding that St. Willebrord intended to make him his successor in the episcopal charge, he was alarmed, and left that mission. For his excuse he alleged that the pope had enjoined him a commission to preach the gospel to the heathens in Germany. From Friesland he went into Hesse and part of Saxony; and wherever he came, baptized many thousands of idolaters, destroyed temples, and built churches. He acquainted pope Gregory with this wonderful success, by a letter which he sent by one of his fellow-laborers, and, at the same time, consulted his holiness upon several difficulties that occurred in his ministry. The pope gave glory to God, and congratulated him by a letter, in which he commanded him to repair to Rome. Winfrid immediately obeyed the order, and arrived there in 723. Gregory required of him a confession of his faith, as is usual with regard to bishops elect before their consecration. He likewise put him several questions concerning his missions and converted countries, and after a few days ordained him bishop. Willibald says, that on this occasion the pope changed his rugged northern name of Winfrid into that of Boniface: but he could only confirm that change; for we find by the saint's letters, that he then bore the name of Boniface, joining with it that of Winfrid. The saint took an oath to maintain the purity of faith, and the unity of the church; a copy of which, written with his own hand, he laid upon the tomb of St. Peter. Pope Gregory gave him a book of select canons of the church, to serve him for a rule in his conduct, and by letters recommended him to Charles Martel, and to all bishops and princes wherever he should have occasion to travel.
The saint returning to his mission in Hesse, continued his spiritual conquests, and cut down a tall oak consecrated to Jupiter, the timber of which he employed in building a chapel in honor of the prince of the apostles. He founded many churches, and a monastery at Orfordt. The harvest growing daily upon his hands, he procured a new supply of laborers from England, whom he stationed in Hesse and Thuringia. In 732, Gregory III. succeeding in the pontificate, St. Boniface sent messengers to Rome, to consult him upon several difficulties. Gregory showed these deputies great respect, and sent by them a pall for St. Boniface, to be used by him only when he celebrated the divine mysteries, or consecrated bishops. He at that time constituted him archbishop and primate of all Germany, with power to erect new bishoprics where he should see it expedient. The saint went himself to Rome for the third time in 738 to visit the tombs of the apostles, and to confer with his holiness about the churches he had founded. The pope received him as a living saint, and appointed him legate of the apostolic see in Germany. Boniface on his return to that country was called into Bavaria by the duke Odilo, to reform several abuses. Finding only one bishopric in that country, namely, Passaw, he established three others, Saltzburg, Freisingen, and Ratisbon, which division the pope confirmed in 739. The holy primate soon after established three new bishoprics, at Erford for Thuringia, at Baraburg for Hesse, since translated to Paderborn, and at Wurtzbourg for Franconia: he added a fourth at Achstat in the palatinate of Bavaria.
Gregory III. dying in November, 741, his successor Zachary, upon application made to him by St. Boniface, again confirmed all he had done in settling the church of Germany. At that time happened a memorable revolution in France, in which that crown was transferred into a new family, fruitful in great princes and valiant heroes. Charles Martel, mayor of the palace, having governed France twenty-six years with great valor and prudence, having conquered Burgundy and Aquitaine, humbled the Saxons, and often defeated the Saracens, who made formidable invasions from their late settlements in Spain, died in 741, being fifty or fifty-five years old. Since the dignity of mayor of the palace was become hereditary, the title of duke and prince of France had been added to it. By the death of Charles, his eldest son Carloman became mayor and prince of Austrasia, or Lorraine, and that part of Germany which was then subject to France. He subdued Odilo and Thierry, the former duke of Bavaria, arid the latter of Saxony and made them tributary; but it was his chief aim to consult by peace the happiness of his people, to protect religion, and to cultivate the useful arts. He bent his whole authority to second the zeal of our saint in all his undertakings two impostors were stirred up by the devil to disturb the infant church of Germany. The one, Adalbert, a Frenchman, pretended to know the secrets of hearts, gave his own hair and the parings of his nails as relics, and wrote his own life, filled with absurd pretended miracles, enthusiasm, and pride. The other, called Clement, a Scotsman, rejected the canons or the ecclesiastical laws, taught that Christ in his descent into hell delivered all the souls of the damned: he also held heterodox opinions concerning predestination. Saint Boniface, in a council in Germany condemned them both in 742; Carloman caused them to be confined in close prison, and the sentence of our saint and his council was afterwards confirmed by the pope in a synod at Rome in 745.1 St. Boniface held another council in 743 at Leptines, now Lessines, a palace of the kings of Austrasia, near Ath, in the diocese of Cambray. Prince Carloman finding him a man full of the science of the saints, and of the Spirit of God, listened to his advice in all things relating to the salvation of his soul. By the saint's pious discourses, his heart was daily more and more inflamed with divine love, till despising the world in the height of its glory, he recommended his estates and his son Drogo to Pepin the Short, his younger brother, and disengaged himself from all the ties of the world. He then went to Rome with a splendid retinue, and having visited the tombs of the apostles and other holy places of that city, and dismissed his attendants, he received from the hands of pope Zachary the monastic habit, and retiring to mount Soracte, built there a monastery called St. Sylvester's. The neighborhood of Rome drew thither so many visitants, especially among the French lords who lived in that city, that to avoid this distraction, by the advice of the pope, he withdrew to mount Cassino, where he lived several years with great fervor and humility, as the author of the Chronicle of Mount Cassino, Eginhard in his Annals, and other historians of that age testify. He chose and discharged with great cheerfulness the meanest offices, often served in the kitchen, kept the sheep of the monastery, and worked like a day-laborer in the garden. In this he had before his eyes the example of many English-Saxon kings who had done the same. Ceolwulph, king of the Northumbers, to whom Bede dedicated his History, was the eighth among them who had then exchanged his regal crown for the cowl of a monk, taking the habit at Lindisfarne in 737, as Hoveden, Simeon of Durham, and Matthew of Westminster relate. In the same year Frisisgithe, queen of the West-Saxons going to Rome, there took the religious veil. Carloman was doubtless encouraged by these heroic examples. Being sent into France for certain affairs of his order, he died holily at Vienne in 755. His brother, Pepin the Short, became mayor of the palace for the whole kingdom, till, in 752, he was chosen king by the unanimous consent of the whole nation, when the removal of Childeric III. put an end to the Merovingian line of kings. St. Boniface, as appears by his letters and various consultations, was timorous in decisions, nor did he appear as an actor in this delicate affair. Pope Zachary, as Eginhard, Otto, and others relate, upon the application of the states of the realm, answered, that it was better he should be king, in whom the whole supreme power and authority were lodged, and in this decision all parties peaceably acquiesced; judging that the state could not have two kings at the same time. All writers conspire in giving the highest commendations to the princely virtues of Pepin, whose zeal for religion, and love of the church and of holy men, could only be rivalled by his consummate experience, wisdom, and valor, by which he laid the foundation of that high pitch of power and glory to which his son carried the French empire. The new king, desiring to be crowned by the most holy prelate in his dominions, insisted upon the ceremony being performed by St. Boniface. This was done at Soissons, where our saint presided in a synod of bishops, and all the states of the French kingdom assisted at the coronation. St. Boniface, in his first council in Germany, is styled legate of St. Peter. From the councils of Lessines and Soissons, ho appears to have been legate of the apostolic see in France no less than in Germany. In 746, he entreated pope Zachary to send a bishop legate into France, that he might be eased of that burden. The pope refused to grant this request; but allowed him, by a singular privilege, to choose whom he thought best qualified to be his successor in Germany after his death. The saint had been some years archbishop of Germany before he fixed his metropolitan see in any particular city. Cologne was at first judged the most proper, it being then the metropolis; but Gervilio, the bishop of Mentz, having been deposed in a council, that city was pitched upon in 745. Pope Zachary subjected to this new metropolitan church the bishoprics of Tongres, Cologne, Worms, Spire, Utrecht; also all those which St. Boniface had erected, and those which before were subject to the see of Worms, namely, Strasburg, Augsburg, Constance, and Coire. Thus was Mentz made the metropolitan church of all Germany; for Triers was then comprised in France. Shortly after Cologne, and in process of time many other churches were raised to the dignity of archbishoprics, though in honor of St. Boniface, Mentz has always retained the primacy.
To assist him in planting the spirit of meekness and Christian piety in a fierce and uncivilized nation, St. Boniface invited over from England many holy men and religious women. Among these were St. Wigbert, St. Burehard, bishop of Wurtzbourg; St. Willibald, bishop of Eichstad, and St. Lullus: and among the holy virgins, were St. Lioba, our saint's cousin; St. Thecla, St. Walburge, Bertigita, and Contruda, to whom he committed the direction of several nunneries which he erected in Thuringia, Bavaria, and other places. In 746 he laid the foundation of the great abbey of Fuld, or Fulden, which continued long the most renowned seminary of piety and learning in all that part of the world. The abbot is now a prince of the empire, lord of a very extensive territory, and is styled primate of all the abbots in Germany, and chancellor to the empress. St. Boniface had several years before founded a monastery at Fridistar in honor of Saint Peter; another at Hamenburgh in honor of St. Michael: and one at Ordorfe in honor of the same archangel, in all which the monks gained their livelihood by the labor of their hands. The pastoral care of so many churches did not hinder this holy man from extending his zeal to remote countries, especially to that which gave him birth. Ethelbald, king of Mercia, was a lover of justice, and liberal to the poor; but sullied these virtues by abominable lusts, abstaining from matrimony that he might wallow in filthy incontinency: and his scandalous example was imitated by many of his courtiers. St. Boniface, touched to the quick at the news of such scandals, in 745 wrote to this prince a strong remonstrance and exhortation to penance, putting him in mind how base it was for him to be the slave of lust to the injury of God by whose benefit he ruled so great a nation; and how heinous a crime it was to set such an example to his subjects. He tells him that chastity is so highly prized among the pagan inhabitants of old Saxony, that if a married woman was convicted of adultery, or a virgin of fornication, she was strangled, and her body burned; and he who had dishonored her was hanged over her grave; or she was scourged on her back by women, and stabbed with knives, first in one village, then in the next, and so round the country, till she expired under her torments. "If Gentiles, who know not God," says the saint, "have so great a zeal for chastity, what ought to be your sentiments who are a Christian and a king!" He puts him in mind of the unhappy end of his predecessor, Coelred, and of Osred, king of the Northumbrians, both addicted to this shameful vice, and both snatched away by sudden death in the midst of their evil courses. From the gift of Croiland, mentioned by Ingulphus, and from the laws of this king in favor of the church, and of the abbey of Ripendune, Natalis Alexander, and some others, think he became a sincere penitent. He was slain soon after, in 755, by Beornred, a rebel, who usurped his throne."
St. Boniface wrote a circular letter to all the bishops, priests, deacons, canons, monks, nuns, and all the people of England, conjuring them earnestly to join in holy prayer, to beg of God, who desires that all may be saved, that he would vouchsafe, in his infinite mercy, to shower down his blessing upon the labors of all those who are employed in endeavoring to bring souls to his saving knowledge and holy love. He often desired books to be sent him from England, especially the works of Bede, whom he calls a lamp of the church.2 He entreated the abbess Edburge3 to send him the epistles of St. Peter written in letters of gold to inspire carnal men with the greater respect, and to satisfy his devotion to that apostle, whom he calls the patron of his mission. Writing to the abbot Aldherius,4 he begs that he would cause the sacrifice of the mass to be offered for the souls of those missionaries who were lately deceased. In several other epistles he mentions the mutual contract of charity between the missionaries abroad and the priests and monks in England, that they should reciprocally pray for their deceased brethren. In a letter to a nun,5 he mentions how much he had to suffer in his mission from the pagans, from false Christians, and even from ecclesiastics of debauched morals. Yet the ardor of his charity made him continually to thirst after greater sufferings, and especially after the honor of laying down his life for the love of him who died for us. In a letter to Cuthbert, archbishop of Canterbury,6 treating of the duties of pastors, he says, "Let us fight for the Lord in these days of bitterness and affliction. If this be the will of God, let us die for the holy laws of our fathers, that we may arrive with them at the eternal inheritance. Let us not be dumb dogs, sleeping sentinels, hirelings that fly at the sight of the wolf: but watchful and diligent pastors; preaching to the great and small, to the rich and: poor, to every age and condition, being instant in season and out of season." St. Boniface, in his homilies, most frequently inculcates the obligation and sanctity of the baptismal vows.
This apostle of so many nations thought he had yet done nothing, so long as he had not spilled his blood for Christ, and earnestly desired to attain to that happiness. Making use of the privilege which pope Zachary had granted him of choosing his successor, he consecrated St. Lullus, an Englishman, formerly monk of Malmesbury, archbishop of Mentz, in 754, leaving him to finish the churches which he had begun in Thuringia, and that of Fuld, and conjuring him to apply himself strenuously to the conversion of the remaining idolaters. He wrote a letter to Fulrad, abbot of St. Denys, begging him to make this choice of St. Lullus agreeable to king Pepin, and as his infirmities admonished him that he had not long to remain in this world, he conjured that prince to take into his favor and protection his disciples, who were almost all strangers, either priests dispersed in many places for the service of the church, or monks assembled in his little monastery, where they were employed in instructing children. He says, that the priests lived on the frontiers of the pagans, very poor and destitute, and that they were able to get their bread, but not clothing, unless they were assisted. Pepin granted his request, and pope Stephen III. confirmed his nomination of Lullus, and his resignation of the see of Mentz, in order that he might go and preach the gospel to those nations which still remained unconverted.
The saint, looking upon himself as devoted to labor in the conversion of infidels, and being at liberty to follow the call of heaven, would not alloy himself any repose, so long as ho saw souls perishing in the shades of darkness, and his extreme desire of martyrdom seemed to give him a foresight of his approaching death. Having therefore settled his church and put all things in the best order possible, he set out with certain zealous companions to preach to the savage infidel inhabitants of the northern parts of East-Friesland. Having converted and baptized some thousands among them, he appointed the eve of Whitsunday to administer to the neophytes the sacrament of confirmation in the open fields in the plains of Dockum, near the banks of the little rivulet Bordne. He pitched there a tent, and was waiting in prayer the arrival of the new converts, when, behold, instead of friends, a band of enraged infidels appeared on the plain all in arms, and coming up, rushed into his tent. The servants that were with the holy martyr were for defending his life by fighting; but he would not suffer it, declaring that the day he had long waited for was come, which was to bring him to the eternal joys of the Lord. He encouraged the rest to meet, with cheerfulness and constancy, a death which was to them the gate of everlasting life. While he was thus employed, the pagans attacked them sword in hand, and put them all to death. St. Boniface suffered in the seventy-fifth year of his age, on the fifth of June, in the year of Christ 755. With him were martyred fifty-two companions, of whom the principal persons were Eoban, bishop; Wintrung, Walter, and Adelhere, priests; Hamund, Strichald, and Bosa, deacons; Waccar, Gunderhar, Williker, and Hadulph, monks; the rest were laymen. The barbarians expected to have a great booty of gold and silver in the baggage of the holy martyrs, but found nothing in their trunks but relics and books, which they scattered about the fields, or hid in ditches and marshes. Some of these things were afterwards found, and of them three books are still preserved in the monastery of Fuld, or Fulden: namely, a book of the gospels, written in St. Boniface's own hand; a copy of a Harmony, or canons of the New Testament; and a third book, which is stained with the martyr's blood, and contains the letter of St. Leo to Theodorus, bishop of Frejus, and the discourse of St. Ambrose on the Holy Ghost, with his treatise, De bono Mortis—or, On the advantage of Death. The body of St. Boniface was first carried to Utrecht, thence to Mentz, and lastly to Fuld, where it was deposited by St. Lullus, as the saint himself had desired. It is to this day regarded as the greatest treasure of that monastery. The continuators of Bollandus have given us, under the title of Analecta Bonifaciana, a long history of an incredible number of miracles down to this present time, which have been wrought by. God at the relics, and through the intercession of St. Boniface He who sincerely loves God, rejoices with this martyr to sacrifice to his honor his life, and whatever he has received of his bounty. With his whole strength he consecrates all his faculties eternally to the glorious and holy functions of divine love. He prays and labors without intermission that God alone may reign in his own soul, and ardently desires that all tongues may never cease to sound forth his praises, and that all creatures may have but one heart, always to be employed with the angels and blessed spirits, in doing his will, in loving him, and in glorifying his adorable name. There is no danger to which such a one would not with joy expose himself; nothing so difficult that he would not undertake, that one soul might be converted to God. He would rejoice to lay down his life a thousand times, were it possible, to hinder one offence against the divine majesty. Baronius7 pathetically exhorts the Germans to consider what men their apostles were, and what were the maxims of the gospel they received from them; for with these their holy pastors and teachers, who will sit with the supreme Judge at the last day, they will be confronted and judged by them.